What History is For

Lynching in the 21st-century: or, black lives matter

Posted on December 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the cornerstones of a history education is civics. If we don’t understand how our government is supposed to work, and why it is structured the way it is, we cannot participate properly in our own government, and we can’t hold the people in positions of political authority accountable for their actions. We can’t define what justice is. We have no recourse when confronted with a crime against our proper form of government but to run into the streets as mobs, in brief and ultimately futile demonstrations that accomplish no long-term reform. So here’s our civics lesson for 2014 and beyond.

In the United States, the police are bound by the same laws they enforce. They are not above the law. They don’t have a separate code of law from non-police officers. They are government employees (at the federal, state, or local level) bound to obey the law just like other government employees. A police officer has no special waiver to break the law in dangerous circumstances; the police can use their judgment to decide whether force is needed to prevent a criminal from killing someone, but they are bound to use only so much force as is necessary to defuse the danger and take the suspect into custody alive.

Clearly, we haven’t been seeing this in the U.S. over the past few years. At the same time, it’s not a new problem. The police generally uphold the values of the majority in any country. In the U.S., the police have traditionally been white men (and this still holds true today), and they have generally upheld racial and sexual discrimination. They’re not the only ones, of course; the same can be said of Congress and most state and local governments. When we look back at U.S. history, we see that government officials and the police have often worked together to thwart the principles of our nation’s founding, and to pervert our democratic government. But one would have thought that since 1970, say, and a full century of civil rights progress and seemingly increasing enlightenment about race, sex, and sexuality, this would not be happening so openly and baldly today, in 2014. A leader of the New York police department on the radio this morning promised in-depth training and education for officers, basically to help them not respond to every encounter with a black man with deadly force. This made us wonder why, at this late date, and after so many decades upon decades of civil rights activism and education in this country, this “training” begins only now.

You have to take the long view on any current problem. When we do that here, we see that the police assaults on black men are just part of a larger problem that is not fully encompassed even by race. The real problem being expressed in these incidents is the militarization of our police and our culture. Somehow, in the last 30 years, guns have been made the hallmark of American freedom. Everyone must have one everywhere, despite their criminal record or mental stability. One of the outcomes of this is the regular school shootings we endure each year. Another is attacks on the police. For years now, we’ve heard about police being called to a domestic dispute and being shot instantly, either as part of a general shootout or as the end result of a deliberate trap. Police have been shot by people they pull over for speeding. In many states, people can carry guns around everywhere, at all times; this makes any interaction with them by the police potentially fatal for the officer.

The logical reaction to this by the police has been to up the ante: when you expect to be shot, the only way to defend yourself is to make sure you shoot first. It’s not surprising that police officers have begun to expect that every encounter they have could be fatal. And it doesn’t seem likely that any “training and education” will prevent further deaths when Americans continue to carry guns at all times—the police will still believe that the only outcome of every encounter is gunfire, from both sides. Add race to this, in the form of a black suspect, and death is almost a given. Even when it is clear the black suspect does not have a gun, extreme force is used to subdue him before he somehow injures the officer. Eric Garner was not shot like Michael Brown, but he was immediately put into a choke hold—an extreme action.

Darren Wilson’s perception of Brown as looking like “a demon” was not only an admission of his fear of being killed by a suspect, it was a shocking admission of racism that was so very like descriptions of black men during and after slavery in this country that we were left aghast. Describing black men as big, hulking, animal-like, amoral, dumb, demonic, and savage was boilerplate for two centuries in this country. Black men had to be “demonized” to justify slavery and then post-slavery oppression and… lynching.

Lynching has to come to mind here. We seem to have entered a new age of lynching in this country. Lynching is characterized not just by a violent death (by hanging, mutilation, torture, burning, etc.), but by one or two men making a lightning-fast decision about someone’s guilt and immediately acting on that decision to kill them. Originally, lynching in the West was done by whites to whites. No one described lynching more decisively and unflinchingly than Ida B. Wells, so let’s let her describe it here (from Lynch Law in America, published in 1900):

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. The “unwritten law” first found excuse with the rough, rugged, and determined men who left the civilized centers of eastern States to seek for quick returns in the gold-fields of the far West. Following in uncertain pursuit of continually eluding fortune, they dared the savagery of the Indians, the hardships of mountain travel, and the constant terror of border State outlaws. Naturally, they felt slight toleration for traitors in their own ranks. It was enough to fight the enemies from without; woe to the foe within! Far removed from and entirely without protection of the courts of civilized life, these fortune-seekers made laws to meet their varying emergencies. The thief who stole a horse, the bully who “jumped” a claim, was a common enemy. If caught he was promptly tried, and if found guilty was hanged to the tree under which the court convened.

The key here is the speed of the judgment. If someone was caught committing a crime, large or small, or even suspected of it, he was immediately found guilty and killed. It could be done in 10 minutes. There’s no trial (later there would be nauseating show trials with a pre-determined guilty verdict), no testimony beyond “He stole that from me”, no chance for the accused to protest or prove himself innocent. Lynching is about pre-determined guilt, but it’s also about leaping over the lengthy process of criminal justice and fair trials to the instant gratification of death to the criminal.

That’s what is shocking about every instance of police brutality or deadly force. Instead of doing all he can to bring a suspect into custody where he can be tried, the officer makes a split-second decision about how much danger he himself is in from the suspect, and acts on it immediately. Afterward, this decision is validated by a claim that the suspect was resisting arrest. This is a claim so old and so reeking of our nation’s long history of injustice to minorities of all kinds that it’s difficult to hear it spoken today. Police officers are trained to overcome suspects resisting arrest in many ways; deadly force is supposed to be a last resort. But in our militarized and violent culture, it is the first and only resort for too many police officers.

We had already thought about this as a new kind of lynching when we realized that the head of the NYC police union is named Patrick Lynch. Here is his commentary on the Garner death as reported by NBC News:

“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”

—Don’t most suspects “make a choice” to resist arrest? Does anyone go quietly? We would wager that most suspects resist arrest, but only the large, black ones are put in choke holds. Does any police officer expect that no one he confronts will ever resist arrest? Aren’t the police trained in how to deal with someone resisting arrest without killing them?

He praised the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as a good man, a mature policeman and an Eagle Scout who “went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that there’s tragedy that comes.”

—But there is a script: it’s called police procedure. It’s police training. Is Lynch really saying that police officers have no idea what to do when someone resists arrest other than to use deadly force? The Eagle Scout reference we will pass by in disbelief.

“It’s also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death,” Lynch said.

—It doesn’t seem like it should be a tragedy if, as Lynch maintains, no real harm was done. Someone resisting arrest got what they deserved. The warped idea that it is really the police officer, not Garner’s family, who suffers most is all too common in these statements.

He also praised New York police for their handling of protests on Wednesday night, when thousands who objected to the decision took to the streets. Lynch lashed out at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Wednesday that the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges was “one that many in our city did not want.”

He suggested that the mayor was teaching children to fear police officers, and he said the lesson instead should be to comply with police officers, even if they feel an arrest is unjust.

—It is only possible to comply with police officers if their treatment of you as a suspect is constitutional and legal. If not, you are under no such obligation.

“You cannot resist arrest,” Lynch said. “Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”

—Americans have the right to resist arrest. The police are obligated to take people who resist arrest into custody without killing them. Resisting arrest does lead to confrontation—but the idea that confrontation must lead to tragedy is so outrageous. Are we really to accept that if we resist arrest we will be killed? Shot, choked, tased, however it happens? Any act of defiance will be met with death? This sounds more like the totalitarian states the U.S. is constantly battling around the world than our own country.

We cannot allow our police force to become perverted. We cannot become a police state, where police officers have the right to kill if, in their own, split-second judgment, they are personally endangered. The first duty of a police officer cannot be to protect himself. We can’t have local city police suddenly driving around in armored vehicles, basically tanks, because they fear for their lives. We can’t accept this as the new normal. It takes bravery and a strong commitment to justice to be a good police officer. We need more people with those qualities to take on that job.

We also need to reform our society and put an end to our obsession with “protecting ourselves” with guns. For as long as a police officer has good reason to suspect that the people he encounters are armed, we will have nothing but escalating police violence.

And finally, we cannot opt out of our government system. We can’t eviscerate our government as unjust and wash our hands of it, deciding to riot or protest and then do nothing. We can’t change anything unless the people who are outraged by injustice do the long, hard work of changing the system. We can’t have people making the split-second decision that the police are corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we are thus free to hate and defy the police. That will not change anything. Everyone has to participate in our democracy to keep it working. Anger and outrage should fuel hard work, not self-righteous inactivity. It’s hard work to be free.

We’ve said many times here at the HP that every generation has to accept and commit to our nation’s founding principles of justice. Learn what those principles are, commit to them, and uphold them in your daily life to the greatest extent that you can, and never back down from them. It’s the only way to prevent lynching.

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Finding Your Roots—sort of

Posted on November 13, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We watched the latest episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., last night, which featured Sting, Deepak Chopra, and Sally Field. It was going along dependably well when the awful specter of ignorance about the Puritans invaded the last segment on Sally Field’s family tree.

Gates revealed that Field is directly descended from William Bradford, the governor of Plimoth Colony and the man who led the Separatists across the Atlantic to America on the Mayflower in 1620. The narration (done by Gates) described Bradford as a Puritan who was imprisoned in 1607 for non-conformity. We shifted a little uncomfortably, since the Pilgrims led by Bradford were not Puritans (who wanted to reform the Church of England) but Separatists (who abandoned the Church of England as a lost cause), and there was a great deal of tension between the two groups in England and outright hostility in New England once the Puritans arrived in 1630. But in 1607 Bradford had not yet separated, so we accepted it.

Field was told that Bradford sailed with other “Puritans” on the Mayflower and still did not recognize Bradford’s name as that of the governor of the colony, the famous Pilgrim who wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, the history of the colony and a crucially important record of early settlement in New England. We held our breaths as Gates’ narration described the voyage over, hoping against hope that he would not repeat the tired error that the Pilgrims intended to settle in Virginia but were blown off course by storms to Massachusetts, but that hope was lost. The myth was repeated (what really happened was that the ship almost capsized crossing a soon-to-be notoriously dangerous stretch of water south of Long Island and turned back, leaving the settlers on what is now Cape Cod).

Even after Gates told Field that her ancestor Bradford was elected governor, she did not make any connection. She had clearly never heard of him and had no idea that he is a famous figure. All of this was disappointing, but the worst finally came here:

GATES VO: UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF SALLY’S ANCESTOR, AND THE WAMPANOAG, THEIR NATIVE AMERICAN NEIGHBORS, THE PILGRIMS FINALLY GAINED A FOOTHOLD IN THEIR NEW HOME.

AND, INCREDIBLY, WE UNEARTHED THE LETTER DESCRIBING A NOW FAMILIAR EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE IN PLYMOUTH IN THE FALL OF 1621.

FIELD: Many of the Indians coming amongst us whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us yet by the goodness of god we are so far from want.

GATES: And you know what they were describing?

FIELD: Thanksgiving.

GATES: The very first Thanksgiving.

FIELD: Well there you go. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. It’s always been a big deal.

GATES: Could you please turn the page? Look at that painting.

FIELD: Oh, yeah.

GATES: Now -

FIELD: Okay are you going to tell me one of those is…

GATES: Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.

FIELD: He hasn’t changed a bit. (Laughs) You’re telling me he presided over the first Thanksgiving?

GATES: Right.

The errors in this exchange are glaring. First, the account of what we call the “first Thanksgiving” was not in a letter but in the journal of Edward Winslow, which he published in 1622 as Mourt’s Relation. Winslow wrote what became known as Mourt’s Relation (because it was published in London by a man named Mourt) with Bradford, who seems to have written many of the early entries. But the account of the thanksgiving is not in the first half of the book (it’s about 3/4 of the way through), and seems to be Winslow’s work. Second, it is hardly “incredible” that the researchers for the show “unearthed a copy of the letter” because Mourt’s Relation has been in print for centuries—every New England scholar and every college library has a copy. What is incredible is that they pan over a photo of a contemporary edition of Mourt’s Relation that has the chapter title “A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts…”, which was the literary device used to frame the stories from Winslow’s journal. One expects a professional historian like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to know this—or at least have it fact-checked. Third, this was not the “first Thanksgiving” but the first thanksgiving the Pilgrims had in America. As we explain in our post Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving,

People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came up often, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way.

Fourth, and most unbelievably, Gates shows Field a 19th-century painting of the First Thanksgiving and treats it like a historical artifact by saying “Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.” Of course it is, because it was painted by a 19th-century artist who put him there! As if the 90 Indians and roughly as many colonists all sat at one table “presided over” by Bradford. It is the well-known painting of one long table inexplicably placed in the middle of an empty field with 12-20 very white Pilgrims around it, bowing their heads as they hear grace, and a mother rocks an infant in a cradle (inexplicably brought out to the empty field) and holds her toddler by the hand. No Indians are present. This is the item presented by Gates as a historical artifact depicting the first day of thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans in North America.

That’s a lot to get wrong. Sadly, shows like this only misinform the American people, if the comments one viewer left on the PBS website for the episode are representative:

I had some uncomfortable feelings hearing the excerpt from a letter written by Sally Field’s distant relative, William Bradford in 1621 describing the feast in such a feel-good manner. Yes, the Pilgrims were praising God because they were finally “so far from want,” but in a 1623 sermon delivered by Mather the Elder, they were thanking God for the gift of smallpox that wiped out the majority of Wampanoag Indians, “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” I know the purpose of this episode wasn’t to uncover the “truth” of Thanksgiving but I believe having this awareness will deepen our understanding of how much we of European descent have benefited at the expense of the indigenous New World inhabitants.

You can’t blame the viewer for having these views when this is the quality of information at hand. First, as we said, the account was not in a letter and was not written by Bradford in 1621. Second, and much worse, is that the “Mather the elder sermon” is a complete hoax. Richard Mather (the “elder”) was the patriarch of the family that gave us his son Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Richard Mather was a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not Plimoth, in 1635. He was not there in 1623. No one named Mather was in Plimoth in 1623. An intrepid independent scholar has a long account of the scam here. Long story short, the quote about young men and children is borrowed from Puritan “historian” Edward Johnson’s 1653 book The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England, a subjective and lionizing history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here’s the text from Johnson:

Their Disease being a sore Consumption sweeping away whole Families but chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase.  …Howling and much lamentation was heard among the living who being possest with great fear oftimes left their dead unburied their manner being such that they remove their habitations at death of any. …by this means Christ whose great and glorious works the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen not only made room for his people to plant but also tamed the hard and cruel hearts of these barbarous Indians…

Interestingly, Johnson says he will not talk about the Pilgrims’ relationship with the Wampanoags “particularly being prevented by the honoured Mr Winslow who was an eye witness of the work.” Edward Winslow did not want the unreliable Johnson describing Plimoth because he knew Johnson would depict the Pilgrims there as Indian-haters when they weren’t.

The scam aside, yes the Pilgrims saw smallpox as God’s work, but they didn’t really celebrate it. God constantly struck people down—including Pilgrims. Pilgrims died of infectious diseases, their babies, children, and young men died from disease and accident, often in ways that severely tested their parents’ faith in God. Why did God strike down the young? Why did God torment his most faithful followers by striking down their children? The answer was always that it was part of God’s mysterious plan that no one could understand and everyone had to accept as eventually bringing about a greater good. They often used 17th-century English and called God’s will “God’s pleasure”, but this does not mean that it made God happy to kill people, even Indians. It meant that God fulfilled his will (acted at his pleasure). Johnson says the Indians’ deaths were caused by God (Christ) to make the land safe for pure churches. This had to be done, no matter how horrible it might be or how much howling and lamentation it caused. Unlike Johnson, when the Pilgrims or even other Puritans described Indian deaths from smallpox, they usually did not exult about savages dying; they saw God’s mighty will revealed through the deaths and moved on, hoping their own deaths would not eventually be necessary to further God’s plan.

It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the 17th century—Wampanoag, Englishman, Egyptian, Japanese—to think outside the clannish box of us v. them and feel pity for people so obviously struck down by God. Humans, like all animals, are clannish; our first and strongest identity is being part of one group as opposed to other groups. It has taken centuries since the Enlightenment for humans to at least pay lip-service to the idea that all men are created equal and all are deserving of equal justice, that, as the bumper sticker says, “God bless the whole world—no exceptions”. So if an English settler in 1623 saw God’s providential hand in Indian deaths, that does not reveal and confirm the Pilgrims to be terrible racists. It confirms them as 17th-century human beings along the same lines as Indians, Asians, Africans, and everyone else who celebrated their enemies’ deaths in battle, sacked cities killing women and children, enslaved rival groups, etc. It is taking us a long time to change our ways.

And so we leave Finding Your Roots with heavy hearts and grave concerns about Americans ever learning their real history. Who will kickstart-fund the HP’s own TV series??

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Check out the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States!

Posted on October 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, What History is For |

There is an amazing set of maps at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab that show the geographic progression of issues in American/U.S. history. For example, you can track the abolition of slavery from 1800-1865, or the growth of colleges and universities from 1775-1890.

These maps are invaluable for showing the concrete steps different movements, reforms, laws, and more had to take to become reality—steps that are all too often ignored in favor of descriptions like “abolition swept the north” or “the right to vote was granted to some American women before 1920.” If you want to know—to see—how ideas progressed, what we call “historical geography”, check out the Atlas.

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Gay marriage in Alaska v. tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Round 10 for this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as Alaska’s ban on gay marriage is revoked:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Watch the United States form out of American Indian lands

Posted on October 9, 2014. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

There’s a sobering interactive called The Invasion of America: How the United States took over an eighth of the world that shows the steady, seemingly inexorable westward advance of the U.S. border. Click the arrow at bottom left for the overall animation; Highlight by Nation at the top. It’s worth remembering that every step of that advance was complicated, with no clear “whites v. reds” dynamic most of the time. Just as the “ground” beneath modern cities is just the top layer of 50 feet of previous top layers of previous cities, societies, and civilizations that have fallen, so the United States as we know it today is just the top layer of a long history of peoples. It makes you wonder what layers will cover our own in the future.

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Why don’t we remember Watergate?

Posted on October 1, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.

The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.

But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”

Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.

Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.

Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.

Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.

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Nixon Resigns… and passes the buck

Posted on September 25, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Second to last post in our series on the Watergate Crisis; here we follow the crisis to its end, in President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. The Smoking Gun tape released three days earlier evaporated any support Nixon had left in Congress, and the handful of its members who had voted against impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee said they would now vote for it when the full House voted. The night of August 7, two Senators and a Congressman met with Nixon and told him impeachment in the House and Senate was a certainty. Faced with this, Nixon decided to resign before he could be impeached.

It was a move true to his character. In a way, resigning before he could be impeached was just another form of being above the law—no one would impeach Richard Nixon. He would not submit to Congress in that way. He would get out before the law could be exercised on him, before democratic procedure could be completed.

Nixon gave two resignation speeches that were exemplars of his twisted logic. The first was to the nation, on August 8, 1974, where he said, in part,

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….

—That first sentence is breathtakingly deceitful. If Americans had learned anything by August 8, 1974, it was that Nixon was always out to do what was best for Nixon. He goes on to describe Watergate as a cross he has been forced to bear rather than a crime committed in his name that he himself covered up. Nixon then blames Congress for failing to support him, and forcing him to abrogate the “constitutional process” (by which he means serving his full elected term). To hear Nixon lament a breach of the Constitution at this point is, to put it succinctly, pretty rich.

I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.

—Again, Congress is the villain here. There is also a veiled threat (something Nixon was good at): there are “very difficult decisions and duties” the president must handle, but now, because of Congress, Nixon has to leave office, and it’s likely that the man to take his place will not be able to do as good a job handling these difficulties as Nixon.

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

—Again, no one puts the nation ahead of personal interests like Nixon. Again, Congress is a villain. And again, the nation is in particular peril “with problems we face at home and abroad” and will likely suffer in Nixon’s absence, so in a way we, the American people, are also villains for failing to support Nixon, and we will get our just desserts.

The second speech was given the next day to the White House staff, privately. It was mostly impromptu, and rambling, and in places very weird. Nixon talked about his parents and how saintly his mother was, and he talked about Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to recover from the death of his first wife. We’ll focus on the parts where he came closest to addressing why he was leaving office:

…I am proud of this Cabinet. I am proud of all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I am proud of our sub-Cabinet. I am proud of our White House Staff. As I pointed out last night, sure, we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I have never ducked it. But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five and a half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you.

—In defending his staff, Nixon really places blame on them for the first time. No one had thought the Watergate cover-up extended beyond Nixon and his top half-dozen aides. By saying he is proud of them and that “we” have done “some things wrong”, and that as “top man” he has taken responsibility for those wrongful acts, Nixon really seems to be saying he took the fall for his entirely criminal staff. Then he seems to note that none of them ever made any money from their crimes.

Mistakes, yes. But for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a wealthy man — at the present time, I have got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I would like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you have made to serve in government. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as [Theodore Roosevelt] said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

—Again, it’s the staff who committed the crimes—“you” did what “you” believed in, “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.” And then again the odd swerve into talking about money. And then, after accusing his staff of crimes and of making him take the fall, he comforts them by saying they mustn’t worry about him, that the light has not left their lives forever just because he is leaving office. They will survive their grief at losing him, somehow.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

…Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

—Nixon’s suffering has made him great; it has purified him to the point where he can end with a parable. To hear Nixon, whom the tapes revealed to be one of the most petty men in public office, constantly pursuing old grudges and trying to harm people for small offenses, loftily telling people not to be petty is remarkable. To hear the man who hated just about everyone he ever met say you should never hate because then “you destroy yourself” is almost funny.

He was right, though; his hatred and pettiness did destroy him, and he lost while most of the people he tried to bring down won. Next time, we’ll go over the legacy of Watergate.

Next time: Why don’t we remember Watergate?

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Leon Jaworski strikes back

Posted on September 18, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 6 of our series on the Watergate Crisis. Last time we described the Saturday Night Massacre, October 20, 1973, in which Nixon attempted to override the Constitution, establish an imperial presidency, and end the Watergate investigation all in one day. His efforts shocked a nation that had up to this point generally believed him when he said he didn’t know anything about the Watergate break-in. Firing the deputy Attorney General who refused to fire the Watergate special prosecutor whom the Attorney General had refused to fire, thus leading to the AG himself being fired, and then finding someone at last to fire the special prosecutor was pretty clear evidence of obstruction of justice on Nixon’s part, and seemed to prove that he was, indeed, involved in a cover-up.

The public was furious, and Nixon’s aggressive refusal to admit any wrongdoing only damned him further in their eyes. At a press conference on November 17, 1973, Nixon made his famous statement that “the American people need to know if their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” Few were convinced. The new Attorney General Nixon had appointed—Robert Bork, the man who signed the paper he was told to sign to fire Archibald Cox—was forced to appoint a new Watergate special prosecutor to replace Cox. Leon Jaworski took over that role. He was a Washington lawyer who had believed the Nixon was not guilty of any criminal acts; only his advisors were. But after the Massacre, Jaworski was determined to get the full tapes of Nixon’s conversations. Just as Cox had done, he subpoenaed Nixon for the tapes, and once again, Nixon refused on the grounds of executive privilege. He added his assertion that the special prosecutor did not have the authority to sue the President—another attempt to put the president above the law. Knowing Nixon could drag this argument out for months, Jaworski went over his head to the Supreme Court.

In United States v. Nixon, on July 24, 1974, the Court ruled that the special prosecutor did have the right to sue the president, and that a president’s claim of executive privilege is overruled if he has evidence that is clearly pertinent to a criminal trial. The Justices may have been rankled by a statement made earlier in U.S. District Court by Nixon’s attorney James St. Clair: “The president wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.”

This is an unbelievably astounding statement. Nixon is not trying to camouflage his intent: he is an absolute monarch while he is in office, and “not subject to the processes of any court in the land”. No wonder St. Clair shamefacedly said “the president wants me to argue” this point. The Court responded to St. Clair’s statement by saying that no president had any claim to “absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances.”

Nixon was forced to give the unedited tapes—all of them—to Jaworski, and the transcripts and some audio were made public.  They revealed a Nixon no one was prepared for: perpetually foul-mouthed, hostile, petty, vengeful, racist, anti-semitic, sexist, and criminal. So many four-letter words had to be bleeped out of the released audio and omitted from the public transcripts with the words “expletive deleted” that that phrase became a bitter joke to Americans, used by comedians to refer to the entire crisis. The “Smoking Gun” tape, in which Nixon talked about stopping the FBI criminal investigation of the break-in six days after it happened, which we cover in part 4 of this series, was released at last, and there was no way for even Nixon to pretend he wasn’t involved in the cover-up. Congress moved as one body to vote for impeachment, and there was only one thing left for Nixon to do: resign.

Next time: the dishonest end of a dishonest road

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The Saturday Night Massacre

Posted on September 12, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

Next time: the backlash of justice

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The money trail and the “Smoking Gun”

Posted on September 4, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

In part 4 of our series on the Watergate crisis, we look at the deepening cover-up orchestrated by Nixon. Election day 1972, the day he had been planning for since 1968, came just after the FBI announced that the break-in at DNC headquarters was just one of a slew of illegal actions taken by CRP to spy on the Democrats. But Nixon won re-election in a landslide, because most Americans in November 1972 believed that the president had no connection with the break-in. Nixon might have been an uptight, old-fashioned, awkward war-hawk, but he wasn’t someone who would hire some half-baked military rejects (as the Burglars were perceived at the time) to break into Democratic offices. The whole burglary was so amateurish and pathetic that few people believed that Nixon—Tricky Dick, the man who was always one step ahead—could have had anything to do with it.

But Nixon had everything to do with it. In 1974, one of his conversations with Haldeman, held 6 days after the break-in, would be revealed to the nation. We’re indebted to Watergate.info for this transcript of the conversation; go there to read the whole excerpt. For now, here are the most damning parts of it (with repeated words and “uhs” taken out):

Haldeman: Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI Director Patrick] Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources – the banker himself. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. …the way to handle this now is for us to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development…

Nixon:  Uh huh.

Haldeman:   …and that would take care of it.

What we’ve heard so far is Haldeman saying he will tell the deputy director of the CIA to tell the director of the FBI to stop investigating a crime—the Watergate break-in. Remarkably, Haldeman ends by saying this is not unusual. Even more remarkably, Nixon agrees.

Nixon:  What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?

Haldeman:  Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman:  …And the proposal would be that Ehrlichman and I call them in—

Nixon:  All right, fine. …I mean, well, we protected [CIA director Richard] Helms from one hell of a lot of things.

According to Haldeman, Gray wants to help in the cover-up, but doesn’t know how to remove his agency from the case without raising suspicions. Word from the White House will allow him to say it is on the basis of national security. Nixon makes the alarming claim that Richard Helms owes him for the protection Nixon has given him in the past from “one hell of a lot of things.”

Nixon:  Of course, this is a hunt that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. …what the hell did [former Attorney General John] Mitchell know about this thing?

Haldeman:  I don‘t think he knew the details, but I think he knew.

Nixon:  You call them [Walters and Helms] in. Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.

Haldeman:  O.K. We’ll do it.

So as soon as he found out about the CRP connection to the break-in, Nixon was working not only to cover it up but to stop the FBI investigation completely. His certainty that a) Gray was completely on board with obstruction of justice; b) the head of the CIA Helms would do Nixon’s bidding because of the “things” he had done; and that c) obstructing justice was a minor thing is shocking. This was the “tough” Nixon that most Americans thought was too smart to get involved in something as sloppy and dangerous as the Watergate break-in.

But despite this assurance, the FBI continued its investigation into how CRP money had gotten in the burglars’ bank accounts. FBI director Gray pushed back when he was ordered to lay off in the name of national security, not buying the argument that somehow the burglars were connected with an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Gray’s resolve led Vernon Walters to back down, and what should have been the removal of the FBI from the case, and the disappearance of Watergate from the public eye, turned into only a few days’ delay.

By March 1973, Nixon had come up with a new plan to get Watergate off his back. He would have Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean take the blame for the break-in and resign. The tie to the White House would be explained, Nixon would not be implicated, and the scandal would die. Haldeman and Ehrlichman were willing to go along. But John Dean was not. He did not realize how deeply Nixon was involved with the cover-up, and he had a meeting with the president in March in which he said that the bribes he was paying to the burglars and others to keep them quiet, and the documents he had destroyed, were obstruction of justice. Famously, Dean described Watergate as “a cancer on the presidency.” We know all that he said because the conversation was taped, and revealed to the nation in August 1974. (Dean had the strange feeling that he was being recorded at the time. Nixon kept asking him to repeat things in full sentences.) Nixon told Dean to keep making the payments, and Dean refused, saying he was going to testify about all of his actions to the Senate Watergate committee. Nixon told him to do what he had to do, and fired him a few days later.

On April 20, Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned. They were tried and convicted and given prison sentences. Nixon claimed that Dean had resigned, too. He then announced that he had appointed a new Attorney General to replace John Mitchell: Elliot Richardson.

Next time: Elliot Richardson’s wild ride

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