More Snowflakes at American universities: MIT students claim that celebration of Israeli independence makes them feel “unsafe”

April 27, 2015 • 1:30 pm

This seems to be becoming a regular feature here: students playing the “safe spaces” card to try to get events or talks cancelled that offend them. This time it’s at a redoubt of academic excellence—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—and this time the university didn’t give in to the students with hurt feelings. And once again I have to turn to a conservative website, Legal Insurrection, to find the story.  But I’ve corroborated it elsewhere, as with the Facebook posting below.

In fact, the MIT students, who were of Palestinian descent, objected to a celebration of Israel’s 67th birthday organized by a group of Jewish students under the aegis of MIT’s Undergraduate Association (UA). The celebration, part of regular student activities, had already been planned for last Thursday when a group called Palestine@MIT objected strenuously, trying to get the celebration shut down. What was bizarre about this is that they claimed that the celebration would make them feel “unsafe”. The group’s “open letter” on Facebook said this (my emphasis)

The Israeli Independence Day raises politically sensitive questions given that it just so happens to represent the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, also known as the “Nakba”. This is a day of extreme tragedy and traumatic loss for millions of people, including many students here at MIT. As Palestinians and supporters of Palestine in the MIT community, we are alarmed by the fact that the UA are endorsing this event, given that the UA represents us as well. We feel unsafe in an environment that celebrates a catastrophic day for one nation at an official school-wide capacity by a body that represents all students equally, with no regards or sympathy towards our tragedy.

We direct this message to the entirety of the student body with a request for change. We request the UA to detach the carnival from SpringFest, and to refrain from sponsoring and/or publicizing it at a school-wide capacity.

Of course these people wouldn’t think twice about the effect on Israeli students of holding one of the many BSD or other anti-Israeli events held all over the country on college campuses. (And I’d object equally strongly if Jewish students tried to shut those events down, or claimed that they felt “unsafe.”) But they have the right to object, and even to try to get the even cancelled. What would be unconscionable—and would constitute censorship—would be if the already-scheduled event were shut down because of this dubious “unsafe” trope.

It’s ridiculous to think the celebration would make students feel “unsafe”. Seriously? As if Jewish students have a habit of attacking their opponents physically, much less verbally! The “unsafe” trope is clever, though, as it wields more psychological influence than just saying you’re just “offended.” Offense is merely an emotion produced by words, but a lack of “safety” implies that violence is in the offing, thereby having a greater resonance with people.  You don’t have to insulate students from words, but you’d damn well better protect them from physical harm! But I doubt that those Palestinian students really feel that they’re in danger. Rather, they have simply learned the tropes that are most effective in shutting down opposition.

At any rate, MIT’s UA president Matthew Davis, rejecting the request to un-sponsor the celebration, wrote a letter that was a model of rationality. Here’s part of it (my emphasis):

Every student group at MIT is recognized by the Association of Student Activities (ASA), and through this organization, all undergraduate student groups are recognized by the UA. Every recognized student group has the ability to apply for funds from the UA through the Financial Board, and is eligible for such funding as long as they are recognized by the ASA, with no other consideration.

As part of this, it is often the case that some student groups will be ones with which other undergraduates are uncomfortable, or may express an idea contrary to the opinions of others. In the course of history, it is often the case that such groups would not be allowed; moreover, it is often the case that those who hold a minority opinion, contrary to that of the majority, may have their opinion silenced either through the active suppression of the majority, or a lack of resources provided. Perhaps the most valued and intrinsic desire of every human being is to have a voice – to allow their ideas to be expressed. There are two courses of action the UA may take in regards to controversial groups and ideas – either recognize no groups, whether of the majority or minority opinion, if there is a hint of controversy, or recognize all groups equally, regardless of the popularity of their idea.

In these cases, consistent with what has been stated above, the UA has always taken the case of the latter, and recognizes all groups equally, so long as that group is recognized by the ASA and is operating consistent with MIT policies. The reasons for this are many – but perhaps most importantly, by recognizing all ideas and opinions equally, we are more able to allow a free expression of ideas, allowing undergraduates to be exposed to a wide range of opinions, and choose for themselves those of which they are for, and those of which they are against. At times, this will result in us feeling uncomfortable – and it is the challenge of every one of us to recognize why that is the case, and act accordingly. Please note that this freedom does not extend towards groups or events which are in violation of MIT policies, such as the MIT Nondiscrimination Policy.

That’s how a thoughtful person who adheres to Enlightenment value deals with the Special Snowflake Syndrome, and I wish other students—and all college administrators—could handle issues this way. That way we wouldn’t wind up with colleges like this:

By the way, the lawyer Ken White, who publishes at Popehat, has an interesting piece called “‘Safe spaces’ and the mote in America’s eye” that’s well worth reading. While White regularly excoriates the kind of victim mentality evinced above, he wonders, in this post, how the new generation of students would ever have learned to value free expression, and concludes that their environment have given them precious little influence to develop that value.

h/t: Malgorzata, Andrew

93 thoughts on “More Snowflakes at American universities: MIT students claim that celebration of Israeli independence makes them feel “unsafe”

  1. This is an attempt at censorship. Shut down in the most expedient way is to play the card that makes people give you sympathy: I don’t feel safe. This is very handy because it also demonized your opponent, the one that is making you unsafe, which implies the opponent is threatening you.

    1. Ugh this post was a mess but I was on my phone in a meeting (that I was sort of leading); I should stop multitasking.

      1. Your summary is completely accurate though. Imo these people claiming they’re feeling unsafe are using a classic tactic of playing the victim. Our sympathy engages before we think about the situation, and when we realize we’ve got it wrong, it’s too late, we’re caught up.

        It’s another reason it’s so important to teach critical thinking.

        1. Sometimes, my first reaction is to shout, “wussy!”. I think this reflects my upbringing more than my liberalism though. 😉


  3. Like the movie thing, the proper way to respond to the birthday would be to host a ‘competing’ event on the same day. If you disagree with someone’s speech, respond with more speech. Hold a vigil for the victims of the Nakba if you want. Just don’t disrupt other people’s events…though now that I think about it, once you’ve played the ‘we don’t feel safe’ card, it would be really hard to explain what made you go down to someone else’s event and disrupt it. If you felt unsafe, why did you choose to attend it?

  4. The Israeli Independence Day raises politically sensitive questions…

    Oh OK, then let’s talk about these questions. I mean, we’re at college and all. Maybe this is a good time and environment?

    And am I really supposed to believe that the average college-aged Palestinian attending college in the US really gives a flying f**k about something that happened in 1948?

    It’s ridiculous to think the celebration would make students feel “unsafe”. Seriously?

    It’s just SJW boilerplate: useful as code to them and sufficiently ambiguous to sway those not in the know that someone is actually unsafe in some way.

    Really, with all these things, it seems to come down to revenge and control.

    1. am I really supposed to believe that the average college-aged Palestinian attending college in the US really gives a flying f**k about something that happened in 1948?

      I believe it. I think many groups and cultures take multi-generational grievances very seriously. That notion may be foreign (both figuratively and literally) to a lot of Americans, but I think we see it enough that we should believe folks at face value when they say they have them.

      1. Maybe, I don’t know. Here’s why: they’re not using it as a platform of discussion, which would seem reasonable to me. They’re using it so they can play victim, to get some measure of revenge (however small) and exercise a little control over others.

        1. Yes, they’re using it to get some revenge. Because they sincerely feel they’ve been wronged. If they didn’t, you couldn’t properly call it ‘revenge.’

          Now perhaps the group went overboard in stressing the founding of Israel as their reason for complaint, when in reality its not just the events of 1948 but the events since then that they have issue with; the ongoing conflict. But I’m okay reading their complaint as saying they take issue with the celebration of the founding of Israel because of all the stuff that has happened since then too, not just the stuff that happened in a 24-hour period in 1948.

          1. I too think it’s quite plausible they do care, and there are possibly many members of their families who suffered in 1948. It’s their reaction that’s wrong.

            One saying I always remember: “In America 100 years is a long time; in England, 100 miles is a long way.”

            Our perspectives are not only based on our knowledge and experience, but on cultural factors we’re not even aware of.

            Many people consider me to be outspoken about things they would not speak up about, especially as a woman. But in my culture, I’ve never been given a good reason to shut up about them. There are things I’m culturally conditioned not to speak/write about though, and I don’t feel able to tell you what they are.

      2. Of course they care, they’ve been raised on grievance and victim-hood.

        Jews still care about the Holocaust, the Balkan countries are still at each others’ throats about stuff that happened 500 years ago. 1948 is quite recent really.

        1. Yes, and this is the point I was trying to make, but failed.

          They care about it to the extent that they can claim victimhood. However, their knowledge is parochial.

        2. All of humanity should still care about the Holocaust.

          That should also be true for all the other genocides that are less well known, of course.

          1. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that people shouldn’t care about the Holocaust or any other event in their history. I was just giving obvious examples.

    1. I think it means “uniqueness” and “specialness”. “I am just so special that you need to cater to my whims and I right now don’t like what you’re saying so you need to stop saying it. That’s how special snowflake status leads to this behaviour Jerry is referencing.

    2. I would assume that it implies uniqueness and fragility as well, further implying the need to be considered and looked after unusually carefully.

      1. Yes. And they care deeply about being recognized for their unique qualities, which is why they are always whining about how certain words or phrases “erase” them.

        Someone mentioned “jazz hands”. Well, it was decided, at the NUSWomens Conference, that hand clapping would ” trigger” some special people who can’t deal with clapping, so attendees were told to use jazz hands instead.

        At the same conference, it was decided that 1) gay men could no longer use certain mannerisms, because they were appropriating culture from black women and 2) that drag queens and transvestites were ordered to stop dressing as women because their behaviour was erasing transgender and genderfluid folk.

          1. Thanks for the trigger warning! 😀

            Seriously, on the basis of those caveats I’ve flagged this post to get back to later…just ate, don’t want to upset my digestion… 😀

        1. I wonder what hideous experience clapping causes flashbacks of; school musicals that went badly? I actually quite like the idea of jazz hands instead of clapping but you’d have to be sure the house lights were up! 😉 Actually I would have thought jazz hands were culturally appropriative too now that I think about it. Or is it okay if it happened long enough ago?

  5. Note that snowflake logic falls hard upon sports in American schools. It is connected, I believe, to the same mentality being displayed at Universities. I would be curious if kids who are treated like special snowflakes grow up to want to treat others as special snowflakes.

    This is why I like music and sports like swimming. Go to a kids music competition and the top kids are quantitatively superior. Go to a swim competition and look only to the person who manages the shortest time for a race.

    It is very seriously ill attitude to have in this country when no one’s feelings can get hurt or that we legitimize the efforts of all non-winners, i.e., losers.

    1. Participation awards, ugh. They’re bad enough in sports, but now that same mentality is infecting education. You have to give me a degree because I tried and everyone else got one.

  6. We grow up, well some of us did, thinking/being told that all snowflakes are unique, special, none the same, so I assume (always dangerous) that it has this kind of meaning.

    Here is the top definition from urban dictionary: ” A member of that newly-adult, me’er-than-me generation which expects attention and praise just for being themselves — doing anything to deserve it is completely optional.”

    I make no claim for the quality of the search or my interpretation although it is good enough for me.

  7. I would explain to the poor students who would feel unsafe, if they really wanted to experience feeling unsafe, I’m sure there are some Neighborhoods they could visit in the Greater Boston area that would do the trick. Also, in just about any city in America.

  8. I read through the Ken White piece and I think it misses the mark by quite a bit.

    The Patriot Act, Iraq War, NSA and all that have nothing to do with this phenomenon. I’m a Millennial and this sort of stuff was just starting to happen a the small (very liberal) College I went to.

    I think the recession plays a big role frankly, but the ideas that are at play come from academia. Many of the ideas that have come together now to suppress speech were and are being taught as the authoritative way to look at the world in colleges across the country.

    1. I suspect a lot of the concerns about protecting students from uncomfortable ideas comes out of the focus on therapy and therapy groups back around the 70’s. The general goal was for people to heal by telling personal stories which would be listened to without judgement or challenges — and your experiences and you will be accepted.

      While this is of course an excellent idea for some situations (ie victims of childhood abuse), the approach seems to have gradually been extended into the belief that life itself ought to be like a very large therapy group.

      1. Hmmm…I had a different guess. Liberals have effectively pushed for public areas to accommodate people with special needs; to create spaces that the wheelchair-bound or blind or what have you can access too. This has been a very positive thing and the vast majority of people (including me) agree that this is a good thing to do. What we see here is people trying to extend that effort from physical special needs into psychological ones. If installing ramps so that wheelchair-bound people can participate in the communal activity was such a good idea, then we ought to install safe spaces so that PTSD sufferers can participate in the communal activity too.

        That sounds good, but the analogy isn’t completely valid because a ramp doesn’t prevent other people from speaking freely. When your access measures start to involve access tradeoffs (my right to speak my mind vs. your right to be able to participate), the situation gets a lot more complicated.

        But what makes this particular complaint really absurd is that this was a private student group airing a movie at their own event. So this is not the equivalent of complaining about a lack of ramps in a public theater (perfectly legitimate to do), its the equivalent of complaining your neighbor didn’t install ramps in their private residence.

        1. I’d guess that both processes are involved — as well as others. As someone who routinely encounters a great clashing of the philosophical Agora with the support group mentality, I may be prejudiced and seeing it everywhere.

  9. Yes, bravo MIT. For affirming the most sacred right codified in the US Constitution.

    Yale understands philosophy too (re Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Regretably, Brandeis and UC, Berkeley struggle with the implications of free speech and more recently, Trudeau and other critics of Charlie Hebdo.

    These examples illuminate a chilling truth: extremely smart liberals are eroding our basic rights with political correctness. Given the importance of liberalism (borne of compassion and its close relative: humanism), I find this trend scary.

    1. Jazz hands I get but feminist jazz hands I’m not too sure about. 👐👐🏻👐🏼👐🏽👐🏾👐🏿

      I put all the skin colours to be inclusive.

      1. Not sure I want to know either…

        Speaking of real fears, one of my best friends just got back from a 3 week trek in Nepal one day before the recent rumblings. Now that’s something that would have been scary!! These crazies are just looking for something to scare them…

  10. Kudos to MIT’s UA president Matthew Davis for truly sounding like someone who goes to MIT! Glad to know there are still smart people there.

    This is a off-topic, but I think Jerry will find it interesting–The New Republic has recently published a long and fascinating article on atheists in Arab countries:

    The good news—there’s more of them than Westerners think. Bad news—they’re unable to openly speak their minds and band together.

  11. Things were sure different in my day. We did feel unsafe, though, when the National Guard and Minneapolis police took over the campus several times during the early 1970s. But no snowflakes did I see, even in Minnesota.

  12. Gosh, do you think the M.I.T. students would feel safe celebrating the date of independence of The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan of April 18, 1946?

    Trans-Jordan (known today as Jordan) is the large country right next to Israel which was established to be the new homeland for any and all Palestinian Arabs.

    Who knew – the ‘Palestinians’ already have their own homeland? Why do they want two?

    1. Palestinian Arabs also could have had a state in 1947-48; the Jews accepted the UN plan to partition Palestine while the Arabs refused.

      The Palestinian Arabs could have achieved statehood alongside Israel several times in the past 15 years. They’ve always refused. A majority of Israeli Jews are ready to see a Palestinian state (or maybe Gingerbaker is correct, and I should say that a majority are ready for a second Palestinian state). The vast majority of Palestinian Arabs seems to want to see Israel either overrun or destroyed.

      For all that, a person could sympathize with Palestinians — even in the 3rd or 4th generation — who think of Israeli independence as a “nakba.” The answer, though, should not be to hate or try to destroy. The answer should be to build your own entity instead of cursing someone else.

      Which brings us back to the victimization that is becoming a new coin of the realm. Palestinians are the world’s quintessential victims. They have the capacity to do better. Good for MIT. And happy anniversary to the state of Israel.

  13. Isn’t it fascinating how some word with a very plain meaning can turn into a codeword with a very different meaning? The plain and straightforward meaning of “feeling unsafe” is so far away from “hearing something I politically disagree with” that it boggles the mind.

    Luckily, I have never run into that mindset myself, so these posts are very theoretical concerns to me…

    1. There are two courses of action the UA may take in regards to controversial groups and ideas – either recognize no groups, whether of the majority or minority opinion, if there is a hint of controversy, or recognize all groups equally, regardless of the popularity of their idea.

      Perfect summary. Many of these “snowflakes” seem to think the former would be the better course of action. Strategically it is IF your groups position is more difficult to defend.

  14. It only takes so many incidents like this before one wonders if there’s some higher level of coordination behind them. Are there operatives in the Mideast thinking, “ah, historically, when campuses get restive all hell can break loose,” and then encouraging/sponsoring student groups at universities to use the same talking points and create the same disruptions across America?

  15. That’s a perfect, heartening example of genuine liberalism from Matthew Davis. They should frame it and stick it up on the fucking campus walls.

    Nevertheless, it’s depressing that such a straightforward, common-sense response should feel like a breath of fresh air.

  16. Bully for the MIT Undergraduate Association for getting it right and standing tall for free speech.

    The college experience, especially at a topflight university, should be all about feeling unsafe — challenged — intellectually. Sure, a school should do everything in its power to ensure every student’s physical safety. But any claim by students that others’ speech imperils their physical safety should require of them a demonstration a straight line between the speech they seek to suppress and the purported physical danger they claim to fear. Otherwise, free expression must prevail.

  17. Why is it that there are so many college postings these days that immediately make me exclaim “Oh, for F*ck’s Sake!”

    but while we’re at it, the celebration of american independence makes me feel very unsafe. drunks, explosives, my kid brother…(you had to be there, well, actually, best you weren’t)

  18. When I was younger I always hated the argument that said ‘you’ll understand when you are older’ as it was one that I knew I could not make a reply to. But I’m going to use it here. Students have always had a reputation of political rebellion, and their participation in such things has sometimes been a good thing (Tiananmen Sq.)It seems to me they are primed on arrival at university for just this. Away from home and parental oppression, free to spend their money, assort with new people, assert their independence, have sex as they please – it’s a heady mixture that I remember well from my student days in the 70’s. But in asserting their political identity, and especially in differentiating it from that of their parents’ generation, they have little original thought to go on. This makes them very susceptible to current memes circulating in the student population. Support Palestine. Fight Sexism. Smash the Fascists. Free George Davis (now I show my age) etc etc. The same sorry parade of popular causes that they tire of as they mature and leave behind as embarrassments of youth. It’s no good pointing out that this disenchantment with their causes will occur, but it would be relatively easy, and only slightly evil, to encourage students to take up more original causes. An agent provocateur at the student union could sign people up to Stop the Wombats, Demand a Living Wage for Garden Gnomes or similar. Just a thought….

    1. I agree for the most part. Fortunately the causes that were popular in the 60’s/70’s still seem fundamentally important to me; but there was a lot of happy horseshit going on then as well.

      A generation immersed in postmodernism and political correctness, though, I find pretty scary.

      “Support Palestine. Fight Sexism. Smash the Fascists.”

      One of those still needs doing.

      1. It’s painful to admit this, but at the time of 9/11 I think I did a fair bit of bending-over-backwards to exculpate the fundamentalists. I remember saying something like ‘I’m not justifying their actions, I’m just explaining them'(although I had just justified their actions along the usual lazy, deprivation/evil America lines).

        I hadn’t really thought about any of it very much(I was only interested in music and girls) and crucially my whole mindset was different – it took, first, The God Delusion, and then a whole slew of philosophical and scientific books, to sell me on the basic intellectual premise of Enlightenment rationalism. Once I started questioning things, and looking for justifying evidence, all that kind of easy subjectivism and lazy political dogma fell away.

        So a part of me sees myself in these students, and I try and factor that into my judgement, but it really is bloody difficult when their behaviour is so shambolical and illiberal.

        1. Explaining it. Yes. This is how I try to approach a lot of things. Explain the behaviour whilst not excusing it. For example, I understand why people are rioting in Baltimore – they are frustrated and feel powerless – but this doesn’t mean that such violent behaviour is justified, let alone a wise political strategy.

          1. There are always opportunists in any riot situation who will take advantage of disorder by looting robbing, etc.

            But of course you know that.

        2. Correction – shambolic, not “shambolical”. WTF?

          I’m embarrassed that I compromised my normally terrifical standard of writing with such a glaring error.

        3. You’ve come a long way in a short time!

          If there’s anything university students should be exposed to while there, it’s Enlightenment rationalism. As the pertinent humanities courses nowadays are heavier on irrationality–postmodernism, relativism, etc.–the exact opposite is happening.

          I can’t say I spent anytime in the humanities learning much at all–just took what I needed to satisfy the elective requirements for my BS–but still managed to come out on the right track, Enlightenment-wise. I suspect science has a solid undercurrent of rationalism that just sinks in, and in addition the values of the 60’s being much closer to traditional liberalism were thus more supportive of Enlightenment values as well.

          1. It’s not this way in Canada. My alma mater, where I now work, still pushes critical thinking and never had post modernism in its curricula. Perhaps it is because it is a strong science and medical school, but I doubt it. I think they are just not having any of it, given their values explicitly states that they value critical thinking.

          2. At Stanford, in the 60s, everybody, even engineers, had to take a year of History of Western Civ (a fantastic course, with lots of readings from original sources – no photocopying, lots of waiting in Reserve Book Room) and English. At least one year of a foreign language. 17 units (we were on the quarter system, so that’s about 4 courses) of math and/or science. Lots of critical thinking necessary for all majors. I really despaired when some of the brightest high school kids I taught wanted to go straight into business.

          3. Business is soulless. I met some business students in a science course I took and boy did they struggle. They had no idea about history or science or critical thinking.

            I work in business but I have no desire to learn about it. I can get courses free if they are to do with my work, but I want to take language and history classes so if I do, I will be shelling out for them. Still, I think it’s worth it and I’m privledged to be able to do so.

          4. I had to take a foreign language beyond introductory but this was a requirement of the English dept mostly. Engineers had to take first years English which I still think is stupid. They should just have to take a technical writing or English for business course. It’s dumb to force them to write all those essays and read all those books when they hate that and often struggle.

          5. Is there a major at a standard university that doesn’t require a foreign language?

            Oregon State, my alma mater, demanded that science majors chose either French (“the language of science”), German, or Russian.

            Cornell grad school required proficiency in two foreign languages; I haven’t heard of another school that does that.

          6. I think most of the good ones did in our day, but not sure anymore…Canadian Universities (maybe Mac excluded – Diana?) seemed to have the students go directly into their majors. The kids I taught had to apply specifically in their majors, no waiting around till the end of Soph year to choose as it was in our day in the States. I believe the UK unis are similar to the Canadian ones in this way.

          7. Hmmm, I didn’t notice the 2-year leniency re majors, probably since I entered knowing what I wanted to major in. I’ll take your word for it that it existed. 🙂

          8. We had to choose after first year. I think it is still that way. However, you still had to decide if you were in Humanities/Social Sciences, Engineering, Science or Business. You had to take a lot of requires first year and then you chose. I was facing a choice between English, German or Anthropology. I basically picked English because I didn’t want to do stats for anthropology even though anthro was my highest mark next to Classics. I don’t know why I didn’t do a Classics degree to start with and came back later.

            My friend did a major in biology and a minor in English. Back when I was in school we didn’t declare minors. She is 2 years after me.

          9. I must say I prefer the American system in which you get a little more time to get a broad education (an, theoretically, mature) before you specialize.

          10. Our specialization is nothing compared to NZ, Australia and England. Their education is deep while ours is broad (at the undergrad level).

            I remember one reason I didn’t take a course was it was offered only at night and I had to change buses where it was dangerous so I decided against mugging and rape.

            Funny, I told that story years ago to coworkers. They couldn’t understand because their parents just bought them cars so they wouldn’t have to take the bus.

            Yes, I wanted to really harm them.

          11. I guess in the UK you often begin to specialize at about age 14 or 15?

            I started out thinking I wanted to major in Math, but ended up in French, including 6 months studying in Italy. Go figure. I had enough advanced placement in French from high school that I could get the major without toooo many additional French courses and was able to take lots of other things I wanted to take. Ended up teaching Math 20 years later…

          12. Their uni education is deeper than ours. Visiting professors often noticed this.

            It works either way though. Just different approaches.

    1. Yes, and to Columbus Day. But I am not sure if there are any places where they have cancelled any events because of “felt unsafe” in this way. I’ve heard of the more productive things, like “teach ins”, which can involve learning more native history and other useful (potentially) things and correctives to certain sorts of jingoisms and patriotisms.

  19. I think of how the U. s. govt has for decades been protecting Israel in the United Nations from leveling sanctions against Israel. Where is the justice here?

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