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Coming out as a feminist

UPDATE 9 am, Saturday, May 7: Another round with Matt (see comment below), another unnecessary reassurance for Offended White Males: yes I completely agree that nobody is automatically guilty or evil based on their gender and race.

Jessica Mack from the great blog Gender Across Borders, interviewed me on feminism in development yesterday, find it here. I had never voiced before what I said in the interview. Some were pleasantly surprised, a few forgot to include the word “pleasantly.”

One commenter on Gender Across Borders kindly offered to play the role of Offended White Male. Matt complained about my references to “our paternalistic fantasies.” Matt said:

That has got to be one of the most offensive things I’ve read in quite a while about my intentions as a white male….It’s not ok to generalize women, but it’s ok to generalize white guys?

Matt, please relax.  Which do you think is closer to the truth: (1) there is way, way, way too much talk about white male paternalism in aid, or (2) it has been a verboten subject and it’s time we talked about it? I say (2). In conclusion, thanks for saying you agreed with 95 percent! and out of respect for you and other readers, I hereby agree to retract nothing.

A shortened version of the interview follows here:

You talk about the concept of paternalism in global development. I’m curious what the concept of feminism means to you, and what relevance it has for understanding global development.

Most of the time, I talk about the paternalism of rich people toward poor people. I don’t think there’s much explicit racism in aid and development, but there is still a condescending or superior attitude toward poor people, that we can fix their problems. I think there is a gender dimension as well, though I haven’t really talked about it much in my work. I think I could talk about it a lot more.

It’s not an accident that the word paternalistic is the notion of father taking care of and supporting. A lot of discourse in aid is often about helping women and children. Aid agencies offer this appealing image of innocent women and children that are helpless and need our help. … If you go through a bunch of aid brochures online, I bet that in the vast majority of them you ….will only see women and children…

It seems to me that some of the most insidious examples of bad aid have to do with women and children.

There’s a very powerful incentive to use that imagery for campaigns. They’re about the victims being women and children, but we’re covering over a lot of stuff. We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

Yet in crises like Darfur, women really are exponentially more vulnerable. How do you portray this reality so that women aren’t tokenized?

Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not. But we should not go all the way to the stereotypes …Women in poor countries – and this is a big generalization – are incredibly resourceful. They’re achieving an awful lot. So, to peddle this stereotype of the helpless , pathetic woman that can’t do anything on her own – that’s really destructive and will definitely result in bad aid. Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.

…. What’s really at the heart of development is recognizing that everyone has equal rights.  I think the most fundamental thing that needs to happen in development is the recognition of equality in rights: poor, rich, male, female, every ethnic group and every religion.

What do think of some of the stories that Nicholas Kristof portrays? He’s gotten flack for “exploiting” stories of women and girls in order to evoke responses.

I respect Kristof. … It’s impossible for anyone, including me, to be pure in this business. It’s just so difficult and complicated.

What do you mean by “pure?”

I mean to get things exactly right in terms of motivating people to get involved, not discourage giving, and yet at the same time respect the dignity of poor people.

Right, I think it has to be an ongoing process, but a self conscious one, a very self aware one.

Self awareness is very important. …the idea of reciprocity. Any time you’re portraying a victimized woman in the Congo a certain way, turn the tables and try to think how you would feel if you were that woman and someone in a rich country far away was portraying your story. If you don’t pass that test – if you say, ‘no I would hate that,’ then you shouldn’t do it. Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality.

Is there a need for more women in global development, or perhaps more feminists?

What’s really needed is a lot more straight talk in our conversations … that there’s still is a lot of oppression of women going on in poor and rich countries. We need to acknowledge that fact and not hide it behind buzzwords. Honesty makes it easier to find the things that will change power relationships. We have to also recognize the unintended power of development to strengthen women’s positions. Economists talk about development increasing the demand for brains relative to brawn. As economies get richer, the demand for brains goes up and that strengthens the position of women because they have the brains, and now a lot more bargaining power.

It’s funny to me that honesty turns one into a dissident in global development.

I know, it’s strange.

That’s where I see the role of feminism, and in global development too: continually questioning the institution, an appreciation for the process, and a whole lot of self-awareness. The more dissidents the better.

I agree!

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24 Comments

  1. Harriet R wrote:

    Something that has struck me repeatedly when studying various aspects of development economics is how powerful directing efforts towards women is – children’s health and education, saving and investment in the family, investment in agriculture and small businesses that increase productivity. I can’t see how anyone could study development economics and *not* be a feminist to some degree.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  2. Gregory wrote:

    Maybe the communication aspect of development needs tweaking, specifically the way empowerment is portrayed.
    The best way to help those living in poverty is to give them the tools to succeed. Education, health care, housing. But instead we get stories that, as Dr. Easterly notes, can demean the people as well, especially the women.
    NGO’s might want to focus on broad goals when they promote themselves. Say that by helping to build a school the children who receive an education their can lead their country in the future.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  3. David wrote:

    A very interesting and refreshing perspective. But I wonder how the centrality of equal rights to the argument above comports with Dr. Easterly’s previous criticism of a rights-based approach to development…

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  4. Jessica wrote:

    I also think that when people critique bad aid and useless development schemes, they really have no idea just HOW egregiously oppressive some of the US aid policies on reproductive health are. These aid policies should win the award for the Most Out of Touch with Reality and Most Imperialist. The Global Gag Rule told local NGOs around the world that if they took US money, they couldn’t even utter the word abortion under their roof…even with their own money and even if their own laws permitted it. The Helms Amendment is still in place, and is just as bad – but when’s the last time anyone really talked about it or even heard of the Helms Amendment? These policies are smoke and mirrors for moral imperialism of the worst kind — imposed onto individual women’s bodies, and yet I feel like no one pays attention to them – not Madame Secretary Clinton nor enough aid critics.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:

    David, thanks. The previous criticism was about applying “rights” to cover so many different concepts and situations that the powerful idea of “rights” becomes in danger of becoming watered down and almost meaningless. Bill

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  6. William Easterly wrote:

    And on a more amusing note, my critic over at Gender Across Borders thought I was just trying to impress women…..
    …evolutionary psychology might be underappreciated as a source of feminism in men?
    http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2011/05/05/saving-the-second-sex-or-how-aid-fails-women-a-conversation-with-william-easterly/

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  7. Important post that sheds light on current dissent surrounding the ethics of notable activists, including N. Kristof and G. Mortenson. I agree. We need to tell the truth, the whole truth…

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Matt wrote:

    le sigh

    My point was not that any guy claiming feminism is trying to impress women, but that when guys make over-generalized and offensive statements about other men it often smacks of trying to gain credibility with female feminists. I was also sent some messages of people agreeing with me after I posted it, but that’s really hardly the point.

    Honestly, and this might be my fault, I think that the point has been missed here. The part of Offended White Male is not of particular importance. The real point that I wanted to make was that equality is not being willing to make overgeneralized statements about men, it’s about treating men and women equally. If I had said women enjoy cleaning dishes because of the pride it brings them to serve their husbands, then there would have been hell to pay. Yet, it’s ok to say that rich white men donate to charities because they’re lusting after some paternalistic fantasy of theirs?

    It’s the exact same thing, it’s degrading.

    It’s certainly true that paternalistic tendencies in aid need to be discussed, worked on, and quashed. But our principles of equality should be as universal as we can possibly make them, or else our principles are nothing but hypocrisies. It should be equally unacceptable to talk about men in this way as it is to talk about women as obedient dish washers. Not because I’m particularly offended, my skin is much too thick to be bothered by an off hand over-generalization, but how are we supposed to demand equality when we don’t even practice it ourselves?

    It’s like Prof. Easterly mentioned in the interview. We point abroad in order to pretend like our sexist problems don’t exist. Yet, is it not the same to point at an overarching patriarchy, and then ignore the stereotyping of men by those people who are supposed to be combating gender issues as a whole?

    And if you don’t think it matters, why do you think that so many liberal men refuse to call themselves feminists? It’s not all because their guy friends will make fun of them, I assure you. There are real reasons for it, and this is one of the big ones.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  9. Sophie wrote:

    Matt,

    I also found the statement “We rich white males….are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society.” to be offensive and I’m a woman.

    The statement impunes motivation of men without providing any substantiating evidence to support the conclusion. I think that anyone, male or female, can look down on the poor and seek to impose solutions to what they believe are the problems. I fail to see how such attitudes can be viewed as solely the perview of the male of the species….hence the term, maternalism.

    I agree that there is often paternalism (and maternalism) in aid and that the nature of the problems in developing nations are difficult and complex. I agree that women and children are often depicted as victims….poignant images that tug at one’s heart strings raise more money than positive stories. I agree that empowering women in developing countries and focusing on equality.

    I don’t agree that “women have the brains”. No evidence has been provided to substantiate this statement which seems to imply that men are less intelligent. In this regard, feminism would seem to be just a different set of assumptions that can potentially colour one’s perceptions.

    The following seems to hit upon two very important concepts “Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.”

    Listening and Independence.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Trent Eady wrote:

    The ultimate mission of feminism is not about transferring power from men to women so that a balance is achieved. It is the dismantling of the social order that places some people at the top of a power hierarchy and others lower down. (If those two things seem identical to you, keep reading.)

    There are two truths in feminism superficially in tension: (1) straight white men tend to have a privileged position of power above other demographics, and this power relationship is what enables crushing oppression, including poverty, rape, suicides, and hate-fueled murders. It is a dominance relationship that must be undone. And (2) it is wrong to disempower people on the basis of their gender or race.

    As feminists, we have to reconcile (1) and (2). I think the answer is that we don’t seek to disempower straight white men because they are straight white men. Rather, we seek to undo an oppressive hierarchy of social power, and in this hierarchy power is accorded to straight white men merely because they are straight white men. We seek to dismantle the power hierarchy because power is unjustly distributed and people suffer as a result. The power of the powerful must be diffused because their power is unjustifiably disproportionate. It is not true that it must be diffused because of their gender or race. However, as a fact of observation, straight white men have disproportionate power because they are straight white men, living in a system that favours their gender and race.

    So, we should resist charges of sexism or racism just because we target gender and race issues that clearly go into this hierarchy of power. It is not prejudice or discrimination to attack the ways in which masculinity and whiteness are constructed to place them on top of a power pyramid. The only road to a just world is critically unravelling and socially destroying the Straight White Man as a social construct that possesses special power. This also means that straight white men (and white women, when it comes to race) have to own up to the privilege they tend to receive in life. Refer to “The White Privilege Knapsack” as well as spin-off lists of male privileges and straight privileges.

    However, it goes deeper than that. Gender is ultimately not real; it is a charade, an illusion, a social construction. Gender categories are artificial, and worse they are restricting and burdensome because they pointlessly prescribe fixed, narrow ways of being. Gender stereotyping of both men and women maddening, harmful, and obnoxious. But stereotyping is just the surface. It isn’t just gender stereotyping that is the problem, it is gender construction period. We should cease to a) attribute any fixed gender or gender category to people, b) use gender in causal explanation’s of a person’s behaviour, c) hold any kind of expectations about what it means to be a man or a woman, how one should behave, or will behave, by nature, and d) believe there are two genders, rather than zero, or sixty-four, or millions.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 2:20 am | Permalink
  11. Trent Eady wrote:

    To clarify the last paragraph of my above comment: gender is a self-fulfilling prophecy. More to the point, it is a self-conjuring illusion. When you say “I am a man”, you are not making a statement about the way you are. Rather, you are expressing an intention to think, feel, speak, dress, walk, and behave according to a set template. When you say “I am a man”, you are saying “I am following in the footsteps of the people who have called themselves men in my culture”. No one chooses whether to be socialized into a man or a woman, but gender can become a choice if you choose to throw out all set templates. Liberation from patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-male sexism comes when we embrace a mode of gendered existence that is free, fluid, and polymorphous.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 2:47 am | Permalink
  12. William Easterly wrote:

    Sophie, Thanks for your comment. I agree the wording of my statement on “female brains” was misleading. What I meant to say is that male and female brains are equal, so women have increased bargaining power as the economy shifts from a brawn-based economy to a brains-based economy. Best, Bill

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  13. Hugh Sansom wrote:

    It seems to me that there are a variety of paternalisms — assumptions of innate superiority:

    – the paternalism of rich toward poor (e.g., Michael Bloomberg, Wall St.)
    – of more educated to less (e.g., the Harvard cult)
    – in economics, of the Mathematicists toward the Literaries
    – of men toward women
    – of white toward non-white
    – of industrialized, capitalist democracy to everyone else
    – of Judeo-Christianity to everyone else
    – of North to South

    And on and on and on.

    The general phenomenon seems to be an arrogant (albeit, often tacit) assumption of transcendent superiority which is formalized in institutional structures. (How’s that for a stuffed-shirt comment?) Paul Krugman had a comment on the cult of mathematics in economics on his blog some months ago (following a more damning criticism from someone whose name slips my mind). The American tone toward the Middle East is poisoned by the assumption of superiority. Consider the expression “Arab street” — what a revolting, condescending expression.

    Is this any surprise? How many in the US and Europe and their satellites rampage around world wailing that “God is on our side.” Sheesh.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  14. lazyfair wrote:

    Somebody call the waaaambulance…yet another has been offended.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  15. Sophie wrote:

    Bill,

    Thanks for clarifying your statement. I agree completely.

    Trent,

    Many cultures have privileged classes who receive the best educations, often inherit wealth and can leverage their social status. Such privilege gives access to greater economic opportunity however merely being a white male is not a guarantee of success.

    For a white male with the wrong accent, and a working class background, success is achieved through effort. The one area where we have seen stagnation of wages in the US over the last 20 years has been in males who have less than high school education. Males and in particular, black males are more likely to drop out of high school than girls.

    My husband was one of only 2 people who had a chance to go to university from his English village; the other students went to work in the local coal mine. He had that opportunity because he was bright and worked his tail off. He can remember that the other student had to drop out because his father developed cancer. We very much take economic opportunity for granted.

    According to your philosophy, life seems to resemble a zero sum game where one man’s success implies the subjugation of all women. It’s curious that women now earn the majority of the advanced educational degrees in a society where all institutions are supposedly dedicated to the suppression of women.

    Funnily, feminism is no longer relevant to most of the young women I meet. They don’t see themselves as disadvantaged, underprivileged, or sexually or psychologically exploited by men. They are inspiringly bright, and enthusiastic about creating exciting lives and careers for themselves. Without question, their economic and social opportunities have been created by those who went before however, women have now moved on. The feminist movement, however, has not and doesn’t really understand why the cause celebre seems to resonate with women over the age of 55 but not very much with younger women.

    As a woman, I find feminism coming from men seems ironically paternalistic….you want to touch that one, Bill?

    I agree with Prof. Easterly that the goal should be respect for the opinions of the poor and sometimes, we might also have to accept that they make choices with which we disagree ie. choosing tastier food or a TV rather than buying more nutrious food.

    Equal access to services seems to be a worthy goal however, we must also recognize that equality is not equivalency. While one may be equal in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of God, each of us has fundamentally disparate abilities. Micro loans, for example, are often touted as the best way to create small businesses but this model assumes that all loan recipients are equally entrepreneurial. The temptation to stickhandle results is even present in areas like education.

    Separating paternalism from aid is quite difficult because we tend to make assumptions about the nature of society, its institutions, economics, government, agriculture, etc. Are we alway aware of the assumptions that we make or even why we make them?

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  16. Matt wrote:

    Trent:

    The ultimate goal of feminism doesn’t exist. “Feminism” is an ambiguous terminology that refers to a collection of “waves,” conflicting ideals, concepts, and beliefs.

    And good luck dismantling all power dynamics. If that’s truly your end goal then you’ve picked a doomed project.

    But disregarding those facts, dismantling the particular constructs that hold men above women (which are, on the other hand, quite possible to remove) is important. It is not, however, an excuse to use language that would otherwise be inexcusable when discussing women or minorities.

    If you have an ideal do not dirty it with generalized assaults that run contrary to what is preached and then expect people to listen to you.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  17. john malpas wrote:

    Is it not inevitable that as feminism is more and more enforced that crime as a career will become more atractive to men.

    Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  18. Following tradition, Easterly has lots of ridicule for the easy target but chooses ‘no further comment’ only after the interesting comment appears.

    Posted May 8, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  19. Trent Eady wrote:

    Sophie,

    I tried to say that gender relations do not constitute a zero-sum tug-o-war between men and women when I said that feminism should not be an endeavour to transfer power from men to women. I certainly do not mean to say that the success of men is the failure of women. I think that our gender categories structure society in a very particular way, and while this entails a trend towards male dominance, the current gender system is not so easy on men either. In the US, a poor family with a man, a woman, and a child will have a harder time getting government support than a single mom. Apparently it is ok for a woman to be dependant on others, but not a man. Sadly this means if a man can’t get a job often he’ll get kicked out so that the single mom can get support. Once on the street, a man by default will probably be perceived as dangerous where a woman in the same situation wouldn’t. Here the gendered archetypes attributed to individuals has a devastating effect — on men. It is no better for men to be typecast as providers or, if not, dangerous brutes than it is for women to be typecast as helpless domestic workers.

    For me, “feminism” does not denote a women’s movement, not at all. In Montreal, at least, feminist theory and queer theory are all but indistinguishable. Marguerite Deslauriers, the founder of McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies usually will use phrases like “if you present as a woman” or “if you understand yourself as a man” because to say “if you are a woman” implies a gender essentialism that no 21st century feminist theorist or queer theorist worth hir weight in salt wants to endorse.

    This brings me to the first point you made. Of course I agree that being a straight white male is no guarantee of anything. Many straight white men are homeless, imprisoned, poor, ostracized, and subject to discrimination. In third wave feminism it is practically a mantra that all oppressions are interlocking. In considering any form of oppression, race, gender, class, (dis)ability, culture, religion, and sexuality all have to be considered. Any analysis of gender relations without a consideration of context and other dimensions of social exchange is unhelpful. I think it is possible to examine power relations, including their gendered dimension, without being dogmatic or reductionist.

    I have the same experience as you, Sophie: virtually every young woman I have ever met does not find feminism relevant. However, most of the young women I know are afraid to walk alone at night because they might be raped. No man I know has the same fear. Why are city streets unsafe for women at night? Most people are pretty used to accepting that this is just the way things are, without much inquiry into how the broader cultural discourse on gender creates this situation. Another example is the social force behind the world “slut”. Impotent to men, being labelled a slut can be disastrous to girls in elementary school and high school. This is almost always propagated by other girls, yes, but where does its power come from? A slut is a woman who has sex as freely and frequently as a man is allowed to, and yet being a slut is the basest thing. Our social beliefs about gender and sexuality tell us that what is fair game for men is off limits to women. However, if (straight) men are having free and frequent sex with women, the inevitable result is a society full of valorized men and stigmatized women. Am I radical to see this social machinery as patriarchal?

    You say that the feminist movement has not moved on. I agree that this is the case, to a certain extent. I find the rhetoric of many women’s groups to be old-fashioned and uncompelling. I have the same reaction to the current state of LGBT activism in the US and in Canada. Both appeal to essentialist or pseudo-essentialist conceptions of gender and sexuality. However, the contemporary melange of feminism and queer theory epitomized by Judith Butler is fertile ground for ideas. Society is nowhere near to catching up with 21st century feminism’s re-conception of gender as performed, or with its view that bodies (sex), desires (sexual orientation), and self-presentations (gender) exist as free-floating from each other. The day these ideas are tired old clichés for everyone I will be a happy wo/man.

    Posted May 8, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  20. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    I think this whole conversation would have benefited from having a clear understanding of what is a “feminist” according to the post. I have known plenty of female “feminists” in my work who have exhibited exactly the same characteristics as white males , treating all women of any LDC as victims (a kind of paternalism, of some sort) and pushing for models of social relations that are purely western in origin without trying to get to a good understanding of the underlying power relations between male and female in each culture, focusing instead of some signs and interpreting them according to their own mindset: they were not listening to the needs of the women any more than white men (and consequently they were about just as successful)

    Posted May 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  21. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    In that these “feminists” were partaking in a variety of paternalisms — assumptions of innate superiority:
    – the paternalism of rich toward poor (e.g., Michael Bloomberg, Wall St.)
    – of more educated to less (e.g., the Harvard cult)
    – of white toward non-white
    – of industrialized, capitalist democracy to everyone else
    – of Judeo-Christianity to everyone else
    – of North to South
    (with appreciation to Hugh Sansom for the list!)

    Posted May 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  22. Trent Eady wrote:

    Quicksilversurfer,

    Second wave feminists had a motto: “Organize around your own oppression.” This ended up just being an excuse to focus on the problems of middle-class white women. The other cardinal error of second wave feminism was to universalize the experience of women, as if patriarchy were an ahistorical monolith.
    The middle-class white feminist regime was first challenged by black feminists such as Soujourner Truth and, a century later, the Combahee River Collective. Soujourner is particularly fitting to the list you repeated: she was a poor, illiterate, black woman.

    Another discontinuity between second and third wave feminism is the jettison of the idea of “The Third World” woman. Western feminism is certainly capable of being hegemonic discourse; its “First World” paternalism was (and still is for second wave feminists) a form of neocolonialism.

    Third wave feminism emphasizes inclusiveness and the non-universality of the experiences of women. Here is a microcosm of the shift from second to third wave, this time with queer feminists challenging the dominant feminist regime. At McGill University, there used to be a Women’s Group, but it insisted that only people with vaginas matched its definition of womanhood. The club reformed into the Union for Gender Empowerment and now focuses on a combination of feminist causes and transgender activism.

    Particularly in Montreal, there is an evolving interstitial anti-oppressive movement concerned with way that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, neocolonialism, ableism, and other prejudices reinforce each other. It is in this context that I call myself a feminist. I think feminism at its barest consists of three core ideas:

    (1) There exist social forces that disadvantage people who identify as women on the basis of their gender.

    (2) This situation can be changed.

    (3) We should change it.

    I would be surprised if any of the commenters here would disagree with any of these three propositions.

    Posted May 8, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  23. The Helms Amendment is still in place, and is just as bad – but when’s the last time anyone really talked about it or even heard of the Helms Amendment?

    Posted May 9, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  24. Sophie wrote:

    Trent,

    Thank you for taking the time to write a most interesting post. Look forward to talking a closer look at the work of Judith Butler and the third wave of feminist/cross gender literature.

    With regard to walking at night, not all women are afraid to walk at night. I live in a village and feel perfectly safe walking at night as do my lady friends. My sister lives in Toronto and gunshots are a weekly routine in her area. She has walked and cycled at all times of night for decades. Liz can wipe the floor with a mugger and has on numerous occasions.

    Posted May 9, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

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