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Columbus Overboard

His Recent Voyage Off the Flat Earth of Revisionist Historians

So began a poem familiar to any baby-boomer who attended public elementary school in America in the middle of the twentieth century. By 2021, however, Christopher Columbus’s legacy has clearly fallen off the flat earth of radical historical revisionism.

Reasonable, knowledgeable U.S. citizens were stunned last summer when raging mobs of mostly young adults tore down, vandalized, or forced the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus, along with those of various Confederate generals, Francis Scott Key, President Andrew Jackson, Union general and President Ulysses S. Grant, nineteenth-century abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Kit Carson, Junipero Serra (the Franciscan missionary to Spanish California and Roman Catholic saint), President Theodore Roosevelt, President Abraham Lincoln, American founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Caesar Rodney, and George Mason, and even the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Those young iconoclasts had imbibed the dominant ideology of radical revisionist historians and history teachers in their secondary school and college classrooms.

Just as the American story began with Christopher Columbus, the radical revision of history began with Columbus. His legacy has become a prism for the entire iconoclastic “revisioning” movement sweeping our society today. When and why did the traditional American reverence for Columbus, an Italian explorer and adventurer and devout Roman Catholic, turn into contempt, and how is that dramatic shift reflected in the teaching about Columbus in the U.S. public school system?

Going Off Course

The decisive turning point in the burgeoning movement to knock Christopher Columbus literally off his pedestal occurred in 1990 with two discrete events.

First, on the second Monday in October 1990, the state of South Dakota began to celebrate “Native American Day” on the same day as the traditional U.S. federal holiday known as Columbus Day. Two years later the city of Berkeley, California, followed suit, and in 1994 neighboring Santa Cruz did the same. The trend revived in 2015, and by the end of 2019, ten U.S. states and another 135 cities and towns had begun to celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in lieu of Columbus Day. The most recent spate of unlawful toppling of statues of Columbus in 2020 merely added injury to insult.

Second, five months earlier in 1990, the National Council of Churches (NCC) provided the ideological justification for the ceremonial acts of local and state government authorities and helped to shape the pedagogy pertaining to Columbus in American public education. In a resolution adopted on May 17, 1990, the NCC Governing Board, with my fellow Orthodox priest, Leonid Kishkovsky, presiding, decided to anticipate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere by denouncing the mariner and his legacy: “For the descendants of the survivors of the subsequent invasion, genocide, slavery, ‘ecocide,’ and exploitation of the wealth of the land, a celebration is not an appropriate observation of this anniversary.” The three-page document includes a litany of grievances against that legacy. Among the most egregious claims and misrepresentations of the complex historical record were these:

  • That “the Church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized” the European “conquest and exploitation.”
  • That “the missionary efforts” during the subsequent “period of colonization and subjugation . . . resulted in crimes against the spirituality of indigenous peoples.”
  • That “what some historians have termed a ‘discovery’ in reality was an invasion” prompted by “a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence,” a phrase that leftist critics now apply routinely to the United States even after the remarkable success of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century.

The entire document reveals an astonishing lack of self-awareness. The NCC denounced the evil legacy of Columbus and the “colonialism” and “Eurocentrism” that, in their minds, was driving the celebration of Columbus. Would they prefer that Columbus had never come to these shores, and that the American land were still a pre-modern, pre-Westernized, pre-industrial, pre-technological, primitive land where no one knew, much less believed in Jesus Christ as Lord God and Savior?

Lost Bearings

To dig more deeply into the formation of that mindset, it is worthwhile to turn to the publication in 1979 of Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century. That landmark study focused on what FitzGerald deemed a decisive turning point in the teaching of U.S. history in America’s middle and secondary schools in the 1960s: “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place in American schoolbooks.”

The key features of the re-visioning of U.S. history half a century ago were, according to FitzGerald, “a distinct shift of emphasis from foreign policy to domestic social history” to reflect that turbulent time for an America mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam and beset by “urban blight” and poverty, assassinations of prominent Americans, drugs, intensified race conflicts even after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the sexual revolution and attendant weakening of the traditional nuclear family. The heretofore staid, dull, and nationalistic textbooks were displaced by lively race- and sex-conscious narratives with a dual purpose: (1) to inform students and hone their critical-thinking skills by engaging them in primary source analysis and assessments of opposing views, and (2)  to “mold attitudes and feelings as well as teach skills.” The second goal is now, as it was in 1979, fraught with risks and perils, depending on the ideologies of the textbook authors and classroom teachers.

FitzGerald’s anti-revisionist analysis proved as prescient as it was insightful. As if on cue, the very next year produced the first broadside against the legacy of Columbus by an American historian.

In 1980 Howard Zinn published his infamous A People’s History of the United States. For the decades since, that book has enjoyed widespread notoriety and commercial success, because thousands of secondary-school history departments and college history professors have adopted it as the main textbook in their U.S. history courses.

Zinn, a radical who dabbled in various activities of the Communist Party USA in the late 1940s and 1950s, wrote his “history” from a blatantly, relentlessly, and unapologetically “socialist” perspective. Here is a sample of his take on Christopher Columbus:

To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)—the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress—is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. . . .

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress . . . is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. . . .

That is not historical analysis as much as it is a morality play. Zinn simplistically rewrote the more familiar narrative of “good and evil” into one of “evil and good,” with the erstwhile roles reversed. But in Zinn’s mind, it only began with Columbus. A few pages later, he announces the second act: “What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”

The Original Course

Before Zinn, U.S. history textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s (when I was a high-school student and subsequently a secondary-school teacher of U.S. history and Western civilization) generally offered a positive narrative of Christopher Columbus as an Italian mariner who persuaded the Roman Catholic rulers of Spain to finance his intrepid voyages, beginning in 1492, to chart a westward water route across the Atlantic Ocean to the rich markets of the Far East and India. The general shift toward revisionism that FitzGerald perceived in those decades had not yet infected accounts of Columbus.

For example, A History of the United States by Richard C. Wade, Howard B. Wilder, and Louise C. Wade (1966) devoted its first nine pages to a historical survey of late medieval European society, culture, economics, trade, nationalism, religion (including the Crusades), and exploration around the African continent to reach Asia by sea. During his four voyages, Columbus landed in what is now Watling Island in the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba, and he subsequently sailed to other islands in the Caribbean and along Central America, convinced that he had arrived in Asia. Wade et al. did not mention the indigenous peoples whom Columbus engaged, much less discuss their cultures and societies. Nor did those historians criticize Columbus’s “legacy” to those indigenous peoples, in contrast to the free-wheeling denunciations in the vast majority of recent U.S. history textbooks.

Man in America by Richard C. Brown, Wilhelmena S. Robinson, and John T. Cunningham (1974) began its narrative in chapter 2 by devoting 20 pages to a rather objective introduction to “The First Americans” (that is, the indigenous peoples on the continent before Columbus arrived). But that textbook’s authors, also in contrast to Wade, Wilder, and Wade, focused on Columbus’s Roman Catholic faith in some detail and without criticism at the beginning of chapter 4. After stepping on dry land in 1492, Columbus “and his captains knelt and gave thanks to God for their successful voyage from Europe. The admiral called the island San Salvador (Spanish for ‘Holy Savior’). He then took possession of the land in the name of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain” (67). An excerpt from Columbus’s own journal includes the admiral’s reflections on his friendly encounter with the people there and his intention to convert them to “our Holy Faith by love” instead of force. He believed “they would easily be made Christians, because it seemed to me that they belonged to no religion” (75, 76).

Brown et al. did not, however, shrink from criticizing the mistreatment of the Indians in the West Indies by the Spanish colonizers, noting how “the Indian soon found himself the victim of those who invaded his homeland” and how forced labor and smallpox and other diseases brought by the Spanish settlers shrank the Indian population. Man in America also devoted an entire page to Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, a former “adventurous” conquistador who became a Jesuit and the Spanish “Apostle to the Indians.” The authors lauded him for freeing his own Indians from servitude, halting the soldiers’ cruelty, and struggling successfully “to get laws passed in favor of the Indians” (77).

To round out the picture from the 1960s and 1970s, we may compare Rise of the American Nation (Heritage Edition in 1977) by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti. That textbook began with the then customary European background to Columbus’s voyages, with only a few short, sketchy paragraphs describing the non-European “first Americans” (10). Todd and Curti echoed the familiar details about Columbus: his conviction that the earth was spherical instead of flat, the three ships and crews for the first voyage in 1492, his thanks to God upon arriving in the Bahamas, and his presumption that he and his crews had reached Asia instead of a new continent. Todd and Curti extolled Columbus for launching the “Geographic Revolution” and struck a bittersweet, though sympathetic, note to describe Columbus’s significance. Failing repeatedly “to find an all-water route” to Asia, Columbus returned from “his fourth voyage a poor, lonely, broken-hearted man. He died in 1506 without knowing that his explorations would, in time, have more influence in Europe than all the riches of Asia” (7).

A Full Turnabout

It took a while, but in the last few decades a robust anti-Columbus paradigm—together with a subtle but even more disturbing anti-Christian paradigm—finally emerged in U.S. secondary-school and college history textbooks and classrooms. A sample of the most widely used such textbooks reveals that the distinguished historians who produced them have jumped onto the Columbus-bashing bandwagon.

Two popular textbooks pay mere lip service to certain undisputed facts of the familiar Columbus narrative, while mischaracterizing certain adverse consequences of his arrival in the Americas and resorting to classic negative tropes about his religion.

The eighth edition of America’s History, Volume 1 (2014) by James A. Henretta, Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self begins its narrative with a few familiar factoids about the voyages of the “Genoese sailor of humble origins” (6), followed by the now obligatory account (in ten full pages) of Native Americans and their culture before the arrival of Columbus. In stark contrast, the authors devote only three paragraphs to Columbus himself, observing in one that the voyager “was surprised by the crude living conditions” of the native peoples he encountered but expected them “easily [to] be made Christians” and “demanded tribute from the local Taino, Arawak, and Carib peoples” (31).

But the next section on “The Spanish Invasion” presents a strictly dark tale of the Spaniards, in pursuit of “gold and slaves,” “brutally subduing” the native peoples they encountered in the Americas. In what has become a tiresome trope, the four historians declare, “The Spanish had a silent ally: disease,” as if the “invaders” had intentionally inflicted smallpox and other pestilences upon a vulnerable population never exposed to them until the arrival of the Europeans.

It is one thing to describe “one of the great demographic disasters in world history” whereby a native population shrank from (an estimated) 20 million in 1500 to barely three million in 1650 as a result of “disease and warfare” (35). But the authors of this textbook fail to situate that extreme indictment in the broader cultural and religious context of what the Spaniards also brought to the New World with full awareness and intention: Roman Catholic Christianity. Is it a mere oversight or an editorial choice rooted in anti-religious bias to accentuate the negative about the Spanish Catholics while failing to give religion its due?

Foner’s Attempt

The “Seagull 5th edition” of Give Me Liberty! An American History (2017) is a rarity in the U.S. history textbook business—a single-author work by Eric Foner, professor of history emeritus at Columbia University. His see-saw treatment of Columbus begins on page 18 (after the usual noble Native Americans prolegomena).

First, Foner observes:

For Columbus, as for other figures of the time, religious and commercial motives reinforced one another. A devout Catholic, he drew on the Bible for his estimate of the size of the globe. Along with developing trade with the East, he hoped to convert Asians to Christianity and enlist them in a crusade to redeem Jerusalem from Muslim control.

This is the only textbook so far, to my knowledge, that presents Columbus as a late fifteenth-century Crusader. Foner then provides a fuller context for the Reconquista in Spain in 1492 than a reader may find in similar textbooks. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella “ordered all Muslims and Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country” to “ensure religious unification” and to reverse the previous invasion and conquest of most of Spain by the Moors, “African Muslims who had occupied part of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries” (18). (I suspect it is only a matter of time before the radical revisionist historians, public-school teachers, and administrators “cancel” Foner’s textbook for its nonchalant view of Columbus the “Crusader” and its characterization of the “invasion and conquest” of Spain by “African Muslims” as, well, an “invasion and conquest.”)

Second, like all U.S. history textbooks since the 1990s, Foner’s chronicles the “demographic disaster” of the “Columbian Exchange,” which, he claims in a flash of hyperbole, “altered millions of years of evolution” (21f). The key cause was that the Europeans “carried germs previously unknown in the Americas” and, to be sure, mostly “unknown” to themselves as well! Along with the “wars” and “enslavement” that the Europeans brought to the New World—Foner fails to note that those social and immoral practices were typical among the warring indigenous peoples themselves—Foner laments the “catastrophic decline” in “the Indian populations,” upwards of 80 million persons, due especially to “diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles,” to which the locals had never developed antibodies. Foner echoes a familiar refrain when he concludes: “It was disease as much as military prowess and more advanced technology that enabled the Europeans to conquer the Americas” (22).

Third, Foner devotes more than half a page to Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas and his remarkable moral critique, titled A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies and published in 1552, fifteen years after Pope Paul III’s edict forbidding enslavement of Indians in the Americas. Bartolomé’s father had joined Columbus’s second voyage, and he himself “participated in the conquest of Cuba, before liberating his own Indian slaves and assuming the prophet’s mantle” (27). He castigated his own country for “causing the death of millions of innocent people,” and enumerated the “strange cruelties” inflicted by “the Christians,” ranging from “the burning alive of men, women, and children, and the imposition of forced labor.” Bartolomé implored the Spanish crown and elites to permit the Indians to “enjoy ‘all guarantees of liberty and justice’ from the moment they became subjects of Spain.” However, he never wavered in his conviction that Spain had a divine “right” to colonize America, and he proposed, ironically, that “importing slaves from Africa would help to protect the Indians from exploitation” (27).

That mixed portrait of Bartolomé de Las Casas probably bespeaks an honest attempt by Foner to present, here and there, a “balanced” history. However, in the absence of a broader historical picture of the gradual civilizing and salvific effects of the Spaniards’ Roman Catholic project in the New World, most teenage secondary-school students will probably take away from that section of Foner’s textbook only the shocking images of massive slavery, death, and destruction visited upon the natives by the European colonizers.

With Lethal Intent

Another popular U.S. history textbook prone to the radical revisionist Zeitgeist is the 7th edition of America: A Narrative History, Volume 1 (2007), by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi. The authors cast Columbus as a pecuniary adventurer instead of a devout Roman Catholic. Tindall and Shi stress how the Spanish monarchs in 1492 offered Columbus “a tenth share of any pearls, gold, silver, or other precious metals; and valuable spices he found in any new territories” (15–16). He was, everyone presumed, headed west to Asia for its celebrated riches.

But Tindall and Shi also note that Columbus, for his second voyage in 1493, had “royal instructions to ‘treat the Indians very well'” (17). They also, uniquely in my reading, describe the native Carib Indians of the Lesser Antilles, whom Columbus encountered during his second voyage, as “fierce” and allegedly given to human cannibalism: “the word cannibal was derived from a Spanish version of their name (Canibal)” (16). So much for the moral innocence of at least some native peoples whose “values” too many historians today pit against those of the dastardly European invaders!

The rest of Tindall and Shi’s account clearly accentuates the negative aspects of the Columbus legacy. For example, they cite one event during Columbus’s second voyage that the other textbooks must have “overlooked.” After “unsupervised soldiers had run amok, raping native women, robbing Indian villages, and as Columbus’s son later added, ‘committing a thousand excesses for which they were mortally hated by the Indians,'” the natives retaliated, killing ten Spaniards. “A furious Columbus” then launched a “counter-counter-attack” against those villages. The result was predictable: “The Spaniards, armed with crossbows, guns, and ferocious dogs, decimated the natives and loaded 550 of them onto ships bound for the slave market in Spain.”

Tindall and Shi continue that drumbeat when they turn to the “Great Biological Exchange,” which, of course, “ultimately worked in favor of the Europeans at the expense of the natives” (18). They cite the familiar facts: the transmission of new infectious diseases to the biologically unprepared natives and the catastrophic casualties that resulted. They also point to the “social chaos” resulting from the disintegration of “tribal cohesion and cultural life” (21), which eroded the Indians’ ability to “resist European assaults” (22). But Tindall and Shi disparage, unfairly and without evidence, the collective moral and spiritual character of the Spanish Catholic colonists. “As Indians died by the thousands,” the two historians declare, “disease became the most powerful weapon of the European invaders”—as if the “invaders” embraced such a “weapon.” And they conclude their narrative with this trenchant observation: “Many Europeans . . . interpreted such epidemics as diseases sent by God to punish the Indians who resisted conversion to Christianity” (22).

Misdirection by Teachers

We have seen how recent U.S. history textbooks assigned in secondary schools (and introductory college courses) are prone to distortions of the complex but generally positive historical record of the discovery of America by Europeans.

Then there is the Advanced Placement U.S. History program (APUSH) for high-school students. APUSH is the premier secondary-school opportunity for the best students to take what suffices as a college-level introductory sequence in U.S. history for college credit at almost any institution they may attend upon graduation, depending on their grade in a challenging three-and-a quarter-hour exam at the end of the school year. The third edition of the AMSCO Advanced Placement United States History 2020 guidebook, which APUSH teachers may use as the only textbook or as a supplementary resourcein their AP courses, is an unusual model of scholarly balance.

Although the textbook’s schematic presentation of the Columbus phenomenon and the Spanish conquest/colonization of the Americas barely touches on religion (even Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas receives only passing mention), this volume includes an excellent one-page summary of the recent debate between “revisionist” historians and Columbus “apologists” on the topic of Columbus’s legacy. Among the latter, who offer a more nuanced assessment of Columbus’s motives, is the renowned liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The summary also notes how the “apologists” point to “Aztec [human] sacrifices” being offered before the arrival of the Europeans and how “the gradual development of democratic institutions in the colonies and the United States” may mitigate or “partially offset” the “mistreatment of Native Americans” (13).

But even that respectable guidebook is only as useful as the teachers who utilize it in their classrooms. In Loudoun County, Virginia, in 2018, an APUSH instructor in one of the secondary schools posted online the required readings and assignments that the students in his 2018–2019 APUSH course were expected to complete the summer before the first day of classes. In addition to the first three chapters of the APUSH text discussed above, which covered the years 1491 to 1754, he required his students to read chapter 2 (“1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus”) of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen (2007). The instructor neither required nor suggested a second reading to provide a reasonable, opposing historical analysis.

The sentence at the end of that assigned reading affords us a good idea of Loewen’s role as an acolyte of Howard Zinn and his People’s History of the United States: “When they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identifying with the oppressor” (69). Along the way, Loewen takes gratuitous, simplistic swipes at European Christians, who “tortured or expelled Jews and Muslims” (34), whose “amassing wealth and dominating other people came to be positively valued as the key means of winning esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter” (36), and who, reflecting “the particular nature of European Christianity,” “believed in a transportable, proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest” (36). A twenty-first-century “Know Nothing” anti-Catholic bigot, Loewen offers this pearl of wisdom: “In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larouse puts it, before America, Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism” (61). One wonders how that public-school teacher’s Roman Catholic students in 2018 dealt with that execrable “history” text and their unprofessional, biased instructor.

The Tip of the Spear

The preceding examples focusing on the treatment of Christopher Columbus and his legacy in America’s public secondary schools provide only a small window into what many schools have been foisting on students in the name of “diversity,” “tolerance,” or “empathy for ‘the other.'”

The trashing of the Columbus legacy in our nation’s public schools is turning out to be the tip of the spear wielded by the two consistently left-wing national public-school teachers’ unions: the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Both organizations have wholeheartedly endorsed the New York Times‘s “1619 Project.” According to the NEA’s website, for example, that program for all U.S. public schools “challenges us to reframe U.S. history and better understand the hold of institutional racism on our communities” based on the arrival of the first African slaves in what is now the United States—as if Protestant English settlers had not arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, more than a decade earlier in 1607, or Puritans in New England in 1620.

When my own third-grade granddaughter came home from her Fairfax County, Virginia public elementary school one day in spring 2020 and indicated to her mother that she likes President Abraham Lincoln but not President George Washington, her mother asked, “Why?” Her daughter’s response: “Because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and George Washington had slaves of his own.” The radical politicization of history in our public schools has now reached every grade level.

The California Department of Education is seriously considering a new “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” intended to combat “white supremacy and racism,” while fostering appreciation of the cultural traditions and experiences of “pre-Columbian America.” Mandated classroom activities will include public-school teachers leading their students in chanting the names of medieval Aztec deities and offering petitions.

Meanwhile, in recent months in my own county of residence in Virginia, the bi-weekly Loudoun County Public School Board meetings have become contentious battlegrounds between condescending elected officials and parents outraged over the incursion of the latest leftist faux history fad, “critical race theory,” in the public school system.

The odds of our children and grandchildren receiving an objective, informed U.S. history education are vanishingly small. This situation is dire. The intellectual growth, self-image, moral character, and religious faith of our children and grandchildren are at stake. 

About the author

Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, Ph.D., retired in August 2019 as Dean and Professor of Moral Theology Emeritus at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, New York. He also retired in June 2010 as a U.S. Army chaplain in the rank of Colonel after a quarter century of service in uniform, his last five years back on active duty primarily to conduct twelve periodic visits to the American and Coalition troops of Eastern Orthodox Christian faith in the combat areas of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Kuwait and Qatar. Archpriest Alexander holds academic degrees in History from the University of Pennsylvania (A.B., 1972), History & Education from Columbia University (M.A., 1975), Theology from Harvard University Divinity School (M.T.S.,1977), and Religion / Social Ethics from the University of Pittsburgh (Ph.D., 1988). In addition to 50 scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as more than 100 op-ed articles and interviews in newspapers, magazines, and online, he is the author of four books on religious ethical themes and co-editor of another. Following ordination to the Holy Priesthood in September 1982, he served for a total of 26 years as rector of Orthodox parishes in Clairton, PA, Falls Church, VA, and Stafford, VA. Currently adjunct professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University, Archpriest Alexander has also taught at eleven institutions of higher education including George Washington U., Virginia Theological Seminary, and the University of Maryland University College in Okinawa, Japan. He has been married for 49 years to Matushka Kathleen, and they are blessed with four children and three grandchildren.

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