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'New Yorker' Writer Fears We're Fooling Ourselves In The Internet's 'Trick Mirror'

Jia Tolentino is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her new collection of essays is written from the perspective of a millenial about subjects like social media and politics, feminist dilemmas, sexual harassment, and sexism.

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Other segments from the episode on August 6, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 6, 2019: Interview with Jia Tolentino; Commentary on gender-neutral pronouns; Review of album 'The Balance.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We were sad to learn this morning that writer Toni Morrison has died. She was our guest several times on FRESH AIR. We'll devote our show to those interviews on Friday.

My guest today is New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. She describes her new collection of essays as focusing on what shaped her understanding of herself, this country and this era. She writes about issues surrounding gender and feminism, including sexual harassment. She describes growing up in a Southern Baptist megachurch and why she left, growing up with the Internet, how social media has blurred the line between opinion and action, why she left the Peace Corps, how she was invited to 46 weddings in a period of just a few years and why she doesn't want to get married in spite of being in a long-term monogamous relationship.

Before joining The New Yorker, she was deputy editor at the feminist website Jezebel. Her new book is called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion."

Jia Tolentino, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you've written about how people express their political views on social media. I'm wondering if you have any reaction to how social media has been playing into the debate about gun legislation on social media after the two massacres over the weekend.

JIA TOLENTINO: Well, so the Internet has obviously been an incredible ground for social movements being organized. You saw the Parkland kids did it, right? Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc. It's always a starting place; it can never be an ending place.

And I think one of the things that continually frustrates me about, you know, this deja vu over and over and over - we will have a mass shooting in America, and people will get online and express their very true anguish, and people express their anger and their righteousness and this formidable, undeniable moral narratives about how children should not be dying in the U.S. like this. And then nothing happens.

And so the gun control debate is just a continual reminder to me - an opinion doesn't necessarily translate to action. Moral clarity, you know, these days it means a lot less than I would like it to mean.

GROSS: Yeah. You've written about how sometimes people will make a big statement on Twitter and think of that as having taken productive political action. And I think maybe sometimes it really is productive political action. It could show that there's a groundswell of support or dissent on an issue, and that really can register on the people in Congress responsible for the legislation, who can initiate change. So can you talk a little bit about that line between when registering an opinion can be more of an opinion when you just kind of feel righteous because you've said something?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. I think that an opinion just always has to be a step towards action, and this is something that obviously, as someone whose job is to write down what I think, it's something that I have to remind myself. You know, it's always got to be a first step. And I always try to be aware of the way that the Internet can keep us busy figuring out the exactly correct way to explain ourselves, while other people are dealing in the things that really drive policy, such as donations from the NRA.

GROSS: I do think it's kind of interesting that Mitch McConnell is now being named on Twitter as Massacre Mitch - interesting because he is being singled out through that hashtag and also through the recent Moscow Mitch hashtag because of blocking legislation that would be funding ways to prevent Russia and other foreign powers from hacking and interfering with our election.

But it's singling him out on social media in a way that I don't think he's been singled out before. He's not somebody who is in the public spotlight a lot. You don't see him on a lot of the talk shows. So do you find that interesting that he is now a major topic of conversation or, you might even say, a major target on Twitter now?

TOLENTINO: You know, I don't know how much a hashtag is worth compared to, you know, millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars from the NRA. You know, I don't - I think the Internet has a way of making the representation of something seem equal to, if not more important than the thing itself. And so it's sort of the signal of our desire for change and for accountability. You know, it's there in spades. It's always there after every - you know, we've seen this.

It's heartbreaking. We see this happen after every single mass shooting. We see these people get called out for how much - what they have done in the process to allow this to keep happening, and yet there has been this just appalling sort of standstill on action.

GROSS: You write a lot about feminism, and you write that some people see harsh criticism of women as always sexist. And as an example of that, you use some of the women in the Trump administration like Kellyanne Conway, former members like Hope Hicks and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, some of Trump's family like Melania and Ivanka. And you say the legitimate need to defend women from unfair criticism has morphed into an illegitimate need to defend women from criticism categorically. So would you apply that to women in the Trump administration?

TOLENTINO: This essay, where I write about this in the book, I - it came from - for a few years, I worked in women's media, and for a couple of years, I was an editor at the feminist site Jezebel, and often we would report on something like, let's say, the inadequacy of the idea of leaning in or - you know, we would report on business practices by some female entrepreneur. And the immediate response we would get - not the only response but one we would get consistently every time we did that was, isn't the job of a feminist to build women up, not tear them down?

And that seemed to me to be a misuse of the freedom that I - the freedom that we have to be critical and to treat women with respect, which means reporting on them like any other human. And I started thinking about - you know, I think over the last 10 years, feminism has become, very wonderfully so, a more mainstream point of view. Like, I think we saw it in the #MeToo movement, this idea that women's stories were important and to be given credence and to be centered became more of the default, which was incredible to see.

And as feminism has become more mainstream over the last 10 years, you know, part of that has been - we've gotten good, you know, as a culture in general, at sussing out sexism. You know, we've - like, when a woman is criticized for being shrill or crazy - right? - we sort of know that those words are code for unlikeable because you're a woman, and you kind of - you spoke for 30 seconds longer than I'd like you to. We've gotten great at protecting women against unfair criticism.

But around a couple of years ago, I just started to notice this idea, this sort of protective - this sort of well-meaning protective impulse get twisted and co-opted and sort of stretched beyond any use or meaning. For example, when Melania Trump went to go visit the kids at the border wearing that Zara jacket that said, I don't care - I don't really care, do you? - on the back. You know, and people very rightfully called her out for that being just an absolutely monstrous thing to do - an absolutely monstrous thing to do.

And then, you know, the White House and conservative media sort of mounted what would nominally be a feminist defense, which is, you know, a woman has a right to wear whatever she wants. Don't talk about her looks or her clothing choices. And then the discourse got swallowed into, you know, three days of talking about whether or not it was sexist to criticize her clothes.

The same thing happened when Michelle Wolf made that joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders' eye shadow at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Everyone was like, oh, no, was that - I think we saw for, you know, about a week, the news was swallowed with, was that joke sexist? - again, all these nominally feminist arguments that ended up in both cases completely redirecting the conversation from the real issues at hand.

GROSS: As a feminist writing, have you gotten criticized by other feminists?

TOLENTINO: Of course. And that's OK.

GROSS: That's OK. Yeah. Because feminists shouldn't have to have one...

TOLENTINO: Yeah. You know, I think....

GROSS: ...Point of view.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

GROSS: But if you've been criticized for having the wrong point of view and, therefore, being not a feminist?

TOLENTINO: You know, maybe. I think that there has been this idea in feminism. You know, since the 1890s, there's this idea that disagreement will tear the whole ideology down, right? And that idea is there for a reason. It's there because, you know, male power has had such an intense stranglehold on America that I think there's reason to think that this coalition of people that believe that women are equal, you know, is constantly under threat to the point that we must present a united front.

But I feel very conscious of, you know - I'm 30. I was - I feel lucky to have been born at a time when I took it for granted as a kid that I could be what I wanted. And I've tried to think about what freedoms I have that women 10, 20, 30, 40 years older than me didn't when they were my age. And one of them is to not be threatened by disagreement and not be threatened by someone thinking that I'm wrong.

I mean, I think that it's another thing that the Internet sort of exacerbates, is this idea that disagreement - you know, that it's really important to have everyone agree with you. You know, that that means something? And for me, yeah, I mean, I think criticism coming from a sincere place is a really important thing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jia Tolentino. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new collection of essays is called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. Her new collection of essays is called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion."

You didn't grow up in a community that defined itself around feminism. You grew up in a Southern Baptist community that had - the church was on a huge campus. It was a megachurch, so big that you say everyone called it the Repentagon (ph). (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: We also called it Six Flags Over Jesus.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: Also, the Baptidome (ph). We had lots of names.

GROSS: (Laughter). Would you describe the church and the campus?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. So my parents are from the Philippines. I was born in Canada, but when I was - ever since I - like, from age 4 to age 16, I basically spent my entire life within this megachurch in Houston, Texas - or, sorry, within this school in Houston, Texas, that's attached to, what, by some statistics, is the second-biggest megachurch in the country. It's a Southern Baptist place. It's, you know, this massive campus. You could - as I wrote in the book, you could spend your whole life there. You know, elementary - nursery school through your funeral. You know, it was - Houston is so large that this was like a town in itself, you know?

And it was a trip. The school was - the population was extremely white and wealthy, which my family was not. I was on scholarship there for about half the time. And it was - you know, it was the kind of place where, you know, you had - I had daily Bible class from first grade till senior year, you know, every - I had weekly chapel. I got my first promise ring, you know, my true love waits - true love waits, you know, not going to have sex till marriage ring, when I was in fourth grade. It was - Christian bodybuilders would come to chapel and rip apart phone books as sort of proof of the righteousness that you could acquire through Jesus.

It was a really - it was a really intense, insular, oftentimes dazzlingly beautiful, oftentimes terrifying and extremely instructive environment. You know, my views are not at all conservative. And that was all that I experienced for the first half of my life. You know, I'm no longer religious, but it was an extremely formative experience for me.

GROSS: The church held 6,500 people. That's really a lot of people. Were the services televised? Was it a TV church?

TOLENTINO: They were televised. My pastor - the better-known pastor in Houston is Joel Osteen, who, you know, runs Lakewood. And you see his books in airports all the time. That's not my pastor. But it was, you know, a similar sort of vibe - billboards, church broadcast on TV every Sunday. There were campuses all across Houston. Tens of thousands of people would pass through every weekend. Christmas services would be in the Toyota Center, which is where the Houston Rockets play basketball. You know, that sort of scale.

GROSS: I wonder what it was like to experience your pastor on a Jumbotron when you went to church.

TOLENTINO: I think if you never know anything other than that, it takes you a really long time to understand that it's strange, you know? It took me a long time to understand that it wasn't necessarily an experience that a lot of other people had, or really even many other people had, to, you know, go to chapel services where the lights would be dark and everyone would be crying and people - we'd all walk up to the front of the stage and nail our - you know, write our sins on a piece of paper and nail it to a cross. Like, there were a lot of things about that environment that it took me maybe till high school to understand that this was sort of unusual (laughter). Seeing a pastor on the big screen - it seemed entirely normal to me for a long time.

GROSS: Was the prosperity gospel preached?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. So the prosperity gospel was actually - that was what - that was the first thing that, you know, late middle school, early high school, started to make me discontent with the world around me. This church is - when I was in it, this was Bush-era Houston, you know - like Enron and Halliburton. You know, it was an extremely - the school was extremely wealthy, the church was extremely wealthy. You could sit in services and watch them raise millions of dollars with just one ask. You know, you could watch almost, like, you know, like, a fundraiser, like a telethon. You know, they would have markers showing the pledges go up.

And it was this incredible wealth. And the thing that I was attracted to - I mean, there are things about religion and about Christianity specifically that I still value even though I don't believe in them personally. I think that the Bible itself led me to a leftist point of view. I would read the Gospels and think this - these are books about economic redistribution and helping the hungry and the sick. And I really - I was drawn to that, and I was drawn to the sort of purity of devotion that faith contains.

And then what I would hear in church was much more often the prosperity gospel, which is that wealth is almost a sign of divine favor, and, you know, God wants us to be wealthy, and God wants us to - you know, if you're wealthy, that means you're blessed, and kind of implicitly, it means you're worth more to God or to - and certainly to your country. The flip side of that is, if you don't have any money, then that's also God's will. And I found that unbearable and so cruel, and that was one of the first things that made me think I would not be religious forever, even for very long.

GROSS: So you eventually left the church. Are your parents still in that church?

TOLENTINO: My parents still go to that church. My parents were never particularly doctrinaire. They never - they certainly don't believe in the prosperity gospel. They also never tried to really shape or control what I thought. I feel lucky for that. I think it's one of the things that, you know, even though every day I would walk into an environment that was extremely cloistered, at home I felt free to think.

And they never questioned that, and they made sure that I felt that I had that freedom really early, and I'm grateful to them for that, even though, of course, I am sure that you don't send your kid to Christian school for 12 years and hope that they'll do what I did, which is, you know, have The New Yorker published 7,000 words about how the church led me to, like, love doing MDMA and love rap music (laughter), which is one of its most lasting legacies for me.

GROSS: So you mentioned that in your life there's a connection between religion and certain drugs, like mushrooms and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, also known as Molly. What makes them similar in your mind?

TOLENTINO: So one tradition within Christianity and within religion in general that I've always been drawn to is the ecstatic tradition, right? It's this idea that through attaining an ecstatic state, you reach a sort of union with God. And I found - you know, I found traces of that in my megachurch.

We would be in these - this, you know, six feet of stained glass, and the lights would be down, and everyone would have their hands up, and the music would be so loud, and I would feel overwhelmed. You know, and this, I'm talking about, you know, being age 7, age 11, age 16 - you know, completely overwhelmed with a sense of ecstasy, a sort of nameless, powerful connection with the people around me and with something mysterious beyond me. And I loved that feeling. And my sort of inherent desire to reach for that feeling persisted long after my actual sense of religion or adherence to it or belief in it, belief in God even, you know, after that went away.

And there are places - you know, in Houston - I grew up in Houston in the early 2000s, and that was a period where Houston rap was a world unto its own. And there were - you know, I started to access that feeling in different dark rooms with everyone - when everyone had their hands up, and everyone seemed sort of transported and out of their minds. I started - I would get that feeling back over and over in college and afterwards, just in these situations that also led to ecstasy, you know, with that same exact feeling. And you know, some - like often with drugs.

And I feel - that essay is about my confusion about that, you know. Like, I don't know - I wrote that I - I don't know whether it was because of this ecstatic tendency that I have in me that I believed in God in the first place. There's this sort of ecstatic leaning within many of us that manifests in the exact same words and the exact same feelings, no matter what the source. And it's not - and that's something that's certainly been true for me for a long time, but it is true for a lot of people.

GROSS: My guest is New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. Her new collection of essays is called "Trick Mirror." We'll talk more after a break. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg will weigh in on the controversy surrounding gender-neutral pronouns, and Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by jazz composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. She has a new book called "Trick Mirror," collecting her essays on issues relating to gender, feminism, the Internet, the beauty industry, as well as personal essays on subjects like growing up in a Southern Baptist megachurch.

You joined the Peace Corps after college, and I'm wondering if you joined in part because of your Baptist upbringing in the sense that, you grew up with it, you wanted to do good. You wanted to be good and you wanted to do good.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. I mean, I still have that sense. But, yeah, I graduated in 2009, and part of it was, you know, it was smack in the middle of the recession. I was like, no one I know has a job. I will never be able to do the thing that I want to do, which is write, because I can't afford to move to New York. And so I applied to the Peace Corps and I went to Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan.

GROSS: Right, which is one of the former Soviet republics. So you get there. You were evacuated three times. Shortly after you got there, the government was overthrown. Eighty-eight people were killed, 500 injured. And then there was genocidal violence against the country's Uzbek population - 2,000 killed, 100,000 displaced. So you were living in a very tumultuous and dangerous time there.

And you write that the government seemed enlightened in the sense that the interim president was a woman. There were women in Parliament and the constitution ensured equal rights for women, unlike our Constitution. But you experienced a serious lack of women's rights in your daily life there. And I want you to talk about that a little bit, like how you felt more vulnerable as a woman.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. It was devastating. I mean, I think of this time in the Peace Corps as the great failure of my life in a lot of ways because I left after a year, partly because I was always in trouble because there were strict safety regulations that I kept breaking, but also because I was sexually harassed constantly.

So Kyrgyzstan, you know, it seemed that women were running the place, but men were setting the terms. And there was incredible - you know, the women I knew were so strong, and they were dealing with - you know, the domestic violence was endemic. And I was harassed constantly and sexual harassment before - again, I've been conscious of mostly having enough confidence and enough power that whenever I was sexually harassed before and afterwards, I would just be like, screw you, you're a loser, you know? Like, anyone that would do that is a loser. But you can't think that when you're in the Peace Corps, you know?

GROSS: Why couldn't you...

TOLENTINO: And I couldn't do that there.

GROSS: Why couldn't you do that in the Peace Corps?

TOLENTINO: 'Cause you're there - you know, you're there to say, I am here to serve you, you know? You're there to say that your life is more important than mine at this moment and your happiness and your well-being is more important than mine, basically. And that is how I wanted to live there, and I - those wires got crossed, and I just found it impossible to understand what was happening. And, you know - and my host father kissed me one day, and it was just - you know, I...

GROSS: Oh, he grabbed you and kissed you. It wasn't, like, a thank you kiss. It was like, I'm...

TOLENTINO: Yeah, yeah. It wasn't a kiss on the cheek or whatever. It was - no, yeah. That's - that would be lovely, you know. Something about that year, it was devastating. I was devastated to have more power than the women around me, and I also felt so powerless, and I couldn't process it. And it was tough, and it was incredibly instructive. And I - it was probably the hardest time in my life. And I'm also - like, one of the most important to me.

GROSS: I want to get back to that thought you expressed of being in Kyrgyzstan as somebody representing the Peace Corps and thinking I am here to serve you; on the other hand, the men want to subjugate me and render me powerless. It's so hard to wrap your head around that because you can't honor that.

TOLENTINO: Right. Right. And, you know, you're there to live life in a lot of ways on Kyrgyz terms or on the term of your - the terms of your local community. And I did. You know, I covered my head. I often covered my head. I didn't always. Kyrgyzstan is sort of a syncretically (ph) Muslim post-Soviet country. I tried to follow local customs and - you know, to the extent that I was able to. But, like, there was just a part of it that I - you know, I could never subject myself to you. I couldn't let these cab drivers take me to their house and put me in a room for two hours and talk to me about making me their wife. You know, I couldn't do that.

GROSS: Did that happen to you?

TOLENTINO: Oh, yeah. It happened to a lot of - yeah. I mean, these are villages where everyone knows everyone, and you sort of get around the country by hitchhiking. So you'll often - like - and it is a great sort of Central Asian nomadic and also Muslim tradition to welcome strangers into your home, right? So, like, I would find myself eating with strangers all the time and be grateful for it - right? - grateful for them opening their house to me as a guest. And I - you know, part of your job is to get to know the community. And so - you know, so the lines were just so blurry between what was - what I should be doing and what was intolerable, you know? And things would flip very quickly and sometimes things would be both very wonderful and very bad at the same time.

But, you know, at the same time that I was there to try to be a productive force in the community, you know, try to sort of put other people's needs above my own, it was also incredibly obvious that as an American I did have - I had an escape hatch the way that none of the women around me did, right? I had all of this sort of lifetime capital and self-determination that many of the men around me didn't have, right? I had far more economic freedom than them. And it was just this very confounding mix of things.

GROSS: So, you know, gender inequity and, you know, sexual harassment and assault have been themes in a lot of your writing. During the Kavanaugh hearings when he was accused of sexual assault, you were thinking about an incident in your life when you were in high school and at a party. And you went back to read what you'd written about it in your journal, and there was a big difference between how you described it then and how you thought about it now. And I'd like you to compare those two things for us, to tell us about the incident and how you thought about it then versus now.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. So I think - I remember after I wrote this piece, I heard from a lot of women who had experienced the same thing. I mean, you know, it was just - I had completely forgotten that this had happened until I was watching Kavanaugh speak at the hearings because I think a lot of us experience these things and immediately brush them off.

You know, I'd been at a party - high school - gotten drunk. The guy who was hosting the party had, like, you know, jokingly sort of begged me to tuck him in. And I was like, ha ha, so funny, you know? And I did, and he pulled me on him and, you know, wouldn't let me go. And I struggled, and then I ran out of the room.

And I think in my journal - I don't have the - I don't remember the exact wording, but I was just - I thought it was, you know, no big deal, probably my fault for going to tuck him in, you know, me being stupid, him being silly, whatever. And then I forgot about it for - what? - 15 years.

And then the Kavanaugh hearing came up, and I remembered, you know, that guy - I don't wish him any harm. I don't think he has any recollection of that night. I don't think he would ever think that that one-minute struggle was wrong or damaging, you know, or bad in any way. I don't wish him ill, but I don't think that man would be an appropriate Supreme Court justice.

GROSS: Were you surprised when you read your journal entry from that time?

TOLENTINO: And saw that I had brushed it off...

GROSS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And said it was my fault? You know, at that - about that specific issue, I wasn't surprised because I think so much of the #MeToo movement was watching this incredible, deeply painful revision of things that women had brushed off in a professional setting, even in a family setting - right? - things that we had thought were completely OK and then, you know, we had narrated to ourselves and to our friends as OK. And then later, you realize, actually, it's not. Like, we saw that with the E. Jean Carroll story in New York Magazine.

And so on that issue, I wasn't. But there have been plenty - you know, I - when I was writing my book, I went back to my old notebooks, and I've kept them voluminously since I was a kid. And there were things that I - you know, I had sort of contorted the narrative since those days to give myself one idea of myself. And the writing, the journals were proof that I was wrong and that I had been fooling myself a little bit. And that's why I'm so grateful that I - I think that's one of the reasons I write so much. It's that I will have a record to keep myself from twisting the story later on.

GROSS: You strike me as very bilingual in the sense that you have one language for social media and another much more complicated language for your essays. Can you talk about that a little bit?

TOLENTINO: Oh, that if you - yeah. If someone were to go to my Twitter right now, they'd be like, what's wrong with this girl's brain? I don't know. I think that these are also things that just have always coexisted. I think that one of the things that I learned when I was working - I worked at smaller blogs before I went to The New Yorker. I worked at this small blog called The Hairpin, and then I worked at Jezebel, where I was an editor. And I just learned to throw my voice a little bit. You know, if I wanted to write about something silly, I would let myself sound silly. If I wanted to be profane, you know, about something I was really mad about, I would allow myself to be profane. And then if there was something that I felt was very serious, I would write the way I felt, which was seriously.

And I think, you know, I try to interact with Twitter, for example - one of the ways that I try to make social media bearable and sort of non-corrosive - or not any more corrosive to my brain than it already has been - is to only interact with them when I'm having fun, you know? And when I start getting a bad feeling, I just go away. I log off. And I think that results in me tending to be in a little bit of a flippant state of mind - you know, a silly state of mind when I'm on Twitter.

And when I'm writing, I - especially with this book - you know, these were issues that I wanted to write 10,000 words on and I wanted to think through very deeply from 10 different angles. And there are moments of that same flippancy, you know, or lightness, I think, in the book. But in general, you know, it seems like one of the great freedoms of being a writer is being able to, you know, adapt your tone to the tone of the thing you're writing about and the medium you're writing on, and that's something that I try to take advantage of. Like, I'm not going to be on Twitter pretending to, like, be very serious 'cause that's not how I am.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

TOLENTINO: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Jia Tolentino is the author of the new collection of essays "Trick Mirror." She's also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

After a short break, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will weigh in on the controversy surrounding gender-neutral pronouns. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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