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Prophets of Deceit

Post-Truth Politics and the Future of the Left

Is foresight commanded by the belief in a prophecy, or safeguarded through recourse to a historically and philosophically grounded necessity, or perhaps fed from criticism and skepticism?

–Reinhart Koselleck

 

Hindsight, much like the year we’re all now desperately looking forward to, is 20/20.

–John Oliver

The spectacular and traumatic failure of established news sources and polls to predict the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election has not only heightened a pervasive sense of uncertainty and anxiety, but also given rise to schizophrenic response patterns in American public discourse. November 9 inaugurated what many have described as a new era of “liberal panic,” escalating widespread skepticism about the veracity and consequence of all truth-claims and provoking despair over the limited import of reason, critical thinking, and nuanced argumentation about complex issues. Even those who still cling to Enlightenment tenets have regressed to states of paranoid credulity and apocalyptic hysteria, eager to lend credence to unsubstantiated reports, doomsday scenarios, and magical possibilities of escape from national cataclysm.

Selected as the Word of the Year 2016, “post-truth” has become the explanatory nomenclature for our political situation, characterized as it is by eroded distinctions between empirical reality and fictional construction, serious journalism and “fake news,” and legitimate decisional politics and reality television spectacle. Other commentary has sought to read the “tea leaves” in the form of analogous eras and historical figures or oracular philosophers and schools of thought that ostensibly pointed the way to Donald Trump’s presidency. Not unlike the conspiracy theories that circulated after the election, these postmortems should be understood as efforts to make sense of an unfathomable and highly overdetermined historical development through recourse to the concept of fate — a concept, as Georg Simmel wrote, that always entails a “retrospective teleology.”

Fatalistic and mythical patterns of thinking were perhaps nowhere more evident than in the ascription of prophetic powers to opinion makers who, like Tiresias, had suggested or predicted the catastrophe to come. While the augurs of national doom ranged from filmmaker Michael Moore to political scholars Allan Lichtman and Helmut Norpoth, we will here consider two disparate public intellectuals whose ideas have gained currency since the election: the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, whose book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998) envisioned the rise of a reactionary “strongman,” and Russian author and journalist Masha Gessen, whose writings and media appearances have heralded a nihilistic “rock bottom” that can only be countered through hysteric resistance.

What follows are two separate pieces that emerge from our ongoing dialogues about the current impasses of the Left, the causes of our “post-truth” situation, and the possibilities for effective resistance. Nicholas Baer restores Rorty’s book to its intellectual-historical moment and suggests that despite its remarkable prescience, it has also lost some of its actuality in light of a shifting constellation of postmodernist theory and political action. Maggie Hennefeld then discusses the inheritances of “post-truth” from postmodernism and considers Gessen’s call to “be the hysteric” — to conjure the body as text in the absence of more articulate means — in an era marked by the erosion of reason and the freewheeling evacuation of the sign. Rather than offering exhaustive accounts of Rorty’s and Gessen’s intellectual and political interventions, we will approach the pair as seers who have offered counsel to the Left at a time when the limitations and dialectical counterforces of Enlightenment rationalism are blindingly apparent.

Nicholas Baer: “Postmodernist Professors Will No Longer Be Calling the Shots”

Originally a series of three lectures delivered at Harvard in 1997, Rorty’s Achieving Our Country addresses issues that would become central to the 2016 Election: the globalization of the labor market, the proletarianization of the middle class, increased economic stratification, and frustration with the centrism of the Democratic Party. Although these concerns initially propelled the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders (as well as the earlier Occupy movement), the broader current of populist anger was ultimately funneled more effectively by Trump than by Hillary Clinton, who was never able to dispel the image of a middle-of-the-road, “establishment” candidate and career politician. How could the presidency go to a billionaire con man who offered thinly veiled pseudo-solutions to the injustices of American capitalism — or, in Rorty’s portentous words, “Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?” (1998:91)

The three abridged paragraphs from Rorty’s book that circulated on Twitter and in newspapers around the election drew from Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Edward Luttwak’s The Endangered American Dream (1993) in prophesying an imminent, Weimar-like era of populist revolt against constitutional democracy:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. […]

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. […] All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet (1998:89-90).

Rorty was undeniably and even uncannily prescient in imagining the rise of a demagogue who would pit himself against an educated elite and political establishment, displacing economic rage against an embattled, negligent government into sadism towards women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities. Notable is Rorty’s recognition of the interarticulation of multiple and often-contradictory claims on the part of the “strongman”: the Nietzschean self-presentation as both Übermensch and emissary of victimized ressentiment, the simultaneous advancement of global neoliberalism and nationalist populism, and the paradoxical promise of socioeconomic justice through chauvinist discrimination and systematic disenfranchisement.

The ascription of clairvoyant qualities to Rorty is nonetheless problematic, not least in abstracting the passage from the author’s broader argument and intellectual trajectory. The son of Trotskyite socialists and author of the iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty came to position himself as a (post-)philosopher in the tradition of American pragmatism. If, as Martin Jay notes in Songs of Experience (2005:302), Rorty substituted “the earnest, world-reforming intentions of his predecessors” with “the virtues of private pleasure and the frankly bourgeois liberal ideal of negative freedom,” he squarely returned to political and economic issues in Achieving Our Country, where he bemoaned the shift from an active, “reformist Left” to a New Left characterized by detached spectatorship, self-contempt, and resigned pessimism. Locating this change in the 1960s, when American intervention in Vietnam made the United States appear as an irredeemable evil, Rorty argues that it initiated a move from compromise-oriented “real politics” to impatient and utopian cultural radicalism; from a rhetoric of commonality to the fetishism of multicultural difference; from alliance between intellectuals and unions to theoretical obscurantism; and from concrete demands and proposals for economic and legal justice to victim-minded identity politics.

Rorty’s critique of the Left should be viewed against the backdrop of a fraught intellectual landscape at the close of the past century. In the years prior to Achieving Our Country, identity politics had come under critical scrutiny in books as varied as Arthur Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America (1991) and Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995), and poststructuralist and postmodernist thought were posited against secular humanism, Habermasian defenses of the project of modernity, and scientific realism (most famously in the Sokal affair of 1996). Moreover, the obtuse language and doctrinal frameworks of “Grand Theory” — or what Rorty had deemed “final vocabulary” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) — were targeted for often-polemical attack, precipitating talk of “post-theory” across the humanities. Like Martha Nussbaum in her critique of Judith Butler, “The Professor of Parody” (1999), Rorty was invested in philosophy that engages in piecemeal problem-solving, advancing specific projects for social change in place of abstract, resigned references to hegemony, “the system,” or a ubiquitous, inescapable power.

Whatever the merits of such pragmatism, Achieving Our Country suffers from hasty generalizations about cultural radicalism and the “apocalyptic French and German philosophy” that, in the author’s view, had superseded concern with political economy (1998:77). Rorty denies the political import of a rather astonishing list of continental philosophers, from Marx and Freud to Lyotard and Jameson. And while reiterating his concurrence with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida in their “criticisms of Enlightenment rationalism,” Rorty nonetheless suggests that these thinkers should not be taken up as “guides to political deliberation,” but rather “relegated to private life” (1998:96). Against those who espouse cultural pessimism or theorize forms of “impossibility, unreachability, and unrepresentability” (ibid.), Rorty upholds the doctrines of Walt Whitman and John Dewey, whom he links with the progressive ideal of a classless society as well as a civic religion of exceptionalism, shared social hope, and continued investment in the national project.

Commentators have been troubled by aspects of Rorty’s book, especially his call for leftist American patriotism, proscription of religion, and mischaracterizations of Whitman and Dewey. Perhaps most alarming, however, is his reductionist dismissal of other thinkers whose work may lend us critical insight into our own time. To whatever extent Foucault deflated the emancipatory premises of progressivist movements with his conception of modern history in terms of shifting regimes of power — Rorty writes, “Readers of Foucault often come away believing that no shackles have been broken in the past two hundred years” (1998:7) — the French poststructuralist also changed our entire understanding of issues such as incarceration, mental and sexual pathologization, and neoliberalism and its threat to democratic institutions. It also remains difficult to disregard the writings of Lyotard and Jameson when Trump himself seems to mark postmodernism’s reductio ad absurdum and to symptomatize the most egregious aspects of multinational capitalism.

Finally, although Rorty takes pains to acknowledge both the blind spots of the reformists and the important contributions of the culturalists, especially with regard to the treatment of women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ community, his narrative remains one of overarching, lapsarian decline. Only from a male, non-minoritarian perspective could the history of the American Left appear as a Verfallsgeschichte (narrative of decline), with decreasing devotion to the most salient of causes. While Rorty is wary of the “quasi-religious form of spiritual pathos” often deduced from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and other fellow “antimetaphysical, anti-Cartesian philosophers” (1998:96), his book itself traces a tacit fall from grace curiously aligned with the very religious notions of “purity” and “sin” that he otherwise criticizes.

The Democratic Party certainly continues to struggle with sustaining a dual commitment to economic equality and social justice, if the recent election cycle is any indication. And even after Barack Obama successfully revived a sense of national hope in the wake of George W. Bush’s presidency and amidst the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American liberals still face difficulties mobilizing around a common vision of the country to be realized. Yet much as the increasingly extremist formation of the American Right can scarcely be characterized in Rorty’s terms — “the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past” (1998:14) — the key dilemmas of the Left have also shifted since the publication of his book two decades ago. 

Achieving Our Country appeared at a time when leading strands of thought in the humanities were challenging meta-narratives and absolutist or scientistic conceptions of truth; meaningful sociopolitical gains seemed to hinge on the unsettling of epistemic certainty and the subversion of all normative, universalist validity-claims. A self-appointed representative of “postmodernist bourgeois liberalism” whose work sought to replace experience with language, Rorty was a complex and idiosyncratic figure in this discursive field, dissolving the boundaries between science and literature and insisting that traditional liberal humanism is fully compatible with social construction and with the dismissal of objectivism, moral universalism, and any correspondence theory or ahistorical, transcultural standard of truth. Yet how might his position remain tenable under an administration that lends “deconstruction” sinister new connotations, threatening the livelihood of marginalized subjects and the very future of our planet?

In “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), Rorty wrote, “I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as […] relativistic, irrationalist, [and] deconstructing” (1999:3) — adjectives that are now more unequivocally applicable to the Right as it pushes anti-foundationalism to its breaking point. Rorty may be correct in questioning the existence of objective values and transcendent truths as well as the possibility of achieving final answers and a synoptic, “God’s eye view” (Hilary Putnam). Yet amidst Trump’s broad-scale attack on local institutions and global structures, on basic civil rights and established scientific consensus, leftists would be ill-advised to emphasize the radical historical contingency of their own moral and political convictions. With the Republican Party propagating “alternative facts” and disavowing even the most incontrovertible forms of knowledge (e.g., on climate change), critics on the Left will need to move beyond ironic skepticism and suspicion of the universal, strategically aligning the humanities and natural sciences and buttressing a robust, emphatic conception of truth in the service of social justice and environmental protection.

Maggie Hennefeld: “Be the Hysteric”: Resistance in the Void of Meaning

In a memorable post-election interview on Samantha Bee’s satirical Full Frontal, Russian author and political dissident Masha Gessen incisively summarizes how Donald Trump “uses language to assert power over reality.” Call it “post-truth” babble or simply authoritarian propaganda, “What he is saying is, ‘I claim the right to say whatever the hell I please. And what are you gonna do about it?’”

Trump’s baffling assertions — which range from alt-facts about voter fraud, to paranoid delusions about Obama’s wiretapping, to blatantly contradictory accusations (such as decrying the “real leaks” of “fake news”) — thrive on their very incomprehensibility. The more insane the utterance, the more dangerous the reality of its articulation. As the satirist Andy Borowitz has parodied Trump’s auto-referential calamity of logic, “Trump blames bad poll numbers on existence of numerical system.” Yet, as Gessen emphasizes, Trump bludgeons language, but he does not mince words. His upending of language from meaning feels just too at home in our culture, in which the cumulative unraveling of moral clarity and epistemological certainty has been under way for quite a long time.

In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson characterized postmodernism by its crisis-ridden imaginaries: the recurrence of nostalgia and déjà-vu in every sphere of cultural experience — from media aesthetics, to public spaces, to commercial architecture. Postmodernism gives aesthetic form to the rampant social and economic crises of the deregulated neoliberal state. In other words, the postmodern tyranny of the empty signifier — playfully stylized through a proliferation of irony, pastiche, and nostalgia — symbolizes the erosion of democracy’s social and civic institutions and its volatile financial markets. As Arjun Appadurai puts it in Modernity at Large (1996:30-31), “All this is par for the course, if you follow Jean Baudrillard or Jean-François Lyotard into a world of signs wholly unmoored from their social signifiers (all the world’s a Disneyland) […] a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios, a kind of temporal central casting, to which recourse can be taken as appropriate.”

Postmodernism’s empire of decentered signs has always risked walking the plank into the void of non-meaning, wherein any truth can be desacralized, any moral conviction co-opted, and any social or environmental crisis relativized. Such pervasive anxiety about losing our grip on meaning and reality now feels tediously familiar, though the stakes of slipping too far along the signifying chain have reached an alarming threshold. When “truth bombs” can signify a greater violence than anti-jihadist drone attacks, how do we navigate the actual effects and dangerous consequences of a regime so aptly filtered through surrealist humor and absurdist parody? Trump’s presidency has already been declared Dadaesque performance art, a voter-sourced analog to the Cold War-period television spy series The Americans, a dystopian punishment for the hegemony of reality television, and a source text for the return of Ubu Roi (as “Ubu Trump”): Alfred Jarry’s outrageous 1896 play about a grotesque king that inspired the rise of modernist movements including surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd.

For all the violence that Trump’s outbursts inflict upon language, they are shadowed by concrete actions that provoke a very different register of disbelief: the absurdity of post-truth nonsense corroborates the monstrosity of unlawful governance. Trump’s performative utterances of his paragon pro-Semitism echo his policy endorsements of an Israel-Palestine one-state solution, while his puzzling declarations of his visible anti-racism hang heavy against the horrendous surge in hate crimes since his election. (“Number one, I’m the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person.”)

The problem, evidently, is that Trump’s executive theater of the absurd evokes a mode of disbelief incompatible with that of his authoritarian lawlessness: preposterous laughter versus civil resistance. Can the laughing spectator of Stephen Colbert’s “It’s Funny Because It’s Treason” also be the body on the front line when Trumpism runs roughshod over American civil liberties and democratic institutions — deporting immigrants and refugees, suppressing enfranchisement, privatizing state agencies, undermining the rule of law, and repealing anti-discrimination and environmental protections?

Since the election, the hashtag #NothingMatters has gone viral in tandem with Gessen’s own rising celebrity as a poster child for the oppositional powers of political nihilism: the suspicion that liberal humanist values and codification of equal rights are themselves something of a farce. A refugee from Putin’s autocratic state and author of the scathing biography The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012), Gessen’s wisdom oscillates between justified cynicism and impassioned resistance. Her bestselling book about the Russian feminist punk rock protest band, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (2014), looks to the powers of spectacular disruption, guerilla street protest, and feminist LGBTQ civil activism to unseat the false thrones of populist autocracy. Like Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” (which include taking the autocrat at his word, no matter how unbelievable his claims, and remaining alarmed and outraged despite small signs of normality) has been frequently cited and widely shared on social media since the election.

As Gessen advises Samantha Bee’s laughing feminist spectator on Full Frontal, “The thing we can do [to subvert autocracy] […] is actually to continue panicking. Continue to be the hysteric in the room” — [Bee interrupts, laughing, “I can stay hysterical!”] — Gessen: “Just continue panicking, write a note to yourself of what you would never do, and when you come to the line, don’t cross it.”

Gessen’s feminist call for mass-hysterical panic feels all too proportionate in this cultural climate, in which misogyny and homophobia have been casually emboldened while anti-discrimination laws are incrementally eroded. The mass psychology of this collective loss of rights follows a familiar script. Teen Vogue recently warned its readers that “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” invoking the 1944 Hollywood film (adapted from a British play) about a husband who sadistically manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane. When the disbelief provoked by Trumpist rhetoric is rivaled only by a looming despair about the potential for any effective resistance, perhaps hysteria is more than an energizing metaphor, but a new frontier for understanding the somatic and environmental stakes of social discourse and political language.

This is what hysteria does at its core: it somaticizes language against the impossibility of self-expression and symbolic articulation. Nineteenth-century female hysterics converted fruitless protest into corporeal spectacle. Their astonishing symptoms included somnambulism, phantom paralysis, uncontrollable barking and tongue-clacking, epilepsy, fugue states, double-vision, unending mirthless laughter, and cartoonish bodily flexibility (such as the performance of unreal acrobatic poses that the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot aptly classified as “clownisme”). Female hysterics were ostensibly repressed women who accessed their own bodies as expressive texts in the absence of more rational or expedient means of communication.

Coming from the Greek word “hystera,” meaning uterus, hysteria is of course a notoriously gendered malady: a condition that primarily afflicted bereaved widows in ancient Greece, whereby the womb becomes dislodged due to inactivity and starts wandering around the body, giving rise to a legion of physically baffling symptoms. Though modern clinicians (such as Charcot, Janet, Breuer, and Freud) insisted on de-essentializing hysteria, approaching the ailment as psychosomatic rather than organic, its gendered connotations are inescapable.

What, then, does it mean to “be the hysteric” in the twenty-first century context of “post-truth,” “alt-fact,” “fake news,” #NothingMatters-era Trumpism? At face value, the metaphor of hysteria provides a springboard for refusing to accept debilitating social losses as gradually normal (i.e., “to normalize”), even when the previous baseline for normality already left plenty of cause for disenchantment and cynicism. The hysteric’s body is a stage for the return of repressed or marginalized truths: the necessity of asserting one’s voice when confronted with the unmooring of any linguistic discourse or signifying system that might foster and sustain it.

Like hysteria, Trumpism, with its exuberant address to instinct above reason, relies on the urgency of irrational modes of thinking and communication. Following many autocrats, Trump has branded himself the voice of truth against political dishonesty — better to lie in plain sight than to deceive or condescend. Gessen, in a recent New York Times piece, “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” reflects on this paradox of sincere untruth by invoking Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. She writes: “Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. […] Arendt described how fascism invites people to ‘throw off the mask of hypocrisy’ and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers.” Trump may lie through his teeth, but, to his supporters, it feels less dishonest because he does so out in the open.

This amplified earpiece for brazen discourse, which Trump has exploited, is part and parcel of what The Economist has described as dégagisme: “a popular urge to hurl out any leader tainted by elected office, establishment politics or insider privilege.” (Upcoming European elections loom large, with populist candidates such as Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Beppe Grillo riding the wave of plain-spoken, anti-establishment, nostalgically nationalist sentiment.) The maxim “take Trump seriously, not literally” reveals a belief in his words that exceeds conscious reason, appealing directly to emotional instinct and corporeal sensation.

His cries of “Lock her up!,” “Build a wall!,” and “Make America Great Again!” — which range from illegal, to unfeasible, to inscrutable — solicit overwhelming visceral responses from the bodies of his exultant supporters. As Jacqueline Rose has noted, Trump’s election “licensed the obscenity of the unconscious.” It is precisely the jouissance of these hysterical chants that makes their targets (women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people of color) feel so vulnerable and at risk in Trump’s America. More than a symptom of dégagisme, this tyranny of unreason provides a long-awaited remedy to the alienation, fatigue, and nostalgia of postmodern late capitalism, wherein signifiers slip willy-nilly from their meanings and referents. The false promises of neoliberal corporatism and global multiculturalism have produced not social revolution (at least not yet) but wistful regression — to an earlier time when economic prosperity was guilelessly structured around the racial hierarchies of white supremacy.

Pundits struggle to assert the most apt historical analogy to predict and contextualize the political events that are currently unfolding. Is America today that of Putin’s Russia circa 2000, or Erdogan’s Turkey circa 2002, or perhaps Netanyahu’s Israel circa 2009? More ominously, are we hurdling towards Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here: an alt-history of 1935 fascist America under the populist President Buzz Windrip? If so, then what recourse remains to avert the fact of retrospective disaster? Could it still be 1933 (before the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland) or is it already 1939? Somewhere between traumatic recurrence and bad déjà-vu, Trumpism’s throwback to mid-twentieth century fascism (now under the auspices of runaway neoliberalism) represents both yet another cultural scenario “in the synchronic warehouse” of postmodernism’s global playground and radically uncharted territory that is overwhelming cause for mass alarm and passionate opposition.

Against the spread of Nazism in 1940s Europe, the German émigré filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch put a comedic spin on Hamlet’s existential soliloquy. Lubitsch’s controversial 1942 Hollywood film To Be or Not to Be depicts a farcical troupe of Polish actors who must impersonate Hitler and other Nazi officials to save the world from the ravages of Nazi barbarism. The double entendre of Lubitsch’s film title refers to the simultaneity of playing a role and continuing to survive. Gessen has offered a gendered but timely revision of fascism’s theatrical double bind (could there have been Auschwitz without first the brown shirts and black boots?): To be the hysteric or not to be the hysteric? Is that even a question? Hysteria, by definition, misses the point of ontology — it is the somatic recourse of the linguistically dispossessed.

In this vein, Gessen has cautioned against shiny objects à la anti-Ruskie conspiracy narratives, wherein paranoia about Manchurian subterfuge and sensationalist treason serves as an easy “crutch for the American imagination […] to explain how Trump could have happened to us.” But there are dangers to Gessen’s undying nihilism. By dismissing all seductive explanations as “conspiracy traps,” we risk romanticizing hysteria as somehow purified of ideological deception or political calculation. As long as “kompromat” and “Russiagate” do not quell our hunger for action and mobilization, it is wrong to read them as mere cognitive foils for repeating the old refrain: “it can’t happen here.”

Victorian hysteria parlayed paranoid neurosis into spectacular protest. As a postmodern gesture, perhaps it will similarly substantiate the pervasive crisis of truth and reason within cultural discourse. Whether righteous resistance or yet another sign in the void, the bodily theater of anti-authoritarian panic — refusing to accept as normal what’s beyond the line of one’s moral conviction, and then laying one’s body on the line to stave off the dangerous slippages of political relativism — may just be our very key to salvation.

Nicholas Baer

  • Patti Greenberg

    Yes! I am in a panick and ready to stay hysterical. In fact I can’t see a way NOT to be hysterical. Thanks Maggie, great work!

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