The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Vax, Quacks, and ‘Respectability Politics’

A man wears an anti-vaccine button as people protest against New York City’s mandated COVID vaccines in front of the United States Court in New York City, October 12, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

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The Politics of Vax and Quacks

A request from the vast, endless digital peanut gallery: “I’d love to see a National Review contributor try to explain why it is that for 15 years the stereotypical anti-vaxxer was a progressive suburban mom in an ultra-blue district but at no point did any major Democratic politician try to court their support the way Republicans have.”

That’s a fair question, and the answer, in a word, is: respectability.

The Democrats have won it and weaponized it, and the Republicans have consequently rejected it.

The Democrats have successfully aligned themselves with the most prestigious and powerful social institutions — Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the New York Times — and they have, in turn, aligned these institutions with themselves and their ambitions. Republicans, for their part, have largely rejected these elite institutions (you can smell the sour grapes from here) along with the entire notion that such elite institutions should enjoy any special status or deference, adopting instead a countercultural politics that is, in spite of its right-wing character, a great deal like the left-wing countercultural politics of the 1960s. The student radicals who occupied the university administration offices would have loved to have done what that rabble did on January 6, but they did not have sufficient strength to occupy the Capitol — only the Lincoln Memorial, where they were visited by a solicitous Richard Nixon.

The hippies and their political allies were neck-deep in filth and dysfunction, high on radicalism, and up to their eyeballs in various kinds of antiscientific quackery. The Democratic Party, at the time, made some considerable room for this, having no other practical choice.

But that was then. The Democratic Party is well on the other side of its “Sistah Souljah moment.”

In their current configuration, the Democrats and their progressive leaders practice respectability politics, a politics of in-group affiliation expressed mainly through etiquette and socially necessary gestures of loyalty. Their main — and sometimes, their only — political strategy is based on status games, working to humiliate (and thereby effectively discredit) their opponents and rivals by associating them with low-status people and low-status ways of life rather than trying to persuade them or best them in argument.

That’s useful to the Left, which isn’t going to win a lot of intellectual arguments because its only big idea, socialism, has been thoroughly discredited by historical experience, while most of the successor ideas are either transparent adaptations of socialism (greenwashed radical anti-capitalism, etc.) or too narrow and boutique-y and bourgeois (intersectionality, neo-Maoist corporate struggle sessions, etc.) to provide the basis for a robust popular political movement.

But you don’t really need ideas or good arguments to build a political party or a political movement — you only need enemies. And your enemies should be people of low status. (That doesn’t necessarily mean poor or powerless — wealthy business leaders may be denounced as “unpatriotic,” as moral degenerates, or as “enemies of the people” in order to lower their moral status, and whatever financial success they have achieved may be discredited by claiming that they got ahead through corruption, cheating, and a “rigged economy.”) If they do not already have low status, then you work to lower their status. Donald Trump, kept on the outside by elite institutions, had to rely on sneering Twitter nicknames and such to do that. Democrats, in contrast, have a generous selection of prestigious institutions to deputize for their dirty work.

Our friends on the left routinely admit as much. From time to time, someone will demand of me: “Why should the New York Times publish conservatives? National Review doesn’t publish progressives!” Setting aside for the moment the fact that National Review has published many progressive writers over the years when they have something to say that conservatives might be interested in reading, National Review is an explicitly conservative magazine, one that exists mainly to give a voice to conservative views for the benefit of conservative readers. That line of criticism is persuasive only if the New York Times is precisely what the New York Times insists it is not: a progressive cultural possession, rather than what it pretends to be: a general-purpose newspaper without an enforced orthodoxy. Because of the prestige enjoyed by such institutions, the orthodoxy they enforce becomes nearly synonymous with respectability itself.

The point of policing the borders of respectability (which is what social-media “social justice” warriors spend their days doing) is to draw the lines in such a way as to put your enemies outside of them. It doesn’t have to make sense morally or politically, which is why the Taliban is welcome on Twitter while Donald Trump isn’t. The Taliban doesn’t matter to progressives, and Donald Trump does. In a period when all policy, including foreign policy, is held hostage to parochial domestic politics, that sort of bizarre outcome is inevitable. This is politics-as-consumerism: Not, “What do I want the government to do?” but, “What do my political affiliations say about me as a person, and how do they affect my social standing?”

Democrats and their allies now control most of the high-status institutions. And that is a lot more valuable in terms of practical political power than is ginning up a few votes from cranks — especially when those cranks are probably going to vote for you, anyway, irrespective of whether you indulge their crankiness. To take one ugly example: There is a good deal of anti-Semitism among left-leaning African Americans, and it is particularly visible in the Democratic machine politics of cities with large black populations, such as Philadelphia. And while the Democratic Party may not be as assertive as it could be in counteracting the anti-Semitism of elected Democrats such as Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, it isn’t going to take up anti-Semitism, and it wouldn’t even if there weren’t a lot of decent Democrats out there with strong moral objections to it. That’s because Democratic vote counters know that anti-Semites of the Ilhan Omar variety are going to vote for them, anyway, whereas embracing anti-Semitism would cost them many votes, not only among Jews but among non-Jewish people who would not want to be associated with an anti-Semitic party.

Democrats work tirelessly to paint the Republican Party as racist for the same reason: not to deprive the GOP of its black support, which is practically nonexistent, but to make the GOP socially repugnant to white suburbanites and professionals who might agree with Republicans about taxes or foreign policy but who would not want to be associated with a disreputable social group or to be seen being associated with such a group. And in spite of all you hear about “white supremacy,” there is nothing as disreputable in the United States as naked racism. To be a declared racist is to be cut off from polite society.

But status games go in two directions.

The Democratic Party is full of people who couldn’t pass a sophomore astronomy class but proclaim themselves the votaries of “science!” because “science!” enjoys a great deal of prestige, and that prestige is transferable: “Science! says we should be adopting these tax policies and manufacturing regulations.” This is also a useful way of ending unwelcome debate (“Science! has spoken!”) or pretending that questions involving competing social priorities and economic tradeoffs can be settled empirically and objectively.

To put it another way: The Democrats, including prominent figures such as former senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, may be indulgent of some pretty crackpot stuff from time to time (the so-called Affordable Care Act gives official blessing to a lot of indefensible pseudoscience, such as homeopathic medicine), but they didn’t do much to court pre-COVID anti-vaxxers because there wasn’t anything in it for them. Contemporary Republicans go out of their way to accommodate COVID-era anti-vaxxers (and please do spare me the BS about being only “anti-mandate”) and Ivermectin cranks and iodine-gargling crackpots for the same reason: because it is, for the moment, good politics.

Ritual humiliation is the foundation of our politics on both sides, but the Democrats and the Republicans go at it in different ways: the Democrats from a position of institutional power, the Republicans from the position of a marginalized group.

Allow me to change the scene, briefly.

There is a line that runs through conventional politics, fringe politics, conspiracy theories, and quackery — all of them begin with the idea that there is something wrong with the world, and that it is related to the wrong people having power, which is another way of saying “high status.” People often make the journey across that spectrum, from one end to the other: Cranks sometimes become mainstream politicians, and mainstream politicians (and, especially, writers and activists) very often end up as cranks. Professional success and failure are key players here: Celebrity neutered the radical Slavoj Žižek, while failure made a good and true crackpot out of Robert Kennedy Jr., one of those formerly prominent Democratic anti-vaxxers whose existence now is studiously ignored by his fellow partisans.

Medical quackery and political activism are longtime intimates. Consider the political career of Mohandas K. Gandhi — and here I mean the actual Indian activist, not the numinous saint Ben Kingsley played in that inspiring Richard Attenborough movie.

Gandhi’s first real interest in public affairs was not Indian political independence or the injustice suffered by Indians in South Africa (let us charitably pass over, for the moment, the fact that he was not very much interested in the treatment of black South Africans, and that his main complaint was that Indians were being treated like blacks, which he thought unjust), or anything that conventionally political: It was diet.

As attested to in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, dietary-reform programs were the principal fascination of the young Gandhi, and the fervor never left him. But his program at first was the opposite of what you might expect: He meant to convert vegetarian Hindus into meat-eaters, believing that doing so would make them stronger and more assertive, both individually and nationally. He soon changed his mind about that, and his first foray into political organization was with English vegetarian clubs during his student days.

Gandhi’s first real participation in a public political conflict came while he was serving on the executive committee of the Vegetarian Society, whose president and principal financial backer proposed to expel committee member Thomas Allinson, a physician, journalist, and prominent vegetarian activist, because Allinson also supported the birth-control movement, which was considered by many people, including many vegetarian activists, to be immoral. Allinson was in fact prosecuted under English obscenity laws for his tracts on contraception. Gandhi was keenly interested in the question, and ultimately came down on Allinson’s side, thinking it wrong to exclude him from the Vegetarian Society because of a political position not related to its dietary-reform mission. Cancel culture was a thing in the 19th century, too, it turns out, but Gandhi was on the right side of it.

The coincidence of political radicalism with vegetarianism and other dietary and fitness fads was an irritation to George Orwell, who observed: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Revisiting the theme: “I do not think the Socialist need make any sacrifice of essentials, but certainly he will have to make a great sacrifice of externals. It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!”

(You can now purchase George Orwell-themed yoga mats — hurray, capitalism.)

In The Comedians, Graham Greene contrasted the utopianism of a failed U.S. presidential candidate who had run on a “vegetarian ticket” with the brutal political reality of life in Haiti under François Duvalier. As the title suggests, such utopianism is difficult to take seriously.

But people do take it seriously. There is a reason the odious neologism lifestyle has taken root. Lifestyle is the main battlefield of politics on the 364 days of the year that are not Election Day.

Gandhi as a young man was an emphatic disciple of the very “Nature Cure” quackery that so bothered Orwell. Like many before him and after, he believed that much of modern science, and especially modern medicine, was an alien imposition standing between him and the blessings of the indigenous wisdom of his people. He would later amend these views somewhat, although his low opinion of Western medicine remained to some degree — he admired its analytic rigor but sniffed at its “methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele.”

(That is a complaint that should be familiar to modern ears. “Sure, capitalism has given us Teslas and iPhones instead of widespread famine, but are we truly happier?”)

Under the Raj, that which was British had all the standing and all the power, while that which was native to India was held in relatively low regard. This is the common colonial experience. Gandhi’s initial resistance to British power was much less conventionally political than it was a resistance to the British mode of life, and lowering the status of the British (and, more generally Western) cultural elite was to be a kind of prologue not only to formal independence but also to national self-purification and transformation. This presented some difficult negotiations: It was, after all, access to elite institutions that had enabled Gandhi — an English-speaking lawyer who had spent much of his life abroad — to become a major national leader. In his view, the Indian elite was as much to blame for India’s subjugation as the British were: “It is we, the English-knowing Indians, that have enslaved India,” he said. He came to believe that liberty was to be found in renunciation — of Western goods, Western clothing, Western political ideas, Western languages, Western religion. Not that he was exactly a bigot or a chauvinist, but he believed that an authentic national politics could be built only on an authentic national mode of life.

That isn’t at all alien to the American experience. Our first public-education law, the wonderfully named Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647, was aimed at countering Catholic or crypto-Catholic influence in the American colonies, in order to secure the central national standing of the Puritan religion and thereby make the people fit for the exercise of political liberty. Prohibition and other moral-improvement programs were similarly aimed at elevating the political health of the republic by reforming the lives of the people. Rum was understood not only as a danger to your liver but as a danger to American democracy. Only by reforming ourselves and our pattern of living could we come into the enjoyment of our authentic national life.

Authenticity is, inevitably, a contested line.

In our contemporary context, we are told by veterans of our elite institutions that “real Americans” don’t need to be lectured to — or led by — “elites.” So says Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard Law, so says Laura Ingraham of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (a name that no satirist would dare invent), so says Swiss boarding-school refugee Tucker Carlson, etc. Of course, the Ivy League has been on the Right’s watchlist since the days of God and Man at Yale, but even institutions formerly admired by conservatives and right-wing populists are getting the hairy eyeball: You can turn on your favorite AM-radio station and hear Dana Loesch expound on why she would discourage her children from joining the military, which is, in the right-populist estimate, just another corrupt elitist institution. Just as the English-speaking Gandhi blamed his English-speaking class for India’s agonies, our elite-educated and elite-employed populists blame their class — if not exactly themselves! — for our national pain and frustration.

And if the Marine Corps is on the outs, what chance could the Centers for Disease Control have with Republican populists?

I have touched on Republicans, Democrats, and respectability politics from time to time in the past, but I think it remains an underappreciated factor in our politics — which isn’t really politics at all but a general social confrontation, a tribal war that is fought on every front, from where we live to where we worship to where we work, from the entertainment we consume to, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of importance, how we vote.

Democratic politics in the United States has of course always had an inevitable social component, as politics does in most other liberal democracies. For example, you’ll notice that in societies with socially distinct ethnic or religious minorities, voters in the minority group often are strongly associated with one party. Voters in the majority may be generally associated with one party, too (if only the votes of white Americans were counted, the last Democratic president would have been Lyndon Johnson) but usually not as lopsidedly. And, of course, these things can change over time: In the United Kingdom, Jewish voters once preferred Labour but have shifted toward the Conservatives, partly in response to the open anti-Semitism of some British Labour leaders; Muslims in India tended to vote against the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party for obvious reasons, but a substantial number of Muslim voters (about 20 percent in one recent election) have begun to pull the BJP lever as the party evolves from its foundation in religious communal politics to become something more like a right-wing populist party. In the United States, African-American voters overwhelmingly favored Republicans until the Great Depression and the New Deal, at which point black voters switched to the Democratic Party.

(There is much to criticize in the Republican record on civil rights, but, contrary to the Democrats’ preferred potted history, the GOP had lost the majority of black voters by 1946, long before the convulsions over the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

That is a two-way relationship: Voters will be attracted to parties that welcome them and work to further their interests, but parties also react to who is in them already: Lyndon Johnson’s cynical and patronizing attitude regarding what he called “uppity” black voters (“We’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down,” etc.) was not part of an effort to recruit black voters into the Democratic Party but a reaction to the prior movement of black voters into the Democratic Party, which already had been accomplished a generation before his presidency. The Republican Party’s newfound solicitousness for what is described, not entirely accurately, as the “white working class” is not in the main an effort to reach new voters but a recognition of who already is in the Republican Party.

The Republican Party has adopted a countercultural politics because it represents countercultural voters. As one critic observes, visiting American nationalists are charmed by Budapest, but Hungarian nationalists hate that city for its liberalism and cosmopolitanism, just as American nationalists hate Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Ivy League, Hollywood, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the entire state of California except for the Central Valley, the universities, the most successful business enterprises, and most of the parts of the country where the people and the money are. They have given up conservatism as such because they believe that our institutions are irredeemably corrupt and hence not worth conserving.

The day before yesterday, things were the other way around. Republicans and conservatives had power, or believed they had power, in the institutions, and in much of the country the GOP was associated with local economic and cultural elites, from business executives and entrepreneurs to university administrators, church leaders, newspaper editors, etc. The Republican Party was the party of educated, relatively high-income suburban professionals. The significant points on the Republican curve were Nelson Rockefeller (at the leftward boundary), Dwight Eisenhower, the Chamber of Commerce, the mainline Protestant churches, and the William F. Buckley/Barry Goldwater/Ronald Reagan faction at the rightward edge of the mainstream. In the 1980s, the stereotypical Republican was Alex P. Keaton — today, it is People of Walmart.

The Democratic Party had its aristocrats, but by the 1950s and 1960s it was very strongly associated with groups that did not enjoy a great deal of power within elite institutions: poor white farmers attracted by the New Deal but unenthusiastic about racial integration; Catholic “white ethnics”; urban minority groups, mostly poor black and brown people in poor black and brown neighborhoods; left-wing radicals and communists, who had an influence on Democratic politics disproportionate to their numbers; etc. The midcentury Democratic Party was in many ways like today’s Republican Party: dominated by rich people in the poor states and courting the votes of relatively poor people in the rich states.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Republican Party’s evolution in the Dionysian direction — prone to ecstasies, histrionics, ritual violations of social norms, and ritual self-harm — but it is worth paying some attention to the Democrats’ evolution in the Apollonian direction. The practice of respectability politics does not sit equally easily on every Democratic constituency. The project of imposing an Ozzy-and-Harriet sensibility on gay Americans has been prosecuted with great energy but not without resistance. Andrew Kelly writes in the Bay Area Reporter:

Recently, the topic of kink- and fetish-related exhibits at Pride parades has become a flashpoint within the culture war. Proponents of kink at Pride argue that the marches came out of a place of rejecting straight society’s conventions on what is an “allowed” expression of sexuality, and that many of the organizers of early Pride events were also active in the kink and leather communities. Those arguing against the inclusion of kink at Pride often argue that it may alienate straight allies and make them feel uncomfortable, as well as make such events unsafe for children.

The perceived need to make gay-pride parades safe for children is, needless to say, a relatively recent development. But the gay-rights movement is in many ways an example of respectability politics undertaken successfully: When “gay” meant the Village People, men parading in leather chaps, and bathhouses, gay was kept at the margins; when “gay” meant Will & Grace and McKinsey consultants, that was something else. Gay politics became aligned with power and with powerful institutions rather than opposed to them. That has not pleased everybody involved, but what are the holdouts going to do — vote Republican? Not very damned likely.

(And conservative gatherings and protests where people are screaming obscenities or chanting them in quasi-religious display — good for children?)

So, congratulations to the Trump-era Republicans — you’re the gay people now: hated, generally unwelcome at the commanding heights of business and cultural life, possibly considered unfit for government work, denounced as moral degenerates, and loathed especially as an affront to public health and hygiene. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Before the era of respectability, some gay men at the fringes reacted to efforts to force them into conventional models of masculinity (or to punish them for failing to follow the associated rules) with exaggeration in both directions: If not the cartoon masculinity of all that 20th-century leather-and-bikers stuff, then the cartoon femininity of drag. Right-populism incorporates a similar kind of exaggeration. Fox News on most nights is a kind of right-wing drag show, in which the Upper East Side–dwelling multimillionaire employees of a global multinational media conglomerate pretend to be . . . something they are not.

They are not the boot-scootin’ honky-tonk aficionados they pretend to be. In truth, they are for the most part not even as dumb as they pretend to be.

The anti-vaxxer tendency on the populist right is a variation on the practice of what I have in the past called “acting white,” embracing the dysfunction and bumptiousness of the white underclass as signs of authenticity. Donald Trump is a guy who adores the music from Cats but made a political career performing a kind of white minstrel show for people who think they are characters from Jason Aldean songs. Never mind that the leaders and practitioners thereof mostly don’t know much about the white underclass they claim to champion and identify with, any more than it mattered that the gangsta rappers of the 1990s were not really very representative of the experience of most black Americans or that the Village People didn’t really represent the aspirations of many gay people in the 1970s. Write down the lyrics to your favorite pop song and read them aloud — they are invariably stupid and often illiterate, but what matters is how they make you feel. Political speeches may be a little more organized and grammatical (or not!) but they work according to the same principles.

The anti-vaxxer stuff on the right is best understood not as a medical controversy in any genuine sense but as a ritual of disaffiliation. “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.” The response to COVID-19 — the lockdowns, the mandates, the government action on a vast and practically unprecedented scale — was a sobering display of power, and that power is very much on the minds of millions of Americans who seem to have quite suddenly realized that they don’t have any.

I hope that answers the question.

Words About Words

A reader is annoyed by the overuse of the word “cute.”

It seems anything that is pleasant to look at or experience is now “cute.” Fredericksburg is a “cute” town. A new Tesla is a “cute” automobile. No! Cars, towns, buildings, etc., are not cute! Babies are cute. Puppies are cute. Girls and children can be “cute.” But inanimate objects are not cute.”

(For the sake of sanity, I have removed some exclamation points and ALL-CAPS EMPHASIS above.)

Is it true that inanimate objects cannot be cute? What of, to take the most obvious idiomatic counterexample, “cute as a button”?

In fact, cute was for much of its career applied mainly to inanimate objects. A “cute knife” was one with a sharp blade, not one with pink Hello Kitty scales. (The scales are the grippy part of a knife handle outboard of the tang.) A needle might be cute. Cute originally meant fine or sharp. It probably is an abbreviation of acute, but may have evolved independently from the same Latin root, acutus, meaning sharp or pointed. By analogy, that which is acute is also keen, penetrating, clever, sudden, insightful, etc.

Clever and cute have gone together for a long time, and covered a lot of the same territory. A knife described as cute might also be described as clever, as in:

Next comes a skipper bold,
He’ll do his part right weel —
A clever blade I’m told
As ever pozed a keel.

Also in this group of adjectives is pretty, also originally have the sense of clever, artfully made, sharp, or cunning. The modern sense of cute, meaning adorable in the way babies and puppies are adorable, dates back to only the 19th century.

A note about my correspondent’s formulation “girls and children.” Girl is another one of those words that has undergone a curious evolution — originally, it referred to a prepubescent child of either sex.

Fredericksburg is, indeed, a cute town — that is ungainsayable, as Jay Nordlinger might put it.

Rampant Prescriptivism

One of my least favorite journalistic conventions is repackaging statements of moral urgency into statements of necessary fact. E.g., “The United States cannot abandon Taiwan.” No, what you meant is: “The United States should not abandon Taiwan,” or, “The United States cannot in good conscience abandon Taiwan.” Because, in reality, the United States can abandon Taiwan, probably will, and, to some extent, already has.

We see a similar pattern with “tolerated,” as in: “This kind of abuse cannot be tolerated,” or, “My administration will not tolerate such actions,” invariably said about things that we are, in fact, tolerating. For example, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito says: “Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated in any setting, including in prisons and jails.” A worthy sentiment, but such abuse obviously can be tolerated — we tolerate it right now.

We are getting Kant all wrong: “Should” may imply “can,” but “should not” is not the same thing as “cannot.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

The current attack on Facebook isn’t about “safety” — it’s about working the social-media refs before the midterm elections. More in the New York Post, an Alexander Hamilton joint.

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Lots more on the origin of the weird cultural politics described above.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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In Other News . . .

There may not be a newsletter next week. I’ll be traveling for work. But I hope the eventual story will make up for it.

Recommended

The aforementioned Mohandas K. Gandhi autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, is mandatory reading.

In Closing

I am writing this on All-Saints Day. The Catholic devotion to the saints scandalizes some of my Protestant friends, but I never have understood why — I mean, I have never understood how it is that people who think nothing of asking their friends on Facebook to pray for them think it wrong to ask their friends in heaven to pray for them.

If you’ve ever lost all your money or been the subject of a scandal, the lesson you usually learn is that you have fewer friends than you thought you did. But there are other trials, other kinds of trials, some of which may lead you to discover that you have more friends than you thought you did — and that they are not the friends you expected. I myself need all the friends I have — none is superfluous.

Padre Pio, the famous confessor, is said to have sworn not to enter the gates of heaven until the last of his friends — the people he adopted as his “spiritual children” — was safely inside. I am not sure that is how it works, but who could fail to admire the gesture?

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