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My Time With Richard Dawkins (Or, Why You Should Never Meet Your Idols)

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I’ve only been an atheist for about four or five years. I was raised Catholic, eventually became a non-denominational Christian, then a “well there’s SOMETHING out there” deist, to a “who really knows?” agnostic, and eventually became a solid atheist (around 2009 or so). This was in great part due to the writings of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

So, in July of 2011, when I had just graduated college and saw that the Secular Student Alliance was hiring an Event Specialist to help plan a tour for Richard Dawkins’ children’s book, The Magic of Reality, well, of course I jumped on it. To my great surprise, I was hired within two days of

To Dawkins' credit, he's much better at avoiding red eye than I am.
To Dawkins’ credit, he’s much better at avoiding red eye than I am.

sending in my résumé. In a week, I bought a car, a smartphone, and packed up my entire life to move several states away. Little did I know what I was in for.

The first stop on the tour was Miami. Hours before the first event, there were people lining up outside the doors. As a member of the team, I was allowed in the auditorium before the event began. It was me, Dave Silverman (President of American Atheists), Elizabeth Cornwell (Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation), Sean Faircloth (then newly-hired Director of Strategy and Policy for RDF), and Richard Dawkins himself.

At this time (September of 2011), Dave Silverman was heading up the Reason Rally Committee. There was still quite a bit of planning and promotion that needed to be done, so Dave asked Richard, Elizabeth, and Sean to make videos to promote the Reason Rally. (The video Richard ended up making is still viewable.) Richard was standing behind the podium, and he asked Dave something along the lines of, “What exactly is the Reason Rally?” Dave started explaining it, and as he did, someone who was waiting in the line outside opened the door to peek inside and we could all hear a lot of noise. I rushed up the aisle and made frantic “shut the door” gestures at the people peeking inside, and they did. As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.

I was crushed. I couldn’t believe it. Richard Dawkins was my hero. I looked up to him as a beacon of truth and reason in a world of irrationality. I couldn’t believe he would act this way toward Rebecca. Before I left for the tour, I truly, honestly thought that the whole “Elevatorgate” thing was a miscommunication, and if someone (and I was willing to be that someone) would sit down with Dawkins, they could explain to him why it’s uncomfortable to be propositioned in an elevator by a stranger, and then Dawkins could apologize for the whole thing and everyone could move on. I really just thought it was just ignorance, not malice, that caused Dawkins to act that way.

I think it says a lot about the atheist movement, that a famous speaker can use his position in order to keep someone else off the lineup, and the movement willingly obliges. I’m truly not trying to blame Dave Silverman (I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I generally think he’s a good guy). I think the head of every single organization would have done the same thing, had they been in Dave’s position– and that right there is the problem. Yes, Richard Dawkins is a big draw. Yes, the Reason Rally was (for the most part) successful. But at what cost? Are we okay sacrificing the voices of some people in order to get others involved? Do we have too much of a culture of celebrity, so that we are willing to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in order to get those celebrities involved? Is this indicative of a mindset that some people’s opinions are more important than others?

I spent two years working for the atheist movement (or to borrow Ashley Paramore‘s term, Big Atheism). I saw a lot of things that made me disappointed in a movement that claims it is dedicated to truth and critical inquiry. I made a lot of excuses for supporting things that I ordinarily wouldn’t have, claiming it all was for the greater good– for the movement, but also for the world.

I think the atheist movement has reached a critical point that will determine whether it succeeds or whether it flounders. I think we need to take a long, hard look at what we’re doing and decide if our actions truly line up with our values. Do we want to be a movement that refuses to change, simply because we think it’s too hard? Do we want to become a movement that doesn’t critically question people in leadership roles? Do we want to become a movement that only pays lip service to minorities, instead of actually working to include them? What do we want this movement to become, and how can we really achieve that?

As for me? I’m sorry it took me two years to build up the guts to share this story publicly. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to speak up when I saw things I disagreed with. I’m going to stop making excuses for why I haven’t been living up to my values and start actually doing it. I hope you’ll join me.

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105 Comments

  1. “I’m truly not trying to blame Dave Silverman (I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I generally think he’s a good guy)”

    I am growing rapidly exhausted by “good guy” being used in defense of someone’s bad actions. I’ll bet Richard Dawkins’ friends think he’s “a good guy” too. I’ll bet EVERYONE has friends who would vouch for their “good guy” cred. That doesn’t change anything. Dave Silverman had an opportunity to push back against an unreasonable and frankly idiotic request (more of a demand, really) and, according to your account, folded faster than a t-shirt at American Eagle. I don’t see “good guy” there. I see “feckless politician without the courage of his convictions when the stakes are high”.

    Yes, this is a story about how Richard Dawkins is a disappointing figure. I don’t see how this story doesn’t paint Dave Silverman in the exact same light, despite the goodness of his guyitude.

    • Totally agree. I understand that Silverman was put in a horrible position, but when the chips were down he went with the politically easy decision rather than the fair one. It’s not easy to make a decision that goes against the political grain, but then again any schmuck can do the easy thing. I would have hoped for more from a leader of a major organization.

      • How it should have ended:

        Dawkins: No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.
        Silverman: Oh, Richard, I’m sorry we’ll miss you this year. Thanks for letting me know.
        (scene)

        After reading Sarah’s post, I’m more convinced that Richard is basically a douchenozzle. When I read Rebecca’s account of what Dawkins said, I thought he was being a jerk and maybe a one-time thing. You know how you ask a celebrity’s opinion on something and it turns out their take is pretty much worthless? Exactly.

        Now with this account, it isn’t a one-time thing. Richard *IS* a misogynist prima donna. Someone ought to get him a diaper and a pacifier.

    • All right, this is true at the end. While Silverman may be doing things better now , it doesn’t mean his decision was justified. It would just mean he is redeeming himself.

      But Dawkins was the one with the most power in this. It would have been easy for Dawkins not to make that ultimatum. It was not as easy for Silverman to say no to it.

      • I also have to admit, that whole Reason Rally thing, from what I was hearing, seemed pretty much a tenuous house of cards to begin with. I imagine after a lot that effort to “herd cats” as they say, the “biggest draw” pitching a fit about not coming could be a bit panic inducing. Important thing … we need to get past hero-ification and build up more diverse stable of important draws so a fit of pique won’t be seen as so damaging to an event.

      • “But Dawkins was the one with the most power in this.”

        Only because others give him power. Tell him no thanks and don’t let the door hit you enough times and he’ll either figure it out or flame out like a 5-second sparkler.

        “It was not as easy for Silverman to say no to it.”

        Silverman consciously made that choice; no one forced him into it. Easy or not, only he can say, but that’s only an excuse (assuming he actually used it as an excuse). I personally have enough self-esteem to tell any jerk where to get off if they get out of hand, REGARDLESS of their “celebrity” status.

    • THANK YOU.

      I don’t want to pile on Dave – but I also do not want to give anyone the idea that being spineless in the face of powerful celebrity and exertion of privilege as an OK thing to do if you are “a nice guy”….Nice guys need to be checked just like everyone else.

      I am disappointed as HELL to hear this about Dave S.

      I would also like to ask Mr. Dawkins to get over himself.
      What a prima dona!

  2. Dawkins is as big a blowhard as Rush Limbaugh. He also seems to look at women the same way as Rush…only Rush says women are inferior because of God, whereas Dawkins would say women are inferior because of Evolution.

  3. I do love how many organizational leaders are so quick to tell us that they don’t have blacklists or they don’t want to exclude anyone from the movement.

    They seem to be perfectly fine excluding people. They just don’t care to exclude those with bigoted views. Imagine that.

  4. Given Dawkins’ general demeanor and the way he quit the field after “Elevatorgate” first erupted, I think it more likely he wanted to avoid being involved in a politicized debacle than he “hates women because they’re evolutionary inferior”. He strikes me as someone who puts a lot of stock in decorum.

    • “To immediately write him off as a wealthy white male…” Nope. That’s not even a little bit what happened. Rebecca and Dawkins have both been in the community for years. Rebecca didn’t “immediately write him off” based on his class or gender or race. Not even close. My first TAM was her first TAM, and she was as enthusiastic about the big names as I was back then. Rebecca was pointing out how absurd it was for Dawkins to tell HER that he’s perfectly comfortable being in an elevator and sees nothing wrong with the situation. Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” was entirely about race, culture, and class. Pointing out how absurd that was is entirely appropriate.

      “Very very nasty emails… that she called ‘misogynist'”. What the fuck else would you call them, besides misogynistic? She’s got a whole page of them. If you can go there and read them and come back with another name, by all means enlighten us.

      “I’m agnostic… demographics are a big big factor.” She doesn’t know what the problem is, but she knows what the problem is. Sorry, but that is just flagrantly dishonest. This is a really interesting hypothesis, though. Let’s follow it through. Demographics are the problem. Do those same demographics explain why there are fewer women in STEM fields? Do women just have soft little brains incapable of rational thought, or is society failing them? If you think it’s the former, you can probably fuck right off. If you think it’s the latter, well, these conferences and organizations are supposed to be about education and outreach. Working to change the demographics is the whole point. If atheists and skeptics aren’t concerned that their membership doesn’t reflect the population, if they’re not interested in communicating with the rest of the world, then it seems to me the real reason they’re gathering together under these labels is to slap each other on the back and talk about how much better they are than all the other dumb suckers.

      But I’m rambling on. Please, Dr. Zach, how about you tell us what’s so “fascinating” about this video?

  5. Grr. “Elevatorgate”. When Rebecca Watson spoke about the incident in the elevator, it was to the benefit of the man in the elevator. Because now he has the information to understand why his overture was rejected, and now he can modify his technique to gain later success.

    Bleh, some men in the atheist movement are incredibly self-entitled with impossibly fragile egos, ultimately to their own detriment – how could it be otherwise; it is the opposite of maintaining an attitude of capability. That the “senior” leaders of the atheist movement see fit to indulge this jibber-jabber is nauseating.

  6. Yeah, ex-hero of mine, too. Quite a lot of centre-left liberals here in the UK (that’s most of the academic community) are now thoroughly fed up with him. Partly why he & cronies have set up their ludicrous private university.

    Last straw came a couple of weeks ago, when Dawkins shared the notorious ‘Mr Deity’ video on his site. I left a ‘good faith’ comment informing him that it was an attempt to discredit an accuser in a certain case (on the off-chance he didn’t know). He simply deleted the comment. I sent him a mail (from my university account, natch, complete with the British decorum stuff he seems to like). Nope, no reply. So I think we can conclude that he has Picked A Side (TM).

    Over here he’s become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who cares about equalities & social justice. He’s just making a grand job of poisoning his own legacy. If anything, these thinly-disguised conservatives like Dawkins & Harris have done us a service, by deflecting readership to FtB, PZ and so on. (Had it not been for Dawks, I for one would never have stumbled across Rebecca Watson’s talks, PZ’s squid-shack, or this site, for that matter.)

    So yeah, colour me surprised. An explanation from Silverman would be nice, though.

  7. Wait, wasn’t Rebecca saying she’d personally no longer buy his books the worst thing ever?
    I’m waiting for all those who howled out that day over the alleged “boycott” to start howling again against Dawkins. But with a healthy respect for my health I won’t hold my breath

  8. I’d also like to hear/read an explanation from David Silverman, but I should note that two years on, h seems to be taking a braver stance on the feminist side. After all, he was at WiS2 and he steam-rolled over Vacula on the BraveHero podcast (I’d have preferred he not go on, but his performance was great). So, depending on the response, I’d be willing to forgive Silverman if he recognizes it as a mistake and he’s wanting/trying to make amends.

    But we’ll see… there are reasons (racism controversy) I’m pretty unsure about American Atheists right now, so… yeah…

      • A great response on their part, and it makes complete sense with the details of the original story.

        The comments over there are dumber than I thought possible. Embarrassing enough that I think I’m going to stop calling myself an “atheist” when people ask. Maybe “nonbeliever” will do. I don’t want to be associated with any of those fuckwits.

        I saw one commenter writing about how Dawkins wasn’t “blackmailing” anyone. You don’t say!

          • That they condemned what was wrong, even if they don’t agree that it happened. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about an overheard conversation from two years ago. Either side could misremember specific details or have gotten the wrong impression. Silverman could honestly think he didn’t acquiesce, but still gave the impression that he did.

            Having his side of the story would be better, but as an organization, they flatly said blacklisting is wrong and needs more attention. I think that’s important.

          • Let’s be honest….people don’t remember something from two years ago because it didn’t make an impression, and then hold on to the story for fear of being attacked the way we can predict Sarah will be now.

            If it was an inconsequential and polite request on Dawkins part (without the drama and ridiculousness Sarah described) – it would not have been remembered at all. She wouldn’t have cared – as she like many of us, admire(d) the man.

            You have to imagine nefarious motive on Sarah’s part to go any further down the “who knows what was said” path.

            I feel like I live in the Middle East these days…There’s no such thing as testimony that can come from a female which is not deemed a lie until it’s proven true.

          • I don’t imagine any malice on Sarah’s part. Just that she might have misunderstood a conversation she partially overheard. I’m sure she remembers what Dawkins said pretty well. As you said, it was shocking. That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. But maybe she misunderstood the details of David’s response. Or David might misremember his response. One of them has to be incorrect, and I don’t think either is being malicious.

            Read my other comments. I’m not implying what Sarah said is a lie at all. In fact, I’m pretty firmly on her side.

      • The implication in the AA post that Sarah didn’t have the facts is that those facts change anything, but they don’t. Whether they planned to invite Rebecca or not doesn’t change what Dawkins did or what Dave acquiesced to–making sure she wasn’t.

        • Agreed. The response could have gone into some more detail, but this is probably the best we’ll ever get. Publicly, at least. I would still like to hear Silverman’s personal take on it, in a blog post for example. Not holding my breath, though.

        • I’m not sure whether or not that’s the implication, but I agree with you that it doesn’t change the facts. Compared to how other organizations have handled things, I think this is pretty good. They might dispute the facts, but they still agree blacklisting is bad and that this kind of behavior is bad.

          As an organization, I think it’s a good response. If this is all we get from Silverman, I’ll be a bit disappointed.

          • I can’t think of a reason to include the statement if that’s not the implication (which could just be my own lack). If the facts don’t change anything, why point out that she didn’t possess all the facts? Just to clarify that Rebecca wasn’t disinvited? If she had been, we’d probably have heard about that sooner from her, so I think we all possessed those facts (and even if not, it still doesn’t change anything). So I do have a problem with that part of their statement, although I would love to hear another interpretation because I don’t like being disappointed in yet another organization. With that said, though, I agree that condemning blacklisting is a good thing.

          • I should probably also clarify that I think Dawkins put Silverman on the spot, and although I can think of many responses that would have been far better, I know I frequently do or say the wrong thing when put on the spot. The best I can do (and what I hope for from Dave) is an unqualified acknowledgment that it was a mistake and an apology. The real issue here, to me, is that Dawkins put him on the spot and that our community culture is such that the most natural response for Dave was to acquiesce.

          • I want to second Melanie, here. Silverman isn’t the bad guy on this one. It’s Dawkins’ petty childish grudge-holding and the abuse of his celebrity to stick Silverman into a rather horrid position. I wish Silverman had given a better response, but I also can’t yell at him for it because… to be entirely honest… I’d fail when put on the spot like that, too. I think that’s common, in fact. So this certainly is not an attack on David Silverman (which is actually part of my problem with AA’s response… they act as if Silverman was cast as the bad guy, and he clearly wasn’t).

          • I meant the facts that are agreed upon by both parties (i.e. that Dawkins was being a garbage brained shitweasle.) They could’ve just ignored the situation entitely or denied it ever happened. Like mrmsconception below, I think it’s plausible that Dave and Sarah interpreted the situation differently.

            As for Rebecca’s actual invitation/disinvitation, well, we don’t know the facts there. They dispute that she was ever invited. I don’t know whether to believe that or not. That statement might be a political dodge, but I don’t think they’re being deliberately harsh to Sarah in saying she didn’t have the facts. I think they’re trying to say “Sarah didn’t know Rebecca wasn’t ever invited, and misinterpreted what Dave said.”

            They might be full of shit. They might be dodging. I don’t know. But I think responding immediately, acknowledging the conversation happened, and saying blacklisting is bad were all positive moves. I’m inclined to cut them some slack. They seem like they’re trying to do good here, with maybe a bit of ass covering and politicking.

        • “or what Dave acquiesced to–making sure she wasn’t.”

          Ahem:

          “While Mr. Silverman does not dispute that an exchange with Dr. Dawkins took place in Miami in September of 2011, there was no acquiescence on Mr. Silverman’s part.”

          So yes, the facts DO change something. If the decisions of who to invite had already been made, then there was no acquiescence.

          • Just because they said it doesn’t mean it’s right. In point of fact, I’d say they used the wrong word. They may be right that he didn’t accede to Dawkins’ demand, but if Dave had not acquiesced, his statement wouldn’t have settled the matter.

            Is arguing with niggling points like this really how you spend your time on the internet?

      • I didn’t feel any deep rift until the rape threats started flying…but then it became clear that there was indeed a very deep rift. That rift however — was there before “elevatorgate” – which only made that rift emerge explicitly.

  9. OMG Sarah, I can’t believe you actually WROTE this post. I thought you were joking! You are on SOOO much trouble.

    No reason rally for you!

    But seriously, nicely done and I can’t really add much beyond what you wrote and the comments above, so instead I’ll tell a small story that puts Richard Dawkins (and the rest of us by extension) in perspective.

    Richard Dawkins had been invited to speak in at the University of Minnesota, at the biggest auditorium here (holds a gazillion people). PZ was coming to town, everybody who is anybody was going to the show.

    I had bought a ticket for myself and Amanda, and my friend Lizzie, and my daughter, but Julia turned out not to be able to go so I had an extra ticket. A bunch of us (remember?) went to eat first in Dinkeytown somewhere, then we walked to the auditorium.

    So I’m walking along with a bunch of people, it’s dusk, and there’s other people up and down the street mostly walking in the same direction. I’m thinking “this is going to be well attended.”

    And, remember, I’ve got this other ticket.

    As we’re walking along, I spy a young man standing along side the walk. As our group approaches, he steps onto the sidewalk a bit and says “Have any of you got an extra ticket?”

    So I think, this is great, I can give my ticket to someone. So I said “I’ve got one.”

    Immediately he said “I’ll give you 50 bucks.”

    Immediately I’m thinking, for 50 bucks, I’ll skip the Dawkins lecture, maybe he wants two! Or three, Lizzie would surely prefer to get 50 bucks than to see this lecture!

    I ask the guy, how many tickets to you want? and he sais “Two if you have them” and he’s pulling out his money and I’m pulling out my tickets.

    At this point I’m holding out two tickets where he can see them, he’s still messing with his wallet, and he leans over to look at the tickets. That’s when he said, “What the fuck?” and kind of snorts at me and walks away.

    Apparently, if I had two tickets to the Gophers Football game that was going on a block past the auditorium where Dawkins was speaking, which is where the streams of humanity heading off in the same direciton as us were going, I could have had a hundred bucks! But alas, all I had were tickets to this dumb Dawkins thing.

      • NO! Sarah was not there. Sorry if I gave that impression. The point of the story was just to put The Biggest Thing That Ever Happened in Minneapolis’ Secular Community in the broader context of society in general, where people really care a lot more about gophers. Which are some sort of football playing rodent, as I understand it.

  10. American Atheists have issued a statement that dances around the main question at hand (what did Dawkins say, how did Silverman react) in favor of some strong self-aggrandizing. I’m very disappointed and will reconsider donating to them again.

    https://www.facebook.com/AmericanAtheists/posts/10151814433547418

    “A recent blog post by Sarah Moglia alleges that American Atheists President Dave Silverman acquiesced to a demand by Richard Dawkins in September 2011 that he choose between Rebecca Watson and Dr. Dawkins as speakers at the Reason Rally in March 2012.

    American Atheists and Mr. Silverman do not condone, support, or participate in the practice of allowing potential convention speakers, or convention supporters, sponsors, or attendees, to blacklist or attempt to blacklist other potential speakers and attendees.

    While Mr. Silverman does not dispute that an exchange with Dr. Dawkins took place in Miami in September of 2011, there was no acquiescence on Mr. Silverman’s part. At the time the exchange took place, Ms. Watson had not in fact been invited to speak at the Reason Rally, and that decision had already been made. The Reason Rally had many more requests from prominent atheists to speak than speaking slots to offer.

    American Atheists and Mr. Silverman appreciate Ms. Moglia’s effort to bring attention to the issue of blacklisting speakers despite that in this particular instance she was not in possession of all the facts. Like many other organizations, American Atheists has faced occasional criticism and threats of boycott for its choice of speakers, but maintains the stance that the growing atheist community is big enough, diverse enough, and reasonable enough to understand the value in diverse perspectives.

    American Atheists believes this is an opportunity for consciousness-raising and growth, and continues to encourage and support reasonable and open discourse about controversies for the wider benefit of the long-term goals of atheism activism.”

    Also, the fact that the comments are overrun by slimers, does that mean that’s their main support? Or are they just more vocal?

  11. I want to say thank you to Sarah for telling this story and that I am not surprised at all by this type of behavior from Richard Dawkins.
    But I’m stunned that so many people can’t think of any way that both Sarah and Mr. Silverman’s accounts could be correct.
    I can give a couple of examples without twisting logic or credibility at all;

    Scenario #1) Mr. Silverman said that they weren’t going to be able to invite Rebecca and had already made that decision. (not surprising considering how many people wanted to speak that there would be big names left out). If he already knew she wasn’t going to be invited and he said exactly what Sarah reported he did nothing more than let Dawkins think he had won a point, the worst he did in that situation is feed the ego of an egomanic, hardly something most of us wouldn’t do especially if we could raise our standing with a prominent person. Please note that if this is what happened would be disappointed in Mr. Silverman but would see it as a mistake rather than a character flaw.

    Scenario #2) Mr. Silverman knew she wasn’t invited so when the ultimatum came down he said something like “Don’t worry, she won’t be speaking”. Not that I disbelieve Sarah, just that in her place (coming back and hearing the name drop, the hissy, the ultimatum, and the response) “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” and “Don’t worry, she won’t be speaking.” have the same implications (that Rebecca was now dis-invited) but mean something very different from Dave’s side (she’s now dis-invited or we couldn’t fit her in anyway).

    It was two years ago and memories are fungible so we may never know for sure but since Dave Silverman hasn’t given us good reason to doubt his word, well, anyway…

    As for Richard Dawkins, As an atheist leader he is a very good evolutionary biologist.

  12. @mrmisconception

    I’m very willing to believe it wasn’t obsequiousness on David’s part and merely reflective of a decision which had already been made. I’d RATHER believe that in fact.

    What IS problematic still is the imperious demand on the part of Dawkins which no amount of Febreze could unstinky-fy.

  13. Not all that surprising really, it’s no secret that RD and RW do not like or respect each other. If those were indeed his exact words, that’s pretty childish. I think RD has done lots of admirable things, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of being childish or petty on occasion.

  14. I am a very, very long-term atheist,skeptic,freethinker or whatever and the first reading I did on the subject was Dawkin’s “The Blind Watchmaker”. Since then he has been massively influential in helping to get our voice heard and taken seriously, as have many others, writers, bloggers and broadcasters to all of whom I am indebted for a plentiful supply of mind food. Sure Dawkins is not perfect, and Shakespeare put it very elegantly when he said “And every fair from fair sometimes declines”. We need to understand that neither those we agree with are always right, nor those we disagree with always wrong.

  15. Sarah,

    It saddens me to hear this about Dawkins. I always expect the best from people. And when I hear of less than that, the bad news saddens me.

    I hope you do not go the negative route.

    Wayne
    Luvsiesous.com

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