Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Power Have The People

Last week I complained of this:

Technology as protagonist in news stories. The role of technology in the latest humanitarian disaster/terrorist outrage/doolally starlet banged up in mental health institution story. How Twitter helped Gloucestershire residents tell their families on the other side of the country that their carpets were still safe from the floods! How Islamist terrorists have been keeping Islamist terrorist encyclopedias- on their Blackberries! How famous people use the internet too, as evidenced by a comment left by a famous moron on the Bebo site of another famous moron currently in rehab!

And yesterday I saw this:

Facebook used to target Colombia’s FARC with global rally


There is an excellent piece on the FARC and Colombia in Oil Wars. what right does any group in a democracy have the right to resort to violence, which is what an insurgency is, against an elected government? After all, at the very least the FARC does that. And if there is no legitimate reason behind their waging armed struggle in the fist place than they can safely be condemmed regardless of what role they play or don’t play in the Colombian drug trade.

In short, if the FARC have political designs then why don’t they just compete for power electorally? Heck, even the Venezuelan opposition finally saw the light and has started doing that.

The answer to that question is quite simple – leftists have tried participating in electoral politics in Colombia only to be massacred by state supported right wing death squads. Most recently this happened in the 1980s and 1990s when some FARC members, communists, socialists, trade unionists, community organizers and other leftists formed a large political party called the Patriotic Union.

And what happened to the Patriotic Union? Well, lets just say 20 years on there aren’t many members still alive to tell about it.

And then:

So by now hopefully you can see why there is no Colombian equivalent of Chavez, or Correa, or Kirchner, or Lula. Well, there actually may be Colombian equivalents of those leaders. But rather than be public figures, which would make their life expectancy very short, those few that survived and didn’t go into exile are probably in a jungle somewhere holding a gun.

And can they be blamed? No they can’t. The reason is, Colombia is not a true democracy. Certainly any country where politicians of a certain persuasion are systematically murdered cannot be considered to be democratic and its citizens certainly have the right to use any means at their disposal, including armed insurgency, to change that government.

A few weeks back, I was listening to a French interview with Eric Hobsbawm that touches on revolutionary guerilla movements. Whilst he lamented the fact that there was no longer any revolutionary aspect to the FARC’s activities, he displayed a certain sympathy for the FARC for precisely the reasons Oil Wars outlines: the fact that its attempt to form a civilian political movement was met with extreme and murderous violence from the Colombian state meant that there was no alternative but armed insurgency.

What I find troubling about the events presented in the proliferation of stories about the anti-FARC protests is the entire absence of any attention to the role of Colombian governments and their backers in creating the situation obtaining in Colombia.

One might be inclined to conclude, from the impression delivered by the representation of these protests, that the purity of demands issued (No More Kidnappings, No More Terrorism, No More Deaths, No More FARC) reflected the purity of Colombian government objectives. The New York Times presents things as such in its report on the marches, describing the FARC as ‘Marxist-inspired’ (which Marxist?), and gives special relevance to Hugo Chávez’s role in proceedings.

I am not really concerned with the fact that newspapers represent events in line with imperial priorities, since that is a fact of empire. It is more the potential that now exists to generate an event, with purportedly ‘good’ objectives, and to have this understood as an authentic expression of people power, when it is in fact a legitimation of state or imperial power. By ‘event’, I don’t just mean the simple fact of people marching on the street with banners. I also mean the representation of these people marching on the street with banners, and what it connotes.

Some connotations of the FARC march are:

  1. FARC is bad, ergo Colombian government and its allies good
  2. Ditto Hugo Chávez, in the case of the NYT report
  3. People have the power. An acceptable manifestation of people power is to unite with the Colombian government.
  4. Social networking technology is synonymous with people power and progress

There are others, but I don’t have the time. For this post, I want to focus on number 3. What is the Colombian government’s relationship to people power or democracy? Well, this Amnesty International report from July 2007 should give some sort of idea:

Terror tactics are also used to enable powerful economic elites to protect, expand and consolidate their interests. Over 60 per cent of the more than 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia have been forced from their homes and lands in areas of mineral, agricultural or other economic importance. The conflict provides a useful cover for those seeking to expand and protect economic interests. It is in this context that trade unionists are the target of numerous human rights violations. Trade unionists are repeatedly labelled as subversive by the security forces and paramilitaries. Such criticisms are often followed by human rights violations which also frequently coincide with periods of labour unrest or negotiations over working conditions.

Impunity is a key component of this counter-insurgency strategy – the knowledge that the perpetrators of human rights violations will not be brought to justice sends a clear and powerful message to individuals and organizations not to seek justice. It also sends a clear message to such groups that their members and leaders could suffer further human rights violations if they do not put an end to their activities. Impunity ensures that the perpetrators of human rights violations are still at large and more than willing to repeat their actions.

The impunity enjoyed by security force personnel responsible for human rights violations has been guaranteed through a variety of techniques designed to ensure that crimes are not fully investigated. The security forces have covered up their involvement by using paramilitary groups to carry out their “dirty war” tactics and have sought to improve their human rights image by denying that paramilitaries operate with their acquiescence, support or, as is often the case, under their coordination.

The use of paramilitaries provides another dimension of terror to the Colombian conflict. At the national and international level the armed forces and Colombian government deny links between the armed forces and the paramilitaries, at most admitting to individual cases of collusion involving a few “rotten apples”. However, at local level these links are often not denied and are sometimes even deliberately made evident in order to increase fear among the civilian population. In essence, the message is “who are you going to turn to for help?”

Colombia is, in fact, a terror state, and therefore, as Oil Wars says, not a true democracy. But the demonstrations as represented provide no room for the expression of this fact. Rather, they cover it up, in pretty much the same way as others cover it up:

Our two nations are working together to fight drug trafficking and terrorism, and to promote security, democracy and the rule of law throughout the Americas. President Uribe’s leadership and the courage of the Colombian people are creating a bright future for Colombia.

I’m making observations here specific to the content of the anti-FARC marches. But they can apply to a whole range of manifestations of ‘people power’, as represented by modern media. Where these are in support of US interests, and spout glittering generalities about peace, saying no to terrorism, and so on, they are glorified. Where they address specific issues that run counter to US interests, they are denounced bitterly. A case in point is the Palestinian destruction of the wall on the Egyptian border with Gaza, as stunning an example of people power in response to oppression as anything in recent years. This Washington Post editorial railing against Mubarak’s inability to contain the Palestinians, claiming that ‘no one is starving in Gaza’, and implying that many Palestinians simply wanted cheap cigarettes, is a good example.

The Audacity of Horseshit

The fact I think that there should not be a President of the United States as currently constituted does not mean that I have no interest in the election circus. I am interested, much as I was interested in the outcome to Strictly Come Dancing. And I have to admit that when I hear Barack Obama talk, I think that it would be better that he were president than George Bush. But he would still be President of the United States.

Andrew Sullivan says that the most important thing about Obama -for US foreign policy purposes- is that he is black, and therefore an effective rebranding instrument for American hegemonic objectives:

The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

A ‘sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power’, perhaps in the way that homeopathy involves ‘a sophisticated and supple blend of disease-causing substance and water’. The US has a higher military expenditure than the rest of the world combined, and as Glenn Greenwald notes, that doesn’t take into account military aid to the likes of Egypt and Israel. Sullivan continued:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Reza Aslan responded in the Washington Post:

As someone who once was that young Muslim boy everyone seems to be imagining (albeit in Iran rather than Egypt), I’ll let you in on a secret: He could not care less who the president of the United States is. He is totally unconcerned with whatever barriers a black (or female, for that matter) president would be breaking. He couldn’t name three U.S. presidents if he tried. He cares only about one thing: what the United States will do.

That boy is angry at the United States not because its presidents have all been white. He is angry because of Washington’s unconditional support for Israel; because the United States has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq; because the United States gives the dictator of his country some $2 billion a year in aid, the vast majority of which goes toward supporting a police state. He is angry at the United States because he thinks it has hegemony over almost every aspect of his world.

If Obama’s face won’t make much of a difference, what then of his policies? He has assembled a crack team of advisors, as Allan Nairn details in an interview with Amy Goodman:

..Obama’s top adviser is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski gave an interview to the French press a number of years ago where he boasted about the fact that it was he who created the whole Afghan jihadi movement, the movement that produced Osama bin Laden. And he was asked by the interviewer, “Well, don’t you think this might have had some bad consequences?” And Brzezinski replied, “Absolutely not. It was definitely worth it, because we were going after the Soviets. We were getting the Soviets.”


Another key Obama adviser, Anthony Lake, he was the main force behind the US invasion of Haiti in the mid-Clinton years during which they brought back Aristide essentially in political chains, pledged to support a World Bank/IMF overhaul of the economy, which resulted in an increase in malnutrition deaths among Haitians and set the stage for the current ongoing political disaster in Haiti.

Another Obama adviser, General Merrill McPeak, an Air Force man, who not long after the Dili massacre in East Timor in ’91 that you and I survived, he was—I happened to see on Indonesian TV shortly after that—there was General McPeak overseeing the delivery to Indonesia of US fighter planes.

Another key Obama adviser, Dennis Ross. Ross, for many years under both Clinton and Bush 2, a key—he has advised Clinton and both Bushes. He oversaw US policy toward Israel/Palestine. He pushed the principle that the legal rights of the Palestinians, the rights recognized under international law, must be subordinated to the needs of the Israeli government—in other words, their desires, their desires to expand to do whatever they want in the Occupied Territories. And Ross was one of the people who, interestingly, led the political assault on former Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Carter, no peacenik—I mean, Carter is the one who bears ultimate responsibility for that Timor terror that Holbrooke was involved in. But Ross led an assault on him, because, regarding Palestine, Carter was so bold as to agree with Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa that what Israel was doing in the Occupied Territories was tantamount to apartheid. And so, Ross was one of those who fiercely attacked him.

Another Obama adviser, Sarah Sewall, who heads a human rights center at Harvard and is a former Defense official, she wrote the introduction to General Petraeus’s Marine Corps/Army counterinsurgency handbook, the handbook that is now being used worldwide by US troops in various killing operations. That’s the Obama team.

Still, it’s probably better than John McCain or Rudolph Giuliani, as Allan Nairn continues:

Giuliani, as was mentioned, his big adviser is Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz’s new book is World War IV, which he seems to like. Podhoretz says, bomb the Iranians. And he’s not just talking about pinpoint Iranian nuclear installations; he’s saying bomb the Iranians. And he says he prays that this will happen. Ex-Senator Robert Kasten, an old major backer of the Pakistani military dictatorships and the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, he’s another key Giuliani adviser.

McCain has General Alexander Haig, who oversaw the US policy of mass terror killings of civilians in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, when American nuns and religious workers were abducted, raped and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard. General Haig said those nuns died in an exchange of gunfire, the pistol-packing nuns. He has a younger—McCain has a younger adviser, Max Boot, who now points to El Salvador, where 70,000 civilians were killed by American-backed death squads, as a model counterinsurgency, a model for what the US should be doing today. Henry Kissinger advises McCain, as he advises many others. And Kissinger, of course, was responsible for mass death in Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, countless other places.

Wunderbar altogether.


Like a dog returning to its own vomit, I found myself being drawn into the minutiae of the 2008 presidential candidacy races. I was going to do a post on how Republican candidate Mike Huckabee’s use of Chuck Norris tied in perfectly with what appear to be two focus areas of his campaign: purporting to be on the side of the downtrodden (with class war talk about ‘servant classes and ruling classes’) whilst demanding the righteous macho kicking of foreign ass.

Huckabee, in the video above, says:

‘We elevate and we celebrate human life, and if you look at us with a contrast to the Islamic Jihadist, who would strap a bomb to the belly of their own child, march ’em into a crowded room, set the detonator, and kill innocent people..they celebrate death, we celebrate life. It’s the fundamental thing that makes us unique, it keeps us free. I pray we never, ever, abandon that basic principle.’

And I don’t know precisely where I was going to take it from there, but then I came across an article from Allan Nairn with a sensible line on the President of the United States, the job for which Huckabee and the rest of them are applying. I am grateful to it for saving me from writing a tortured post weighing up the merits of different candidates and speculating on outcomes.

One American deciding. Millions of lives. Fates determined almost in passing.

If you pull back and think about it — slowly — doesn’t it all seem a bit improper?

For most political Americans the answer would probably be that they haven’t yet thought about it, because in US politics, the existence of such power is taken as a no-need-to-think-of given.

But at the other end of the stick — or the other end of the rifle, where the bullets come out — there is a bit more consciousness of this remarkable fact about today’s wildly unbalanced world.

Its why the US presidential campaign gets heavily covered in the popular press of, say, Malaysia, while on the other, US, end — the trigger end — editors are only dimly aware that that country exists.

It is also why, say, junior US Congressional or Executive Branch aides — or, for that matter, US journalists — can get treated like pashas when they visit weaker countries overseas.

If people figure out that you or your perceived (or real) team have the power to kill them or feed them, they tend to — as one would rationally expect — act toward you accordingly.

For years, those actions have tended toward deference — though lately there’s sometimes been more anger — but both the deference and the anger flow from the same realization: that when you talk to extremely powerful people, you are talking to he (or she) who can shape your fate.

Of course, concentrated power is not a modern or a US invention, and it will always exist to some degree. But, as with many things, it is a question of, first,: to exactly what degree? And second, power to do what? To take my life, if you feel like it?

In today’s world, power is so skewed — in its distribution, its nature, and in its very scale — that people like, say, American presidents can take out villages and barely know or remember it.

I once interviewed former President Ford on the phone and asked him if it was true that in a meeting with the dictator Suharto he had authorized the East Timor invasion.

Although I had told Ford’s staff in advance that I was going to ask him about that meeting, he replied — I think, honestly — that he just could not remember.

He said the meeting had had a long agenda — a fact confirmed by the later-declassified transcript — and Timor was somewhere down the list, so he apologetically said that he couldn’t be sure.

In fact, Ford did give the thumbs-up and, thereby, launched — within a day — what would become the greatest proportional slaughter since the Nazis.

If you’re the ruler of any other country (including China, Russia, England, or France, the arguable candidates for distant — very distant — #2 world killing power), you don’t have to stick Post-It notes on your computer to remember what countries you’ve caused to be invaded, or have provided with “lethal aid” (the actual Washington term for US assistance to the killing capacities of friendly forces).

How could such power possibly be legitimate? It can’t be, by definition.

Even though you may have won a vote, and the voters are sovereign, the voters do not have the right to authorize you to facilitate murder.

People should not be running for president, they should be running to abolish the American presidency — and state — as they are now constituted, that is, as institutions that assume killing rights that no one has the right to give them.

Bold emphasis mine.

Life and death matters best left out of politics

Although the Opposition did its constitutional duty in challenging the Dail’s confidence in the Minister for Health, one local TD made an interesting observation. Sean Fleming, the local Fianna Fail TD, said yesterday he didn’t receive a single angry phone call about the breast cancer scandal in Portlaoise.

“I was inundated with calls when Noel Dempsey did his thing on the holders of provisional driving licences but not a single call about breast cancer diagnosis,” said Fleming.

“People knew the driving licence business was a political c**k-up but they also knew the breast cancer scare was a medical problem.”

Apparently one can gauge the real gravity of an issue by the amount of calls a TD receives about it.

It probably did not occur to Sean Fleming that the public are smart enough to know that whilst calling for a U-turn on provisional licenses is precisely the sort of clientelist exercise at which TDs excel, because it is not a political problem but a managerial one, they are worse than useless when it comes to resolving severe deficiencies in the health service -of which the breast cancer is a direct result. They are worse than useless in this regard precisely because it is a political problem, and one that many have no particular interest in solving, since failure will enable the expansion of a bountiful two-tier system.

The ‘Uprising Against Fascism’ Me Arse

It’s ridiculous, and says quite a lot about media priorities, that the appearance of Nick Griffin and David Irving at the Oxford Union Society has made front page headlines in Britain today. Yes, they are a pair of Nazis. But Nazis have always caused a frisson of illicit excitement in a certain sort of British Hooray Henry, so it is therefore unsurprising that they should make the occasional appearance at places like the Oxford Union Society.

You would think, from all the coverage given to this event, that this particular members’ club was some sort of hallowed chamber where only the most noble questions of the human interest were discussed, and that to invite this pair of Nazi cranks to speak there was to somehow elevate their ideas to the level of Isaiah Berlin and god knows who else. Yet the reality of such members’ clubs is somewhat different: meeting places for braying horse-faces in blazers whose level of desire for status, recognition and an extraordinary CV outstrips their level of intellectual curiosity by orders of magnitude.

Had Irving and Griffin been speaking in a barn somewhere in deepest Norfolk, no-one would have given a rat’s ass. But because it’s the Oxford Union Society (which is not the same thing as the Oxford University Student Union), and therefore a recognisable component of the establishment, there was uproar in the press, even though the venue itself, and the outcome of its debates, have zero relevance to the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in the country.

And the reason for this, as this chap sensibly notes here, is that ‘the nation’s press enjoys stories about the Oxbridge elite from which so many of its writers have come‘. But two paragraphs later, he himself swoons at the Oxbridge mystique by noting that ‘Irving and Griffin are clever people: Griffin is a Cambridge graduate’, which must mean he’s at least the intellectual equal of Prince Edward or Jonathan King. We all know the potential those two have for fascist demagoguery, but they choose to use their powers for good.

The coverage, and a large part of the uproar, is not about free speech, nor combatting fascism, but, through an elaborate pantomime, the preservation of the prestige of symbols of establishment power, and the fact that the establishment matters: even the president of the Oxford Student Union said that ‘it was “disgraceful” that the pair were being given the same platform as past speakers including Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.’ Kermit the Frog too, but that is an inconvenient detail.

On Supercapitalism

Top drawer review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism by Tony Judt in the NYRB. Worth reading in its entirety, since every paragraph is insightful, but these two paragraphs struck me as particularly resonant:

Half a century of security and prosperity has largely erased the memory of the last time an “economic age” collapsed into an era of fear. We have become stridently insistent—in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities—that the past has little of relevance to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent. Our parents and grandparents, however, who lived the consequences of the unraveling of an earlier economic age, had a far sharper sense of what can happen to a society when private and sectional interests trump public goals and obscure the common good.

We need to recover some of that sense. We are likely, in any event, to rediscover the state thanks to globalization itself. Populations experiencing increased economic and physical insecurity will retreat to the political symbols, legal resources, and physical barriers that only a territorial state can provide. This is already happening in many countries: note the rising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of “anti-immigrant” parties across Western Europe, the call for “walls,” “barriers,” and “tests” everywhere. “Flat worlders” may be in for a surprise. Moreover, while it may be true that globalization and “supercapitalism” reduce differences between countries, they typically amplify inequality within them—in China, for instance, or the US—with disruptive political implications.

The Honourable Number Two In The Health Department

Accumulated over centuries of rulings non-words include: blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, ignoramus, liar, rat, swine, stoolpigeon, and traitor. Shit is apparently OK when used as a noun rather than a bodily function.

I don’t understand the last sentence. Does ‘bodily function’ mean verb? That is, it’s ok to say ‘You, sir, are a shit’, but not ‘After that long and pleasant lunch with the honourable member, I am not fit to shit myself’? It would be strange to call someone a shit without intending some association with bowel eliminations.

But maybe what they mean is when the noun shit refers to worse than useless information. E.g. you are full of shit.


You see all this stuff about the kid who got tasered and arrested for asking John Kerry a few impertinent questions (or for asking a few questions impertinently, take your pick)?

My thoughts:

  • There are plenty of queues where, if you ask the wrong questions, you are likely to get dragged off in cuffs. It could happen to you in a shopping centre, or a fast food restaurant, or at the bank. You only have to know the right questions to ask.
  • There are plenty of situations where there are no queues in the first place that might allow you to pose your questions. If you attempt to circumvent the conventional channels (e-mail, fax, handwritten letter with lots of underlining in red) in order to ask questions of the chief executive of a private corporation, by say, walking through the front door of a building and heading straight for his office, you are also likely to be arrested. A recurring scene in TV programmes and films is the bold hero brushing past the secretary saying ‘you can’t go in there…’. In real life, getting as far as the secretary would be quite an achievement.
  • There is talk of how this has sparked a debate about free speech. In many places in the supposedly democratic societies I know about, free speech doesn’t exist. You may be ‘free’ to open your mouth and express your opinions in the sense that you are not gagged, but there are consequences. When expressing yourself freely conflicts with the objectives of the authority to which you are beholden -for, say, your pay, your security or your health- you will suffer consequences. Since most people are painfully aware of the consequences, they don’t express themselves freely.
  • Many forms of authority do not take kindly to being questioned directly, especially when those questions reasonably expose the unreasonableness of authority. At this point, authority sees no need to provide an explanation: it just resorts to whatever powers it has to put an end to the discussion. See the case of this 70 year old man who was not allowed to buy a bottle of wine because he had no ID.
  • In this case, it wasn’t John Kerry’s authority that was being questioned, but the authority that permitted the event in the first place on the understanding that it would take place in accordance with certain conventions. So, to question the validity of the 2004 elections, the charade of the two party system in the US, and the idea that Kerry did not get where he was by simply being a great guy, is to question the legitimacy of the authority that allows for the event to take place. In doing so, he invited the fearful footsoldiers to act. Failure on their part to act would have invited punishment from their superiors in the security hierarchy. If instead of asking those questions, he’d asked about how nice Kerry’s hair looked, how great Kerry thought American democracy was, and to what extent Kerry thought Americans were under attack from evil, the footsoldiers would have had an easy afternoon.

Your Call Is Important to Us

Peter the Punt recently wrote:

The Sinn Fein notion of a united Ireland by 2016 is rightly now regarded as a pipe-dream. Republicans when gathered together may still hanker after and indulge in the make-believe of achieving a united Ireland but few in private could believe it likely in their lifetimes.

And, you would have to say, he’s probably right on that score, unless something cataclysmic were to happen in Ireland in the next few years. Via Slugger O’Toole, I see that MI5 are advertising for the following skills in their new Belfast offices:

Arabic (all dialects, particularly North African), Sorani, Bengali, Urdu with or without Gujarati, Punjabi, Chinese (Mandarin), Somali, Pushto, Persian and Russian.

I don’t see that particular call centre getting outsourced to North Africa, India, China, or Eastern Europe anytime soon. But Northern Ireland -with its well-developed security infrastructure- is an ideal ‘nearshore’ operation for such a sensitive operation.

Choice Words

Martin Amis has been having one of his turns.

After being asked to write by The Times to something about 9/11, he has spent six paragraphs on naming the thing, and concludes, in a Gustave Le Bon stylee, that it’s down to the herd instinct. Then, the more the world is changing, the more he stays the same, as he reels in horror at the ‘liberal relativist’ on Question Time:

Accordingly, given the choice between George Bush and Osama bin Laden, the liberal relativist, it seems, is obliged to plump for the Saudi, thus becoming the appeaser of an armed doctrine with the following tenets: it is racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist, and genocidal.

Who might give us the choice between George Bush and Osama Bin Laden? And when, and under what circumstances, might we have to choose? And why?

And if we have to choose, is it a choice at all? I sense that this is a bit like the police saying that you have been given the choice between getting locked up for possession of heroin or getting locked up for possession of crack cocaine. The possibility that one might prefer not to choose does not come into it.  Indeed, the idea of that possibility appears to drive many to the point of madness.

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August 2020