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By Gil Troy, National Post, 5-4-12

On Nov. 8, 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism, which gathered dozens of legislators from over 50 countries in Ottawa. Harper’s address stood out for its warmth, its passion, its power.

“I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israel rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being evenhanded, and to excuse oneself with the label of honest broker,” Harper said. “There are, after all, a lot more votes – a lot more – in being anti-Israeli than in taking a stand. But as long as I am Prime Minister, whether it is at the United Nations, the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost.” He explained: “Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israel mob tell us all too well, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.”

In this, Harper articulated a vision for Canadian foreign policy far beyond a repudiation of anti-Semitism and bold support for Israel. Harper’s talk about “taking a stand, whatever the cost,” and his concerns about “a threat to all of us” – with “us” meaning the liberal democratic West – positioned Canada as a leading player in the Western democratic fight for survival. At a time when the United States under Barack Obama is flirting with isolationism and realism in foreign policy, Harper embraced idealism as an essential force in shaping his foreign policy.

Surprisingly, and most especially, that November in Ottawa, Harper’s idealism proved contagious – and all-party.

At a conference, Michael Ignatieff, reaffirmed his disgust at the way accusation of the crime of apartheid, as perpetuated for decades in South Africa, was being inaccurately and immorally applied to Israel’s actions in its national conflict with the Palestinians. In 2009, Ignatieff had first denounced the absurdity of “Israel Apartheid Week,” a week devoted to linking democratic Israel to the cruelties of racist, apartheid South Africa.

Further to Ignatieff ‘s left, Thomas Mulcair, new leader of the NDP, positioned himself as a thoughtful, reasonable progressive who refuses to join the pile-on against Israel. Mulcair affirmed his deep commitment to democracy and the rule of law, refusing to sacrifice core ideals to follow one trend or the other. In that spirit, he said he was embarrassed, as a graduate of McGill Law School, that McGill hosts Israel Apartheid Week. Finally, he de-scribed an ugly moment in an anti-Israel demonstration, when protestors wanted to attack a Jewish-owned business. He quoted Martin Luther King’s teaching that, “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

The Mulcair-King formulation goes even further than Harper’s affirmative, idealistic vision. While neither Harper nor Mulcair seems interested in getting Canada mired in every fight against evil on the planet, the simple comfort, from left and right, with language about good and evil in both foreign and domestic affairs is refreshing. We have come a long way from Jean Chrétien’s snivelling, split-the difference, don’t rock the boat, accommodationist foreign policy.

Moreover, claims of a backlash have been exaggerated. When Canada failed to get a seat on the Security Council in the fall of 2010, critics were quick to blame Harper’s support for Israel. In fact, internal regional bloc politics at the UN were the problem. Even more important, in May 2011, the Canadian electorate gave Harper a majority. Thus, claims that Harper and his party would suffer at the polls for befriending the Jewish state proved empty.

Canada can stand tall as a force for good in foreign affairs, defending democracy and Western civilization, as necessary, without overstretching. And in a world with too many forms of aggressive ethnic nationalism, which indeed sometimes seems to be “winning,” having this positive, constructive, tolerant, civilizing, civic vision can be most welcome, as Canada plays a new, affirmative and assertive role in its long, successful run as the world’s conscience.

 

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. A longer version of this article appears in the April issue of Policy Options magazine. 

Canada, back again as the world’s conscience, as the world lacks one — Policy Options, April 2012

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-20-10

A year ago, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was the avatar of American hope, the yes we can man, promising to redeem America – and the world. A year later, his election to the presidency remains his greatest accomplishment. But his anniversary comes during a slump. His first Christmas in office was ruined by al-Qaida’s attempt to down a commercial jet, mocking his efforts to end the war on terror.

His first New Year’s Day in office marked the passing of a deadline he imposed on Iran as it gallops toward nuclear status, which the mullahs contemptuously ignored. And his first anniversary coincided with the stunning loss of what Democrats arrogantly called “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to a Republican upstart. The Massachusetts mess reflects a national problem. Polls show independent voters abandoning Obama on an unprecedented scale, even as Democrats still support the rookie president.

In fairness, being president in 2009 was not easy. When Obama started running, he, like most people, assumed the good times would continue. Bill Clinton can tell his successor that it is a lot more fun to preside over prosperity than manage a recession.

But many of Obama’s problems are Obama’s fault. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to lead from the center. He sang a song of modern American nationalism, a “yes we can” credo of working together, seeking the national sweet spot where most Americans could agree.

In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama promised to govern as a post-Reagan liberal, understanding that big government solutions cannot answer every American problem, that culture counts and that forging compromise and building consensus could move America beyond a politics of slim, polarizing victories and partisan vilification.

Alas, in his big push for health care reform, Obama deputized the partisan, ideologically-charged Democrats in Congress to draft the legislation, and accepted pushing for a marginal victory rather than nurturing a broad-based bipartisan coalition

The Republicans share the blame. The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush has become the party of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, shrill, demagogic, adolescent, obstructionist. Quick to criticize but slow to envision constructive alternatives, the Republicans have been the party of “no we won’t” to Obama’s “yes we can.”

AS OBAMA deepens the budget deficit, Republicans suffer from deficient leadership. On Sunday, when Obama campaigned in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley, her opponent Scott Brown held a “people’s rally” without national politicians, generating star power from a pitcher, Curt Schilling, a quarterback, Doug Flutie, and an actor, John Ratzenberger, who played the kooky mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers.

Still, Obama’s healing magic was supposed to transcend the partisan divisions, and his efforts have been too half-hearted given the depth of the divide. The president needed to serve up serious models of reconciliation and joint envisioning on health care rather than simply serving cookies to some Republican congressional guests at last year’s Super Bowl.

Abroad, America’s enemies have been even more uncooperative. Obama has shown Carteresque instincts, punishing friends while kowtowing to enemies, appeasing dictators while disappointing dissidents, viewing terrorism as a police matter not a military threat. All too often, his instincts have been wrong. He has been far too measured in reacting to the “Green Revolution” in Iran, protecting his thus far feeble outreach to the mullahs while underestimating just how much he could have helped Iran’s protesters given the international pop star he has become.

He first reacted to the Fort Hood massacre legalistically, treating it as a regrettable criminal deviation rather than as a link in an unholy jihadist chain targeting Americans, Westerners, innocents. And by embracing the narrative that Israeli settlements are the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace, Obama clumsily bolstered Palestinian rejectionists, who happily placed more preconditions on Israel before even beginning negotiations while shifting attention away from their genocidal refusal to accept its existence, the true heart of the problem.

Nevertheless, Obama has disappointed his leftist allies by staying in Iraq, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and approving drone air strikes in Pakistan. These moves reflect the kind of centrist pragmatism Obama peddled in his campaign, rather than the knee-jerk leftism he has too frequently relied on in fighting the recession, seeking a needed solution to the health care problem and dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the Saudis.

HEREIN LIES the path to redemption. Americans still like their new president and want him to succeed. “No Drama, Obama” has assembled a strong team with few embarrassments, scandals or distractions from the people’s business, thus far. Obama himself has come across as serious, sober, scandal-free and still seductive, not yet frittering away all that rhetorical and political magic he deployed so effectively in 2008 to dazzle America and the world.

In the 1980s, conservatives used to cry “Let Reagan be Reagan,” urging White House aides to banish the too-pragmatic, centrist and accommodating Reagan leading America in favor of the right-wing anti-communist they adored. Today, pragmatists and centrists must cry “Let Obama be Obama,” urging his aides to banish the big-government-oriented, budget-busting, war-on-terror-negating, 1960s liberal he appeared so frequently to be this past year in favor of the more moderate, restrained, realistic, post-partisan visionary he promised to be last year.

It is true that, historically few presidents have been able to build popularity their second year, and that it has long been difficult for presidents to free themselves from the gravitational pull of a congressional majority. But Barack Obama did not become president by remaining imprisoned by historical precedents.

Just as his “yes we can” campaign broke free of the shackles of the past, in this, his sophomore year, America’s rookie president must break free from the shackles of liberal Democratic orthodoxy.

In 2004, Barack Obama wowed America with a vision of a 21st century, post-baby-boomer liberal nationalism. He synthesized the liberal idealism of the ’60s with the conservative anti-government skepticism of the ’80s, balancing the selfishness of the 1980s with the altruism of the 1960s, while embracing America as a positive, powerful force for freedom and justice in the world without delusions that undermine the primary national mission of self-preservation. Let us hope that Obama sets the “reset button” on his own presidency in 2010, for his sake, America’s sake and the world’s sake.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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By Tevi Troy, The Corner, The National Review, 8-3-09

Lest anyone think complaints about President Obama honoring Mary Robinson with a Medal of Freedom are just a conservative thing, I point out this piece by Gil Troy (yes relation) on the Jerusalem Post website. Gil is my brother, but does not share my political inclinations. He is also a respected academic historian, a self-described “muscular moderate” who wrote a book called Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, and is affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center. His regular column is even titled “Center Field.”

Gil’s piece lays out the case against Robinson in a clear, concise, and, yes, centrist fashion. As Gil puts it, “At a time when Barack Obama should be honoring Winston Churchills in the fight against anti-Semitism, he has chosen a Neville Chamberlain.” Read the piece to see why the White House really dropped the ball on this one.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 6-16-09

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday imitated yet countered U.S. President Barack Obama’s earlier speech in Cairo. Both leaders are best-selling authors, proud of their mastery of the written and spoken word. Both chose symbolically-significant university settings. Obama was co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University, founded in 975, honoring Islam’s rich religious and political history. Netanyahu spoke at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies. The setting invoked the two great peacemakers Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at a modern Israeli religious Zionist university founded in 1955 whose emblem features the Torah as the eyepiece of a microscope. But in addition to their policy divergences, the dueling speeches reflect a fundamental clash of worldviews, with Netanyahu playing the historian to Obama the deconstructionist.

Barack Obama wants to synthesize, reconcile, heal. The son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, he attended Harvard Law School during the Critical Legal Studies revolution, whose slogan “law is politics,” taught that law, like all human constructs, is mutable, and can be tailored to changing agendas. In his historic 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama represented the red-white-and-blue American fording the overplayed red-blue and historic black-white divides. In reading Obama’s second book – written with his eye on the White House – Joe Klein of Time magazine counted “no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness.” “I had to reconcile a lot of different threads growing up–race, class,” Obama told Klein. “For example, I was going to a fancy prep school, and my mother was on food stamps while she was getting her Ph.D.” Klein continued: “Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic.”

Obama was in full “on-the-one-on-the-other-hand” mode in Cairo. Facts and ethics were putty in his hands as he constructed an “I’m ok, you’re ok, because we all are sinners” kind of world. Rejecting the “cycle of suspicion and discord” he sought a relationship between the United States and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” The speech took a series of flash points and extinguished them by balancing them out: Muslim “extremists” murdered Americans but America overstepped in response. America undermined Iran in the 1950s, and Iran responded harshly since the 1970s. Back and forth, back and forth, went Obama’s seesaw of history.

Similarly, Jews suffered persecution in Europe, especially during the Holocaust, but “[o]n the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people … have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” When discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama articulated his approach to history and diplomacy: “It is easy to point fingers,” he preached.… But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states….”

Obama’s Cairo speech paralleled his crucial March 18, 2008 speech, in Philadelphia, on race in America. At the time, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s unpatriotic ravings threatened Obama’s campaign. As the son of a black father and a white mother, acknowledging pain on both sides, Obama reconciled – or triangulated, as we used to say in Bill Clinton’s day. Obama said he could “no more disown” Wright, his spiritual mentor, “than I can my white grandmother,” who occasionally “uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” Fans swooned, praising Obama’s evenhandedness; critics muttered that to get elected Obama would even run over his own grandmother.

Obama’s approach worked in Philadelphia – and charmed many Muslims in Cairo. This morally-blind accounting makes for bad history but it might make for effective diplomacy. It reduces tensions, and breaks through previous impenetrable barriers. But whether it can solve intractable problems, or overcome the evils that do exist, remains to be seen.

If Obama demonstrates the love-thy-neighbor touch of Jesus, Bibi Netanyahu is often consumed by the wrath of Jeremiah. Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was less fiery than usual. But his argument was suffused with a tragic sense of history. Trained at MIT’s empiricist schools of architecture and business in the 1970s, raised by an historian father steeped in the tragedy of the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, still mourning his brother killed by terrorists in 1976, Netanyahu feels the pain of yesterday warning us against the perils of today.

Rejecting Obama’s distorted view that Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, Netanyahu reversed it saying, “if the state of Israel would have been established earlier, the Holocaust would not have occurred.” To Obama, because both Jews and Palestinian have been powerless, both merit saving. To Netanyahu, Jews’ “tragic history of powerlessness explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense.”

Netanyahu bristled at Obama’s deconstructionist refusal to point fingers. The “simple truth is that the root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, in their historic homeland,” Netanyahu insisted. After chronicling Israel’s attempts at peace and Palestinian rejectionism, Netanyhau used history to rebut Obama’s recipe of land for peace. Unfortunately, “every withdrawal was met with massive waves of terror, by suicide bombers and thousands of missiles…. The claim that territorial withdrawals will bring peace with the Palestinians… has up till now not stood the test of reality.”

Two “truths” are colliding. Without letting go, as Obama advocates, there will never be peace; without remembering, as Netanyahu insists, unrealistic and dangerous pipedreams will proliferate. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s quip that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has become cliché. Obama risks making that mistake. Despite his tremendous efforts, President Bill Clinton could not get Yasir Arafat to make the necessary compromises, on the Palestinian side. Instead, Clinton presided over the start of the terror wave that killed a thousand Israelis, and now haunts most Israelis as they yearn for peace. Do Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Clinton’s former aide and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ever remind the incumbent president about that debacle? But Santayana’s aphorism needs a qualifier: those who are imprisoned by the past are imprisoned. That is Netanyahu’s risk. Great statesmen seize the moment in the present to evolve from the past toward a better future. Whether Netanyahu or Obama can achieve such greatness remains to be seen.

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By Gil Troy, Toronto Star, 3-5-09

AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR A protester stands in the Wallberg Building at U of T on March 3, 2009, during lectures for Israeli Apartheid Week.

Day after day we read about aggressive student protesters and dithering administrators at universities across Canada, but particularly at York University.

Radical student hooligans there intimidated and even temporarily incarcerated Jewish students last month as cries of “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus,” were heard.

This week, tensions are bound to escalate at York and other campuses as Palestinians try equating Israel with the now-defunct racist South African apartheid regime. Even the posters advertising the week have sparked tensions. Recoiling at the violence at York and elsewhere, we need to ask: Where are the professors?

During times of political trouble we tend to forget that campuses are primarily educational institutions. They are also the professional homes of professors who need to take a stand when violence and hooliganism invade their academic sanctuary.

With all due respect to campus security and police officers, when the call goes out to them for help, we as professors have failed.

A campus that needs the “thin blue line” of law enforcement is a campus that has violated its fundamental obligation to keep students safe and to host the free exchange of ideas so essential to good learning.

Yet even when disaster strikes and the 911 call goes out, professors can still step in.

Professors underestimate their own moral authority. Our power goes far beyond the ability to give out As or Fs. We are the university’s public face, the basic service providers, the campus role models.

The human dimension in education remains central in our hypertechnological age. Our students are always watching us. They learn from our actions – and our inactions. At York University and any other university where even one student feels physically threatened, professors must mobilize and – as the feminists say – take back the night.

For starters, a broad range of York professors, from different fields and from across the political spectrum, should denounce the violence. Professors highly critical of Israel should take the lead, teaching that the issue is not about Israel, pro or con, but about student security and campus civility.

Professors should volunteer to escort any students or student groups who feel unsafe. And yes, if necessary, professors should stand between rival groups on campus, literally standing for civility not just endorsing it.

Rather than relying on the monochromatic uniforms of campus security, the professors should don their multicoloured academic gowns. If professors feel comfortable parading around in these robes at commencement to celebrate student achievement, shouldn’t we don them when the core values of our university are threatened?

Finally, professors should turn these traumatic events in the university’s life into what we in the education biz call “teachable moments.” Both regular class time and special teach-ins should be devoted to learning about free speech; about the mutuality of rights so we don’t have “free speech for me and not for thee”; about the centrality of civility to campus life; and about the historic roles of campuses as centres of civility.

Professors at places like Carleton, where the apartheid posters have sparked controversy, should also step in and work to keep the debate civil and avoid the violence that erupted at York.

I do not mean to single out my colleagues at York University. We at McGill or anywhere else in North America would do no better – and have done no better.

Since the 1960s, we as professors have abdicated responsibility for campus life outside the classroom, ceding it to students and administrators.

Most professors have preferred to dodge the politically charged issues that have periodically roiled campuses since those days, and there is often little political consensus among colleagues. Avoidance has been safer than engagement.

Moreover, we live in the age of the academic careerist, where most of us are too overextended as well as too cautious to take bold stands.

Unfortunately, the ugly violence that now threatens York’s reputation and its future demands professorial action and leadership. Students and administrators have failed. Donors are understandably getting restive. Parents and potential students are worried.

York professors have a responsibility to defend their academic home and a great opportunity to heal it.

No one goes into academics these days because it is the easy path. And most of us who research and teach believe in the redemptive power of learning.

York professors have a responsibility and a privilege to help solve the problem plaguing their university. Teaching is not just a job, it is a calling. It is time for York’s professors to answer the call and redeem their university.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.

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HNN, July 23, 2003

Historians are trained to bristle at the term “unprecedented.” We watch journalists hyperventilate and hype stories as we acknowledge we have seen it all before with a world-weary sigh. But Barack Obama’s whirlwind world tour is certainly un… usual. True, senators travel all the time, jetting around the world with more zeal than Phineas Fogg or the Harlem Globetrotters. (Memo to the under-thirty crowd, for Phineas Fogg check out “Around the World in Eighty Days,” for Harlem Globetrotters check out any old geezer who grew up in the Seventies). True, John McCain himself has visited Iraq and just last month made a foreign policy speech in Ottawa, the capital of that country to the north of the United States. But to appreciate the um, out-of-the-box nature of Obama’s trip, consider his trip in broader historical perspective – and check out the amazing coverage he received.

Thinking historically, let us remember that it was not until the twentieth century that a president in office actually traveled abroad. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Central America to supervise the construction of the Panama Canal. In December, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris for World War I peace negotiations, he stayed abroad for all but ten days of the next six months, returning to Washington in July 1919. More recently, it would have been inconceivable during the 1944 election, at the height of World War II, for the Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey to drop by Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin for a quick chat while campaigning against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in October, 1952, Dwight Eisenhower generated coast-to-coast headlines with a simple, dramatic, promise of an intention to travel, proclaiming, “I shall go to Korea.”

The Eisenhower pledge is worth remembering because, like Barack Obama’s Middle East and European tour, it was all about stagecraft more than statesmanship. When the great hero of World War II promised to go to Korea, he was playing to Americans’ hopes that his presence would magically solve the Far Eastern mess. In this case, the alchemy is supposed to have a reverse flow: Democrats are hoping that by not making a mess of it, the drama of overseas travel will burnish Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials – and boost his standing as a leader.

Midway through the trip, the magic seems to be working. Most important of all, Obama has avoided a major gaffe. But beyond the avoidance of the negative, the level of coverage has been iconic, not just presidential. Even before delivery, his Berlin speech was being compared with John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall” – two of the most influential presidential addresses in history. The three-network-news anchor honor guard accompanying Obama guaranteed Pope-level coverage. This trip has proved once again that not only is Obama’s candidacy the most exciting political story of the decade, but that the election remains all-Obama-all-the-time; this election is Obama’s to win or lose.

There are two, contradictory, lessons one hopes Obama will draw from his excellent adventures. His foreign policy needs more nuance and more passion. The simplistic sloganeering the campaign trail demands simply does not fit the Middle Eastern realities. Only a fanatic could visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel without realizing just how messy and multi-dimensional each conflict is. Seeing each of those situations should be humbling for a potential president, reminding him of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that the easy decisions are made outside the Oval Office, only the impossible problems end up on the president’s desk.

At the same time, Obama risks being too cool, too detached, especially on core issues such as the fight against terrorism. He says the right thing, as he did after the heinous bulldozer attack in central Jerusalem, just blocks from his hotel; but many listeners are never sure how deeply he cares about the issue. This latest Palestinian terror attack, executed by an East Jerusalem resident with Israeli papers, may give Barack Obama what we could term his John Kennedy-Joschka Fischer wake-up call. John Kennedy only realized the depths of poverty in America when he visited Appalachia during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Joschka Fischer was the German foreign minister who was visiting Israel in June 2002, when a suicide bomber murdered 21 young Israeli revelers outside the Dolphinarium disco. Fischer also had teenager children and had recently jogged right in front of that site. He subsequently referred to that moment as “ the terrible terror attack on the kids in the Dolphinarium” and was much more passionate in denouncing Palestinian terrorism.

Both Kennedy and Fischer were intellectuals in politics. Each was “cool,” and not afraid of nuance, but also not afraid of passion. Obama could do well by emulating both – and showing that, in the wake of what he has learned and experienced, he will be a muscular moderate as leader, rooted in principles, angry when core values are assailed, but nimble and adaptable to the changing conditions of a chaotic world.

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