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On Civility and Censorship: An Essay and a Challenge

May 12, 2008

From time to time, Crotonblog has been attacked by commentators and by a competing chatroom on the grounds that there should be more “civility” in the content of its editorials, contributions and reader comments. Readers only have to look at the content of other media—partisan TV commentators and stations, partisan columnists and newspapers, and, most of all, the ultra-partisan exchanges between competing politicians—to know that civility is a scarce commodity everywhere in the United States, especially in the winner-take-all world of politics.

Mark Twain is reputed to have made the sage observation that “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Crotonblog would paraphrase this to, “A few critics complain about a lack of civility on Crotonblog—but nobody seems to be able to define what they mean by civility.” Should Crotonblog be more civil than radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, the Internet, and political discourse? Compared to the Fox TV news channel or the New York Post, we are eminently civil, despite the fact that it is difficult to view kindly those who judge a person’s patriotism on the basis of his willingness to wear a flag pin. Their narrow-minded attitude would make Nikita Khrushev one of the most patriotic leaders of all time. It was he who pioneered the whole flag-pin nonsense.

Where We Stand
First, let us state Crotonblog’s position: We do not censor speech, however derogatory, mean-spirited, or offending it may be. We do attempt to intercept statements that could be libelous, but since the targets of criticism or satire on Crotonblog have been public officials or public figures, and because satire cannot be libelous, we have seen almost nothing that has had to be excluded. We can exert no initial control over comments made through the TypeKey commenting authentication service.

Having encouraged readers to speak their minds freely without let or hindrance, we are made uncomfortable by any suggestion that we should pass judgment on what others may say or write, or the manner in which it is expressed. Regrettably, we have been largely unsuccessful in our campaign to get commentators to restrict their comments to the subject of an article or letter to the editor, and to refrain from attacking one another.

It is our considered feeling that we need open dialogue in this country more than ever, especially after the repeated assaults on freedom of speech by the present administration under the guise of the global war on terrorism. Moreover, we see no advantage to attempting to define what can be said under arbitrary rules for so-called civility when no such rules govern the public discourse being carried on everywhere around us. Wait till you see the excesses of the coming electoral campaign.

A nation in which cartoonists can portray the president with the features of a chimpanzee has nothing to fear from a blog that occasionally pokes fun at baldheads or the morbidly obese, the butt of jokes since time immemorial. Above all else, we refuse to ban the opinions of anyone, self-identified or anonymous, who challenges the actions of anyone in the party in power, local, county, state or federal, merely because those who are the subjects of the critical comment may not like the temper or the tone of what is being said.

And who will be the final arbiter of what can and cannot be said? An old saying has it that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The French probably have a saying that one man’s viande is another man’s poisson. And, as the classicists say, “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.” It all boils down to one conclusion: We have neither the obligation nor the desire to tell another human being what they can or cannot think or say. If that makes us Libertarians by default, so be it.

Laying the “Small Village” Fallacy to Rest
The principle argument by those objecting to Crotonblog’s policy of refusing to censor content and style goes like this: “Croton is a small village, and therefore we have an obligation to be more friendly toward one another because Crotonblog’s readers are all close neighbors.” Let us now demolish that fallacy once and for all. Nothing illustrates just how out of touch the complainers are than Crotonblog’s actual readership statistics.

For the 30-day period from April 10 to May 10 of this year, Crotonblog experienced 8,975 visits. In that period there were only three states in the U.S. in which no one logged onto Crotonblog. These were Wyoming and North and South Dakota. But, during that same period, 281 visits originated in New Jersey, 168 in Washington, DC, 127 in California, 120 in Florida, 87 in Pennsylvania, 74 in Virginia, 67 in Connecticut, 56 in both Massachusetts and Texas, to name the rest of the top ten states after New York. Crotonblog also has a wide overseas readership. The following is a tabulation of visits from countries other than the United States: Canada, 64; United Kingdom, 46; Australia, 40; India, 18; Spain, 16; France, 13; Germany, 12; Ireland, 6. So much for the notion that “we’re all just a few neighbors in a small village gossiping over the back fence.” Like it or not, Crotonblog’s readership lives in the global village.

To those who are unhappy with our position on censorship, we say, “Wake up and smell the latte.” We suspect that the complainers are probably of a generation considerably older than Crotonblog’s staff, and thus their attitudes reflect the biases, the complacency and the conservatism of an age group that grew up listening to the radio or watching Sid Caesar and Milton Berle in the early days of TV. Their problem may be that they are not ready to adapt to a fast-moving technology in which the owner of a stolen laptop can photograph the thief and turn the photo over to the police, as happened recently in White Plains.

We would also remind critics and readers alike that Crotonblog is a private enterprise, owing nothing to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of its owners, who created it and make it available to the public at no charge and with no obligation on the part of the public to read it.

What Is This Thing Called Civility?
Let us now consider how to define civility. Perhaps we can find clues to civility in other cultures. For example, one might think that Britain is home to one of the most civil societies on this planet. The British stand patiently in orderly lines while waiting for a bus. Yet one only has to read British newspapers to see the prying, rowdy, salacious free-for-all that is the British press.

The French, too, are noted for their politeness, so much so that their word for it, politesse, has worked its way into the English language. The French language itself is full of s’il vous plaits, je vous en pries and pardons. It’s a different world, however, once they get behind the wheel of an automobile. When a fender-bender occurs, there is much insulting name-calling, arm waving and gesticulating with obscene finger gestures—but physical contact is never made and a blow is never struck. In that sense, one might say that the whole post-accident encounter is conducted with civility.

Then there is Japanese society, another contender for the civility title. So much bowing takes place throughout Japan in the course of an ordinary day that the expression “Oh, my aching back” must surely have originated there. The idea of touching another person is anathema in Japan, where even the social gesture of shaking hands is frowned upon. Yet one does not board a Tokyo subway train by stepping into it; one is literally pushed on board by white-gloved uniformed platform guards whose instructions are to unceremoniously cram as many as possible on each train. Groping of female passengers has become so common that authorities have added female-only subway cars.

Japanese civility (or the lack thereof) was memorialized in a 1938 poem entitled “The Japanese.” By then, the Japanese had already invaded and annexed Manchuria and had just completed the destruction of Nanking, the Chinese capital, where hundreds of thousands were brutally raped and murdered. Here’s what American poet Ogden Nash had to say about Japanese civility:

How courteous is the Japanese,
He always says, “Excuse it, please.”
He climbs into his neighbor’s garden,
And smiles, and says, “I beg your pardon.”
He bows and grins a friendly grin,
And calls his hungry family in.
He grins, and bows a friendly bow,
“So sorry, this my garden now.”

Some Definitions
What do critics mean when they call for more civility? Let’s look at some definitions of the word. “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” defines it as: (1) courteous behavior, politeness. (2) a courteous act or utterance. Not too much help there. How can one courteously say that Treasurer Abe Zambrano, now bucking for Village Manager after only four years as Village Treasurer, was stupid and unprofessional for sending out phony water bills?

Let’s look at what the thesaurus offers as synonyms for civility: (1) a courteous act or courteous acts that contribute to smoothness and ease in dealings and social relationships, amenity (used in plural), courtesy, pleasantry, politeness, propriety (used in plural). (2) well-mannered behavior toward others: courteousness, courtesy, genteelness, gentility, mannerliness, politeness, politesse. Still not much guidance there if you’re saying that trustee candidate Joe Streany was ethically challenged, ignorant of anti-discrimination laws and no friend of the environment.

Let’s look at the adjective courteous that keeps popping up: (1) full of polite concern for the well being of others: attentive, considerate, gallant, polite, solicitous, thoughtful. (2) characterized by good manners: civil, genteel, mannerly, polite, well-bred, well-mannered. We thought we were being well mannered when we pointed out that Joann Minett’s sole qualification to be a trustee was her semimonthly accusatory rant before the village board.

And now, let’s consider the noun courtesy: (1a) polite behavior. (1b) a polite gesture or remark. (2a) consent or agreement in spite of fact, indulgence: They call this pond a lake by courtesy only. (2b) willingness or generosity in providing something needed: free advertising through the courtesy of the local newspaper. And then there’s courtesy, the adjective: (1) given or done as a polite gesture: paid a courtesy visit to the new neighbors. (2) free of charge: courtesy tickets for the reporters. Please forgive us for saying so, but spending millions to raise the level of the parking lot makes as much sense as trying to raise the H.M.S. Titanic from its grave on the bed of the North Atlantic.

Finally, here’s what the thesaurus offers as synonyms for courtesy: (1) a courteous act or acts that contribute to smoothness and ease in dealings and social relationships, amenity (used in plural), civility, pleasantry, politeness, propriety (used in plural). (2) an act requiring special generosity: beau geste, compliment, favor. (3) well-mannered behavior toward others: civility, courteousness, genteelness, gentility, mannerliness, politeness, politesse. May we be excused for saying so, but we still think injecting chemical additives into Croton’s award-winning water supply is a dumb idea when the proper remedy would be to replace the aging pipes.

We have purposely taken this ramble through dictionary and thesaurus only to show the wide range of tepid meanings encompassed by the word civility and its equivalents. We now issue a challenge to unhappy readers and particularly to our permanently disgruntled critics who sound off so vociferously about Crotonblog on the chatroom of The North County News. Some NCN critics bandy about wholly inappropriate phrases like “You can’t shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater.”

A Challenge
So, we ask our critics so willing to cast the first stone, especially those who have been so vocally and uncivilly critical of us on the NCN chatroom, to answer this question: Which of the above definitions are they demanding we adopt as a standard when they take Crotonblog and its contributors and commentators to task for lack of civility? Here’s their chance to tell us what their idea of civility is—but please stop with the delusory “we live in a tightly knit small village” argument. In light of our broad circulation to every continent on this planet, it just isn’t so.

Responders can communicate their responses to us as a letter to the editor at Crotonblog.com, or as a comment sent through TypeKey. They can use their own names or don the cloak of anonymity, a garment we encourage readers to adopt to prevent identity theft.

As the parson says at the beginning of the marriage ceremony to any in the assemblage who might know of a reason why the marriage should not take place, “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

On May 19, 2008 10:34 AM, weewill said:

Who is responsible for what? Read a post from June 8th, 2005 and then decide for yourself. Incivility has been in our midst long before Crotonblog began. Much has changed since that date 3 years ago but some never will.

June 8, 2005 I Luv Crtn - June 2005 We made the decision to end distribution of the Iluvcrtn newsletter with the advent of the new Crotonblog site. Crotonblog is an excellent venue for dialogue and debate about issues important to Croton. It has become one of our newest reasons for why we Luvcrtn!

The blog encourages and presents us all with a sound and sensible way to share our opinions and feelings, to agree or disagree, to argue and solve problems as a community.

What a wonderful model for our American privilege of free speech. If you haven’t used this terrific website we encourage you to go to www.crotonblog.com and participate in this great means of sharing your ideas, wisdom and concerns with your neighbors. The best solutions are found in sound and honest debate and crotonblog allows all of us to be heard and make real contributions to improved communication.

Going back to the beginning, Iluvcrtn was started a few years ago to counteract the unpleasant negativity that was creeping more and more into public meetings. The divisiveness caused by accusatory and unjustified criticism of friends and neighbors was becoming common at all village and school board meetings. Decorum had deteriorated to such a degree that it was necessary for the school board to pass a resolution encouraging civility and the village board to limit public speakers to 5 minute time periods. The tone of meetings had become so pervasive and was so offensive that ordinary citizens admitted to being afraid to speak out at meetings.

Even more troubling, such negativity was dividing our community, seniors from families with young children, to newcomers and old-timers, and definitely republicans, democrats and independents.

A small partisan group, intent on spinning events to meet their personal political agenda, must share responsibility for fostering this damaging tone. Croton residents love this village, it’s people, it’s beauty, and its small town, quaint character. Maybe we need a return to iluvcrtn in addition to Crotonblog to counteract the disagreeable and suggestive rumor mill that still persists in some quarters.

After this first awakening of iluvcrtn we will be sending occasional reminders of how blessed we are to live in such a great little village. It seems particularly timely that this takes place on the same day as our annual Summerfest. Make sure you go “uptown” and visit the many fun and interesting vendors with their special and creative wares. The sun is shining full force, and it’s a beautiful crisp, clear day.

The parade is scheduled to begin at 12:00 noon, starting at Veterans Corner on Cleveland Drive, down Old Post Road South, past the almost finished renovation at CHHS, past our wonderful Swanson’s Florist, through the center of town (around our unique red light stanchion) and up to the newly renovated Grand Street Firehouse. (Don’t forget to look to the left and see the wonders of our very own Wondrous Things on display.)

Our Croton Volunteer Fire Department will be joined by Fire Departments from neighboring towns and we’ll be privileged to applaud this great group of dedicated men and women. Listen to the great music, greet your friends and neighbors, see and hear what Croton is all about. This is our Croton and weluvit!

And if you have something that you really enjoyed or feel good about that happens here in Croton, just leave a comment to share it with others.

Happy, healthy summer to all and keep on luvincrtn!

On May 18, 2008 11:15 PM, TeaDrinker said:

Crotonblog has confirmed that the comments made regarding the identity of one “notorc” by “Whistleblower” and “Whistleblower No. 2” are indeed factual and are on record with the Croton police department.

On May 18, 2008 3:59 PM, TeaDrinker said:

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the not-so-thinly veiled anti-Semitic remark made in “notorc’s” earlier posting of April 25 to the effect that Kevin Davis “had too many matzoh balls in the air.” If the NCN blog is supposed to be moderated by “Editor & Publisher” Bruce Apar, a Jew, how come he didn’t censor that offensive remark?

On May 18, 2008 8:23 AM, TeaDrinker said:

I’m no lawyer either, but could all these people passing their dirty little cabalistic notes back and forth on the NCN blog with such gleeful abandon be part of a legally defined conspiracy?

On May 17, 2008 8:19 AM, TeaDrinker said:

So Chris Walsh is the big brave “notorc” who has been picking on the kid. Serves him right for trusting gossipy blabbermouth Cudequest. I’m glad to see this guy get his comeuppance. He commutes to the city and works on Wall Street, as I do. I know him by sight. We sometimes ride the same train. He works for the DLK Corporation at 14 Wall Street in the city. The telephone number there is 646/290-8555. How come he knows so much about “the munchies” and the drug culture?

On May 17, 2008 6:47 AM, Whistleblower said:

The revelation that Crotonblog has both a national and international readership came as a big surprise. Those who think that only a few local people read Crotonblog must feel sheepish after reading the statistics. I am one of the silent majority that reads a lot of blogs but almost never comments. Until now, that is. I began following Crotonblog when it started in 2005. After certain persons expressed unhappiness over the issue of anonymity on Crotonblog, the North County News set up a special blog for them, and insisted that posters must use their own “legal names.”

Crotonblog had all the freshness, irreverence, and insouciance of a college humor magazine. It enjoyed challenging authority by poking fun at Croton’s humorless mayor with its “What’s Up, Doc?” teasing column. On the other hand, the NCN blog’s commenters all sounded like prissy middle-school hall monitors. Although they had broken away from Crotonblog, it continued to fascinate them. With the encouragement of the NCN editor, they began a running feud with Crotonblog. The two “dueling blogs” made Croton sound like Peyton Place.

Last October, using one’s own “legal name” abruptly became not such a hot idea on the NCN blog. The North County News started a new blog on which anonymity was very much in vogue. Suddenly, the evils of anonymity became virtues. The former “legal-name bloggers” took up previously despised anonymity with a vengeance. Anonymous names sprouted overnight on the new NCN blog like toadstools on a lawn during a humid summer. In a paradoxical turnabout, posters now hiding anonymously behind opaque names like “Judith A.,” “Jennifer,” “Carolyn G.,” “Ulysses,” and “notorc,” continue to attack Crotonblog viciously for its toleration of anonymity. Unless I am missing something, and there are two kinds of anonymity, the hypocrisy of their position has never penetrated through to them.

I have a very special reason for commenting on Crotonblog now. That reason is righteous indignation, as will be seen. Crotonblog’s essay challenged readers to define the civility they were clamoring for. It said nothing about vicious character assassination, defamation, and libel. In a comment on the NCN blog on April 29, the unidentified person smugly hiding behind the name “notorc” was especially virulent and too clever by half. Referring to an incident at a village board meeting a few nights before in which young Kevin Davis distributed matzos as an adjunct to his attempt to question the mayor and trustees individually about whether they commented anonymously on blogs, anonymous commenter “notorc” wrote:

“I wonder if Mr. Davis discussed the ramifications of stirring the pot. Somehow, I doubt it. Kevin threw the first matzah ball and Mayor Schmidt responded in self defense.

“And what’s the deal with the Matzah balls and donuts anyway? Does someone have the munchies when they come to village board meetings?”

To most people, that last question sounds innocuous. But it isn’t an innocent remark at all. With the term “the munchies,” notorc strongly implied that young Mr. Davis smokes marijuana before coming to board meetings. Those readers unfamiliar with the culture of illegal drugs can easily verify the truth of my statement at the site named “Urban Dictionary,” where some 30 definitions of the term “the munchies” can be found. It refers to the hunger for junk food that affects persons after they have smoked or ingested marijuana. I’m no angel, but in my code of ethics it’s shabby and despicable for anyone to be making such an unsubstantiated charge like this anonymously against another person. I’m no lawyer, either, but it looks like a pretty clear-cut case of defamation.

Under ordinary circumstances, it’s not easy to identify anonymous posters. None of the anonymous NCN posters has supplied personal information for what in blogging circles is called a profile that discloses certain information about a blogger or commenter, such as an email address. But I have learned “notorc’s” identity—not through some computer hacker’s legerdemain, or by way of a subpoena to a website, but from the oldest source of spilled secrets—careless gossip.

The person who has posted hundreds of messages on the NCN blog and whose identity is hidden behind the thin veil of the name “maria” is a control freak who has an almost pathological need to be the center of attention. She has to flaunt her knowledge endlessly, and cannot keep her mouth shut. During the Second World War, placards were prominently displayed in public places warning, “Loose lips sink ships.” Well, I’m sorry, “maria’s” loose lips just injudiciously torpedoed the good ship “notorc.”

In the interest of fair play and whistle blowing, I shall now rip off the white sheet behind which smart-ass “notorc” has been lurking. His name is Christopher Walsh. He lives at 24 Quaker Bridge Road in Croton. His telephone number is 271-3886. Next time, Mr. Walsh, pick on someone your size. If he is unhappy at this turn of events, he can blame “maria,” to whom he entrusted knowledge of his identity, for blowing his cover, as they say in spy novels. Young Mr. Davis’s father is a lawyer and knows his way around a courthouse. The next chapter in this story should be a doozie.

On May 14, 2008 10:16 AM, TeaDrinker said:

On rereading what I wrote, I see I made reference to an obscure vaudeville performer that young whippersnappers will not be familiar with. For those who don’t recognize the name, British-born Owen McGiveney was a quick-change artist famous in vaudeville for an act in which he played male and female roles in short dramatic sketches, such as Dickens’s Oliver Twist. McGiveney would exit stage left and run across the stage behind the backdrop, where an assistant stood holding a one-piece costume. Thrusting his arms through the sleeves while the assistant ran beside him applying make-up and adjusting a few ties, McGiveney would appear from stage right split seconds later as a new character. The “reveal” would come at the end of the playlet when lights would go on behind the now-transparent backdrop, and McGiveney would repeat the playlet to show how the quick costume changes were made.

My family lived in the city but was originally from Jersey, and I spent my summers at Lake Hopatcong. Owen McGiveney had a home there to which he would return to between vaudeville tours. He once gave me an exciting ride on his mahogany-hulled Chris-Craft speedboat named “Gibson Girl.” When vaudeville died, after a stint in Ken Murray’s “Blackouts of 1949” and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show, he went to Hollywood and appeared in films as a character actor. Owen McGiveney died in 1967 at the Motion Picture and TV Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of 83. His was an original and unusual talent.

On May 14, 2008 10:12 AM, TeaDrinker said:

For some strange reason, readers seem fixated on whether Crotonblog is the product of one or several editors. I don’t give a flying fig about how many persons edit this lively blog. For all I know, a reincarnated Owen McGiveney or a half-dozen Martians from Outer Space could be producing it. The important quality about Crotonblog is that it speaks its mind on local and national topics without mincing words. And, as the foregoing essay on civility says, there is no obligation on anyone’s part to read it.

The tiny suburban village of Croton has set itself up with the top-heavy bureaucratic structure of a mid-sized city—and then worries why taxes are so ridiculously high, and unhappy factions are at each others’ throats jockeying for power. In its willingness to call a spade a spade, Crotonblog merely reflects the mean-spirited dichotomy of Croton as it is, not the aura of sweetness and light some think it should exude. If you want a true friend in Croton, get a dog.

On May 13, 2008 11:39 PM, Wayne Stevenson said:

I don’t read the NCN, although I find it ironic that the only reason I know it exists is that Crotonblog is constantly flogging it. And I have to say I don’t really give a crap what people are saying over there.

But I do care about what is said on Crotonblog. And that’s why I think it’s OK to talk about concepts like “civility,” although the editor(s) exhaustive 2-page attempt at defining it was pretty much unreadable.

The suggestion (or the hope of) some sort of civility, politeness, courtesy, or just plain neighborliness on the part of Crotonblog’s posters really seems to raise the hackles of the Crotonblog “editor(s).” Seeming to enjoy the drama and tension of imagined enemies, Crotonblog will whip out scary terms like “censorship,” and insist that it’s wise to “don the cloak of anonymity.” Crotonblog indeed has no need or responsibility to censor posters’ comments. Rather, it’s the posters themselves that should display better manners! I’m not some old fuddy-duddy, I’d just like to read interesting and important issues about Croton without having to wade through the personal insults and vitriol that is spewed by some of the posters on Crotonblog.

The anonymity that Crotonblog so tirelessly promotes serves primarily to eliminate the poster’s accountability for his comments, allowing him to lob insults and innuendos with impunity. This fosters an environment of cowardly bullies who can talk all the smack they want, and then ride the train with the guy the next day (or wave to him on the block) as if it never happened. To say things on Crotonblog that you would be afraid to say to someone in person or in public implies that what you are saying is either false, or you’re too cowardly to stand behind your convictions.

Crotonblog loves to trumpet his/their theory that posting on a blog with one’s real name will result in identity theft. This is ridiculous. Everyone’s name and address are part of the public record and are easily available to anyone who knows where to look. I find it ludicrous to imply that I.D. thieves are trolling Crotonblog to find a name to steal when there are millions more that are easier to find (ever hear of the phone book? Those names come complete with addresses, too!). This, combined with Crotonblog’s assertion that “Windows will be broken, houses will be egged, cars will be “keyed,” and tires will be slashed,” is nothing but a Bush administration-style scare tactic. Who would suspect that Crotonblog, the shrill, blindly partisan hater of all things Republican, would resort to the tactics of the Bush administration?

One more thing about the NCN… If you don’t like its message, you can do the equivalent of depositing it in the nearest wastebasket—that is to say, log off. If you are unhappy with it and receive it automatically, please notify them and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to remove your name from their subscription list.

On May 12, 2008 5:12 PM, Benedict said:

One of the finest political minds of our day; Babs Streisand herself once said “Being a jerk means never having to say your sorry” (well something like that) You don’t need to defend yourself or pretend to be more than one person. Hold your head up behind your computer monitor and keep on lashing out at your fellow villagers in a blindly partisan but fully anonymous fashion. The name of your blog clearly implies that articles posted here are not the views of an entire village but rather that of one well meaning citizen. To quote the late, great Lionel Hutz, “I don’t use the word hero very often, but you sir are the greatest american hero!!”

On May 12, 2008 3:04 PM, sdavidson said:

I like Crotonblog, so please consider this constructive criticism. I don’t feel like coming up with a succinct and all encompassing definition of civility - most people simply know it when they see it. Making cracks about a political opponents weight, etc. is not civil. It is ok to be negative when there is something negative that people really need to know about, as was the case with Streany. But negativity out of sheer spite is not civil. Calling Abe Zambrano stupid is not civil. You can say that he did something stupid, but to imply that he himself is stupid is uncivil, and indeed stupid. This should be intuitive.

Also, you sound ridiculous when you refer to yourself as “we.” If this site is managed by more than one or two people you should correct the misconception held by many of your readers.



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