The Power Of Nightmares 3: The Shadows In The Cave (BBC-2004)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is the third part of this Adam Curtis series (part one; part two).

The cave, it seems, is in the zeitgeist just now; not Bin Laden’s cave at Tora Bora — and I’m not doing to issue a spoiler alert, you’ll just have to watch — but Plato’s. Just the other day, the Archdruid summarized Plato’s extended metaphor like this:

He framed his discussion of the gap between perception and reality with an arresting image.

Imagine, Plato says, that we are all shackled in a cave, unable to turn our heads to either side. All we can see are dark shapes that move this way and that on the flat wall of the cave in front of us. Those dark shapes are all we know. They are our reality.

Now imagine that one of these prisoners manages to get loose from his shackles, and turns away from the cave wall and the dark shapes on it. He’s in for a shock, because what he sees when he turns around is a bonfire, and people moving objects in front of the flames so that the objects cast shadows on the cave wall. Everything he thought was reality is simply a shadow cast by these moving objects.

If the prisoner who’s gotten loose pays attention, furthermore, he might just notice that the cave isn’t limited to the bonfire, the prisoners, the objects casting the shadows and the people who manipulate those objects. Off past the bonfire, on one side of the cave, the floor slopes upwards, and in the distance is a faint light that doesn’t seem to come from the fire at all. If our escaped prisoner is brave enough, he might decide to go investigate that light. As he does so, the bonfire and the shadows slip into the darkness behind him, and the light ahead grows brighter and clearer.

Then, if he’s brave enough and keeps going, he steps out of the cave and into the sunlight. That’s not an easy thing, either, because the light is so much more intense than the dim red glow in the cave that for a while, he can’t see a thing. He stumbles, rubs his eyes, tries to find his bearings, and discovers that the detailed knowledge he had of the way shadows moved on the cave wall won’t help him at all in this new, blazingly bright realm. He has to discard everything he thinks he knows, and learn the rules of an unfamiliar world.

Bit by bit, though, he accomplishes this. His eyes adapt to the sunlight, he learns to recognize objects and to sense things—color, for example, and depth—which didn’t exist in the shadow-world he thought he inhabited when he was still a prisoner in the cave. Eventually he can even see the sun, and know where the light that illumines the real world actually comes from.

Now, Plato says, imagine that he decides to go back into the cave to tell the remaining prisoners what he’s seen. To begin with, it’s going to be rough going, because his eyes have adapted to the brilliant daylight and so he’s going to trip and stumble on the way down. Once he gets there, anything he says to the prisoners is going to be dismissed as the most consummate rubbish: what is this nonsense about color and depth, and a big bright glowing thing that crosses something called the sky? What’s more, the people to whom he’s addressing his words are going to misunderstand them, thinking that they’re about the shadow-world in front of their eyes—after all, that’s the only reality they know—and they’re going to decide that he must be an idiot because nothing he says has anything to do with the shadow-world.

And the Archdruid mordantly concludes:

Plato didn’t mention that the prisoners might respond by trying to drag the escapee back into line with them and bully him into putting his shackles back on, though that’s generally the way such things work out in practice.

I imagine the parallels to the Weapons of Mass Destruction are clear enough; a quarter of all Americans and half of all Republicans still believe they existed.

Alert reader Skippy mentions those few who have the power to “authoritatively craft the social narrative,” but it’s worth taking the perspective that seventy-five percent of the American people fought their way through to the truth: That Bush’s WMDs did not exist, despite the Bush administration, almost all of the political class, including the press, running an intense and deeply corrupt disinformation campaign telling them otherwise — followed by the weak tea and evasions of the Obama administration, which IIRC never even held hearings into the matter, when a Truth Commission was surely warranted.

In other words, the Noble Lie of the WMD’s did terrible damage in terms of lives lost and institutions and culture destroyed, mostly in Iraq, but also in the United States. However, that Noble Lie did not do what the Straussians hoped it would do, according the Curtis: “Assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in,” simply because everyone did not believe in it, despite the authorities who crafted it. In this case, then, at least, most of the American people threw off their chains in the cave and fought their way out to the surface sunlight. Not to say, of course, that there are not other Noble Lies still believed; the War on Terror among them.

With that, here’s the third and final part of “The Power Of Nightmares.” Enjoy!

The Power Of Nightmares 03: The Shadows In The… by GalaVentura

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. jgordon

    Actually, for all Americans reading this the number one threat to your life is cigarettes, followed right after by greasy hamburgers and french fries. Go on, the next time you see a cheeseburger just super impose an image of the Grim Reaper over it in your mind’s eye and you’ll have it about right. People who fear terrorists more than they fear cheeseburgers are not very smart.

    Alcohol, random toxins, and motor vehicles are also extremely common things that kill tons of Americans every year, and each and everyone one of those deaths caused by these things was preventable by someone or another involved. Waayyy down the list of things that will probably kill you in America are drugs, STDs, and guns. Terrorism does not appear in list of preventable causes of death at all–because the numbers are too minuscule to even bother mentioning. Come on, if people are so hard up to be afraid of stuff they should at least pick the right things to fear. This is ridiculous.

  2. abynormal

    i cannot tell a lie…i opened my (only) xmas gift early.

    “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”

    “Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.” ~J

    Jung would’ve loved a morning stroll with The Skips!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I buy too many books and am behind on reading most of them (all the way through). But my more extravagant present to myself was Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. From the summary:

      Spang’s book is also a new history of the French Revolution, one in which radicalization was driven by an ever-widening gap between political ideals and the realities of daily life. Money played a critical role in creating this gulf. Wed to the idea that liberty required economic deregulation as well as political freedom, revolutionary legislators extended the notion of free trade to include “freedom of money.” The consequences were disastrous. Backed neither by the weight of tradition nor by the state that issued them, the assignats could not be a functioning currency. Ever reluctant to interfere in the workings of the market, lawmakers thought changes to the material form of the assignats should suffice to enhance their credibility. Their hopes were disappointed, and the Revolution spiraled out of control.

      Seems quite up-to-date!

      Adding, this one looks good too: The Smile Revolution: In Eighteenth Century Paris 1st Edition

      1. abynormal

        Whoa Lambert! i Must find Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution. i volunteer at a local library…they’ll get it for me if i don’t find it ‘cheap’ online. These are the histories with Matter.

        speaking of cheap here’s one for ya…3mos ago my sister and i were traveling north ga back roads. we came upon an ole/new ‘trad’n post’…it dawned a Huge rebel flag and gun warnings But they had local fresh veggies. my sister was looking at nic nac bs and noticed a closet of mostly romance books. my sister HATES reading but brought my attention to the room. i gave it a look see and saw some books that didn’t quiet fit with the southern ‘decor’.

        i picked up The Man Who Cried I Am…John A. Williams (my copy is listing 1,306.00) brief:
        Hunger of Memory / The Education of Richard Rodriguez (my copy is listing 249.00)

        BOTH MINT CONDITIONS…bindings unbroken. when i got home i was curious about Williams book and looked it up…needless to say i IMMEDIATELY returned to get 2 more (all they had) of both books…bindings unbroken with no corners bent. AND my sister took a pic of me holding the book in front of their Huge rebel flag. bahahahahaaaa

        btw, i paid 1.00 ea. for John’s book and .50 ea. for Rodriguez.

        me have special place in heart for REDNECKS

  3. McKillop

    To my way of understanding, the phrase “noble lie” is itself ignoble and harmful at best but most probably evil: if we want to use ‘myth’ as the central description of a willful misconception we might return to the myth of Lucifer/Satan as the Prince or Father of Lies. To provoke a belief in an lie, knowing full well that the lie is a lie, overt or occult, is knavery or folly – depending upon the intention and the result.
    How many evil humans tell the truth about their own evil?
    I’ve heard (and myself, claimed) that many mischiefs were justified or “noble” or warranted in order to defend the behaviour.
    From children cheating at games to people who cheat in personal relationships or business affairs the defense is noble necessity.
    Murderers and child molesters and other monsters justify their actions with lies that present justification or extenuation. I’ve heard pedophobes ( to be pedophiles despite the harm done to both the language and their victims) pretend that their crimes are worthy rather than despicable. M. Albright believes that the death of children is a benefit – and history of millions of people murdered or enslaved demonstrates she’s not the only monster. How many vicious humans have demanded praise for doing the work of some god or another?

    1. tegnost

      I think you make good points. My favorite art concerning this matter comes from woody allen, himself tarnished to some degree, in his movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors”
      and the operating principle there and increasingly in our world where the bettors are so much better than us due to the meritocracy lie which has an unbalanced logic: i.e. by merit one has(assets), thus if one has then there is merit to be found and I think that merit is not what one gets paid for but has a lot to do with how one feels about oneself. Work places all have mini hierarchies and though everyone can be replaced, some people can simply be counted on more than others but it isn’t always reflected in the pay, which would be the expected result of having merit were the logical construction “true”
      Your last sentence sums it up nicely
      “How many vicious humans have demanded praise for doing the work of some god or another?”

  4. Jef

    “…justify their actions with lies that present justification…”

    The most common justification I have ever heard over the years and is at the root of much of the bad behavior is the long standing, oft repeated, misinterpretation of Darwin that is the statement “dog eat dog world”.

    It is a dog eat dog world but it has absolutely nothing to do with evolution or human nature (I am sure I will get push back on this).

    Dog will only eat dog when things are so dire that that is the only option. We humans have allowed ourselves to be structured under a system that creates exactly that environment.

    Reply ↓

    1. Uahsenaa

      The “dog eat dog world” thing actually stems from an old Latin proverb: homo homini lupus, “man is a wolf to man.” It gets repeated throughout the history of Western philosophy, especially by those whose worldview it supports (read: Hobbes), and was a particular favorite of Freud’s.

        1. McKillop

          Northrop Frye, a minister of the United Church of Canada and a literary critic who professed at the University of Toronto, (alas, now deceased) wrote a number of books dealing with mythology in Western Literature and the Bible; “Anatomy of Criticism” and “Words of Power” are well worth reading and re-reading -and cribbing, too.
          jgordon chastised many people who have not picked ‘the right things to fear’ but each of us knows that being concerned about illness or poverty or ciggies or hamburgers or all the other things listed is not -fear-. Fear blocks intelligence and no matter how unreasonable can be counted upon to cause trembling when we hear or do not hear our infants in their cribs, when news of a slaughter reached us from miles away and committed by mentally ill family members (not our family’s member, but perhaps! My Dad scared the bejeepers out of me despite his constant kindness). We are frightened of grave yards, of solitude in the wilderness, of skin colours and so on and so on.
          The ignoble liars play upon our fears (often hired by others wealthy enough to pay) but are themselves frightened and cowering.
          The freedom glorified from some golden age in the past and threatened certainly didn’t apply to women and men made chattel. Or starving. Or huddled against the weather. And so on.
          I’d also suggest that those who were proclaimed as educated because they had the luxury to read Plato or be Plato (or are somewhat more learned than others tell themselves the “noble lie” that assigns worth to each of them because they happened to glance at the light outside the cave. Surely no one becomes ‘more smarter’ because they have seen physical objects rather than shadows. I’ve seen thousand upon thousands of phenomena and read millions of words and still know very little. To think a person learns through seeing objects outside of the shadowy cave walls is to fail to see, I think, that much requires interpretation involving both reason and myth.

  5. Uahsenaa

    There is an aspect of the cave allegory that, unfortunately, rarely gets discussed, in part because it comes a bit later in bk 7, but which is, in fact, the lesson Socrates reads into what he’s just said. He says (519d-520a) the enlightened individual should

    ‘refuse to come back down again to the prisoners we were talking about, or share in their hardships and rewards–be they trivial or substantial.’
    [Glaucon] ‘That seems very unfair! Are we going to make them live a worse life when it is in their power to live a better one?’
    [Socrates] ‘Now it is your turn to forget, my friend, that the law does not exist for the exclusive benefit of one class in the city. Its aim is to engineer the benefit of the city as a whole, using persuasion and compulsion to bring the citizens into harmony, and making each class [Socrates’ sense of “class” here is more like “caste”] share with the other classes the contribution it is able to bring to the community. The law is what puts people like this in the city, and it does so not with the intention of allowing each of them to go his own way [!], but so that it can make use of them for its purposes, to bind the city together.’

    What Socrates is talking about, after all, with regard to the ideal state is a rudimentary technocracy, one that our own modern technocrats certainly take for granted, that citizens are at the disposal of the state, not the other way around. In fact democracy comes in for critique in the Republic as an inferior form of governance.

    One of the things I’ve always been interested in is how those who become educated, knowledgeable, who see how the system gets rigged are far more likely to become complicit with it, to game it for themselves or whatever delusion they presume to be “for the greater good” rather than dismantle it or empower others to seize control. No, far more common is the kind of benevolent [?] manipulation Socrates clearly advocates for in his philosopher-kings.

    1. RBHoughton

      Pertinent post, many thanks.

      The Buddha’s response to your last paragraph was to revive compassion as the sole aspect of rationality he allowed to remain in him.

    2. Oregoncharles

      I was shocked and horrified when I read the Republic in college. It’s the foundation of fascism, an elaborate justification for authoritarianism.

      In general, I thought Plato was much more readable than Aristotle, but much less honest or logical. It’s unfortunate Plato is the main founder of philosophy (Socrates was largely his creation).

      It seems my education left me with some lifelong grudges. Dislike Dickens, too. Even dramatizations creep me out.

      1. Uahsenaa

        I came back around to Dickens in grad school, Great Expectations in particular. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right teacher, who can help you see the subtleties in things.

        As for Plato, I’ve taught the Republic (and the Symposium and the Apology) many many times to honors undergraduates, and what horrifies me is how often they say with a straight face, “yeah, this is what society should be like, a well ordered machine.” Bleh.

  6. TedWa

    Very interesting series but I’m not sure comparing the rise of neo-cons to the rise of terrorism has any comparison other than both sought to unite (incite) the people with some high moral calling. My take was that the neo-cons believed that the so-called failure of liberalism, ie… The Great Society and the New Deal, was evidenced by the riots after 1965. Obviously the failure of these programs was measured by the neo-cons as not being able to keep the people of color “in their place”. If people would see the neo-cons for what they really are, oligharchal rascist cowards of the highest order, they would not gotten as far as they did. Liberalism did fail in not giving these self-aggrandizing proselytizers a different heart. They live in fear and project their fears onto the masses any way they can. Did the neo-con movement bring us 9/11? I’ll let you decide for yourself – the video is called 9/11 a conspiracy theory. You may have seen it before but, like this series, it’s always to good to have a fact check reminder of how we got here.

  7. shinola

    Maybe someone can help me on this. I thought it would pop up somewhere in the “Power of…” but if it did, I missed it.

    I’m just sure that someone in the Bush jr. admin. publicly said something to the effect of:
    “We create reality – and when you think you understand that reality, we’ve already created a new reality”

    I don’t think that’s the exact quote but it captures the gist of it.
    Anyone else remember that?

    1. flora

      Yes. From Ron Suskind’s NYTimes Magazine article “Without a Doubt.” Oct, 2004.

      That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the Bush aide told the journalist. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”

  8. susan the other

    I don’t know why this series didn’t ring quite true for me. It clearly presented the truth (which we all know and knew long ago) but in such a subdued manner it almost contradicted its own meaning. I think presenting the truth of the “war on terror” should be as shrill as a siren. One thing that gives me a clue, one tiny clue, is the mention of global warming in the last 2 minutes. The narrator states that the industrialized world was concerned about what would become of us all with global warming as far back as the 80s and the rise of the neocons. Actually we have learned on NC that Exxon knew about global warming in the 70s and abandoned a natural gas field in the Pacific because of those concerns. Here global warming is mentioned so subtly that it merely leaves you with a nagging foreboding. And makes the rest of the series almost annoying in its lobotomized emotional control.

  9. Jeff W

    I don’t know why this series didn’t ring quite true for me.

    I tend to take, well, anything Adam Curtis says with a pretty big grain of salt.

    A large part of the problem for me is that I am familiar with Adam Curtis’s later All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace—I wrote a comment about that film on this very blog years ago—which was just crazily wrong in a lot of ways. I said in that comment (quoting another comment that appeared in The Guardian) “Curtis is…engaging in a bit of hand-waving and throwing up dust in presenting ‘misleading, spurious and categorically inaccurate claims’ leading to wrong conclusions.” He might be completely right in his claims in this series—I honestly don’t recall it enough, having watched/heard it some time ago, to say either way—but his later film doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. His method of implicature, stringing together observations so that they seem related, always strikes me as at least prone to disingenuousness—I can’t watch his films without thinking of Ben Woodhams’ parody.

  10. dio dotus

    I would advise not to take Curtis’ thesis regarding Strauss seriously; he completely misrepresents his ideas and overemphasized the link with the Neocons. I too first heard of Strauss in this context but once I started to actually read his work I noticed a deeply thoughtful man grappling with the perennial problems of politics and the human condition. Thanks to Strauss I have become acquainted with a tradition that went to great lengths to not only understand the human predicament, but sought the best way to train those willing to devote themselves to this pursuit and its application in the world of human affairs. The fact that Socrates was charged and punished for challenging others in this pursuit is not a small manner and was instructive in making those dealing with controversial ideas cautious in how they went about disseminating their views. That a groups of so-called Straussians decided to proceed “in deed” what they thought they had learned reading classical philosophical texts is not an indictment of a teacher like Strauss but a vindication of what he went to great lengths to warn his students about: the ease with which philosophy can devolve into sectarianism and tyranny.

    Regarding the idea of the Platonic cave, I recommend looking further into what Strauss coined “the second cave”; to summarize, this is the predicament in which we from our modern perspective necessarily find ourselves in by the very fact that we begin any exploration of existing concepts with the assumption that we are now better capable of addressing or coming to understand any problem by the very fact that we have the benefit of hindsight and all the tools at our disposal to discover, analyze, and analyze ancient cultures and their thought systems in a way they themselves could not. For example, we cannot only read what Plato himself wrote, but we’re better able to reconstruct the historical, political, environmental, anthropological, etc. context in which he lived. In other words, we believe that, given the right circumstances (e.g. historical evidence), we are able to understand Plato better than he understood himself. This unsubstantiated assumption, rooted as it is on a historicist worldview, is at the heart of Strauss’ idea of the ‘second cave’ in which we find ourselves in, obstructing out capacity to even begin to address the sort of questions that thinkers from Thucydides to Machiavelli were more constantly dealing with. By taking for granted our position as ‘moderns’, we have lost touch with a tradition that dealt seriously with problems we to this day have not been able to solve. This means that we are also less capable of learning from them…

    As someone who opposes how our societies continue to disregard the lives and wellbeing of those unlucky enough to have been born poor, vulnerable, or different, in favour of a small but growing elite, I welcome the work of Curtis because it confronts you with so many challenging ideas that it forces you to rethink what you thought you knew. But you have to be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of repeating his conclusion without analyzing critically the causal steps that led him there. Unfortunately, in the case of Strauss, he leaned too much on the anti-Straussian work of Shadia Drury and perhaps Anne Norton as well. I read their work too, but after reading Strauss himself I can’t help but conclude that they have let their anti Neocon agenda cloud their academic judgement. I don’t think this is the way to fight against their ideology; it has in any case failed to produce the necessary results. The neocons still exist, both on the right and the left, leading us into a nightmare of perpetual war, inequality, and economic stagnation, while the space for real philosophical dialogue on the political level seems to become smaller and smaller. Don’t let this happen. Let us learn from Plato and Strauss, Al-Farabi and Maimonides, Machiavelli and Spinoza. Let us engage with the existing traditions of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Let us see what Confucianism has to say about how to conduct ourselves politically. What can we learn from neopagans, or existing indigenous communities, about alternative ways to engage with our natural environment. Or what about the wisdom of older esoteric traditions that never really ended but remained embedded in our cultures; what spiritual lessons can they teach us?

    This is not a matter of choice. We have to acknowledge the diversity of thought that makes us who we are. Don’t let anyone tell you what to think about anything. Find out for yourself.

    [my apologies for any misspelling or grammatical error]

  11. McKillop

    Ha ha ho. From early this morning I worked upon some ideas and set them to screen. A flick of fingers erased what I had written and was proof reading and it is now gone. Is there some beast who erases widsom and creates frustration and fear, a deus in machina, so to say?
    How many solutions to the world’s problems, solutions that put the truth to error and lie, have gone before being crystallized while ideas Kristolied have been carved into stone? Only a careful count of graveyards will tell!

  12. vidimi

    what if there were WMDs in iraq?

    there are many countries that do, in fact, possess them but we still don’t go about attacking them. in part because it would be risky, but also because we recognize that it would be wrong. why does the judgment on iraq have to revolve around the existence of WMDs?

    1. fritter

      What does it matter?

      It matters because a small group of people were able to start a war under false pretenses. That would be that 75% of the populace of the country thinks that we started a war of aggression that laid waste to entire countries for no real cause. Obviously those 75% don’t care to do anything about it. That we continue to lay waste to different parts of the world for reasons a small minority of us even profess to believe. That life goes on for the perpetrators and maybe we aren’t all the innocent smucks we’d like to think we are. I considered myself a conservative at the time, and was blown away that no one was charged with war crimes. Even the so called left is ok with it being about some other possible reason and continuing on the same debacle. The POTUS can lie to the people about something absolutely critical, fail to convince even half of them, and still retain their station as well as those of their flunkies. Its a scathing indictment of the populace to tolerate barbarism. It also shows just how much accountability our oligarchy has. The failure of the media to educate those 25% isn’t too terribly impressive either.

      It doesn’t matter in that its a valid excuse for the invasion or not, but it is important to know that the populace doesn’t believe in the propaganda, but also doesn’t really care. Were 75% of the congress critters authorizing military force not convinced there even were WMD? That’s pretty incredible all by itself.

  13. Robert

    As a haunting and deeply sad bookend to the culture of fear
    videos I would urge people to watch “Better This World.”
    Whether we agree with all of Curtis’s narrative or not we can
    see our culture of fear and paranoia at work in the US
    surveillance state and justice system portrayed in “Better
    This World.”

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