The Wokeness Industry, Part I

An Ideological Overview of Wokeness

It is a well-known Internet anecdote that there is a certain village in Austria that goes by a name it would be unseemly to repeat here, but which the locals pronounce fooking. This village has proved a popular tourist location, to the extent that Wikipedia mentions how its road signs “were often stolen by souvenir-hunting tourists until 2005, when the signs were modified to be theft-resistant”. Were I employed by the English town of Woking, in Surrey, I’d be taking notes, because, by the looks of it, it’s next.

Woking is the new fooking. For those not up to snuff on recent affronts to the English language, it all began when woke was promoted, from the past tense of the verb to wake, to an adjective. It appears to have originated in the American black community, until the word spread to a completely different demographic: well-educated (likely to know irregular verbs, hence compounding the crime) Americans who have become become aware of, specifically, liberal progressive issues. It is a shibboleth for those who believe themselves on the Right Side of History. Amanda Hess, in the New York Times Magazine, called woke a badge to be earned; and after the badge, the badgering begins. Woke is the adjective, woking is the gerund, and wokeness is the state of being that is about to take hold of the cultural industry — forever.

Even though other countries may have indigenous versions of wokeness (France, for instance), I will, for the purpose of this article, deal specifically with the dominant American variant.

American wokeness is liberal, meritocratic, and classist.

If the American wokeness lobby is inherently progressive and liberal on social issues, it cannot easily be pinned down, economically, on a Left-Right axis. It is animated, above all, by a constant pragmatism on economic matters that I like to call “the ideology of ‘Good Enough’”. In everything, it fears extremes, both of the Right (understandably) and of the Left. It will swing Left if it perceives the move will be to its advantage, but will shift Right and embrace neoliberalism in an instant were the circumstances to change; even as it does so, it will attempt to maintain an appearance of ideological seamlessness. It makes more sense for me to place it on the economic Right: if it obtained everything it wanted, it would stay there permanently, like the U.S. Democratic Party.

Even as it brings up questions of privilege (racial, gender, etc.), the wokeness lobby is fiercely meritocratic, which leads to a serious contradiction I will discuss later. The combination of its belief in both privilege and merit results in a predisposition for classism, specifically against the white working class, following the rationale that if members of the white working class failed in spite of their many advantages in a racist society, it had to be their own fault, presumably though a deficiency of intellect. The term woke implies enlightenment, and enlightenment implies education; and working-class is increasingly associated with a lack of education rather than a lack of financial resources (e.g.: the headline and sub-headline of this Atlantic article) — indeed, that the working class is poor because it lacks formal education, while to be woke implies at minimum a college degree.

A young college graduate might be buckling under student loans and earn less than a plumber, but it is already assumed by the wokeness lobby that a college-educated person, unlike a plumber, is too good to be called “working-class”. When the wokeness lobby talks of economic issues, you can bet that student debt, tuition, and education funding will be its chief concerns, because what matters to it is equality of opportunity, especially for women and people of color, in a perfect meritocratic world; the rest is a waste of time.

The wokeness lobby walks hand in hand with what Emmett Rensin, writing at Vox, has called “the smug style in American liberalism”, which prides itself on knowing. The smug style indicates a rift between urban, sophisticated liberals and the working class which could have benefited from progressive policies. (And it’s not only limited to the United States.) Interestingly, an almost perfect exemplar of everything Rensin wrote was Vox itself — from which he was later suspended for advocating riots if Donald Trump came to town — with its repeated calls for diversity and other socially progressive causes just as its Zack Beauchamps and other Yglesiasses plunged ever deeper into neoliberalism, openly talking of “low-income, low-educated voters who don’t see the global order’s greatest benefits” (“see” meaning both “receive” and “understand”) while warning against political idealism.

A key point of Rensin’s article was that this smug liberalism was not only political but cultural: “Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt.” The resulting culture is quick to lash out at its political enemies and others lacking its inflexible sophistication, and, occasionally, even at itself. It is at once exclusionary but perfectly mainstream — a culture that believes itself published in samizdat but broadcast in a prime-time slot on a major network, watched by millions of people all thinking themselves in the know. A culture that still acts as if it were struggling to be brought to life just as it dominates the airwaves and internet discussion.

American wokeness is completely amoral outside its key concerns.

American wokeness does not want to tear down most existing institutions, no matter how decadent or corrupt these structures might be, because its ambition is to rise within them — even if it does not really respect them. The only institutions it wants to tear down are those which have denied it such an opportunity.

In everything outside its main preoccupations, the wokeness lobby is often completely amoral. It would gladly join Team Evil if led to believe that, one day, it may even lead it. The first woman or person of color in charge of Team Evil? Now that would be prestigious. A classic example was the Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu calling Margaret Thatcher’s victory “awesome & historic”, no matter how much her policies may have had a nefarious impact on most women. Ah, but most women remain invisible, whereas Margaret Thatcher, the great Hayek admirer who rose to become the Iron Lady, was everywhere to be seen.

History now repeats itself with Hillary Clinton; not content to just sell her, sensibly, as The Candidate Who Isn’t Donald Trump, they insist on how significant it would be to elect a woman to the White House. If electing a woman is all that matters — regardless of her policies, which is exactly what is implied in Chu’s remark — who could possibly object to making the same argument for Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections of next year without being a complete hypocrite?

Ah, but they are hypocrites, and very shrill ones, immensely vindictive and relentless. Following the proud American liberal tradition that welcomed with open arms a speculator like George Soros just because he opposed George W. Bush, they get people fired from their jobs for the slightest deviation from rigid public norms enacted by them, complain about corporate control over politics while they gladly enlist businesses to fight off laws they don’t like (and when the economic Right exposes the contradiction, they continue anyway), and readily make deals with the devil as soon as long as he promises to implement a diversity policy.

American wokeness is obsessed with making it, and, above all, with being seen making it.

American wokeness is perpetually looking for outside validation; it is primarily concerned with appearances, not with substance. This is why it seems unconcerned with the overall quality of cultural products it enjoys or the morality of the structures it supports, as long as it gets what it wants.

If American wokeness does not really respect high culture, it at least recognizes clout. For example, it may not like Jonathan Franzen’s novels — it may never have read him, even — but it does know that Franzen is considered One of the Foremost American Novelists of Our Time, therefore, a plum prize if he were converted to wokeness. (For that matter, I have Franzen down as a middlebrow author, which makes perfectly understandable his public rejection of Oprah Winfrey’s smothering embrace back in the day: this is what he had tried his entire career to rise above. In all likelihood, posterity’s verdict will be that he was this generation’s James Gould Cozzens, who skewered the middlebrow only to become a staple of it himself.) But when Franzen said he would not write a novel about race because “I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman”, American wokeness became outraged without even considering whether Franzen’s decision to only write about what he knew was wise. (I think it was, for had Franzen written a book about race after all, American wokeness would likely have been the first to declare it problematic.) But it achieved its only concern: to be seen telling a Foremost Novelist that his position on race was not appropriately woke.

Indeed, whether it’s about winning on a quiz show or deploring the absence of women in kabuki without understanding a word of Japanese, American wokeness considers that nothing is beyond its purview, whether it’s the past or the rest of the world. There is no shortage of articles online where this tendency is on display. A recent example laments the “unbearable whiteness of the Yale English major”. The most telling quotation in the article was made by a junior student: “When Junot Diaz wins the Pulitzer, we should be reading Pedro Páramo, one of the greatest Mexican novels of all time, to understand the principles of magic surrealism, not the Canterbury Tales.”

In an ideal world, we should be reading both Pedro Páramo and The Canterbury Tales; but the student is quite correct that, in the time-starved context of a course syllabus, we can only add a title after excising another. But why, of all books on the course syllabus to be removed, has she selected The Canterbury Tales? No matter how strong the case for Pedro Páramo, consider the one for Chaucer’s masterpiece: it has been read and analyzed, and has influenced other writers, for more than six centuries. Not only is it one of the few masterpieces of fourteenth-century literature, but it is also the most prominent one written in English.

This is by no means intended as a dismissal of Pedro Páramo (which I haven’t read). In fact, there is a solid case to be made as to its literary significance, but, tellingly, that student isn’t quite interested in making it. The novel has been praised by Jorge Luis Borges and has influenced Gabriel García Márquez, two authors who are, as of writing, of far greater importance to literature than Junot Diaz. (For that matter, the movement it influenced is called magical realism, not “magic surrealism”.) Ah, but then Borges and Márquez were not American, nor was Chaucer who, for that matter, has never received a single literary prize for his work. That student’s remark reveals that literary worth isn’t the prime consideration in these matters: it is, at best, the third, surpassed by the fact that Pedro Páramo has (1) influenced an American of color (2) who won the Pulitzer Prize. Outside validation, and twice more than once: not only did Diaz win the prize in 2008, but he was appointed to the Pulitzer board in 2010. (As of writing, he is still on it.)

Still, what does that mean, to be a laureate of the Pulitzer Prize? Its journalism awards, apart a few major controversies, are fine; but the fiction choices are far more questionable. The critic Anis Shivani, for example — who is no admirer of Diaz — points out that several Pulitzer winners for fiction are now completely forgotten, while major works were passed over and some major writers rewarded, at best, for their lesser efforts; a cursory look at the winners’ list will confirm his assessment. Will Diaz’ work endure, or will it be forgotten? I have no idea, but can a major literary prize which passed over the best efforts of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway — indeed, which pulled a No Award the year For Whom the Bell Tolls was published because the president of Columbia University had found it offensive — while it elevated the likes of Margaret Ayer Barnes, Sigismund Stribling, or Martin Flavin to the ranks of major American littérateurs, be taken seriously? One trend is clear: instead of rewarding ambitious works, it opted, with few exceptions, for middlebrow fare, deemed of great importance by the cultural arbiters of the Book of the Month Club, perhaps, but which never survived its era. The Pulitzers might still reward the same kind of novels, but we lack the distance required to really know. Not that the people who boost Diaz entirely as a Pulitzer-winning American of Color care about the actual long-term worth of his literature, of course.

Oh, I almost forgot: in 1937, the Pulitzer Prize went to a novel that, unlike so many others on that list, is still remembered today, mostly thanks to the motion picture adapted from it; that would be Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Gasp! shriek! problematic! When Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer, we should be reading… well, what should we be reading when Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer? I would say Waverley, but I’m being charitable, because Sir Walter Scott, unlike Margaret Mitchell, actually matters, having almost single-handedly invented the historical novel that made countless epic potboilers like Gone with the Wind possible. No, when Margaret Mitchell wins the Pulitzer, something like The Clansman would be more like it, as it also has been made into a major motion picture that is probably the only reason we now remember it at all.

American wokeness is wary of the rest of the world, including of other countries’ woke variants where they exist.

American wokeness will inevitably gain worldwide prominence through cultural imperialism, itself adhering to the rules of American Exceptionalism: whatever applies to the rest of the world does not necessarily apply to the United States, but what applies to the United States must be applied to the rest of the world. This is irrespective of ideology; it was true with neoconservatives, it is true with neoliberals, it would be true with Trumpism, likewise if the kind of people who write at leftist magazines like Jacobin took over the reins of the country. In a world, as Don LaFontaine might have said, where the culture industry, especially Hollywood, is seen as not only a business but a political force of its own, wokeness is no exception.

Even foreign versions of wokeness will be at risk of being found deficient by the American model in one way or another. Consider the 2011 French film The Intouchables, a film about a paralyzed white millionaire and his black caretaker. By French standards, it is very woke, the kind of socially conscious film that points to a new republican ideal. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who I believe requires no introduction, hated it, and Harvey Weinstein, who had secured the American distribution rights and recognized a publicity opportunity when he saw one, publicly rebuked him: “That’s frightening to me, and I think it’s important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas. That’s why I’m proud to bring Intouchables to American audiences.” Weinstein’s remark is an ideal example of how wokeness is packaged and sold: to buy a ticket for Intouchables is to stand against bigotry. Expect to see more and more instances of this.

Weinstein is usually an extremely astute marketer, but when Intouchables reached America, something else happened: the wokeness lobby that had been expected to embrace the film instead accused it of racism. Uncle Tom! the Variety critic wrote. Even the New York Times critic added his voice to the condemnation: “The story of a black man who brings rhythm-and-blues and sex into a stuffy, white household exploits every hoary stereotype of the black man as cultural liberator.” It is a bad film, but for none of those reasons, and Le Pen, abhorrent as he is, wasn’t blind: he knew it was his vision of France that was attacked by the film, which had nothing to do with whatever the Americans, with their own fraught history of race relations, wanted to project onto it. A writer at Slate commented: “For the French, if this movie is to be criticized, it’s for being delusional and politically correct, not racist. It describes a world “without social conflicts, without modernity, without crisis,” as the French daily Libération put it.” But when the American wokeness lobby issues a verdict, it applies to the entire world.

France, it’s worth pointing out, has traditionally detested cultural liberators, especially when they are American. I suspect many other countries — or, at least, their cultural elites — think likewise. But the American wokeness lobby banks on the attractiveness of American culture to the masses to spread to the rest of the world. If it does not succeed in spreading by attractiveness, it will try by trade; if it does not succeed by trade, it will try by shame; and if it does not succeed by shame, it will try by force.

American wokeness is wary of anything having to do with the past, including past examples of itself.

Just as the American wokeness lobby condemns its foreign counterparts for failing to align with its exacting standards, it is quick to dismiss older versions of itself as inadequate, if not guilty of the very crimes they fought against. An academic writing at Salon, for example, came up with a list of Hollywood’s most racist films. About half of the entries are, I think, justified; the other half are tenuous choices, including Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958). If the title isn’t necessarily famous, the premise is: two escaped prisoners chained together, one white, and one black. The academic’s reasoning? “As film scholar Ed Guerrero explained, Black stars supposedly needed a White “buddy” chaperone as the lead actor or co-star to ensure the Black presence conformed to White sensibilities and expectations of Blackness, thereby safeguarding box office success.” That’s it. It’s just another buddy movie, you see, regardless of its historical importance.

Never mind that Kramer was the nineteen-fifties and -sixties’ most earnestly and relentlessly liberal filmmaker — woke avant la lettre, as it were. When he elected to tackle important issues, he did so with more gravitas than a steamroller; in fact, the reason he was so heavy-handed was to dispel any doubt as to the message he wanted to convey. It perhaps made his films worse than they could have been, but it does not make him a racist.

A classic example of this was his Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about a white woman introducing her black fiancé to her parents, for which the director was criticized because he made the black man impossibly perfect: handsome, rich, intelligent, and probably on his way to a Nobel Prize. Yet Kramer did so on purpose, to preclude the possibility that the black man’s prospective in-laws had any other valid reason to reject him. If the character “had been a mailman, the girl’s family would have disapproved of him because he was a mailman, not because he was a Negro”. Ah, but I guess you can’t be completely woke if you lived in an era that had yet to realize not to use the word “Negro” in conversation.

If we needed more evidence, the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, etc.) was called out last year for saying “colored people” instead of the appropriate “people of color”, even though, as a British person, he may not have been aware of the larger implications, and even though the term still appears in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In a few years, “people of color” might be considered just as unfashionable and derogatory as “colored people”, but no, to the wokeness lobby, today is always superior to yesterday.

Yet today’s wokeness advocates appear completely oblivious to the long-term implications of this. They gladly commission statues to their personal glory, but it will be for naught: their successors will go at them with jackhammers for having failed to be perfect enough.

American wokeness has very little historical understanding, beyond claiming that if we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. society today even with all this wokeness around, then it must necessarily have been, at best, just as bad before. If a woke cultural industry turns to the past for inspiration, the result will either be an endless condemnation of the period, in the same way that Westerns went from problematic to preachy, and from preachy to pretty much dead by now, or the loosest possible adaptation of historical material primarily intended to project the preoccupations of the present on it [1].

Sherlock Holmes, as adapted by a woke industry of today, would feature either two black lesbians from Brooklyn (everything else having been done already) solving modernized cases as in the Cumberbatch version but full of social commentary, or a Victorian society where 221B Baker Street will be the sole island of wokeness in an ocean of bigotry, the denunciation of which will take the lion’s share of every episode. Never mind the myriad ways in which the British adaptation from the eighties (the one with Jeremy Brett, still the best) subtly poked at Victorian complacency while remaining faithful to the source material; the wokeness lobby likes its culture obvious. Just as wokeness does not approve of ironic bigotry (as too easily co-opted by actual bigots), it does not believe in subtlety, because, just like Stanley Kramer, it is afraid the message will be passed over or misunderstood.

American wokeness, no matter how much it may demand changes to problematic culture, is mainstream, conformist, and consumerist.

American wokeness’ intransigent approach to whatever aspect of culture fails to align with its desires is sustained by countless think-pieces that give superhero films the kind of critical attention previously reserved for Shakespeare and philosophical novels. These articles are almost always justified by the fact that one must be on the lookout for any problematic aspects that might lurk therein; the presence of the P-word and its derivatives — practically a cliché by now — is a key indication that we have stumbled upon wokeness. The larger the potential audience, the larger the possible problem. End result: what matters is reduced to what is likely to be seen by millions of people, while the obscure, the experimental and the avant-garde go unrewarded.

This does not mean that high culture will be left alone — the wokeness lobby does not recognize artistic integrity — but that what mostly matters at present is mainstream culture. This is because wokeness has not yet completely taken over the culture industry in its home country. Still, wokeness advocates have found out how to bring it to heel: by appealing to the pocketbook, by flattery, and by shaming it at any sign of resistance; it will buckle before long.

For example, there’s the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) maintaining a “Studio Responsibility Index” calling out Hollywood for not having enough homosexual characters in its films, and now demanding gay characters in Star Wars: Episode VIII. When an organization operates by quotas, which GLAAD does by pointing out that “no gay characters whatsoever were included in more than 80% of the 102 major studio films released in 2014”, it does not care whether or not homosexual characters actually belong in any given film. If the film in question is a biography of Alan Turing or Harvey Milk, certainly. But in everything else, this is how it will play out, most of the time: “Hello, I’m Lieutenant Wilkins, the cop investigating this art heist. I also happen to be homosexual.” Does it really add anything to the complexity of the character, or does it just comply with a set of tick-boxes on a list designed to please as many people as possible? My guess is that GLAAD doesn’t care about this; beyond the numbers, it only cares that gay characters are shown in a positive light — in other words, not the Mel Gibson stuff.

There is The Mary Sue, a regular offender at shaming (to the extent it will get an entire part to itself), calling out Fox and Paramount because their next 20-plus films are all going to be directed by men: “even the most woke male director is less likely to care about the gender demographics of their crew, the age gap between their female and male leads, or whether or not their film passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, than a female director would likely be”. The perceived necessity of the Bechdel-Wallace Test (“at least two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man”) will be sold under the usual banner that Diversity Makes More Money, which is already being endlessly repeated, because American wokeness knows that box office is the main if not the only consideration that can persuade Hollywood to change its ways.

Who is foolish enough to not realize that, were it left to such people, the Bechdel-Wallace Test, beyond being detrimental to film, would become the new Production Code? However, unlike the earlier Code, which Hollywood grudgingly applied to itself in order to ward off actual state censorship even if that meant refusing to pander to every desire of its audience, this one will be rigidly enforced only because the studies on the financial benefits of wokeness — or, at least, a simulacrum of wokeness — align perfectly with the desires of shareholders.

How can we not see that, by using such a word as responsibility, GLAAD is setting itself up as the new Legion of Decency? There might be little in common between GLAAD and a Catholic lobby that would have been aghast at everything GLAAD proposes, but they are identical in dressing up their positions as a matter of morality. Nothing must attempt to remain beyond its reach; per this Guardian article: “Glaad is aware that LGBT themes have recently been prominent in independent films such as Freeheld, The Danish Girl and Roland Emmerich’s controversial Stonewall. But the group believes more commercial movies — specifically the big budget comic book and fantasy blockbusters which often do well overseas — are missing an opportunity to act as a trojan horse in countries such as Russia and China, both of which have a poor record on gay rights.” They have their sights set on Star Wars: Episode VIII, because what they want is the prize that accompanies it: the key to the entire world. As if Hollywood studios, while they would gladly pander to the woke market in the West, wouldn’t re-cut a film for foreign markets where the issue is taboo, even if censorship there lets it pass (which is unlikely).

None of this means anything for those interested in seeing more artistic films; by multiplying requirements for filmmakers, the wokeness lobby may even push back in the opposite direction: safe films that will never risk anything for which we could respect them, lest they offend anyone. In other words: business as usual. Those of us who are tired of Hollywood proselytism are going to get no respite — just more proselytism of another variety.

“Woke” is the self-applied equivalent of “Social Justice Warrior”, which, in everything but ideology, is just like its arch-enemy, “GamerGate”.

GamerGate should by now require no introduction; and if it does, I have already discussed it elsewhere. While the movement arose in very specific circumstances that would disgrace anything it would later attempt, its two main legacies are its ironic “actually…” catchphrase and its name as shorthand for a reactionary push-back against progressive elements in video games and geek culture at large. GamerGate, now two years old, is currently dormant rather than dead, and will undoubtedly make a resurgence at the first controversy to erupt, which, by internet standards, is any day now.

GamerGate’s progressive opposition insisted that GamerGate’s concept of the “Social Justice Warrior” was a projection GamerGate made of itself on its opponents. This was true, but one of my foibles is to not dismiss allegations made by a person or group just because I disagree with them before having a look at their veracity. And I knew that even though I wanted nothing to do with GamerGate, the majority of what it said about “Social Justice Warriors” was true. I, after all, had unfortunately encountered “Social Justice Warriors” years before there was a movement named GamerGate to convince me that they existed; and it was because I knew “Social Justice Warriors” existed that I instantly objected to GamerGate: for I knew at once that GamerGate was just like them. GamerGate projected itself onto its opponents, just as its opponents matched beforehand, in every point, what was being projected onto them.

The term woke is a self-applied synonym of “Social Justice Warrior”, which is only ever used as a derogatory term (with perhaps a few cases of ironic usage). Woke is, in the words of Amanda Hess, “a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.” Just as the woke claim moral high ground on social issues, so did GamerGate by claiming to fight for “ethics” and against “corruption”, two words whose meaning it distorted beyond recognition to suit its purposes.

If there are so many similarities between GamerGate and the woke, it is in part because GamerGate borrowed the woke playbook and ran with it [2]. The woke, infatuated with their own righteousness, failed to draw a single lesson from this: they, after all, are better. In a way, they are: the woke believe in their declared high purpose — even if it is out of self-interest — and GamerGate doesn’t. But with both sides thinking that the end indeed justifies the means, GamerGate has the advantage because its means are not even encumbered by the pursuit of its declared end, which is fictitious: when it comes to the narrow subject of “ethics in video games journalism”, it cannot lose because it does not seek to win. No need on its part to even lead by example, to act ethically: it does not care, not even to keep up its cover, which, as of writing, has been mostly abandoned or is used in such a way as to let you know that GamerGate grins at how it knows you can see right through it [3]. Instead, when supporters of GamerGate were confronted with accusations of deeds they were prepared to recognize, they tended to respond with something along the lines of the other side does it, why shouldn’t we? — and their complaint was valid: there is no honor to be found on either side.

Both the woke and GamerGate are consumerist, with little regard for quality, as long as whatever they enjoy explicitly caters to their tastes and presents nothing to offend them — or, better still, offends the other side. We only have to remember how GamerGate threw its weight behind questionable Japanese imports just because it perceived they annoyed “Social Justice Warriors”, while it objected to any coverage of Depression Quest, a free independent game; as for the woke, they made “Lady Ghostbusters” a sacred cause even though this typical Hollywood movie is, at first glance, qualitatively little more than this year’s Pixels, a film they predictably found problematic. Never mind that the first trailer of the new Ghostbusters featured one of the main characters licking her gun, perhaps indicating we were not in the presence of a feminist masterpiece but just of another piece of exploitative Hollywood trash; it annoyed the purists like James Rolfe and a great many other angry video game nerds who, unlike Rolfe, were not play-acting their anger, so it inevitably became the new front in the endless culture war, the new Hernani, the new Rite of Spring. In comparison to Ghostbusters, though, even Disco Demolition Night looks like a highbrow disagreement among aesthetes.

When the new Ghostbusters flopped, one side proposed the usual excuses and attempted to downplay its coming short of expectations, while the other gloated it was personally responsible for its failure; had the new Ghostbusters been popular, the positions would have been reversed. Just as with GamerGate — which always claimed responsibility for the closing of a games site it didn’t like with the old “but they said we weren’t their audience” borrowed from Leigh Alexander’s “Gamers are Over” columnthere is always an excuse, and it always involves something about a cultural product not pandering to a specific clientele essential to its financial success, whether this was the case or not [4].

Both unfailingly prefer the quantitative (viewers, box office, quotas, etc.) to the qualitative, following the rule that 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, unless Elvis is problematic or a “Social Justice Warrior” — and in the pitiless world of popular culture, a single word out of place and one can become a pariah overnight. GamerGate has demonstrated on several occasions how swiftly it could turn on its former heroes at the slightest deviation from the party line — just like the woke. As in the famous scene in Citizen Kane where the next Kane-owned newspaper’s headline is going to be either “Kane Elected” or “Fraud at Polls” (see also: Donald Trump), something gaining popularity against one’s personal wishes means either that the reviewers were “corrupt”, “unethical”, or failing at “objectivity” (for GamerGate) or that they share in the problematic aspect of what they endorsed (for the woke lobby). Either way, more grist to the mill. And because very few people on either side believe in redemption (e.g. Sady Doyle, the embodiment of obnoxious wokeness, calling herself “Captain Noforgiveness”), once someone has fallen from grace, he stays damned forever, along with anyone who continues to enjoy his work.

Both the woke and GamerGate make a grand argument for free speech, but only for what repeats what they want to hear; they have nothing but hostility for opposing viewpoints. (For instance, GamerGate strenuously objected to its bêtes noires having the opportunity to speak out, whether artistically, through their own fundraisers, or after being invited to speak at the United Nations.) The woke speak of a diversity of voices, but what they have in mind is a diversity of backgrounds in the people who say something, not in what is being said. It can devolve, very easily, into a state of affairs where people are hired because of their race or gender, but only as long as they agree with woke tenets [5]. Meanwhile, GamerGate mirrors the woke approach to diversity, welcoming in its midst as many women and writers of color as it could find (including a few who were later revealed as frauds), and set up the #NotYourShield hashtag campaign so as to let everyone know that they refused to be co-opted by “Social Justice Warriors” (that privilege being reserved for GamerGate). In exchange, they were expected to docilely toe the GamerGate line and never engage in “Social Justice” content. If at any point they came across a game they genuinely find objectionable, or ended up being victims of racism or misogyny as the Alt-Right made its presence felt within the movement, well, tough luck.

As for the critics, both the woke and GamerGate follow the rule of thumb that if the critics agree with them, it is irrefutable evidence that they are right, and that if the critics disagree, they are dismissed as irrelevant at best or hounded into submission or unemployment at worst. A critic liking a video game they hated is just as guilty as one who hated a film they liked. Where the woke went after people’s livelihoods and exposed them to the fury of social media for diverging from the dictates of wokeness [6], GamerGate sought to have reviewers who failed to review games following its narrow “objective” criteria fired from their publications by threatening advertisers with boycotts.

GamerGate is in part motivated by its knowledge that game designer bonuses are based on Metacritic ratings. GamerGate either approves of this practice or accepts it as an immutable aspect of game production, and consequently targets critics who assign low ratings to games it likes, especially if it detects in the critic’s reasoning a “Social Justice” agenda. This was the case for at least one game review (Polygon’s review of Bayonetta 2), which GamerGate acted upon by attempting to convince the publisher (Nintendo) to cut off Polygon from press material. But this is also true if reversed: if GamerGate hates a game for whatever reason — especially, but not always, for propagating a “Social Justice” agenda — , all the high-ratings critics would have been declared corrupt and unethical, or at least incompetent, and therefore worth sacking on the spot.

As I have written in an earlier essay, for a reviewer to attempt to placate GamerGate under these circumstances (assuming one wanted to do this) is to play a losing game of Simon Says, in which the critic must sometimes play handmaiden to the game studios, sometimes resist them, according to an unwritten gamer consensus left at the discretion of GamerGate itself — this in a field where 8.8/10 is notoriously not high enough for a good game and too high for a bad one. Naturally, GamerGate doesn’t realize (or, more likely, doesn’t care) that by insisting that reviewers must serve as appendages to game studios’ publicity departments in cases of games it likes, it would take away from reviewers the ability to resist the studios in any situation should its strategy of pressuring publications to keep critics in line prove successful. (Similarly, liberals tried to get Rush Limbaugh kicked off the air by going after his show’s sponsors, without apparently asking themselves how that was supposed to get more progressive voices in the media, or considering whether this might jeopardize the editorial independence of the few existing ones.)

The rabid fans who raised objections (read: death threats) to the few critics who spoiled perfect Rotten Tomatoes ratings of especially well-received superhero films are nothing new; recently, they came up with a new approach: start a petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes altogether because of the dismal aggregate score given to the blockbuster of the moment, Suicide Squad (currently 26%). And with the rise of woke fandom, the same tendency is beginning to appear on the other end of the ideological spectrum. Without calling for the closure of Rotten Tomatoes, the self-described feminist geek site The Mary Sue questioned the appropriateness of Suicide Squad’s score, citing the number of women who had seen the film: “So… maybe it’s time to accept that women like superhero movies?” It is uncertain anyone ever doubted this. The Mary Sue’s report also included a sentence that could have been plucked from any of the regular GamerGate hangouts: “Regardless of whether or not the critics liked it, however, the fans are coming out in droves to support the movie with their dollars.” Here again, money does the talking [7].

If the usual fans have questioned the relevance of critics becore, the woke are now also getting in on the action, pointing out a critical gender gap in the scores of films targeted at women, complaining of the lack of female critics, as if more Pauline Kaels or Dilys Powells would necessarily tip the scales and turn a routine Hollywood film into a masterpiece. What is implied in all these discussions is that, just as more female directors would mean more film industry wokeness, more female critics would necessarily mean proper appreciation of films mostly intended for women, while male critics are to be scolded for failing to do so: they’re not woke, after all.

The message from both GamerGate and the woke is clear, and it is ugly: critics’ tastes must align with those of their readers, as reflected through such nicely quantifiable data such as box office. As with game designer bonuses based on Metacritic scores, box office should be a concern completely extraneous to the critic’s purpose. This is actually why critics matter, and the reason of their credibility: they’re above it all, which is as it should be.

With both GamerGate and the woke lobby, hostility awaits those who would dare to retain their independence. Both GamerGate and the woke want nothing to exist outside their comfort zone. They will do nothing for art; they are, rather, its Scylla and Charybdis: getting too close to either means death.

In the next part: The Mary Sue’s Game of Wokes. (To be published when it is finished.)


Notes to the first part:

[1] That would be Hamilton, the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, laureate of the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. It certainly tries to flatter our times, with the usual immigrant bootstrap-pulling myth, sickeningly meritocratic (“got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter / by being a self-starter”), while its avoids all the hard, uncomfortable questions of either today or Alexander Hamilton’s time. Just another instance of “Founders Chic”, according to an historian, which, for all its cast diversity and eclectic musical influences, might just be this generation’s 1776.

Still, the comparison is unfair to 1776, for buried in the middle of the older musical is one number that, by itself, is more daring than anything Hamilton attempts: “Molasses to Rum”. Yes, it’s about slavery, a question completely eluded by the newer musical, but the operative word in the song, the word that gives it its depth, its enduring relevance, isn’t “slaves”, which would just have made it a socially conscious song like so many others, it’s bibles. It is about hypocrisy, of a type that is still with us today: “’Tisn’t morals, ’tis money that saves.” Sung as it is by a South Carolina delegate, its message is: Our ugliness in the South is in plain sight; but your Bostonian society, built on the proceeds of the triangle trade, hides its rotten core behind a veneer of genteel propriety. “Who stinketh the most?” the delegate ponders. A question still worth asking.

This hypocritical genteel society, which put its salvation in money rather than morals, is still with us today. But where was it at the time of the release of 1776? Probably watching that new Broadway musical about the Founding Fathers, that’s where. This is why “Molasses to Rum” still makes for uncomfortable viewing nearly fifty years later. Never does Hamilton attempt anything so radical; after all, those self-starting immigrants and people of color Hamilton is a paean to hold no dearer ambition than to join the ranks of this genteel society themselves. That is indeed the main message of Hamilton, which dresses actors of color in tailcoats and calls it progress.

[2] Adapting for its own aims the woke talk of privilege, GamerGate capitalized on the infamous “Gamers are dead” articles to claim that gamers were an unprivileged group, practically on their way to a concentration camp (or at least to re-education) by the sound of it, while it granted itself the right to say whatever it wanted to say — a courtesy never to be extended to its opponents, of course — because, it insists, words don’t hurt (except “gamers are dead” and other “Social Justice” content, that is). And that, too, GamerGate took directly from the woke playbook, where two approaches exist to be exploited as needed: on the one hand, the desire for “safe spaces” where certain subjects or certain treatments of those subjects would remain out of bounds, and on the other, an objection to “tone policing” by saying that to expect civil discourse is a mark of privilege. In effect, in a “safe space”, certain people bestow upon themselves, based on a perceived lack of privilege, the right to say certain things in a certain way that is denied to others: they have the right to be angry, and you don’t. Hence the exploitation; and if the words “bestow upon themselves” “the right” “denied to others” don’t translate as privilege, I’m Queen Victoria.

This explains the tenor of online discourse these days, where the woke have thrown out civility and have embraced language as uncouth as possible, only to be followed by GamerGate’s legions of unprivileged gamers who understood exactly how the game was played. And then, something else happened over the course of this past year. Can you hear it? Concentrate. I’m sure you — “…blood coming out of her wherever…” — ah, now you hear it. Donald J. Trump, now there is someone with actual privilege, not some white-skinned schmuck from Flyover Country so privileged that he is to be deprived of his night shift at the 7–Eleven for saying on Facebook that abortion should be illegal. You can’t have Donald J. Trump fired; he’s the one doing the firing. He’s privileged, he knows it, he knows you know it — in a way, he’s very woke, Donald J. Trump — and he doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or not. Does anyone really think that any of the more disreputable elements among his followers — say, the Alt-Right — care either? Oh, but no, the woke, after having done so much to debase political discourse, now say that Trump is Not Presidential. He isn’t, for myriad valid reasons, but “Presidential”, in the mind of the woke, means: I want you to be civil, so that I can have an advantage over you by eschewing this very civility I am expecting from you. Please stand on top of the X which I have marked on the floor, that I may drop that anvil precariously hanging above it. (And if the plot is exposed, if Donald J. Trump does not deign to stand above the X on the floor, oh what shrieking!)

When you abandon civility, it is to the advantage, as with everything else, of the Donald J. Trumps of the world, not of poor women of color. All the woke have ever had was the moral high ground, which is not inconsiderable, yet they forsook any right to it for purely tactical considerations which backfired horribly. Followed a string of defeats, each more embarrassing than the previous one. First, it was to GamerGate, who by and large beat them at their own game — a warning sign the woke ignored (or, more accurately, blocked) because they had convinced themselves that GamerGate couldn’t win because it was wrong about everything. Then it was against Trump, who aimed a blunderbuss at civility, with spectacular results — which the woke will also ignore now that Trump has self-destructed, perhaps intentionally. Naturally, they will say that they had predicted this would happen, which, let us be charitable, sounds plausible from the way Hillary Clinton has been phoning it in from the start. However, seeing how the Right Side of History ended up being delayed for a few months by a 74-year-old senator from Vermont, they might have been in for a surprise if Trump had not. If their attitude after Brexit — which, to them, was little more than U.S. politics by proxy (because, in the proud tradition of American Exceptionalism, they don’t care about Great Britain or Europe by themselves) — was any indication, they haven’t yet, ahem, awoken from their complacency; at any rate, they haven’t yet figured out how to handle unforeseen turns of events, beyond the usual ineffectual outrage.

[3] This movement for “ethics in video games journalism” cheered when Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel drove Gawker into bankruptcy protection and its subsequent sale to Univision by funding an ongoing lawsuit by Terry Bollea (the real name of the wrestler Hulk Hogan) against it. Thiel was seeking revenge against Gawker because it had outed him as gay in 2007. Bollea was suing it because it had published parts of a sex tape where he had intercourse with a friend’s wife (though it has been suggested the real reason for the lawsuit was because Bollea wanted to hide his racial slurs in it).

I’m skeptical of any attempt to claim that Thiel’s sexuality was something of public interest, which I have seen being justified elsewhere on the grounds that Silicon Valley luminaries were hypocritical in their personal pursuit of absolute privacy while they made it their business model to know everything about everyone else. (Thiel, for instance, sits on the board of Facebook and founded Palantir Technologies, a company in bed with the intelligence community.) The actions of Silicon Valley are worth scrutinizing, but not like this. No matter how much trenchant criticism of the tech industry Gawker might have thought it was doing, it was no Evgeny Morozov: he’s serious, and Gawker wasn’t.

Likewise, even though a retired wrestler’s racial slurs might be somewhat of public concern, when this kind of reportage is carried out by a company as sensationalist as Gawker, it is difficult for me to believe that the racial considerations were not a very distant second consideration to “we have footage of Hulk Hogan having sex, folks!”. This was a cheap, vindictive gotcha! played for clicks by a coterie of hacks. (Special mention must go to the Gawker editor who joked at the trial that they wouldn’t have run the tape if the person shown had been under the age of four.)

Gawker had always been an irresponsible media company, and hardly deserving of anyone’s sympathy. Had it just been Bollea against Gawker, it is likely that most people, myself included, would have shrugged and moved on, thinking that Gawker had gotten its just deserts; but with Thiel entering the equation, this is a “vote for the crook” scenario, and Gawker is by far the lesser of the two evils here. If it is necessary to save Gawker to stop Peter Thiel, even though that prospect is unappealing, so be it. Better Gawker than Peter Thiel, who threw his weight behind Donald Trump, a candidate who promised to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money”. (Thiel has gone further and has now backed Legalist, a start-up based on funding other people’s lawsuits for financial gain.)

Gawker’s initial article about Thiel’s sexuality might have been intrusive and difficult to justify as news, but it wasn’t false, as Thiel is indeed gay. (According to the article’s author, “friends and others in Thiel’s circle had known he was gay for years. He was not in any kind of closet.”) But what do you do if you have a grudge against a specific publication, and deep pockets, but not really a good reason for suing directly (or if you are averse to the publicity resulting from doing so, a not insignificant consideration in the age of the Streisand Effect)? Why, you fund other people with valid cases. And if your ambition is to break the back of the offending media outlet, why limit yourself to valid cases? If you are in it not for the profit (as with Legalist), but for vengeance, why not fund anyone with an intent to sue until your target is buried under legal costs?

For all intents and purposes, what Thiel did to Gawker is a new variant of the SLAPP. How could Thiel not use this approach against any media outlet reporting, with complete accuracy and newsworthiness, on any aspect of his personal or professional life he would rather keep under wraps? And there’s plenty of that, whether it’s his seeking radical life extension through blood transfusions from the young, his declaration in 2009 that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” (women’s suffrage ruined it, you know), or whatever goes on in the world of shadows inhabited by Palantir and other Thiel ventures. I suspect it was because Thiel wanted to fend off these uncomfortable questions that he claimed the moral high ground in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, stating that “nobody’s sexuality should be made a public fixation”.

Which brings us to GamerGate. Since GamerGate made it its purpose to detest Kotaku, Gawker’s gaming site, it naturally welcomed the ruling in favor of Bollea/Hogan, and even approved of Thiel’s involvement. The usual the-end-justifies-the-means, no-bad-tactics-just-bad-targets and all that. GamerGate claims that Gawker is unethical; nobody — and certainly not members of the more respectable press — would deny that Gawker has committed unethical reporting in the past. But what of GamerGate’s own ethics? “Nobody’s sexuality should be made a public fixation.” True. Then what are we to make of GamerGate’s own foundational text, Eron Gjoni’s “Zoe Post”, which was all about how the author’s ex-girlfriend, an independent game designer, had cheated on him with five men, including a writer at Kotaku? It was this association with the Kotaku writer which launched the entire actually-ethics cabal, whose victory conditions were apparently to kill Gawker and drive the game designer to suicide — for the greater glory of ethics in journalism, of course, if this isn’t apparent enough.

GamerGate initially castigated the media for not talking enough about this alleged conflict of interest (a conspiracy of silence, it was!), then twisted the blade in every chance it had over minutiae after the sex-for-coverage theory had been debunked: that no, it wasn’t Gjoni who said that the game designer had slept with the reviewer for favorable coverage, it was this other GamerGate-supporting guy in a video (but he was totally right, of course); or that no, the erotic photos of her which circulated were not hacked, because they were from a legitimate photo shoot (look them up; you’ll see for yourselves!). That sort of thing, endlessly repeated all over the internet, month after month after month.

Two years later, they’re still at it. No, you see, GamerGate wasn’t talking about her, but about how the media were talking about her. Ethics in journalism! And anyone who objected to GamerGate’s sadistic pleasure in exposing her sex life for all to see was accused of failing, in addition to ethics, the supreme virtues of Reason and Logic. That is, unless it was someone raising exactly the same objection against a GamerGate target — like Peter Thiel with Gawker. Then it was the pinnacle of public service.

[4] For some reason, we are now getting a new Ben-Hur remake. To say that the film has garnered scathing reviews and under-performed at the box office is an understatement. Still, The Advocate, a leading American LGBT magazine, suggested that the failure of the new Ben-Hur was, in part, the result of the absence of a homosexual subtext: “While the film’s gay erasure cannot be wholly responsible for this critical failure, such a verdict of blandness could have been avoided by rekindling the hot tension between its two leads, which helped launch the original to the pantheon of classics.” The “original” to which this refers is the third version of 1959, to which the writer Gore Vidal famously contributed the background of a homosexual love affair gone awry between rivals Messala and Ben-Hur. The actor Stephen Boyd, playing Messala, had been let in on the secret, but nobody told the actor playing Judah Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston, until Vidal went public in the mid-1990s — because, frankly, would you have told Charlton Heston?

At least The Advocate is talking about the film’s critical failure, but it is worth asking to what extent the magazine believes that the inclusion of this subtext would have improved its box office performance. At any rate, as with GLAAD, there is another purpose lurking behind The Advocate’s reasoning: part of the article was in response to the actor playing Messala, who claimed the film “didn’t need” to include “the gay context” because “it’s a different time, thankfully”. The Advocate replied:

“[W]hile it may be “a different time” for LGBT people living in privileged spaces, there are still 74 countries where same-sex relationships are illegal; 12 nations can sentence a gay person to death.
Any film with an international reach, particularly one with such a famous gay history as Ben-Hur, should be cognizant of this as well as its power to move the needle for change. Otherwise, Judah is not the only one who is betrayed.”

Ah, it’s just another “Trojan horse”, as GLAAD would say. There are just two problems with this in the case of Ben-Hur.

First, it worked in 1959 because the gay subtext was something to be savored exclusively by an inner sanctum of film people, who were simultaneously all afraid the word would get out because, as Dwight Macdonald infamously put it when he said the film tried to avoid offending Jews, “$15,000,000 is $15,000,000”. Now that everyone knows about Vidal’s sleight of hand — it’s probably one of the most famous Hollywood anecdotes — , how could it have been included into a new Ben-Hur as a subtext? They’re all but telling us, in giant neon capital letters, that this should be in the film. How could it have been subversive, with such people noisily demanding the inclusion of this subversion? Any gay context in Ben-Hur, now, would have been explicit and left nothing to the imagination.

The reason for its absence from the new Ben-Hur might be because of a copyright issue, where the original book is in the public domain but not the content added to previous adaptations. It is my understanding, also, that the 2016 remake is all too obviously tailored to the only market that could now possibly want it: the Christian Right. The part of Jesus Christ has been considerably expanded in comparison to previous versions, especially that of 1959, in which everything was done to avoid showing him — er, Him — directly. Whereas the previous versions were sold to mainstream audiences as a grandiose spectacle, it is practically impossible to imagine Hollywood suits expecting the average 2016 teenager to pay to watch a chariot race and a naval battle interspersed with biblical stuff. It would have been interesting to watch an openly homosexual romance between Ben-Hur and Messala, mostly to see all those evangelicals with their mouths agape, but I suspect there aren’t that many homosexuals with an interest in biblical films and there are many homophobic Christians and $100,000,000 is $100,000,000.

This brings us to the second problem: the vast majority of countries where homosexuality is illegal, and the totality of those where it can be punished by death, are not exactly enthusiastic adopters of the Jesus brand to begin with: Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen…. Hotbeds of Christianity, those. It is unrealistic to expect a film to “move the needle for change” in countries where it was going to be unpopular for other reasons the film could not really distance itself from—Christianity for Ben-Hur in Muslim nations, or the supernatural for Ghostbusters in China. If you’re going to send an ambassador, the least the locals have a right to expect is that he knows the language.

Whatever the reasons for the failure of this year’s Ben-Hur (I suspect it was because it looked — based on the trailer anyway — like the usual Hollywood special-effects trash we have been expecting of late), the absence of a gay subtext probably had nothing to do with it, but lobby groups aren’t interested in that: there’s an agenda to peddle.

[5] For evidence of this, we need to look no further than BuzzFeed Canada’s Scaachi Koul, who put out a call for new writers limited to women and people of color, inviting everyone else to “go write for Maclean’s” (Canada’s answer to Time Magazine, but stodgier, if such a thing is possible). A writer at said Maclean’s — a woman of color, actually — replied by asking “what’s the point of restricting the debate to a bubble where white men, or anyone else who doesn’t get the particular grammar of progressive chatter online, can’t participate?” As the Maclean’s article pointed out, the “cerebral, snarky ethnic-girl columnist” was the new Holy Grail of media companies, a guaranteed generator of outrage-fueled clicks. Not being privileged is now, in effect, a form of privilege; in other words, it’s a good time to be Scaachi Koul.

Implied in woke discourse is that white heterosexual males are only worth listening to when they are woke, and blacks or women can never be conservative or, worse, reactionary, without being accused of acting against their own interests. I suspect that today’s Neil Bissoondath — a Trinidadian immigrant to Canada who, over twenty years ago, wrote Selling Illusions, a scathing indictment of Canadian multiculturalism that was spurned by the bien-pensant political and media establishment — wouldn’t last long at BuzzFeed Canada or any other woke publication; a contemporary review of Bissoondath’s book — “I live in constant dread of that (no doubt inevitable) day when one of my [white male] students discovers Selling Illusions and comes up to me after class to say “See, sir, here’s this really smart black guy, and he says that employment equity’s crap. So it must be, right?”” — is still, twenty years later, the perfect description of the woke lobby’s greatest weakness and consequently its greatest fear.

[6] After the famous case of Justine Sacco, then of the journalist who wrote about her, there was, for instance, the successful attempt to get Matt Bruenig fired from Demos (a liberal think-tank) for having called Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress (another liberal think-tank) a “scumbag”. The woke, in this case, were very glad to tone-police him into unemployment for a word that, by their usual standards, is very mild indeed. Bruenig never had a chance, of course, being a white man to Tanden’s woman of color, leaning somewhat more to the left than is comfortable to liberals, and on the Wrong Side of History for supporting Bernard Sanders in The Year of Hillary Clinton, for whom Tanden had once worked.

[7] Ironically, the very next day, The Mary Sue published its own review of the film (by a different writer), giving it 1 out of 5 stars and calling it out as — you guessed it — problematic: “The majority of the Squad comes across as a collection of cringe-worthy stereotypes who are paper-thin characters at best and racist and/or sexist at worst.” A few paragraphs later: Suicide Squad does occasionally trip and fall into having progressive ideas, now and then, but I’m pretty convinced that all of these moments are accidental. The movie manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, for example, in the brief scene when Harley Quinn meets Katana and asks her, “What perfume is that? ‘Stench of Death’?” That’s a pretty funny accident, since I don’t think any of the other ensemble movies on my list manage to pass that test.” I suspect the main advocates of the Bechdel-Wallace Test are expecting something more substantial from it than a bad one-liner, but this is a perfect illustration of The Mary Sue’s habitual superficiality.

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