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Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.
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You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).

So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.

Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.

What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.

With him or against him May 17, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Religion.
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It was sixty years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools; and it was ten years ago today that Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Michigan courts are attempting to follow suit, and you’d think members of a minority that had previously been denied equal rights for no reason other than prejudice would be sympathetic — but you’d be wrong.

Gay marriage would “destroy the backbone of our society,” said the Rev. Stacey Swimp of Flint at a Wednesday morning rally held by African-American ministers at First Baptist World Changers International Church in Detroit…

The ministers criticized people who compare the struggle for same-sex marriage to the black civil rights movement, saying such a comparison is offensive and historically inaccurate. Noting that millions of blacks were killed by slavery and public lynchings, Swimp said that backers of gay marriage who compare their movement to black struggles are being “intellectually empty, dishonest.”

Yes, gay people should wait until millions of them have been lynched to death before making a fuss about discrimination.

By the way, what exactly is the ministers’ problem with homosexuality?

“We believe in the Judeo-Christian conception on which America was founded upon,” said the Rev. Rader Johnson of Greater Bibleway Temple in Bay City.

Many quoted from the Bible and the history of Christianity to back up their beliefs. They also portrayed themselves as under attack from a secular culture that’s hostile to religion.

“God does not agree with this kind of behavior,” the Rev. James Crowder, president of Westside Ministerial Alliance Of Detroit, said of gay sexual acts. It’s “despicable, an abomination.”

Or, as Pastor Roland Caldwell put it:

Either you’re with God or you’re against him. If you’re against God, you’re against me… Anybody that’s an enemy of God is an enemy of mine.

And that’s why religion is so pernicious: it combines the (unjustified) belief that we know God’s will with the (immoral) conviction that obeying it is a virtue. This combination can produce positive behavior when what’s attributed to God’s will is actually good (amounting to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons); but so long as obedience is encouraged and critical thinking discouraged, there is always the potential to slide into doing evil (while thinking you’re doing good) — whenever someone decides to take the Bible seriously, for instance. Because the God of the Bible is fine with slavery (as the slaveholders of the South were fond of pointing out). And genocide. And stoning children.

If that God does exist, we should all be against him.

Unsophisticated visitors May 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will include a short video called “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” which “refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.” I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that some people are unhappy about that.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

… “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” [Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington] said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

… The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.

In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”

But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.

“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”

The museum still intends to keep the film; and yet,

“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.”

Truly, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of denial and self-delusion. According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, these are the goals indoctrinated into al-Qaeda trainees:

  1. Establishing the rule of God on Earth.
  2. Attaining martyrdom in the cause of God.
  3. Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity.

Al-Qaeda’s motives are explicitly Islamist: that’s all they ever talk about. Even if most Muslims disagree with some parts of al-Qaeda’s theology, it is by no means an implausible interpretation of Islam. (It’s not as if al-Qaeda is our only example of Islam-inspired violence.) And that means that Islam is part of the problem.

Consider, by analogy, the Inquisition — which I’m pretty sure had something to do with Christianity. Why do we no longer see Christians torturing and killing heretics and blasphemers? Is it because the scripture and doctrine of Christianity provide no support for such actions, and those inquisitors were all lunatics? No: it’s because most Christians no longer believe that (those parts of) their scripture should be followed literally. On the other hand, most Muslims still believe that the Koran, which is relentless in its vilification of unbelievers, is the perfect, unquestionable, literal word of God. Anyone who lends legitimacy to that belief system, even if opposed to violence himself, helps provide a basis upon which violent groups can thrive and attract followers.

It matters what people believe. If we want to avoid future atrocities, we need to be honest about what people have done, and continue to do, in the name of faith; and we must be uncompromising in criticizing irrational beliefs. If that offends anyone — sophisticated or not — too bad.

9-11-memorial

The abounding of impiety and profanity January 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Law, Religion.
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Thomas Aikenhead, a medical student, was indicted for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1696:

the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.

Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on January 8th, 1697. He was twenty years old.

Though Aikenhead was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy, the United Kingdom abolished the last of its blasphemy laws in England and Wales only in 2008. (And of course, some people are working hard to make “insulting religion” an international crime.)

Aikenhead had petitioned the Privy Council to repeal his sentence, but

the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.

Have always and will always December 1, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Religion.
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It is often argued that beliefs (especially religious beliefs) are a private matter, and that it’s wrong to criticize people’s deeply-held faith. The problem with “let everyone believe whatever they want”, however, is that our beliefs inevitably influence our actions. If, for instance, you believe that doing X is extremely important, you’ll naturally try to get others to do it. In extreme cases, you might even try to force people to do X for their own good — or for the good of their children. For example, I believe that saving children from disease and death is extremely important; so if a parent were withholding lifesaving medication from their child, I would advocate using the power of the law to override that parent and medicate the child. Most people would presumably agree that such action is reasonable — but it’s only reasonable insomuch as the underlying beliefs (e.g., regarding disease, death, and medication) are themselves reasonable.

On the other hand, consider this:

The Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals in Jerusalem has upheld a ruling demanding that a mother pay NIS 500 [$140] every day until she agrees to have her son circumcised…

The panel of three rabbinical judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court said in their decision on Monday that the mother was objecting to the procedure as a way of gaining better terms in the divorce settlement and dismissed her appeal…

The mother said, however, that after looking into the matter she decided she did not want the boy to be circumcised on ethical grounds.

“I don’t have the right to cut his genitals and wound him, and the rabbinical court does not have the right to force me to,” she told Channel 2 news…

“The Jewish people have always and will always see in the brit mila [circumcision] the completion of the act of creation,” [the judges] continued.

More:

“This matter lies within our purview because the minor’s educational experience will be defined by the decision on circumcision,” the rabbinical judges wrote in their ruling…

In Israel, rabbinical courts are entrusted with the marriage and divorce of Jewish couples. As such, they can rule on a wide range of issues when they hear a case.

The woman appealed to the Great Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem but the court refused to overturn the lower court’s ruling. “If the issue of circumcision is now left to every individual to decide, how will the rest of the world view this? It would be unthinkable to have authority in this matter stripped from the rabbinical sages of the people of Israel.”

Authority in this and all legal matters needs to be immediately stripped from rabbinical sages, priests, mullahs, and all others who value faith and adherence to tradition over reason and evidence; while the irrational belief systems that motivate them need to be treated with the same scorn those “judges” showed a mother and her son.

Reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable May 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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In the Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opines that to claim the Holocaust was punishment for sin is “ignorant, repulsive, and wrong.” Also, “abhorrent” and “factually absurd.” Moreover, those who make such arguments aren’t doing God’s reputation any favors:

Let’s say for a moment that they’re right. God bears no responsibility for the gas chambers at Auschwitz because the Jews of Europe had it coming. They earned death by virtue of their iniquity. They deserved to be turned into ash because they had abrogated God’s covenant.

Now, how many of you feel like praying to a God who could do that? How many of you feel like loving a God who enacts the death penalty for eating a cheese burger? How many people would want to worship a God who cremates children when their parents drive on the Sabbath?

Good point! I wonder where anyone could possibly have gotten the “abhorrent” idea that God would do things like that… Well, I guess there is this:

But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish… And if ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. And I will send the beast of the field among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number… And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat…

And this:

Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

And this

for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;

But if, like Boteach, we choose to ignore the main theme of the Bible, and maintain that God is worthy of love and worship, surely the only position left available is that God is incapable of influencing our world at all — because horrible things happen to innocent people every fucking day. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense to give God credit for the good things that befall us, while absolving him of responsibility for the bad things! Right?

I don’t know why God allowed the holocaust. Nor do I care. Any explanation would not minimize the horror of it. Nor would it bring back my six millions murdered Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, asking for an answer is itself immoral insofar as it is an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable. What we want is for God to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people, that they might live a blessed and peaceful existence, like so many other nations that are not perennial targets for genocide.

True, God has sustained us, for the most part, and we alone have survived from antiquity. We are grateful to God for our longevity. But it should not take the deaths of innocent Israeli soldiers to guarantee our survival.

It is high time that God show Himself in history and bless a people who have been, for the past three thousand years, the most devoted and religious of nations, deeply faithful to God, practicing charity, promoting scholarship, fostering hospitality, and spreading light and blessing to all nations of the earth.

High time, indeed. In fact, if God doesn’t show himself soon, some skeptical-minded individuals might interpret the consistent lack of divine intervention in our world as evidence that he doesn’t exist at all! Like, for instance, this Oklahoma woman whose home was ravaged by a tornado: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told her she’s “blessed,” then asked her if she “thanked the Lord.” She replied that she’s an atheist.

Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t know why his God allowed that tornado to kill two dozen people, including ten children; nor does he care. Indeed, he considers asking for an answer to be itself immoral. Nevertheless, he continues to pray for God’s blessings and to thank him for lovingly sustaining us. For the most part.

One of the highest April 8, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Law, Religion.
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Suppose that in some community of your city, a newborn baby is taken by his parents to a tattoo parlor, where they have the family emblem tattooed on his backside. The tattoo subsequently becomes infected, causing the infant to suffer brain damage and, eventually, die.

What would be the appropriate response? Should we shrug our shoulders, maintaining that parents are free to do whatever they want with their children? Or should we hold the parents (and the tattoo artist) accountable?

And what kind of parents would perform such a procedure on an infant, anyway?

Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.

In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.

One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice. None of the parents of the two boys who were recently infected signed the form, according Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Varma said it was “too early to tell” if the babies will suffer long-term health consequences from the infection.

Since 2000, there have been 13 cases of herpes associated with the ritual, including two deaths and two other babies with brain damage.

Neonatal herpes infections can cause death or disability among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“First, these are serious infections in newborns and second, there is no safe way an individual can perform oral suction on an open wound,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Third, these terrible infections are completely preventable. They should not occur in the 21st century with our scientific knowledge.”

Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”

We must not inform parents of the demonstrable dangers posed to their child, because safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles, and if, God forbid, there was a danger, we rabbis would be the first to stop the ritual, and since we haven’t stopped, there must not be any danger. So mind your own business.

Still, perhaps we should identify the infected mohel and stop him from harming more children?

The health department could take no action against the rabbi who performed the circumcision because the parents would not reveal his identity.

Safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles. Not, however, the highest.

An Islamist lexicon March 17, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Language, Religion.
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The Muslim Brotherhood is extremely concerned:

The 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), taking place from March 4 to 15 at UN headquarters, seeks to ratify a declaration euphemistically entitled ‘End Violence against Women’.

That title, however, is misleading and deceptive.

Does the Brotherhood mean to say that the UN declaration is not actually aimed at eliminating the disenfranchisement, maltreatment, and subjugation of women? Well, not exactly.

That title, however, is misleading and deceptive. The document includes articles that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family, the basic building block of society, according to the Egyptian Constitution.

This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.

A closer look at these articles reveals what decadence awaits our world, if we sign this document:

1. Granting girls full sexual freedom, as well as the freedom to decide their own gender and the gender of their partners (ie, choose to have normal or homo- sexual relationships), while raising the age of marriage.

2. Providing contraceptives for adolescent girls and training them to use those, while legalizing abortion to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, in the name of sexual and reproductive rights.

3. Granting equal rights to adulterous wives and illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships.

4. Granting equal rights to homosexuals, and providing protection and respect for prostitutes.

5. Giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment, obliging competent authorities to deal husbands punishments similar to those prescribed for raping or sexually harassing a stranger.

6. Equal inheritance (between men and women).

7. Replacing guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores.

8. Full equality in marriage legislation such as: allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and abolition of polygamy, dowry, men taking charge of family spending, etc.

9. Removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges, and sharing all property after divorce.

10. Cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception.

These are destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution; they would subvert the entire society, and drag it to pre-Islamic ignorance.

The Muslim Brotherhood urges the leaders of Muslim countries and their UN representatives to reject and condemn this document, and to call upon this organization to rise to the high morals and principles of family relations prescribed by Islam.

un-women So, ‘End Violence against Women’ isn’t really a “misleading and deceptive” title for the UN declaration, after all. On the other hand, I think I might have spotted a euphemism or two creeping into the Brotherhood’s heartfelt protest (which could non-euphemistically be titled ‘More Violence against Women’). Here, then, is a handy lexicon listing some common Islamist code words along with their actual meanings:

undermine the family: make it harder for men to control their wives and daughters

complete disintegration of society: a society where women are free and equal members

intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries: concern for the wellbeing of all inhabitants of Muslim countries

the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies: brainwashing, ignorance, and coercion

decadence: anything not prescribed in the worldview of a 7th-century tribal warlord

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

Darkness and light December 8, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion.
5 comments

LightsI will not light a candle for miracles: I will not celebrate gullibility, ignorance, self-deception, wishful thinking. I will light a candle for skepticism, for intellectual honesty, for experimentation, for evidence-based thinking.

I will not light a candle for tribalism: I will not celebrate sectarian, parochial worldviews that arbitrarily divide humanity into separate categories. I will light a candle for equality, for empathy, for solidarity.

I will not light a candle for worship: I will not celebrate submission, propitiation, servility. I will light a candle for self-respect, for independence, for human dignity.

I will not light a candle for militarism: I will not celebrate violence, aggression, retribution, revenge. I will light a candle for those who put themselves in harm’s way, who defend those that cannot defend themselves.

I will not light a candle in yearning for some idealized past: we have struggled long and hard to overcome many historical errors and injustices. I will light a candle for progress, for learning from past mistakes, for continuing to expand our knowledge and raise our standards and improve our society.

I will not light a candle and pray for some all-powerful being to save us in our hour of need: the universe doesn’t care about us and wouldn’t notice if our planet went dark. I will light a candle for rational decision-making, for responsible public policy, for building a sustainable future — so that the lights may stay on a bit longer.

I will not light a candle just because I am commanded to: I will not celebrate dogmatism and blind obedience. If I choose to, I will light a candle for individuality, for critical thinking, for personal liberty.

Also, I will not light a candle for fried food — that stuff will kill you. Go eat an apple.

On either side September 25, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
2 comments

It’s a joke, right? A parody? A satirical mockery of the suicidal, cowardly, obscene, morally-bankrupt farce that postmodern, politically-correct multiculturalism has become?

The European Union has issued a joint statement with the African Union, the Arab League, and (I kid you not) the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. We condemn any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence. While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.

The anguish of Muslims at the production of the film insulting Islam, posting of its trailer on the internet and other similar acts, is shared by all individuals and communities who refuse to allow religion to be used to fuel provocation, confrontation and extremism.

We condemn any message of hatred and intolerance.

We know that the behaviour of small groups of people does not speak for the larger communities from which they hail; but the damage they can inflict can be considerable. We must ensure that the recent events do not undermine the relationships of trust and respect we have built up over so many years among our peoples, communities and states. The international community cannot be held hostage to the acts of extremists on either side…

We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international
consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion, including on the basis of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18.

Yes, that’s clearly what we need: More respect for religion. Full respect, in fact. For Islam, and Mormonism, and Scientology, and Voodoo, and Wicca — we must respect them all, equally and profoundly. And all prophets, too — no matter what they preach. (Don’t they all preach the same thing, really?) We must take “further measures” against the extremists — on either side — who are holding the international community hostage: those who murder diplomats, on the one side, and those, on the other side, who provoke and incite by posting insulting films on the internet.

It must be a joke, right?

Although, come to think of it, not really very funny at all.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

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