Book Review

Book Recommendations

It seems like all I do is read…Sometimes I think my eyes are going to fall out of their sockets as I just go insane.  But, then again, I guess all that reading makes sense since I’m a historian (or maybe being insane make sense since I’m a historian?)  Either way – sane or not – I am fortunate that I do get to read so much.  Reading is a way to travel (even time travel!) to different epochs or far away worlds without ever leaving your doorstep.  Sometimes the places you go to aren’t so pretty (my dissertation explores different Holocaust memories), but other times, the words of others are just inspiring.

Most of my day is spent frantically reading through old newspaper articles, diary entries, other snippets from the archives, and stacks of history books.  But I try to keep a good balance of things I read:  In the morning, I read non-fiction.  During the day, it’s history research.  And at night, I read from a novel before going to sleep.  So, on any given day, I’m reading three different books, but as odd as it sounds, it’s a good way to keep myself sane!  I’ve shared many of my reviews of academic books, but this morning I wanted to share a few titles of the books I’ve recently read that have nothing to do with my research.

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Every morning, after I catch up on the daily news and water our garden and flowers, I enjoy my last cup of coffee with a good, non-fiction book.  It’s my way of preparing myself for the day and trying to learn something new that doesn’t have anything to do with my research.

For the past year, I slowly made my way through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  It’s a mammoth of a book that begins literally at the beginning of the time by exploring theories about the beginning of the universe and ends with the emergence of Homo sapiens.  In between, Bryson deftly leads readers through some (most? all?) of the major scientific developments in human history.

Bill BrysonThe amount of research required to write such a book is simply staggering, but Bryson’s major achievement, in my opinion, is the way that he weaves it all together into a narrative that is simultaneously educational and incredibly entertaining.  More than once I found myself laughing out loud as he let you in on some of the more obscure – and often absurd – secrets about the quirky personalities of the explorers, scientists, and curious amateurs who made significant (or not so significant) achievements in various fields.  But, of course, beyond entertaining you, Bryson teaches you something, as well.  After completing the book, I certainly feel more prepared on trivia nights!

Reading the book felt more like sitting next to Bryson and having a friendly chat; his writing style is simply that engaging.  Each chapter is only 10-15 pages, and they’re self-encompassing topics.  So, you can read one chapter at a time, and not pick the book back up for a week and not have to worry about remembering where you left off. (Between our wedding, our move, and working on my dissertation, it took me over 12 months to finally finish the book – but I think a partial reason it took so long is because I didn’t want it to end!)

The long, overarching narrative that Bryson weaves is fantastic.  You certainly are amazed by some of humanity’s achievements (even if they were accidents), but you also are left with a feeling that our present-day situation isn’t preordained.  There were so many instances when evolution, politics – human history in general – could have gone any number of different ways.   In other words, you’re left with a feeling of humility and appreciation for our world today.

After finishing Bryson’s book, I quickly devoured a short work called The Lena Baker Story, by Lela Bond Phillips.  It is an incredibly depressing account about the first and only woman to be executed by the electric chair in the state of Georgia.  The book was put out by a local researcher and published by a small company, so it’s not the fanciest history book out there.  And perhaps it’s just the historian in me being nit-picky, but I found some of the style choices of the book to be perplexing.  For example, when giving direct quotes (from courtroom testimony, for example), Phillips puts them in italics instead of just using quotation marks.Lena Baker

But, such technicalities aside, this is a commendable work of local history that documents the life of Lena Baker, who grew up in a small, rural town in southwest Georgia.  Lena had a hard life, from beginning to its early end.  She and her family were destitute, she suffered from alcohol addiction, and on top of all that, she was black in the Jim Crow South.  When she shoots and kills a white man in self defense, there is no hope for her in the justice system.  The jury assigned to her case is made up of white males who were friends of the man killed; Lena’s defense attorney gave a half-hearted attempt to put up a defense, and Phillips suggests that there was even some tampering with the evidence.  And readers know from page one that there is no happy ending.  Lena Baker was killed by electrocution in Georgia State Prison in the spring of 1945.

I read this book because I grew up in the same town as Lena, so for me, the book was almost personal.  I knew the buildings that Phillips described; I can picture the landscapes not from imagination, but from my memories.  That’s why the book was so upsetting to me.  This wasn’t a general story of systematic racism in a far away Southern town; these were people who walked the same streets as I did.  By the story’s end, I’m not sure if I was more angered or saddened.  I commend Phillips for attempting to be objective and for not passing judgment.  But, I know that if I had written this story, I would have lambasted those involved, from those who were supposed to be enforcing the law to those who masqueraded as defenders of justice: the lawyers and judge who couldn’t even be bothered to put up a good mock trial.

Just as I sat down to begin this post, I Googled “the Lena Baker Story” and found that the book was actually turned into a movie in 2008!  After watching a trailer for it, it looks like some of the names of people and places may have been changed, but it seems like it stays pretty true to the book.  Now I can’t wait to find it on Netflix or rent it from Amazon. Here’s the preview for the movie…But I also recommend purchasing the short book.

 

I’ve now started President Jimmy Carter’s memoir about his boyhood:  An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood.  I picked it to read after The Lena Baker Story because I needed something a little less depressing to read in the morning.  I really love “Mista Jimmuh,” and not necessarily because of his politics or his presidency.  In all honesty, I haven’t really studied his time in the White House that much, but it seems like he may be a better ex-Hour Before Daylightpresident than he did a sitting president.  Either way, I love what President Carter stands for: peace, compassion, understanding, and education.  And while he’s a devout Christian, he’s not one of the judgmental Bible thumpers that I grew up around.  He’s intelligent and can grapple with “big picture” issues, but he grew up a poor farmer, so he certainly can understand the everyday man, too.  He’s usually calm and level-headed, but not afraid to speak his mind, even when his opinions aren’t popular.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Pres. Carter when he was back home in Plains, Georgia for a weekend.  His home is only about 20 minutes away from our farm, and my family and I even went to church with him.  We listened as he taught Sunday School, and his whole message was about compassion. I loved it.  So, now I’m excited to read this book and see what helped shape Jimmy Carter into the man he is today.

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As I said before, I crack open a novel as I lay in bed at night and let the fantastical worlds take my mind away from the research on the Holocaust.  These books, I just read for fun.  To be entertained.

I recently read Stephen King’s The Shining.  I had never even seen the movie, but I loved the only other King novel I’d read (The Stand), so I thought I’d give The Shining a try. My god, it was truly horrifying!  It was probably not a good idea to read that right before trying to go to sleep each night.  Nope.

The Shining

I’m an unabashed fan of the fantasy genre: the more magic, dragons, and imagined worlds there are in the book, the better.  Before I read The Shining, I read the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’Kingkiller Chronicle” series, The Name of the Wind.  It was pretty good, and I especially liked that it’s in the first person.  But, honestly, the book didn’t yank my chain, and I don’t think I’ll be finishing the series.  It’s no fault of Rothfuss,’ because he’s an excellent writer.  I just wasn’t in to the story.

The Name of the Wind

I’m currently reading Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans.  It is, of course, a fantasy novel, but it’s slightly different than others I’ve read, because Evans was an editor of military historian for decades.  So, this story line follows soldiers in an army that is attempting to put down rebellions by some of the subjects in a far away, hot, jungle.  Of course, at first the enemy is understood as something sub-human (well, actually, they’re NOT human), but as time goes on, the soldiers enlisted to fight the war realize that they share an awful lot in common with the native “slyts.”   Even though they are “the enemy,” they have families, farms, joys.  So, it’s an interesting foray into the mindset that warfare cultivates – – – and it’s also awesome that there are fire-breathing dragons and academy-trained wizards.

Of Thunder and Bone

And, of course I have to give another shout out to my favorite book series of all time (besides Harry Potter, obviously):  The Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliot.  My god, these are three fantastic books.  The amount of detail she gives in describing the world that she has created is impressive.  You can read my review of the series here.

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Okay, that’s all, folks.  If any of the brief reviews and recommendations sound interesting, give the books a try!  Also, if you’ve got any excellent books that you think I’d enjoy reading, let me know in the comment section below :)

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The Construction of Queer Memory: Media Coverage of Stonewall 25

Stonewall 25

Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo.  “The Construction of Queer Memory:  Media Coverage of Stonewall 25.”  Unpublished paper delivered at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, August 2006.  Accessible here.

 

Subject:  An examination of the role of media in the shaping of the role of the Stonewall riots in the gay collective memory.

Main Points:  The author studies the media attention given to “Stonewall 25,” the 1994 celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NYC Stonewall riots.  It’s an interesting paper that deals with collective memory, collective identity, and heritage building.  So, he spends some time spelling out his theoretical approach/understanding of the concepts of memory and identity formation.  He then specifically focuses on the media’s role in shaping a specific Stonewall narrative.  He argues that “the media are complicit in shaping a memory of Stonewall that reflects the political goals of the American queer movement in the 1990s.”

This narrative portrayed by Stonewall 25 organizers and the media was one that portrayed the gay community as a diverse, but ultimately singular or united community.  In this sense, the “unity through diversity” discourse was forced back onto the 1969 riots themselves.  In none of the New York Times articles or Stonewall documentaries that appeared for the 25th anniversary was it mentioned that the Stonewall Inn was primarily a hangout for drag queens, transvestites, and gays and lesbians of color; in other words, it was a place for individuals who did not fit into the white, middle class, male gay culture that was dominant at the time.  But as Avila-Saavedra demonstrates, all of the media for the 1994 anniversary rewrote history and portrayed the Stonewall Riots as a coming together of diverse peoples, gays and lesbians of all walks of life united in their ‘gayness.’

Even the reporting of the Stonewall 25 events themselves were portrayed in a particular way.  Reporters focused on the celebration of diversity and unity of queer America, overlooking the fact that a large fissure had emerged during the planning of the parade and events.  The Stonewall Veterans Association, members of NY ACT UP, and other more radical activists protested that the radical and revolutionary origins of the gay liberation movement (and the Riots themselves) were being purposefully ignored, in place of a “Eurocentric,” assimilationist, middle class definition of “gay.”  One newspaper did report that the radical groups had been left out of Stonewall 25, and that “the spirit of the riots had been lost on a celebration of middle-class assimilation dream with its patriarchal and racial components intact” (7).  Few media outlets reported that these protesters decided to have their own parade, or when it was reported, the media focused instead on the fact that, at the end, the two parades merged together in a display of harmony.  Therefore, Avila-Saavedra claims that the media reports of Stonewall 25 not only commemorated the Stonewall riots, but helped turn them into a myth as well, a myth that was useful for the LGBT politics of the 1990s (coming out, lobbying for rights like marriage, etc.).

To back up such claims, Avila-Saavedra looks at several media outlets.  The New York Times, he shows, ran completely uncritical accounts of the Stonewall riots, displaying them in a Whiggish, progressive account of triumph, leaving out all of the people who did not fit into this coherent story.  The Village Voice, an alternative newsweekly published from NYC’s Greenwich Village, on the other hand, gave more attention to the radicals’ protests of the Stonewall 25 celebrations.  Moreover, the Village Voice published interviews with witnesses of the Stonewall riot that challenged the neat and tidy narrative being told by gay rights leaders.  Therefore, “the coverage in the Village Voice is less concerned with consensus.”  The Advocate focused not on the significance of Stonewall riots, the meaning of which was taken for granted, but instead focused on the forms of celebration by questioning whether parades and concerts can adequately commemorate such momentous events.  The Advocate article “fails to voice dissenting memories and interpretations of the riots and implicitly endorses their mythical significance” (8).  He then analyzes how Stonewall was portrayed on TV through the PBS special “Out Rage 69,” the official Stonewall 25 documentary “Stonewall 25: The Future is Ours,” and ends with a description of the Stonewall movie, produced by Nigel Finch.  All of these, Avila-Saavedra shows, present an uncritical reproduction of the Stonewall Myth that has been circulated and then commemorated by the celebrations of 1994.

My Comments:  This is a really fascinating paper, and it deals with a lot of the same themes that my own research will.  I like its focus on the media in forming collective memories.  In particular, the paper reveals the legitimizing nature of the American media. “This obsession with media attention is exemplary of the queer movement’s search for legitimization through one of the most ubiquitous institutions in American culture. It did not happen if it was not on TV.”  So, these types of events are a part of what David Lowenthal would call heritage formation – fashioning a past that is useful for the present.  But, like this paper shows, such endeavors – especially ones that focus on unity and singular narratives – often leave people out.

For more books on the history of gay rights, sexuality, and gender, see my full list of book reviews

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Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

D'Emilio

D’Emilio, John.  Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: the Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.  

Subject: An examination of the early homophile movement of the 1940s, 50s, & 60s, and the subsequent emergence of a gay liberation movement in 1969 and the 1970s.

Main Points:  I know realize how fundamental this book has been to other scholars.  Many of the authors’ books I’ve read, including David Johnson’s, Margot Canaday’s, and Marc Stein’s, all build on D’Emilio’s work.  With that said, the story in Sexual Politics is now familiar to me, but it’s always nice to read the original work!

D’Emilio explains that World War II was a defining historical moment for the creation of a homosexual identity in the USA.  The mass mobilization of young people for the war effort (either as soldiers, laborers, or clerical workers for the expanding bureaucracy) took individuals far from the watchful eye of family, friends, and the church and placed them in new places (anonymity) that were often sex-segregated (like the military).  As a result, individuals who desired members of the same sex were able to realize that they weren’t alone and that there were others like themselves.  After the war itself was over, most of these same-sex desiring men and women (who were now thinking of themselves as a distinct group, defined by their same-sex interests) stayed in major ports of call like San Francisco and New York City, thus creating emerging gay sub-cultures.

As McCarthyism hunted out homosexuals in the government, the individuals who were forced out became politicized and joined (or formed) ‘homophile’ movements like the Mattachine Society (1951) or the Daughters of Bilitis (1955).  According to D’Emilio, this period from 1930-1950 was pivotal in the transformation of homosexual acts into definitive homosexuality – from a series of acts to an identity.

By the late 1960s, the sexual revolution and civil rights movement inspired some members of the homophile movement to radicalize their demands and goals.  The 1969 Stonewall Riots acted as a sparking point to ignite decades’ worth of movement and activism.  Out of this arose the gay liberation movement, which partnered (initially) with feminism and other groups calling for radical social revolution.

My Comments:  I think the greatest contribution of this work is that it historicizes Stonewall and shows that it was the culmination of decades of work that had been carried out by groups; it was not the start of the gay movement.  Later authors have built on D’Emilio’s work, providing more detail and nuance, but D’Emilio’s argument for the importance of the WWII era still holds true and this book was really groundbreaking in 1983.  Good stuff.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Movements & Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth

Photo courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Photo courtesy of http://www.cbsnews.com

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. & Suzanna M. Crage.  “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 5 (Oct., 2006):  724-751

Subject:  The authors seek to explain why the Stonewall riots secured such a dominant place in the collective memory of gay rights activism while other similar events prior to Stonewall did not.

Main Points:  The authors lay out a sociological approach to the study of creating and maintaining collective memories through public commemoration.  Because the authors are sociologists, this article reads more like a lab report than it does the typical narrative of historical articles.  But they do provide some helpful ways of thinking about how collective memory works.  The main point of this article is to help explain why the 1969 events at the Stonewall Inn acquired such significance while previous similar events did not.

Even though their argument is more nuanced, it can be summed up as follows:  Stonewall is remembered because it is marked by an international commemorative ritual: an annual gay pride parade.  Moreover, the commemoration of Stonewall riots was able to be successful because of a confluence of historically specific conditions:  It was the first commemorable event to occur at a time and place in which homosexuals had enough capacity to produce a commemorative vehicle like an annual parade event.  While other events may have been seen as worthy of being commemorated, activists did not have the exposure or capability to produce a lasting commemorative event (or “vehicle” as the authors call it).  In this sense, context (time and place) was the decisive factor.

In an introductory section, the authors explain the concepts they feel are necessary for successful collective memory formation:  1) Commemorabilty (something worth being commemorated); 2) Mnemonic capacity (skills, network, and resources needed to create commemorative vehicles such as annual parades); 3) Resonance (this includes a receptive audience as well as the institutionalization of the commemoration event so that it has duration over space and time).

The authors study five different events that had the potential to be the spark that ignited a national movement, but because they lacked some of the necessary factors listed above, were not commemorated, and as such, were eclipsed by the myth of the Stonewall Riots.  The first was the police raid on a gay New Year’s party in San Francisco, January 1965 (commemorable, but lacking mnemonic capacity).  Second was the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance of August 1966 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability). Third:  Black Cat bar raid, LA in January 1967 (mnemonic capacity, but lack of commemorability).  Fourth was the Stonewall Riots in NYC, June 1969 (commemorable and activists had mnemonic capacity, able to create resonance).  Lastly, the Snake Pit bar raid in NYC in March 1970 (not commemorable because it was not “the first” – even though there was mnemonic capacity).

Why was Stonewall so commemorable?  Because those at the Stonewall Inn broke the “script” of normal police/homosexual interaction.  This time, Stonewall patrons fought back, spilling the incident onto the street where it gathered momentum and lasted for days.  A gay liberation mindset led activists to see the political possibilities of the developing situation (737).  The riots happened late in the 1960s, after homophile movements and, later, radical activists had pushed for the rights and visibility of homosexuals for years.  So, by 1969, radical gay liberation activists (especially in New York) had the necessary “capital” (exposure and connections) to turn this riot into a symbol for their cause.  “Without a radical political approach, activists would not have responded by escalating the conflict.  They would not have created or circulated grand narratives of its importance, nor would they have planned commemorative rituals” (744).  The authors show that while there were riots in other cities, many of the liberal (or, according to gay liberationists, ‘conservative’) activists who sought to fight for rights within the socio-political system did not see a violent riot as something worth commemorating, and did not want to be tied to the radicals of the New Left (733).  The authors argue that this also helps explain why San Francisco (a ‘headquarters’ for homophile movements) did not participate in gay pride/Stonewall commemoration for two years.

The authors contribute the success of the “Stonewall Myth” in LGBT history’s collective memory to the fact that, while Stonewall was not the first riot, Stonewall activists were the first to claim to be first (725).  Prior riots were intentionally glossed over while later riots weren’t as important because they weren’t first.  Already in July 1970 pamphlets passed out as a summary of the first commemoration of Stonewall, stated that the 1969 Stonewall Riots “marked the first time that large numbers of gay people stood up against repression” (743).  This ‘unique’ place in history granted the Stonewall riots with the most commemorability, and has thus built the “wildfire narrative” in which Stonewall/NYC was the “spark” that “ignited” the gay rights movement all across the nation.

Despite scholarship demonstrating that Stonewall was not the first instance of gay resistance, the myth has continued to hold its ground because simpler narratives (collective memories) are more useful and easier to transfer than messier, more complicated ones.

Armstrong & Crage’s article also demonstrates the complexity of myths – their formation and longevity.  It clearly shows us that myths are more than fairy-tales, and that they shouldn’t be simply dismissed for containing factual inaccuracies.  Myths, anecdotes, and histories combine to inform our collective memories of the past, and thus, myths are as important to understanding our views of the past as scholarship is.

 

For more books on LGBT history and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Behind the Mask of Respectability

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society  Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society
Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

Meeker, Martin.  “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and the Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.”  Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 10, No. 1 (Jan., 2011):  78-116. 

Subject: A reevaluation of the Mattachine Society’s place in the gay rights movement that specifically addresses just how “radical” or “conservative” the Society actually was.

Meeker’s main argument is that the history of the Mattachine Society has become so standardized in the last twenty years that scholars have stopped looking at primary documents for their judgments and instead have simply repeated what other scholars have said before them.  Meeker singles out John D’Emilio for forming our current understanding of the Society as initially radical, but eventually ousting its radical leaders and then taking on a passive role in which it urged homosexuals to adopt an image of respectability and assimilate into mainstream society.  By the end of the 1960s, the Society was almost useless and was left by the wayside by other, more radical and activist groups.

But Meeker urges us to take a closer look at the Mattachine Society by not only looking at the documents it prepared for a wider, mainly heterosexual and homophobic public.  Instead, we should look “behind the mask of respectability” and observe the inner workings of the Society.  This, Meeker argues, reveals a Society that was much more radical than they are given credit for today.

Meeker asserts that scholars have been right in pointing out that the original leadership of the Mattachine Society was vocally more radical than later leaders.  He calls this period between 1950-1953 the “Mattachine Foundation” (80).  Its successor, the Mattachine Society (1953-1967) was vocally more conservative.  Meeker’s essay “demonstrates that the Society was much more complex and far-thinking in its philosophy than earlier accounts suggest” (80).  In trying to demonstrate that the Society was more radical than previously thought he says that “a closer look reveals that rather than being a cowardly retreat, the Mattachine Society’s presentation of a respectable public face was a deliberate and ultimately successful strategy to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors…This practice of dissimulation disarmed some of the antigay sentiment in American society while it also enabled the homophiles to defend and nurture the gay world” (81).

The body of the essay presents five major reevaluations about the organization of the Mattachine Foundation/Society.  First, he demonstrates that the ideology and practice of sexual politics of the Foundation was not so definitively radical when compared to the later Society.  “The Mattachine Foundation, accessible only through a post office box, its leaders surrounded in secrecy, and publicly represented on its letterhead by three married women, did not directly challenge the social requirement that homosexuals remain invisible.”  Moreover, Meeker asserts that while the organization sought publicity for its cause, its actual leaders chose to remain hidden.  Even the more “radical” Foundation urged its members to “try to observe the generally accepted social rules of dignity and propriety at all times…in conduct, attire, and speech” (90). This leads Meeker to the conclusion that, “the Foundation was not yet ready to confront unswervingly the demon of public invisibility” (89).

The second reevaluation Meeker demonstrates is that there is much more to the Mattachine Society than its public image.  Through its publications, it established social needs and help lines for homosexuals throughout the nation who felt alone or isolated. “In responding to the needs of troubled homosexuals, the Mattachine Society took many risks.”  Even in an era when “the homosexual youth” wasn’t believed to exist (the medical and psychiatric establishment believed one could still be cured), the Society “transgressed the greatest taboo of all: it quietly guided underage homosexuals out of their isolation into self-acceptance.” “At the same time that it was presented to the public as a group of staid professionals in suits and ties who remained within the law and the realm of good taste, the Society quietly expanded the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and political activism” (98-99).

A third reevaluation shows how the Society built a productive and innovative alliance with sexologists as well as other sex radicals in the 1950s and 1960s in order to change Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuals (instead of just sheepishly accepting whatever the sexologists told them about homosexuality).

The fourth reevaluation has to do with the Society’s relationship with the gay bar scene.  Meeker shows that the Society demanded that all homosexuals receive the same civil rights as everyone else.  This included the right to congregate, assemble, and socialize.  The Society was “vehemently opposed to any laws prohibiting homosexuals from enjoying the right o seek partners in public, yet it was publicly in favor of laws that punished sexual acts that occurred in public places” (106).  Meeker reveals the Society’s middle class propriety and its beliefs that no one – homo or heterosexual – should have sex in public places.

The final reevaluation traces the contributions made by the Society’s leadership even as the Society’s membership and budget dwindled as it went on into the 1960s.  Meeker argues that the Society died not because it had become inherently unimportant, but because it’s success in reaching out to more gay people meant they overspent on trying to provide more services to them.  Additionally, more specialized gay groups appeared on the scene in San Francisco, drawing membership away from the Society (112).

Meeker’s ultimate conclusion is that the Mattachine Society donned the mask of respectability not to bend to hetero-normative demands, but instead as a political maneuver that would allow them to operate under the radar. “In the 1950s, to agitate for fair and nonsensationalized representation, to ask that homosexuals be shown to the mainstream public as being just like everyone else, was not a conservative demand.  For the homophiles to insist that they were just like other Americans and were therefore deserving of the same rights was to demand what they did not yet possess:” equal rights (116). This made them more radical than they are given credit for.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit

"The Past that Doesn't Want to Pass Away."

“The Past that Doesn’t Want to Pass Away.”

Evans, Richard J. “The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit,” in The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec. 1987): 761:797.

In this article, Richard Evans weighs in on the debate among historians in West Germany over the path of modern German history. Evans begins by showing that this isn’t the first time that historians have quarreled over interpretations of the past, but he reveals that the Historikerstreit (“historians’ quarrel”) of the mid-to-late 1980s spilled over from academia into the public realm as well. The controversy was sparked by historian Ernst Nolte’s article “The Past That Will Not Pass Away” that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung in June 1986. In his article, Nolte argued that it was time to quit viewing Germany’s history in absolute, black-and-white terms, and start painting in shades of grey. By this, Nolte specifically meant that people should not view the Holocaust as a unique atrocity in history, instead arguing that the Soviets had actually done this all before in their Gulags (even if they didn’t use the same method of gas chambers). Similarly, in an earlier book, Nolte argued that Auschwitz could be seen as an attempt to solve problems connected with industrialization (underemployment, racial tensions, etc.) by means of disposing of large numbers of people (767). Evans dismisses both of these arguments (Soviet Gulag as model for the Nazi Final Solution, and Auschwitz as outcome of the problems of industrialization) as a “generalization so extreme as to be virtually meaningless” (768).

Nolte is not the only target of Evans’ critique, though. He then turns to a recent book written by historian Andreas Hillgruber, in which Hillgruber argues that the German catastrophe (the complete and utter destruction of Germany in 1945) belongs alongside the Jewish catastrophe of the Holocaust. Both of these together constitute a “European catastrophe” and an example of a larger resettlement of European populations. “Thus the destruction of Prussian and the German Reich really does appear in Hillgruber’s book as comparable to the destruction of the European Jews” (777). Evans points out that comparing Germany’s military loss at the hands of the Allies with the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis is again a gross oversimplification that does not take motivation into account. Moreover, Evans and others (including Jürgen Habermas) even criticized Hillgruber’s language in his book; Hillgruber speaks of the destruction of Germany, “a violent process enforced against active opposition,” but only of the end of European Jewry, “a term that suggested an almost spontaneous process neither actively willed nor actively resisted” (774).

The last part of Evans’ article deals with why the Historikerstreit of the 1980s resounded so powerfully in German society. He reminds us that history is often not only about the past, but is about the present and future, as well. After German politics and the German historical profession took a conservative turn in the 1980s (CDU Helmut Kohl elected Chancellor in 1982), it’s no wonder that we see historians trying to write a more agreeable national history for Germany, Evans posits. If these conservative historians can downplay the unique nature of the Holocaust by comparing it to other atrocities performed by other nations, West Germany could potentially step out from Hitler’s long shadow (783). Evans then spends pages showing how the Kohl administration, through media campaigns and tours, sought to craft a national history that Germans could be proud of, one in which the role of the Third Reich was not forgotten, certainly, but downplayed (786-792).

Concluding, Evans states, “Unproductive though the Historikerstreit may be in terms of its contribution to historical knowledge, it does provide a stimulus toward reflection on the nature of German historical scholarship, the historian’s role in society, and Germany’s place in the world” (792). Nearly thirty decades after Evans is writing, today we can see the Historikerstreit as an important development in the West German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

For more works on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Rethinking the Gay & Lesbian Movement

Marc Stein

Stein, Marc.  Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement.  New York: Routledge, 2012. 

 

Subject:  A compact synthesis of the American gay and lesbian movement from 1950 to the early 1990s.

Main Points:  This is a slim book, but one packed full of information.  In a great introduction, Stein highlights the development of gay and lesbian scholarship, as well as the newer fields of queer theory and the history of sexuality.  He points out that there have been many great monographs dealing with a vast variety of topics, but asserts that it has been decades since someone has produced a synthesis account of the gay and lesbian movement in all of the United States.  This book is meant to fill that gap.  Scholars of gay & lesbian studies/queer theory/history of sexuality won’t really learn much new information from the book, but he does succeed in bringing together the latest research into one place and presenting it in a clear, understandable way.  It’s an insightful and academically serious book while also avoiding scholarly jargon and prose so that it’s open to readers who are just stepping into the field.  In that respect, this is meant to be more than just a textbook that tells what happened.

In the intro, Stein introduces readers to the idea of the socially constructed nature of gender, biological sex, and sexuality, though he never uses the term ‘socially constructed.’  He explains that when talking about different periods, one has to use different labels, since it’s inaccurate to speak about “queer activists” in the 1920s or “LGBT individuals” in the 1940s, for example.  Instead, he speaks about the homophile movement of the 1940s-1960s.  He then shows the development of gay liberation and lesbian feminism from 1969-1973, and the subsequent gay and lesbian activism that extended to 1990.  After that, he explains, it’s more appropriate to speak of LGBT and queer activism.

Early on Stein makes it clear that this book is not meant to be a history of all people who have sex with people of the same sex.  Instead, it is meant to chronicle the important developments of those men and women who identified as gays and lesbians (he pays less attention to bi and trans individuals) and who were politically and social active during this time period.  “As defined in this book, the gay and lesbian movement has been a small but influential component of a much larger gay and lesbian world, which in turn has been a small but influential component of a much larger universe of people who engage in same-sex sex.  Most people who engage in same-sex sex do not think of themselves as gay or lesbian and most gay and lesbian people are not activists” (9).  He then defines a “movement” as having four components:  a movement is an (1) organized, (2) collective, and (3) sustained (4) effort to produce, prevent, or reverse social changes.  Based on this definition, the gay and lesbian movement did not start in American until the 1950s.

In the first chapter, he provides a very brief overview of same-sex sex in North America between 1500 and 1940.  The content is oversimplified, but his point (which he makes clearly) is that understandings of sexuality have changed over time.  He provides many examples of how the history of gender variance is intertwined with the history of sexual variance, but these are not necessarily the same histories.  The second chapter deals with homophile activism (1940-1969) and shows how thousands of people who engaged in same-sex sex did not think of themselves as gay or lesbian – and did not become political activists, but who pushed for homosexual rights nonetheless.  He reveals that, in the years between 1950-1953, these groups had leftist political leanings, while between 1953-1961, homosexual rights advocates were predominantly liberal.  The years between 1961 and 1969 saw a diversification and radicalization of homophile organizations.  The main contribution of this chapter is to historicize the Stonewall riots and show that while these homophile organizations remained small in comparison to later movements and did not achieve the mass mobilization that occurred with post-Stonewall activists, they did have achievements and laid the foundation for the movement’s future successes and failures (41).  In this respect, this chapter reminded me of The Lavender Scare (D. Johnson, 2004) and The Straight State (Canaday, 2009) in that it points out that “the politicization of people who engaged in same-sex sex occurred in part because of the unjust policies and practices they experienced and witnessed in the context and aftermath of the [second world] war” (42).

In the third chapter (1969-1973), our attention is turned away from groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.  He shows that the Stonewall riots of 1969 (set in a larger socio-political context of revolution and reform) acted as a rallying point for men and women who came to identify themselves as gay and lesbians.  Radical gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism dominated the beginning of this period and called for a complete sexual revolution and overthrow of social norms.  By the end of this period, more liberal gay and lesbian reformist controlled the movement.  These reformers called for gay and lesbians to come out and fight for rights, but did not call for a complete overhaul of US society; they sought to reform the system through political lobbying.

Chapter four deals with the era of conservative backlash between 1973 and 1981.  While gay and lesbian reformers won a victory in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder, soon the New Right and new Christian Right began mobilizing to fight the “gay agenda.”  This forced the gay and lesbian activists to become more politicized, reforming their self-image into a minority group that deserved political protection (as opposed to the expression of a sexual way of being that potentially all could express).  While the gay liberationists had rebuked politics, the media, and the medical establishment, the gay liberals were forced to rely on these establishments for aid against the New Right.

The fifth chapter deals with the age of AIDS (1981-1990) and Stein meticulously charts out how the AIDS epidemic helped to mobilize more gay and lesbian individuals while also bolstering the Christian Right’s attacks against the immorality of homosexuality.  He shows how hundreds of new gay and AIDS organizations sprang up across the nation, and how the failure of the Republican-led government to efficiently react to the epidemic led to the radicalization of these new gay/AIDS groups (like ACT UP).

In the last chapter (beyond 1990), Stein looks at the emergence of the LGBT and queer movements.  He sees this development as coming out of the identity crisis that AIDS forced on the gay and lesbian communities.  AIDS activists had re-radicalized the movement, claiming that the gay and lesbian movement since the mid 1970s had grown complacent and assimilationist.  Many threw off the identities of “gay” and “lesbian” because they were seen as embodying the white, middle class bias of the movement.  Instead, the acronym LGBT was adopted, purposefully putting the movement’s diversity front-and-center.  Still other political and cultural activists chose to fight identity politics altogether and thought of themselves as ‘queer’ – or simply non-conformist.  Therefore, queer could include people who had opposite-sex sex (non conformist straight folks) while also rejecting those who had same-sex sex (gays and lesbians) who were part of the monogamous, marriage regime.  However, Stein questions whether queer is really a non-identity or if it has simply become a new identity in itself.

My Comments:  This is a dense book.  It’s full of useful information and would be perfect as a textbook for an intro-level class (grad or undergrad).  I think I’m going to have to purchase a copy so that I can keep some of the chronology straight;  he highlights essentially all of the important groups, actors, events, and legislation.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, besides all of the factual information, is that he takes great pains to show that not everyone who had/has same-sex sex identified as gay or lesbian, and thus did not feel the need to be a part of this movement.  Moreover, he shows that this was not a single, united movement; there was tons of strife, especially since people of color pointed out that they were being left out of both the lesbian and gay organizations.  Therefore, Stein does a great job of showing “the movement’s” successes and failures (as defined by their own self-professed goals).

As a last note, the book has a great, extensive list suggested further reading.  The list is 15 pages long and is broken down thematically, with everything from “general studies” to “Native Americans and Native Alaskans” to “studies of pre-Stonewall trans activism.”  This is a really great resource.

 

For more books on the gay rights movement and the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Ordinary Men

Browning Ordinary Men

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

With this book, Christopher Browning has written a remarkable and chilling chapter of Holocaust history. In this microhistory, he seeks to understand how ordinary men from Hamburg, most of whom were not even ardent Nazi Party supporters, became mass murderers within months of being shipped to Poland. Browning uses interviews and archival material to recreate, in vivid and bloody detail, daily life for these five hundred men, and ends his book by trying to tease out the psychological reasons that many of these men became increasingly efficient killers.

Browning uses footage from about 250 interviews that were performed as interrogations during the 1960s. In these interrogations, Reserve Police Battalion 101 members provided detailed accounts of what happened during the two years following their arrival in German-occupied Poland in June 1942. Browning is forthright about his research methods, highlighting the troubles of relying on oral histories, especially ones that were performed twenty-five years after the events in question. But, Ordinary Men also reveals the importance of oral history interviews in reconstructing stories that were (often purposefully) not written down. Browning uses the interview tapes judiciously, checking them against the available archival material to help construct a well-written narrative.

Using this evidence, Browning is able to show how the five hundred men of RPB 101 ultimately shot to death at least 38,000 Jews, including women, children, and the elderly. In addition to those individuals who were round up and shot, the RPB 101 ended up sending over 45,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp (142). Browning constantly reminds readers that these five hundred men were not members of the SS, who were preened from an early age to carry out the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Instead, these men were middle-aged, working class men who were either too old to enlist in the Germany army, or who volunteered in the RPB to avoid being conscripted into the army. Moreover, Browning demonstrates that the majority of the men did not join the Nazi Party until it became essentially compulsory after the Nazis had already taken power (48). This partly backs up his argument that propaganda or indoctrination can’t fully explain why these men turned into mass murderers. The violent story begins in July 1942 when Major Wilhelm Trapp informed his men that they were to shoot all inhabitants of a neighboring village. Surprisingly, Trapp gave his men the option to walk away without any punishment; only ten to fifteen percent took Trapp’s offer. The rest began a killing spree that would last eighteen months and become central to the Nazis’ final solution.

Interesting is Browning’s discussion of why more of Trapp’s men did not walk away that July morning. Browning dismisses the “bureaucratization of violence” explanation, because these men were not desk murders located in a distant office (36). Additionally, evidence shows that men were not punished by superiors for refusing to murder unarmed civilians, so the “chain of command” argument is also inadequate (170). Instead, a combination of peer pressure (not wanting to appear weak, unpatriotic, or unmanly) and, to a lesser extent, Nazi ideological bombardment led about forty percent of RPB 101’s men to continue killing unarmed Jews until the bitter end (189), while the rest either left the battalion or disappeared when it came time to go on more “Jew hunts.” Browning concludes that brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior” as murder became routine (161). The book leaves us with a chilling question:  “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (189)

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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The Straight State

Straight State

Canaday, Margot.  The Straight State: Sexuality & Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Subject:  The simultaneous formation of the American bureaucratic state and the formation of a homosexual identity through the notion of sexual citizenship.

Main Points:  This book is what Canaday calls a “social history of the state,” meaning that she believes we can study the actions of the state itself by studying “what officials do” (5).  Ultimately, she is studying how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the US state became increasingly concerned with the existence of ‘sexual perverts’ and ‘gender inverts’ within its borders.  As time went on, this aversion to a more general gender inversion became an obsession with a specific form of being: homosexuality, an identity that the state itself played a fundamental role in defining.  As Canaday makes clear, the state began to define citizenship and homosexuality as mutually exclusive terms: one could be one or the other, but not both.  The bureaucratic state turned these views into reality by implementing policies that “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behavior as either outside of or degraded within citizenship” (13).

Basically, Canaday’s main argument is that the growth of the bureaucratic state went hand-in-hand with its surveillance of sexual and gender inversions and eventual creation of a hetero-homo binary.  In order to substantiate this claim, she focuses on three spheres of the modern US state: immigration, the military, and welfare.  Between 1900 and 1924, the US federal government had to decide what to do with the influx of European immigrants coming into its borders.  Canaday argues that the bureaucrats used the label of “perverse” to map out and decide who would be allowed into the country.  Supposedly perverse individuals, such as effeminate men, were denied entrance into the US because, being perverse (gender inverted), they were more likely – almost guaranteed – to be weak and dependent on the state for support.  Women were targeted for being prostitutes since ‘being dependent’ was considered normal for a woman (26).  By the 1950s, however, the old understanding of “perverts” or “inverts” was replaced by a more systematic, and simplified binary of hetero/homosexual (you were either hetero or homo; there was no middle ground – a single same-sex action could brand you as a homosexual for life).  The McCarran-Walter Act barred all homosexuals from entering the United States, and Canaday calls this act the “culmination of nearly a century of federal regulation of homosexuality – a consolidation that definitively made homosexual sex…irrefutable evidence of homosexual identity” (216).  Through its surveillance and bureaucratic power, the state had turned same-sex sex into a defining characteristic of a deeper personal identity. 

She also looks at the role of the military in the creation of a “straight state.”  By the First World War, the military began to see homosexuality as a psycho-pathology and thus, they followed the lead of psychiatrists and began to do screenings to weed out homosexuals (66).  The ‘active’ or penetrative man in homosexual sex had been traditionally excused for his transgression, because he had not inverted his dominant gender role – in other words, his masculinity (gender) was still intact since he had not allowed himself to be penetrated by another man.  However, under the new view of homosexuality as an illness, it was object choice that was the sole factor in defining someone as homosedual.  In other words, if a man “chose” another man as his object of sexual desire, both men were automatically homosexual; gender (or more accurately, the inversion of gender roles) was no longer the defining factor.  So, afterwards, all men involved in homo-sex were discharged.  This psychological definition led to a hardening of the hetero/homo binary, and this shift affected women as well.  Defining the parameters of female homosexuality became less important than the fact that it was homosexuality – and thus the same as male homosexuality (187-188).

Her discussion of welfare and the state’s definition of sexuality and gender is centered on the crisis of the Great Depression and the definition of dependency.  At first we see the same connection between perversion and dependency as we did with immigration.  Civilian Conservation Corps camps were built partially to instill masculine characteristics in drifting, out of work teenagers.  Allowing them to wander around jobless would supposedly assure that they would sink further into weakness, degeneracy, and dependence on the state.  Therefore, the state had a financial motivation to help make sure that its male citizens upheld traditionally masculine gender roles.  It did not help that CCC camps were sex-segregated and many homoerotic encounters came from prolonged stays in these all-male camps where masculinity (hard work, being the bread winner) was exalted.

Canaday also talks about one of the most powerful ways the state defined homosexuality through its bureaucracy: administering veterans’ benefits.  “Blue discharges” were given to release solders from military service without a full “dishonorable discharge,” but under a stigma nonetheless.  Men with a blue discharge were ineligible for benefits from the Veterans’ Administration or under the GI Bill; the common denominator was that the blue discharges were predominantly given to men who were accused of having sex with other men.  Therefore, the blue discharge (and its denials of benefits) became associated with homosexuality.  Therefore, she argues that through bureaucratic mechanisms like a blue discharge, the state effectively created a “closet,” a reason for men to hide their desires for other men.  The state’s medicalized vocabulary also led same-sex desiring men and women to think of themselves as a particular type of man or woman who would have to hide in order to get state benefits.  Therefore, the state “institutionalized heterosexuality” (171).

Conclusions & My Remarks:  Canaday’s book makes several important contributions, and it reminds me of David Johnson’s the Lavender Scare (2004) in that it shows how the federal government first had to define homosexuality before it could police it.  So, “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” were not just grass root identities which the government reacted to.  Instead, the government was instrumental in defining homosexual, gay, and lesbian as identities.  I think she was convincing in showing that a more simplified (easier to police) understanding of sexual desire emerged – one that was based on sexual object choice rather than gender inversion (moreover, homosexuality was turned into a medical issue and thus under the domain of the state).

So, I think Canaday’s book is good at showing the how, but I’m still not clear on the why?  Why did, in the twentieth century, the US state become so interested in defining sexuality?  I’m guessing it was because it wanted more power over its citizens, and in order to do that, it had to define who its citizens were.  So, now we’re talking about Foucault’s biopower – the state’s power over life and the reproduction of life.  Homosexuals were not denied sexual citizenship (or legal citizenship) because of any moral or religious grounds, but because they were seen as a degenerative threat to the state.  So, in this case, I can see where a growing bureaucracy would go hand-in-hand with defining sexuality.

The idea that the state helped create homosexual identity(ies) is really interesting, and helpful to our understanding of LGBT history.  I think what I got out of this is that the state helped form a politicized homosexual identity through its definition of and attempt to police homosexuals.  Johnson (Lavender Scare) also shows this:  by denying political & welfare rights to homosexuals, people (who were slowly and because of a myriad of reasons, starting to think of themselves as a common, homosexual group) began to see themselves as a political minority that would have to fight for political rights.  So, the state inadvertently created gay rights activists.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews. 

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The Origins of Nazi Genocide

Friedlander - origins of genocide

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

 

Friedlander seeks to further our understanding of the Nazis’ systematic murder of those individuals that the regime labeled as “life unworthy of life,” by studying the origins of the infamous “Final Solution.” In doing so, he reveals that Jews were not the only group that the Nazis singled out for systematic murder and eventual extermination. The book also reveals insights into how these killing campaigns began and ultimately unfolded into large-scale death camps in the east.

Central to Friendlander’s argument is the fact that while the Nazis targeted a wide range of people, only three groups were targeted as racial enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft: the disabled, Gypsies (Roma & Sinti), and Jews. Scientific thought of the age – like eugenics – posited the threat of these three groups as biological, and thus irreversible. Despite the central role of Jews in our understanding of the Holocaust, Freidlander shows that the first group to be systematically murdered was the handicapped. Hitler authorized the T4 program (the code name for the execution of the handicapped, euphemistically called “euthanasia”) in October 1939. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Friedlaner’s description of the program is his account of the doctors, nurses, and scientists who volunteered for these positions as murderers; it is simply horrifying. Moreover, these medical workers were not fervent Nazis. “The perpetrators were dull and uninteresting men and women,” he claims, who volunteered either out of ideological conviction to eugenic thought, or out of professional aspirations of promotion (187). The T4 program was publically ended in 1941 after protests from victims’ families, but Friedlander reveals that the murder of handicapped adults secretly resumed within months, while the killing of “unfit” children never stopped. This public opposition taught the killers a lesson: any further euthanizing would have to be kept top secret, and would best be done outside of Germany. Thus, once the Wehrmacht conquered territory in the east, death camps were constructed only outside of the German heartland.

In this way, Friedlander links the euthanasia program directly to the Final Solution. The T4 program taught scientists, doctors, administrators, and Nazi ideologues the best ways to murder people (the gas chamber was first used in the T4 program) and the best ways to hide it from the public. Through meticulous research, he reveals that many of the T4 staffers left their institutions in Germany to staff the new, larger killing centers being constructed in the east. Their knowledge was indispensible for the success of death camps (it was more efficient to bring victims to the killing centers than to have mobile killing centers go to them, for example, 286).

Friedlander is also interested in the role Hitler himself played in all of this. While we have the official order to begin the T4 program, no paper trail leading from Auschwitz to Hitler has ever been found. Friedlander supposes that this is because Hitler had learned his lesson with the public resistance to the euthanasia program. From that point on, an order of such magnitude would have only been given orally (284-5).

Lastly, Friedlander firmly demonstrates that the Final Solution was the result of structural radicalization, and not the implementation of a pre-ordained plan. While the murder of the handicapped began in 1940, the official order for Jews and Gypsies was still deportation. “But when international conditions and the progress of the war made a more radical solution possible, the killings were expanded to include Jews” and Gypsies (21). By that point, thousands of German men and women had “developed their killing technique” through the “systematic and secret execution” of Germany’s handicapped population (22). In this light, Friedlander’s greatest contribution is drawing the direct connection between eugenic thought, euthanasia programs, and the more famous death camps and firing squads of the Final Solution.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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