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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
14th-Jan-2009 12:08 pm
ws: hamlet
02/07/2011: I am turning off comments because of spambots.

Bear responds to an open letter.

I have decided that not posting about this would simply be cowardice and the exercise of my white privilege to ignore the problem la la la can't hear you la la.


I. I admit, my first reaction is to be upset that someone is attacking my friend. That's human. Really, we should worry about me if I wasn't upset about that.

II. Is Avalon's Willow right about the portrayal of POCs in Blood & Iron?

That, my friends, is a red herring.

It matters that Bear's intention was to present the servitude of a black man to a white woman as a problem, as part of a larger thematic argument, that she was doing it mindfully. It also matters that describing Kelpie as a "black man" is in certain senses wrong. He's a phouka, and it's clear throughout that he is a anthropophagous horse-fae first, all other attributes second. If that didn't matter, Blood & Iron would not be a fantasy.


It matters that Avalon's Willow's experience reading the book does not match up with Bear's intentions. This is not Bear's fault. It is also not AW's fault. It is an unfortunate inevitability of the attempt to communicate. Listing--as I did in the preceding paragraph--all the ways in which AW is "wrong" is a way to shut down the argument, not a way to respond responsibly.

This is the thing about stories: nobody gets to say your reaction is wrong. If your reaction is based on fundamental, factual misreading of the text (this does happen), then actually it is a kindness for someone to say, "I think maybe you didn't understand X." But that's not what's at stake here either. AW has not misunderstood anything. She is responding to what is in the text.

Therefore, her subjective experience cannot be shouted down or denied or pigeonholed as "overreaction." (Well, it can be, because people can do any damn stupid thing they want, especially on the internet.) The question of interpreting the text is a literary one and can spiral off into "proving" that Bear did or didn't do X, Y, or Z. The question of responding to the text is a political one, and in that arena, Bear's intentions have to be divorced from the reader's experience.

"I can only grade you on what actually makes it onto the page," I used to say to my students, and that goes double for published texts. We, as authors, can't run alongside them and offer an interpretive guide when readers start to wander off our straight and narrow path. AW's reaction is just as correct, just as valid, as anybody else's.

(Notice that I'm still couching this as someone who wants to disagree with AW. Because Bear is my friend, because I love her writing, and because I felt that she was successful in her attempt to include race in the complex of issues surrounding Kelpie (that would be my reaction to the text). I want to disagree. But I don't get to.)

III. I dislike the word "valid," probably dating back to being told by a teacher that fantasy was not a "valid" genre. Specifying something as "valid" tends to carry the subtext of "we might have found it 'invalid' if we'd wanted to." But at the same time, it's an important word, because it says, "We have to pay attention here. We have to listen to this."

Everyone's experience is valid. Every reader's reaction is valid. Even if I disagree with them. I disagree passionately with many reader reactions to Mélusine, but that doesn't mean I get to tell them they didn't have the reaction that they did. In the same way, members of one group do not get to tell members of another group that they (members of the 2nd group) did not experience oppression because they (members of the 1st group) didn't mean to oppress them (members of the 2nd group).

If you're a member of the first group, it's not about you and your intentions, no matter how good those intentions are.

IV. I am a middle-class white woman. There isn't even a fraction of a fraction of non-Western-European ethnicity anywhere in my genealogy. The closest I get to an oppressed minority is Irish, and since all sides of my family have been American for more than a century, that's not very damn close. My great-grandparents may have experienced oppression on racial grounds, but that's not a meaningful part of my experience.

Which is to say, yes, I have no inherited moral high ground here. In point of fact, I'm up to my knees in the swamp and sinking fast. I recognize my white privilege (back in '06, I blogged about growing up aware of white privilege, even if I didn't have a word for it as a child), and I recognize that I can't disassociate myself from it. I can't take it off or make it somehow not mine.

And I'm not saying that in a bid for sympathy, because, hello? Privilege is not something one gets sympathy for. I'm owning up to it, admitting that it exists and that I benefit from it, even though I find it morally reprehensible.

V. I also recognize my class privilege, and the fact that racial privilege and class privilege frequently overlap, but are not the same thing.

VI. And then what about that whole "woman" thing?

VII. And this is where discussions of oppression get complicated, and need to get complicated. Because it isn't just race, any more than it's just class or it's just sex. Prioritizing one kind of oppression over another merely obscures the matrix of identities that we're all stuck in. Yes, some of us are stuck in better positions than others; my point is not "We are all helpless like flies! My white privilege isn't my fault!" but that the social matrix is complicated and large and institutionalized--reified, even. No, this is not an excuse to bail out on trying to change things. But my belief is that changing things has to start with understanding them, and simple binary models of oppression, any kind of oppression, don't further understanding.

VIII. I am noticing that some of Bear's commenters are advancing the "I write my characters as people first!" notion as a defense.

This ploy is different than the advice Bear gave in her Othering post, which encourages writers to remember that the exotic Other is a person. Bear's post is about tackling something big and scary and necessary, about undoing the prejudices that keep you from seeing over the fences of bigotry. The "people first!" defense is about being able to write all of your characters, regardless of race, class, or sex, as if they were people like you. Which you have the luxury of only from a position of privilege. You can be blind to the differences because they all work in your favor.

The personal is political. When I write a black, bisexual, lower-class man from the mid-South, I do so knowing that he is, like me, a human being with a subject position--i.e., not The Other. Definitionally, The Other does not have a subject position. I also know that he and his subject position are shaped, inexorably, by his being black, bisexual, lower-class, and from the mid-South. He's not any person. He's this person. You can't do an end run around oppression and prejudice by chanting "people first!" This will not score you a touchdown. You have to make the empathic leap (if you are not black, bisexual, lower-class, and from the mid-South) to imagine what it would be like to be a person in these circumstances.

IX. That, I think, is the obligation we all have as human beings: to try to make that empathic leap. Because otherwise, we're shut up alone in the very small rooms of our skulls.

X. But for some of us that empathic leap is a luxury because the world we live in reflects our subject position back to us. We don't have to negotiate a culture that doesn't represent us or even recognize us--or represents us only as a stereotype. And because it's a luxury, it's harder to do. And because it's both those things, it needs doing. Even if we fail, we need to try.

XI. And when we do fail, we need to try again. Fail better

XII. And keep dancing, because if you aren't dancing when you write, you won't create a revolution anybody wants to come to.
14th-Jan-2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
This is very thoughtful, and I agree with every bit of it.
14th-Jan-2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
The "people first!" defense is about being able to write all of your characters, regardless of race, class, or sex, as if they were people like you.

Nicely put.
14th-Jan-2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
I wish I could properly express how wonderful I think this post is.
14th-Jan-2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this ... it's helping a lot with a bunch of thoughts I am desperately struggling with, and not making a lot of sense of at the moment.
14th-Jan-2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
I like this a lot. A very thoughtful approach to a fiendishly complex issue.
14th-Jan-2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
There's a level on which the thematic argument of that book boils down to whether or not it's possible to exploit other sapient creatures without doing the moral equivalent of selling your soul. Or, at least, that was my intention in writing it.

And yet, if it doesn't come through, it doesn't come through. So yes, her reading is valid, even if it's exactly against my intentions. That's why we call them thematic arguments.
14th-Jan-2009 09:18 pm (UTC)
I read AW's blog and she does come on strong. She makes good points, then weakens them with examples that aren't all what I would consider accurate. Sure, T'ealc didn't have a love life. Then again, neither did pretty much anyone else on Stargate SG-1, but T'ealc was the one with a wife and son who were seen in a few episodes.

Then, to complain that Jason Mamoa, who has mixed ethnicity, replaced a black man (who actually has a white father, actor Don Francks), regardless of the role played by each, is what I consider disingenuous.

I haven't read the book in question, but I take books as they come. I try to not read more into them. As a Jew, I don't look for Jewish characters, though more in SF might be nice, but even I don't write them, or I don't write them being religious. We all have what we want to write. Our intentions, however, are rarely what the reader sees. And that's fine. AW is entitled to her opinions, but it's one thing to lobby for more, equal representation in mass media (TV, movies, plays) where casting is the issue as much as scripting is, than to complain about books. Even comics, which are also by committee are more deserving of such complaints than books. You want more books that fit what you want to see? Write them. Or convince other people to write them.
15th-Jan-2009 06:28 am (UTC)
Not to barge in and throw this discussion completely off topic, but I need to address this and I'm probably the biggest SG-1/Atlantis geek around at the moment.

The examples you don't consider accurate? All are. I'll drill them down for you one by one if you want, but I'll stick to the two you mention here.

To say that everyone else on Stargate didn't get a love life is patently false. Daniel had a wife (who, in a stunning reversal from the brilliance of the movie lost her for no good reason except that it freed him up to be available to women of his own race) and had many women who loved, lusted after, or crushed on him. He was not averse to having a relationship and, in fact, got his own fangirl in the end. Sam had her thing with Jack, along with every other over-35 male who happened to wander on screen, and then the two guys she married (in alternate timelines) and the one guy she almost married. Jack got his stud on multiple times when daniel was in the other room and women could actually focus on him. Plus, his thing with Sam.

When AW talks about Teal'c being solitary and alone, she is absolutely right. yes, he has a wife, who we see exactly 2 times. Once when she is first introduced, then is, crazily, left behind on the planet with the evil alien who hates Teal'c. Next we see her married to some other guy, and then shipped off to some refugee camp. Next, she is dead. and we don't even get to SEE her die. She is literally some pillows stuffed under blankets -- sacrificed because Teal'c had to get on with his male bonding with his son. He is involved with exactly two other women beyond his wife -- and old lover, who dies, and a new lover, who has other shit to do and is not heard from much. Once more, if I recall. Check that against how many people Daniel, Sam and Jack got it on with over the course of 10 seasons?

You should really talk to Stephen Barnes, who blogs about this often, on the subject of black men in television and film. How often they are not allowed to be sexual creatures, seen as worthy of being mates, or explored as family men, except sometimes with other black women.

Your explanation of her issues with jason Momoa's character is disingenuous, because that's not what she says. She did not just complain that a mixed man replaced a black man -- and the fact that Rainbow Sun's father is white has absolutely no bearing on whether he is considered black or not -- she complained that the writers replaced a character who was just a normal guy, a good soldier, but not some wild mandingo stereotype with a character they tried very, VERY hard to make just that. Noble savage much? yes, I think so. And the way they got rid of Lt. Ford, by making him a junkie? yeah, that's not racial coding at all.

To address your last paragraph, that you take books as they come, well, that's nice for you Some of us like to interrogate the texts that we read. Some of us think deeply about the media we consume period. And to suggest that it's more useful to complain and lobby about television and movies and comics than it is about books is, I'm sorry, stupid. And to suggest that if you want books to be better and NOT filled with gross racial stereotypes you should write them is horrendously, disgustingly condescending. No. Just no.

No one should ever have to turn to one's own fiction to escape racism.
14th-Jan-2009 09:23 pm (UTC)
There is not a one true way to guarantee that no one will criticize the physics in your novel. There is not a one true way to guarantee that no one will criticize the linguistics in your novel. There is not a one true way to guarantee that no one will criticize the Byzantine history in your novel, or the benzene chemistry, or the use of New Jersey as a setting, if you've happened to use those things.

So why do we all want a one true way to write about race (ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality) that no one can criticize? Because I admit it, I want it, too. I want to be able to say, "Okay, now this story is done, I have read the page proofs, and I did the things I was supposed to do, and now nobody will ever find anything wrong with how I handled race (ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality)."

Possibly because being a great big racist is generally worse than being a total ignoramus about Byzantine history. Still and all.
14th-Jan-2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
It's right next to the magic get-published button.

Oh, look! The Hindenberg!
14th-Jan-2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
This articulates a lot of how I've been feeling about this really well. Thank you.
14th-Jan-2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
Good thoughts, definitely. But I don't think I can say that Avatar Willow's and Deepad's readings of Blood and Iron deserve the same consideration as anyone else's. They deserve consideration, certainly. But they're not much use for evaluating the book they're talking about.

The underlying story of Blood and Iron, and all the Promethean Age books I've read so far, is the story of a potentially fatal, potentially tragic imbalance in two societies that mirror each other. It is, in fact, exactly the story that AW complains Bear is not telling.

In other words, the book AW read is the one he/she was afraid he/she was going to see. But it wasn't Blood and Iron.

I can't give a lot of weight to a critique of a book and its author that's based on a shallow reading of the book, that doesn't take into account all the text, but substitutes the reader's own expected subtext for what's actually there. I'm pretty sure AW has plenty of cause to be angry. But I have to say that I do think AW objects to this book based on a fundamental, factual misreading. I believe AW's analysis is objectively wrong, in the same way I would say that someone who declares that Lolita is a glorification and justification of pedophilia is wrong.

In other words, I think Bear is a better writer than AW is a reader. That does happen all the time in the world of literature. It has nothing to do with class, race, gender, or sexual preference. But I don't want to go as far as to say that an opinion based on a shallow reading and a reaction to cultural injustice is as insightful as an opinion based on careful consideration of the text.

Edited at 2009-01-14 09:37 pm (UTC)
14th-Jan-2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
Yep. That.
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14th-Jan-2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
Like you, my first instinct was to not comment. But that is cowardly. The thing, for me is, that the rapid fire defenses, of what ever content, don't really address that there is a gap in perception by the the privileged commentors on Bear's post. Their first response is to throw every thought process they can into defending what's being done and to criticize the critics, instead of finding out what the frell they're all talking about. Of course they don't see what's being said, that's the nature of privilege and of course they see the responses as overreaction, that's also the nature of privilege. What they don't know, and they should, is that as the privileged, they forfeit, in my mind, the right to define racism, sexism, ableism and privilege and any and all responses they might have when called on it. Because the downside doesn't affect them.

I did like Sparkymonster's comments with links to previous conversations. It is up to those who are being criticized to go and find out what's being said to them so, in my opinion, they can comment from a more aware standpoint.

The fact that nearly 100% of what's written, shot, video'ed and sold to us in the US is by, for and about white guys is so pervasive, so NATURAL, it FEELS hard to refute. I've pointed it out at work and been told that that's because it's true. That's the WAY THINGS ARE. Well, that's the way things are for white guys. As a woman in an almost all male kitchen, it's very apparent to me how privilege of both the white (most of my fellow cooks are hispanic) and male aspects of privilege work on the street level.

There is no 'one true way', but there is a way that is open to other ways. The opposite of the way you do something is not not doing it or doing what other people tell you to. Opposite lives in polar world that's either black or white. There is a lot to learn from this conversation. Shades of gray. I wish there were a better less painful way to go through it. But there isn't.

14th-Jan-2009 11:55 pm (UTC)
It is up to those who are being criticized to go and find out what's being said to them so, in my opinion, they can comment from a more aware standpoint.

Sorry, this struck me. Do you know if there's any sense out there as to how often, well, that actually happens? That being the proactive seeking of resources by people who're being criticized on a privilege-related issue.
14th-Jan-2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
XI. And when we do fail, we need to try again. Fail better

Was there more to this thought? Because it bears expounding upon. Or not.
14th-Jan-2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
Well, arguably, all of writing is the slow and painful process of learning to fail better.
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
15th-Jan-2009 12:24 am (UTC)
truepenny, you've written something very accessible and very true. I'm glad my post managed to bring about something like this, even if you did have to fight the urge to thwap me 'round the head.

I would respond to some of your commenters, but despite your clarity they seem to have missed the point of my post; example? The comment about how Rainbow Franks is half white but Jason Mamoa is all MoC therefore wtf am I talking about.

I've read Bear's reply to me, (and will respond to it in a moment), but your post caught my attention the hardest because you addressed the most depressing thing I find happening in discussions about this topic; namely the round of 'But my characters are people! And individual! And have nothing to do with a history of anything!'.

So thank you.
15th-Jan-2009 08:34 am (UTC)
I have to say, your post did get me thinking, because I hadn't seen that in the text, but once you pointed it out... OW. It is present, and it's not even wholly accidental.

However, having read the whole book myself, and knowing something of where it's going -- has anything in the responses led you to consider trying the rest, or another of Bear's books? I post this here because truepenny seems to have the best miniature summation of why this rather awful start might be redeemed, and I'm curious what you'd have to say if you read the whole.

I've seen responses that might make me reconsider - and ones that would make me utterly reject the possibility.
15th-Jan-2009 01:01 am (UTC)
Thank you for this. It is causing my brain to be very thinkative.
15th-Jan-2009 01:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for this. My initial thought was, "Wow, this is so analytical and nuanced that it's not going to get a huge response, but it might hit harder for those who follow it through." I don't know what counts as huge in terms of numbers, but the commentary here definitely is huge in terms of thoughtfulness and careful argument. Wow.
15th-Jan-2009 06:13 am (UTC)
Thank you for saying this stuff. (Again.)
15th-Jan-2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
I almost said "thank you for eloquently expressing my own feelings on this subject," which seems silly because that's not what you intended to do, but you did do it and it did make me feel better (I've been following some of the conversations on Bear's and deepad's journals, and feeling totally out of my league in discussing any of this, again due to the white/middle-class race/class privilege), but thank you as well for...talking about the validity of people's reactions, and explaining what it is people are TRYING to do, or at least what we SHOULD be trying to do. You very clearly expressed things I have been wrestling with, and I appreciate that.
15th-Jan-2009 09:42 pm (UTC) - Perspective
Perspective is a tricky thing, whether it be literature or POV.

AW's goal (my assumption) in reading Blood and Iron was to be entertained. She encounters what she percieves as a racist trope. From her perspective she is certainly right to toss EB's book across the room. EB has failed as an author, in the sense that she was unable to entertain AW.

I can relate. Cards on the table, I'm an atypical WASP (replace protestant with pagan/atheist). I rejected Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer (highly acclaimed book). I have strong feelings about violence and the idea of reading a novel where the main character's vocation is that of torturer turned me off.

On one level, perhaps AW and I are shallow for rejecting books without first reading them cover to cover. But our goals weren't to be enlightened by the author. We wanted to be entertained, and both encountered barriers that prevented us from appreciating the work.

From an academic viewpoint, we didn't give the work a chance. We might go back later in life and attempt to re-read those works, to see if what other people were saying about them had any validity. Literature is created for different reasons. A good author works at multiple levels. I know that I've gone back and re-read old favorites and sometimes I was dissapointed at the shallowness of it, or blown away by aspects I was barely able to appreciate as a teen reader.

Each reader is unique. A social conservative might be offended at GBLT themes, or magic. If you are a feminist, you will likely find themes in Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein)offensive. And don't get me started on Lovecraft's eugenic ass. An author can never please everyone, it's an impossible goal.

I think that the literature that "pushes our buttons" can stretch our boundaries and enlighten us. Racism in literature can be used this way, but you're walking a fine line. Like extreme art (Christ in a jar of your urine), you risk losing most of the audience in your attempt at a statement.

I enjoyed Stranger despite the sexism, and Lovecraft's particular specialty is entertaining, if you can stomach his biases. Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles come to mind as a series of books that will push just about every button you have regarding gender roles. If parts don't offend you, you're messed up. But her analysis of gender is thought provoking.
16th-Jan-2009 12:32 am (UTC)
Thank you, thank you for articulating so beautifully why it drives me absolutely up the wall when people use the term 'Other' outside a critical framework.

This post is marvellous.
16th-Jan-2009 04:10 am (UTC)
I'm going to say this even though tempers seem to have cooled off a bit

This is one of those discussions that f*cks with people on a multitude of levels. On the one hand, I think truepenny has been remarkably level in her posts considering she is one of Bear's friends. Think for a moment; your gf is hanging out with you say, at the home and you're about to watch a move and she's not in a good mood and you know it and she explains that someone 'called her out' on something she did, or the methods she did it with and that one of the reasons she's upset is because she sees that person's point.

Your first reaction is on the line of, depending on your personality, to be all sympathetic and call that person and 'ass' because hey, it's your friend-you don't know the person who gives a flying about what he/she thinks? Or, you are swallowing such a hot, defensive retort and trying to be objective. I assure you, mostly, you'll only be partially successful because the loyalty syndrome is blood deep. Human beings are pack animals, and so when it comes to our friends/family we have very pack-like responses-that's ~my~ blood you're f***ing with.

This doesn't put you in the right-we've all seen mothers firmly in defense of their sons and daughters who have been caught red handed in a shooting-but it is a natural and instinctive reaction and, sorry, needs no apology.

Now Aw's response is gut-level and couldn't be helped, period. This doesn't mean Bear is in the wrong, only she set out intending to write something this way and for good reasons it just didn't come out right for the intended reader.

Now, I'm as far from privileged as it's possible to get. Only thing you can say about me is I'm white; I've spent my whole life on the edge of the streets poor and in the kind of neighborhoods no smart citizen would step foot in for love or money. I read a book by a white author that captured the realities of the situation pretty damn well. One of his characters said "Some brothers do the paper bag trick; they stand in front of a mirror, hold a paper bag to their face. If their skin is darker than that bag, they know there's only so far they can go." And then, after staring at the white character he was talking to, said. "But you, born where you're born-you could be as pale as an albino and you still couldn't make it to the top."

That stuck with me, because I've seen it and still see it today and here's what I think it boils down to; there's people who oppress and do bad shit for whatever, and always will be. And then there's the people who are being oppressed and getting shit done to them. As a cynic, I don't see this dynamic changing-ever. But anytime an example of it gets put up for people to see is winning back one for us.
16th-Jan-2009 11:48 pm (UTC) - Irony
I blogged on this issue and had to go back and edit it since I got slammed in that first round a few years back about the Wiscon panel. But I do want to note the irony of a woman of color naming herself after the penultimate British myth--Avalon. I mean, let's walk our talk, please.
17th-Jan-2009 05:40 am (UTC) - Re: Irony
"our"? now that's ironic.

17th-Jan-2009 02:38 pm (UTC) - Yes, Ironic
There's nothing ironic about using "our." Ownership is at the heart of any argument about cultural appropriation. Appropriation suggests taking something that belongs to someone else and using it illegitimately. When I was still back at racism 101 years ago and asked such naive questions as "What can I do," I was told to go back to my own culture and work from there. That suggests ownership as well. I was told I own a culture and should work inside it. That others had their own culture that I was not necessarily invited into. That I should heal my own culture and stop mucking about in other people's culture. Ancestry, ethnicity and land origins are at the heart of this conversation, rather than the post modern idea that cultures are just floating around in language and can be moved in and out of at will. Since a major part of my own ancestry comes from southern England, then I use the pronoun "our." I am not allowed, however, to use that pronoun when it comes to northeastern America, where I do have some ancestry as well, because I am told I do not have a tribal affiliation, only DNA and family history. And as the rules of these types of conversations are currently structured, I'm apparently not allowed to point out the inconsistencies of using the word "Avalon," which is a physical place and has associated myth in England, while claiming a cultural identity from somewhere else. But Obama is getting on his train and I'm going to go party!!
19th-Jan-2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
Really love this.
19th-Jan-2009 09:33 pm (UTC) - Ownership
Just to be clear. I don't have any trouble being told to go work on my own culture or that I don't have enough lived cultural experience to claim an identity as a Native American. The point here is people have different experiences in the world based on the culture's attitudes toward their race, class, sex, orientation, etc.

Elizabeth Bear's newest post is great.

1) We all must include other cultures in our writing.
2) We will get criticized and make mistakes.
3) We'll all learn from the process, even though it hurts sometimes.
4) Remember what Audre Lorde said, "My anger will not kill you."

An attempt to put on my big boy pants.
20th-Jan-2009 12:14 am (UTC) - Re: Ownership
nicely done.
20th-Jan-2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
"I can only grade you on what actually makes it onto the page," I used to say to my students, and that goes double for published texts. We, as authors, can't run alongside them and offer an interpretive guide when readers start to wander off our straight and narrow path. AW's reaction is just as correct, just as valid, as anybody else's.

Brava. As a fellow former writing teacher (once and future, perhaps :-) I applaud this wildly.

(Also, while I'm here, I applaud everything you're saying and the way in which you're saying it. But it was mostly that paragraph which made me want to wave pompoms. :-)
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