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Notable readings of the day 07/23/2012

July 23, 2012
    • During the Nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.
    • the twentieth century that we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nostalgo-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, they are opportunities for the recollection of selective suffering.
    • The problem with this lapidary representation of the last century as a uniquely horrible time from which we have now, thankfully, emerged is not the description—it was in many ways a truly awful era, an age of brutality and mass suffering perhaps unequaled in the historical record. The problem is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance—unencumbered by past errors—into a different and better era.
    • Today, the “common” interpretation of the recent past is thus composed of the manifold fragments of separate pasts, each of them (Jewish, Polish, Serb, Armenian, German, Asian-American, Palestinian, Irish, homosexual…) marked by its own distinctive and assertive victimhood.
    • The resulting mosaic does not bind us to a shared past, it separates us from it. Whatever the shortcomings of the national narratives once taught in school, however selective their focus and instrumental their message, they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past: today’s names, places, inscriptions, ideas, and allusions could be slotted into a memorized narrative of yesterday. In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns.
    • Until the last decades of the twentieth century most people in the world had limited access to information; but—thanks to national education, state-controlled radio and television, and a common print culture—within any one state or nation or community people were all likely to know many of the same things.
    • Today, the opposite applies. Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data. But in the absence of any common culture beyond a small elite, and not always even there, the fragmented information and ideas that people select or encounter are determined by a multiplicity of tastes, affinities, and interests. As the years pass, each one of us has less in common with the fast-multiplying worlds of our contemporaries, not to speak of the world of our forebears.
    • What is significant about the present age of transformations is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not merely the practices of the past but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.
    • In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. I
    • the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed
    • American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.
    • As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today
    • the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.
    • That same contrast may account for the distinctive quality of much American writing on the cold war and its outcome. In European accounts of the fall of communism, from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the dominant sentiment is one of relief at the closing of a long, unhappy chapter. Here in the US, however, the story is typically recorded in a triumphalist key.5
    • For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works. Hence the widespread enthusiasm for our war on Iraq in 2003 (despite strong opposition to it in most other countries). For Washington, war remains an option—on that occasion the first option. For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort.6
    • Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy.
    • This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with “Islamofascists,” “extremists” from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant “Islamistan,” who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy “our way of life”—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.
  • tags: reading best

  • tags: evil theodicy Milgram Nazi

    • What’s not a theme is a simplistic formulation of “good vs. evil,” although I see critics, fans, pundits and filmmakers announcing it as if it were supposed to mean something all the time. “Good vs. evil” might make for a simple math problem, or a wrestling match (ask Rev. Harry Powell about Love vs. Hate), but it’s not a theme
    • “Good vs. evil,” stated as a kind of equation, makes for lame drama, because if the choice is so clear, nothing is at stake. The Big Lie about the Holocaust, to use the most extreme popular example of the 20th century, is that it was perpetrated by people whose only motivation was to “do evil.” I see that as a form of Holocaust denial, an abdication of responsibility and a refusal to deal with the realities of human nature.
    • It’s so easy to claim that Evil People just decide to Do Evil because they are Evil (totally unlike the rest of us!).* But the truth is, many Nazi war criminals and those ordinary people who actively or passively collaborated with them weren’t all, as the cliché has it, “just following orders.” They believed the horrors of genocide served what they saw as a greater purpose: maintaining the purity of their beloved Germany, their race and their empire. So, as difficult and terrible as it might be to exterminate Jews and Catholics and homosexuals and intellectuals and other perceived threats to purity (even if they were considered subhuman), the Final Solution was, they believed, a noble calling in the long run. That is what’s so damnable and terrifying and human about them. They weren’t monsters — they were people like you and me who found themselves capable of doing monstrous things in the name of a Great Cause in which their faith was pure and fervent and unshakeable. That’s the stuff of history, and that’s the stuff of drama.
    • Newman offers a Christian reading, insisting: “If human beings are, as scientific materialists insist, nothing but a random combination of time plus chance plus matter, then all nattering about a moral struggle is ultimately meaningless.” Well, not necessarily. Humanists and materialists might counter that since faith acknowledges that we can’t prove the existence of a deity or a life after this one, the only morality that caries any weight comes from trying to do what’s right in this world because it is right, not out of concern for eternal reward or punishment in the “next world.”
    • “The Avengers” represents an opportunity to discuss God’s take on this predicament and His solution. That we have violated eternal laws is clear. Like Natasha, we have red on our ledgers. But the violation of eternal laws require eternal punishments that we — being finite — are not equipped to pay. No amount of right action can expunge our records. We are guilty and need someone to redeem us.
    • I recently heard a Radiolab show about the Milgram Experiment, which some have claimed bears a resemblance to the Joker’s ferry experiment. The results are usually interpreted to show that people are willing to obey authority — to (in the famous Eichmann formulation) just “follow orders,” even when it involves harming others. But psychology professor Alex Haslam has a different interpretation of Milgram’s “obedience” data that suggests the subjects are invested in the cause (in this case, being part of what they believe is a worthwhile Yale science experiment). In fact, if they were given a direct order, told they had no choice, the subjects refused to comply. As Haslam told Radiolab:


      It’s not just blind obedience: ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir.’ They’re engaged with the task. They’re trying to be good participants. They’re trying to do the right thing. They’re not doing something because they have to; they’re doing it because they think they ought to. And that’s all the difference in the world. […]


      There’s a sort of chilling comparison, which is a speech that Himmler gave to the SS, some SS leaders, when they were about to commit a range of atrocities. He said, Look, what you’re going to do, of course you don’t want to do this. Of course nobody wants to be killing other people. We realize this is hard work. But what you’re doing is for the good of Germany and this is necessary in order to advance our noble cause.

    • the two interpretations of the Milgram experiment are not opposed. They capture two aspects of what it is to follow orders. In any case of following orders the order-taker defers his judgment about what ought to be done to the expert or authority. By deferring, he “just follows orders”. But he cannot defer on the question of whether to defer. In order to defer he must believe that, even if some harm is to be done to others, that harm is permissible in light of the ends to be achieved by doing it. Thus, the order-taker must form two judgements: 1) about the value of a goal, plan, project, etc.; 2) about the permissibility of the means to manifest that value. The two interpretations are just capturing the two aspects of deference, a rather common phenomenon in our lives.
  • tags: drugs Mexico Latin America pain economics US cultural values

    • drugs, when used consistently, constantly, destructively, are all anesthesia from pain. The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year doing so, and by some estimates about a third to a half of that money goes back to Mexico.
    • We want not to feel what’s happening to us, and then we do stuff that makes worse things happen–to us and others. We pay for it, too, in a million ways, from outright drug-overdose deaths (which now exceed traffic fatalities, and of which the United States has the highest rate of any nation except tiny Iceland, amounting to more than thirty-seven thousand deaths here in 2009 alone) to the violence of drug-dealing on the street, the violence of people on some of those drugs, and the violence inflicted on children who are neglected, abandoned, and abused because of them–and that’s just for starters.  The stuff people do for money when they’re desperate for drugs generates more violence and more crazy greed
    • Then there’s our futile “war on drugs” that has created so much pain of its own.
    • No border divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes.  It’s one big continent of pain–and in the last several years the narcos have begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating new cultures of addiction and misery.  
    • Many talk about legalizing drugs, and there’s something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the causes of that suffering?
    • I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You could say that air-conditioners don’t really cool things down so much as they relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little like that: people in the U.S. are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they’re exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.
    • We give you money and guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much about.

      The drugs are supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much pain elsewhere. There’s a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy, and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away.

    • We’ve had movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops, grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but no one’s thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.
    • Here in the United States, there’s no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you’re crazy or sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, and there’s always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol, but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing mass decapitations in Mexico.
    • Mexico, I am sorry.  I want to see it all change, for your sake and ours. I want to call pain by name and numbness by name and fear by name. I want people to connect the dots from the junk in their brain to the bullet holes in others’ heads. I want people to find better strategies for responding to pain and sadness. I want them to rebel against those parts of their unhappiness that are political, not metaphysical, and not run in fear from the metaphysical parts either.
    • A hundred years ago, your dictatorial president Porfiro Díaz supposedly remarked, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” which nowadays could be revised to, “Painful Mexico, so far from peace and so close to the numbness of the United States.”
  • tags: history book ideology bias

    • “Thinking about why a particular history book is shoddy makes you appreciate why a good history book works, because it forces you to evaluate evidence critically, which is a skill every good historian — and every good citizen — should have,”
  • tags: history book ideology bias

    • in a weeklong contest to determine “the least credible history book in print” just concluded by the History News Network.
    • David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies” won with some 650 votes, narrowly edging the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” which received 641 votes.
    • Mr. Zinn’s Marxist-inflected account of American history provoked the most impassioned debate in the site’s comments section, with some commenters dismissing it as “absolutely atrocious agit-prop” and others praising it as a flawed but necessary corrective to the overly heroic stories that prevail in many classrooms.
    • David Kaiser, a professor of military history at the Naval War College, charged “A People’s History” — which has sold more than two million copies since its initial publication in 1980 — with damaging the country, “By convincing several generations of Americans that leadership does not matter and that all beneficial change comes from the bottom,” he wrote, “it has played a significant role in the destruction of American liberalism.”
    • Others, however, said Mr. Zinn’s faults were dwarfed by those of the other finalists.

      “I don’t really enjoy defending Zinn, but the other four are clearly on another level of awful,” wrote another commenter. “Zinn is tendentious and strident and polemical and oversimplifies everything, the others are obviously all worse.”

  • tags: atheism god trinity evil suffering theodicy

    • what many theists, including many Christians, find troubling about the New Atheism are not the questions that can too easily be answered but those questions that, if we are honest, we struggle to answer or simply cannot answer.
    • many of his best polemics against religion return in various ways to one core issue: the problem of evil.
    • I found Douglas Wilson’s response most valuable. Wilson spoke of hope in the face of evil and of the ultimate victory of justice. Far from justifying the violence performed against the woman in question, he explained, the Christian regards such abuse as deeply evil and sinful (categories that may or may not be equally available to the atheist). Further, and more importantly, the Christian does not seek to justify the evil under discussion but rather trusts in God’s power to overcome and annihilate it. The Christian response to the problem of evil, which is often called a “defense” or a “theodicy” depending upon its logical framework and structure, should never be a matter of defending evil. The Christian response to evil must instead entail a theology and praxis of hope in which all evil is condemned as such and the divine promise to abolish evil and establish justice is proclaimed.
    • what is the properly theological foundation for such a response, a response that seeks not to justify evil in light of a divine plan but seeks to resist and overcome evil in light of divine justice? My contention is that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the most fruitful foundation from which to defend the justice of God in the face of evil and to announce hope to suffering humanity
    • I will draw deeply on the insights of the great twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasa
    • Von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity relies heavily on the concept of kenotic or self-giving love.
    • Philippians 2:5–7, which uses the verb form of the term: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”
    • he uses this idea of kenosis as the hermeneutical or interpretive key for understanding not only Christ, the Incarnate Son, but the very inner nature or life of God.
    • the doctrine of the Trinity most fundamentally means that God’s essence is an eternal interplay of kenotic love. The dynamic love at the heart of God is the sort of love by which lovers give themselves away for the sake of the beloved. This central idea of self-donation is more than an abstract concept; it is a term brimming with existential content. The experience of authentic love, the feeling of pouring oneself out for the sake of another, cuts to the heart of human existence
    • In the context of classical theism, the guiding analogy for approaching the Trinity may have been the threefold nature of the soul, that is, the soul itself, the soul’s self-knowledge, and the soul’s self-love. This rather closed-in intrapersonal model is perhaps best replaced by a more interpersonal approach, in which we conceive of the triune life of God less in terms of the essential operations within an individual soul and more in terms of reciprocal loving relations and communion among distinct persons. Our guiding analogies for understanding the God of the Trinity can become the human family or community—human relations of love and reciprocity
    • the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially nothing other than “God is love”
    • love selflessly shared among distinct persons—is the very nature of God. In von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity, the Father begets or generates the Son in an act of self-emptying love. This outpouring of love is so primordial and constitutive both of God’s essence and of God’s relation to the world that von Balthasar speaks of the Father’s begetting of the Son as the act of supra-kenosis or Ur-kenosis which undergirds all other acts of love, both divine and human
    • The Son, in an act of total, reciprocal self-giving love, returns himself fully to the Father
    • The Holy Spirit is the personal expression, the We, of this personal, primordial exchange of pure love, such that the Father and Son stand in an I-Thou relation to one another, while the Holy Spirit is the We, or the Spirit of communal love shared between the I-Thou of Father-Son.
    • In a world of individualism, the doctrine of the Trinity confronts us with a God whose nature is social and communal. In a world of consumerism, consumption, and the grasping of the ego, the properly Christian view of God as triune envisions the divine essence as a life of love in service only of the Other, a life in which every I prefers the welfare of the Thou over and above all self-interest. The consuming individual ego, so much taken for granted in the modern West, is the very opposite of God’s nature as revealed to us by the doctrine of the Trinity. While sinful humankind seeks modes of domination, the assertion of one’s will-to-power over against any competing factors, the truth of the Trinity shows us another way. In the life of God, the life of the Trinity, into which we are all called as our final destiny and beatitude, we discover love that lets go, forgoes power, and puts oneself at the disposal of the Other.
    • Christians believe that God’s nature is expressed or revealed historically, through salvation history, through what is often called the economy of salvation. Indeed, the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, reveals the inner nature of the Triune God.
    • The deepest context of the prayers of Christ at Gethsemane is the Trinity. The Incarnate Son, in the face of great suffering, indeed in the face of accepting all evil onto or into himself, prostrates himself before his Father and prays “your will be done.” Christ entrusts or gives himself to the will of God the Father, both within salvation history and eternally in the life or dynamism of the immanent Trinity.
    • In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s sole words from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Mark 15:34). This cry of abandonment comes from the opening line of Psalm 22, and thus Jesus’s prayer must be interpreted in the tradition of the faith of Israel. Once more, we do not merely behold the man Jesus crying out in anguish to God. Instead, in the context of the Trinity, what we discover is no less than the paradox of God Incarnate confessing his Godforsakenness. If Christ is not merely human but also divine, how then can God experience abandonment by God? The answer lies only in the mystery of the Trinity. God the Son through his full solidarity with sinful humanity has entered into the deepest reality of sin, alienation from God, such that the Son experiences separation from the Father.
    • the implications of these events for our salvation, are made more clear through the sacraments of the church and in the Eucharist above all others. Christ gives himself completely to us, humbles himself so as to be present under the forms of bread and wine, and entrusts himself fully in his body, blood, soul, and divinity to humanity for the sake of our salvation. Christ’s gift of self upon the cross, the sacrifice of his body, and the shedding of his blood make possible the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, which become sacramentally nothing less than the gift of the body and blood of Christ.
    • Rather than relying on the largely pat answers of the free-will defense (the argument that God must permit evil so as to leave intact human moral freedom), the notion of some necessary balance between good and evil, or the claim that all suffering is a test didactically provided by God, the theodicy of the Trinity reveals that human suffering, united to the cross and to the descent of Christ into hell, becomes a gateway into the life of the Triune God and a gateway through which evil is annihilated and suffering and death are transformed. The broken relationship between humanity and God (due to sin) is undone in the spiritual space of the perfect relationship of love between Father and Son; it is undone by the power of the Holy Spirit. Human suffering and death, when united by divine grace to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, become not only conformed to Christ but also thereby brought up into the transforming life of the Trinity
    • my point, which includes an eschatological dimension, is that God himself redeems, in Christ by the cross and within the life of the Trinity, all forms of human suffering.
    • the goal of a properly Christian theodicy is to proclaim hope to all who are suffering and to proclaim a hope that is clearly grounded in the mystery of the God of Jesus Christ. Far from endorsing abuse or neglect, the theodicy suggested by the theology of the Trinity of von Balthasar ought to inspire us to bring God’s transforming grace into every evil so that the world may be restored through Christ in the embrace of the Triune God.
    • The cross does not simply remove evil from the world in any superficial or unilateral sense. Indeed, human beings sin no less today than they did prior to the time of Christ. Suffering is just as omnipresent, death just as inevitable, and the all-too-human problems of guilt and anxiety remain with us as much now as ever. What then has the cross accomplished? As a past event, whereby salvation is merely accomplished on our behalf by someone else, perhaps the cross accomplished nothing—not to overstate the point. The true meaning of the cross draws us into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is not that we do not suffer; it is that we suffer with Christ or in Christ. Death still stands as (seemingly) the ultimate terror, but those who die in Christ also rise in Christ. In short, the nature of Christian salvation is as participatory as it is vicarious. Sin is abolished by the cross, and sin-conditioned suffering and death are transformed, but only by our active and participatory inclusion into the body of Christ and through Christ into the life of the Trinity.
    • human beings have apparently existed for roughly one hundred thousand years, though estimates of the exact time span vary. Given this vast time frame of human existence, to be a Christian means having to believe a most incredible story, namely that God simply watched humanity living in great misery—constantly at war, enduring a pitifully low average life expectancy, subject to famine and plague, ignorant of the workings of the world around them, forced to live in constant fear—for some ninety-eight thousand years. Then, after watching “with folded arms” for all that time, God finally decides, a mere two thousand years ago, that enough is enough after all. It is at last time to intervene. But how? By staging a “gruesome human sacrifice” in the “unlettered desert” of the Middle East. An innocent man is to be tortured to death, and that shall be the long overdue salvation of miserable humankind.
    • Hitchens often criticized the concept of God as “celestial dictator.” God appears as the eternal supervising authority, the ultimate totalitarian ruler, always standing ready to convict us even of thought crimes. To paraphrase Hitchens’s quip, God is a sort of heavenly and eternal Kim Jong Il. Further, God cruelly creates humans as innately sick but then orders us under the pain of ultimate judgment and condemnation to be well.
    • The God of the Trinity, the God of interpersonal love, the God whose very essence is love selflessly shared among distinct persons, is the utter opposite of the image of God attacked by Hitchens, just as the God of the cross is the exact inverse of Hitchens’s God who stands by with folded arms as we suffer. The Triune God does not create us as sick with the disease of sin; sin is instead the freely chosen condition into which we fall by pride, as famously dramatized in Genesis 3. Nor does God simply order us to make ourselves well, but in an act of ultimate solidarity—a key concept for Hitchens himself—the God of the Trinity enacts our redemption in the theo-drama of the cross.
    • Nonetheless, Hitchens’s delightfully barbed parody or satire of the Christian story, I believe, constitutes a serious challenge to Christian faith in the face of evil. I maintain that the ninety-eight-thousand-years challenge can only be partially answered in terms of Christian theological reflection as it has been developed thus far. Thus, I want to conclude this short article with an open challenge. How do we account not only for the tens of thousands of years of human history prior to Christ, and indeed prior to Abraham, but also for the millions of years of sentient life on this planet, life that has seemingly from the start been subject to pain, suffering, death, decay, predation, and parasitism? I am here invoking both the prehistory of humanity and the crucial question of natural evil. Christian theology, undertaken at the foot of the cross and within the framework of the Trinity, must address this daunting problem and must do so in terms that are coherent and cogent for theology in a post-Darwinian context.
  • tags: Romney history wealth

  • tags: sixties history legacy radical

    • I think the 1960s were definitely a net positive for America and Americans. Civil rights and women’s rights were unequivocal triumphs, as was the newly heightened awareness of what we then called “ecology.” The greater tolerance for different kinds of people and for weirdness were excellent changes. Pop music had its awesome big-bang moment, as you say, and movies and visual art were transformed in interesting ways, and we middle-aged people now get to wear blue jeans and sneakers and go to rock concerts and generally behave as if we’re young until we die.

        But we threw some baby out with the bath water. The mistrust of government that blossomed in the late ’60s has become a chronic and in some ways pathological condition. We got carried away with the idea of victimhood, so that now white people and Christians and Wall Street guys cast themselves categorically as victims of bigotry. The latent American tendency toward self-righteousness and apocalyptic thinking got ratcheted up. The idea of one’s “own truth” started propagating, and that solipsism is now pandemic.

        And as I recently argued in a Times op-ed which bugged a lot of of ’60s-romanticizers on the left and libertarians on the right, I think the “if it feels good do it”/”do your own thing” paradigm of the 1960s also helped enable the greed-is-good hypercapitalism and general selfishness that grew and grew afterward.

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