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Posts tagged Utne Reader

Wednesday Lazy Linking

  • … but the streets belong to the people! Jesse Walker, Hit & Run (2009-06-10): The People’s Stop Sign. In which people in an Ottawa neighborhood take nonviolent direct action to slow down the traffic flying down their neighborhood streets — by putting up their own stop signs at a key intersection. The city government, of course, is now busy with a Criminal Investigation of the public’s heinous contribution to public safety.

  • Abolitionism is the radical notion that other people are not your property. Darian Worden (2009-06-09): The New Abolitionists The point is that the principles of abolitionism, which held that regardless of popular justifications no human is worthy to be master and no human can be owned by another, when carried to their logical conclusion require this: that no human is worthy of authority over another, and that no person is owed allegiance simply because of political status. When reason disassembles the popular justifications of statism, as advances in political philosophy since the 1850's have assisted in doing, the consistent abolitionist cannot oppose the voluntaryist principles of the Keene radicals.

  • Mr. Obama, Speak For Yourself. Thomas L. Knapp, Center for a Stateless Society (2009-09-09): Speaking of the State

  • A campaign of isolated incidents. Ellen Goodman, Houston Chronicle (2009-06-08): Sorry, but the doctor’s killer did not act alone

  • Let’s screw all the little guys. Just to be fair. (Or, pay me to advertise my product on your station.) Jesse Walker, Reason (2009-06-09): The Man Can’t Tax Our Music: The music industry wants to impose an onerous new fee on broadcasters.

  • Some dare call it torture. Just not the cops. Or the judges. Wendy McElroy, WendyMcElroy.com (2009-06-08): N.Y. Judge Rules that Police Can Taser Torture in order to coerce compliance with any arbitrary court order. I think that Wendy is right to call pain compliance for what it is — torture (as I have called it here before) — and that it is important to insist on this point as much as possible whenever the topic comes up.

  • On criminalizing compassion. Macon D., stuff white people do (2009-06-05), on the conviction of Walt Staton for knowingly littering water jugs in a wildlife refuge, in order to keep undocumented immigrants from dying in the desert.

  • Freed markets vs. deforesters. Keith Goetzman, Utne Reader Environment (2009-06-04): Do You Know Where Your Shoes Have Been?, on the leather industry and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Utne does a good job of pointing out (by quoting Grist’s Tom Philpott) that the problem is deeply rooted in multi-statist neoliberalism: because of the way in which the Brazilian government and the World Bank act together to subsidize the cattle barons and ‘roid up Brazilian cattle ranching, the report is really about the perils of using state policy to prop up global, corporate-dominated trade.

  • Well, Thank God. (Cont’d.) Thanks to the Lord Justice, we now know that Pringles are, in fact, officially potato chips, not mere savory snacks, in spite of the fact that only about 40% of a Pringles crisp is actually potato flour. Language Log takes this case to demonstrate the quasi-Wittgensteinian point that, fundamentalist legal philosophy to one side, there’s actually no such thing as a self-applying law. (Quoting Adam Cohen’s New York Times Op-Ed, Conservatives like to insist that their judges are strict constructionists, giving the Constitution and statutes their precise meaning and no more [linguists groan here], while judges like [Sonia] Sotermayor are activists. But there is no magic way to interpret terms like free speech or due process — or potato chip.) I think the main moral of the story has to do with the absurdity of a political system in which whether or not you can keep $160,000,000 of your own damn money rides on whether or not you can prove to a judge that your savory snack hasn’t got the requisite potatoness to count as a potato crisp for the purposes of law and justice.

  • Small riots will get small attention, no riots get no attention, make a big riot, and it will be handled immediately. Loretta Chao, Wall Street Journal (2009-05-30): In China, a New Breed of Dissidents. The story makes it seem as though the most remarkable thing about the emerging dissident movement is that they are safe enough for the State to tolerate them, rather than launching all out assaults as they did against the Tienanmen dissidents in 1989. Actually, I think that that misses the point entirely; and that the most interesting thing is that they have adopted such flexible and adaptive networking, both tactically and strategically, and that they now so often rise up from the very social classes that the Chinese Communist Party claims to speak for (not just easily-demonized students and intelligentsia, but ordinary farmers, factory workers, and retirees) — that the regime isn’t tolerating them; it just no longer knows what to do with them.

  • Counter-Cooking and Mutual Meals. Julia Levitt, Worldchanging: Bright Green (2009-06-03): Community Kitchens (Via Kevin Carson’s Shared Items.) If I may recommend, if you’re going to work on any kind of community cooking like this, particularly if you’re interested in it partly for reasons of resiliency and building community alternatives, you should do what you can to make sure that it is strongly connected with the local grey-market solidarity economy, through close cooperation with your local Food Not Bombs (as both a source and a destination for food) and other local alternatives to the state-subsidized corporate-consumer model for food distribution.

  • Looking Forward. Shawn Wilbur, In the Libertarian Labyrinth (009-06-06): Clement M. Hammond on Police Insurance. An excerpt on policing in a freed society, from individualist anarchist Clement M. Hammond’s futurist utopian novel, Then and Now which originally appeared in serialized form in Tucker’s Liberty in 1884 and 1885. (Thus predating Bellamy’s dreary Nationalist potboiler by 4 years.) Hammond’s novel is now available in print through Shawn’s Corvus Distribution. The good news is that, while Bellamy’s date of 2000 has already mercifully passed us by without any such society emerging, we still have almost 80 years to get it together in time for Hammond’s future.

  • Here at Reason we never pass up a chance to have some fun at the expense of Pete Seeger. Jesse Walker, Hit & Run (2009-06-09): They Wanna Hear Some American Music. On brilliant fakery, the invention of Country and Western music, the cult of authenticity, and the manufacture of Americana. For the long, full treatment see Barry Mazor, No Depression (2009-02-23): Americana, by any other name…

  • Anarchy on the Big Screen. Colin Firth and Kevin Spacey have signed on for a big-screen film adaptation of Homage to Catalonia. The film is supposed to enter production during the first half of 2010.

Technological civilization is awesome. (Cont’d.)


On sound and fury

I spent most of this morning reading through The American Prospect‘s recent insert on the politics of mental illness. With only two exceptions, the articles generally range from dull political hack-work to unsettling exercises in missing the point to disturbing demands for massive, federally-driven centralization and escalation in the size, scope, power, and invasiveness of State-backed institutional psychiatry, its regimentation of everyday life, and its access to fresh captives to call patients. (The two exceptions were a first-person account by a woman who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, which is mainly about how you should be nice to people who have been labeled mentally ill and treat them like human beings worthy of your concern; and another article on treatment alternatives, which spends about half of the article talking about Clubhouse model centers, which were founded by former inmates of the psychoprison system, which are strictly voluntary, and which are organized around principles of participation and equality among the crazy owner-residents and their hired helpers.)

I was originally referred to the feature by an Utne online feature focusing on the articles that had most to do with the intersection between institutional psychiatry and the prison system; the point of that feature (and the articles it referenced) was to call for more diversion programs and mental health courts. If you’re not familiar with the concepts, the way a diversion program works is this: somebody, usually somebody poor, gets busted by the cops for doing something that endangered nobody, or at most endangered herself, like consensual drug use, or prostitution, or just acting kind of funny in public, but which other, usually more privileged, people in her society find distasteful, contemptible, or trashy. She is forcibly restrained and locked in a cage for this victimless crime. Some professional busybody, usually a shrink or a government social worker, is sent by to declare that the poor thing can’t help herself, and that, rather than being locked in a cage for even longer, she should have a judge order her into a program that will teach her what a worthless shit she has been all her life, and how she needs to submit to the help being forced on her by court order so that she can live a worthwhile and healthy life, where healthy is defined as holding a low-wage job in a legal capitalist workplace, paying a landlord regularly for an apartment which you keep reasonably neat and tidy, and generally living up to a lowered set of social expectations and not acting in ways which your neighbors find obnoxious. It is an overt tool of normalization through the use of force and the threat of even more violent measures against a captive victim-beneficiary (usually, the threat of throwing you back into a hellhole jail or prison; if you have children, this is often accompanied with the threat of abducting your children and putting them into the hellhole foster care system). This is then passed off as an act of liberal humanitarianism and wise statesmanship by self-congratulatory government legislators, judges and bureaucrats. These programs typically make use of special court systems in which defendants are stripped of normal procedural rights on the excuse of a non-adversarial process supposedly being carried out for the good of the defendant’s soul — like a mental health court, which is a special court of inquisition, in which defendants have no right to a trial by jury, no due process rights against self-incrimination, and in which it is expected that the defendant’s legal representative will be collaborating with the judge, with or without the knowledge of her client, to come up with invasive and controlling treatment regimens of captivity in institutions, submission to all kinds of invasive surveillance by doctors and government hirelings, and, more or less invariably, some form or another of forced drugging, with the threat of prison used as a back-up plan if the defendant refuses to comply. Once again, this reversion to the standards of jurisprudence popular in the early modern trials for heresy and witchcraft, usually inflicted only to control the behavior of non-violent offenders, i.e., as an act of aggression against those who have done nothing to invade anyone else’s rights, is passed off as both pragmatic cost-control and humanitarian concern for its victims.

Of course, it’s generally true that diversion programs and mental health courts and the like are in some ways notably better than what they replace — that is, the torture and confinement of harmless people in government jails and prisons. Being whacked on the head with a hammer is better than being shot in the head by a shotgun; but if someone came up to me and said I ought to kill you for what you’ve done, but, you know, I feel sorry for you, so I’m going to divert you into the hammer-whacking instead, I think the proper response is, Well, don’t do me any favors. The real solution is for the State to stop violently persecuting people who aren’t invading anyone else’s rights, and for shrinks and social workers and all the rest of the crew to confine themselves to offering help to those who are looking for help, rather than having a dangerous street gang grab people off the street for their own particular use.

But of course you won’t see that, or anything like that, unless, and until, the majority and the politico-therapeutic power elite no longer agree amongst themselves more or less unanimously on the propriety of treating anyone who can be labeled crazy as something less than a fellow individual human being, with her own thoughts, desires, goals, dreams, and reasons for doing the things that she does. But of course if you insist on respecting a crazy person’s inner life, or on taking her seriously as a human being with thoughts and reasons of her own, which, even if you disagree with those thoughts and reasons, can and ought to be understood and engaged with, rather than fixed, then you will be immediately shouted down by a hooting horde of self-appointed experts and advocates who will insist that you are romanticizing a serious illness, and who will make ridiculous pronouncements like this comment in response to an article written after David Foster Wallace killed himself:

It is nothing more than dangerous romanticism to think that we can logic our way out of mental illness.

Note: Nobody had made this claim anywhere in the article or in the previous comments. Self-appointed mental health advocates very often try to establish themselves as caring by throwing out these scattershot accusations that somebody, somewhere is advocating a callous and trivializing just-suck-it-up sort of response to serious emotional suffering, regardless of whether or not anyone has actually said anything of the sort. –R.G.

As a culture, we need to start accepting that the gifts of the mentally ill — in this case, I’m told, his brilliance as a writer and thinker — often come with dangerous deficits.

But thinking and writing wasn’t enough to cure this man’s illness, just like a bottle of Wild Turkey wasn’t enough, either.

Don’t think you can make sense out of youngish man hanging himself. There is no sense in it. It is mental illness. Untreated mental illness, that had probably been overly glorified as profundity.

— Gina Pera, in re: David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

The problem is that this is utter nonsense. We’re not talking about someone who, oops, managed to hang himself by accident. He had his own reasons for doing so, and everyone I know, either personally or through writing, who killed themselves or tried to kill themselves, had some fairly specific reasons for wanting to die. Often they are willing to tell you what those reasons are if you ask, or even if you did not ask. These are acts that are invariably part of a larger life story, and they are always done for perfectly explicable reasons that are plausibly connected with what somebody is going through in their life.

Those reasons, once explained, may be bad reasons; they may even be bizarre reasons. But it is completely irresponsible, and chillingly dehumanizing to the people whose lives you claim to care about, to talk as if those reasons just didn’t exist, even when it’s been explained to you what they were, or as if they can simply be waved off just so many meaningless chirps coming from a broken brain, rather than the results of a serious and impassioned process of reasoning and deliberation. Bad reasons need to be engaged with, not fixed, and the fact that you happen not to agree with them doesn’t make them any less real, or any less important in understanding why people do what they do, or any less vital to understanding the best way to help them if you really care about their lives.

One of the important points that Peter Breggin makes repeatedly in Toxic Psychiatry is the way in which official psychiatric ideology about mental illness literally dehumanizes people labeled crazy, and provides an excuse for laziness and aggressive disregard for the integrity of mental patients’ lives. The problem is almost never that what somebody being labeled crazy does or says cannot be understood; it’s that the rest of us fail, or actively refuse to understand it, and we rationalize our failure and blame it on the person herself:

Biological psychiatrists–nowadays most psychiatrists–are fond of saying You can’t talk to a disease. The communication of so-called schizophrenics makes no sense at all to these doctors who want to control symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, with drugs, electroshock, and incarceration.

The idea that these extremes of irrationality are due to a disease is inseparable from the survival of psychiatry as a profession. If schizophrenia is not a disease, psychiatry wold have little justification for using its more devastating treatments. Lobotomy, electroshock, and all of the more potent drugs, including neuroleptics and even lithium, were developed at the expense of locked-up people, most of whom were labeled schizophrenic. The search for biochemical and genetic causes keeps psychiatrists, as medical doctors, in the forefront of well-funded research in the field. The notion that patients have sick brains justifies psychiatry’s unique power to treat them against their will. It also bolsters psychiatry’s claim to the top of the mental health hierarchy. In short, if irrationality isn’t biological, then psychiatry loses much of its rationale for existence as a medical specialty.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 23. #

He stresses that this is true of so-called affective disorders just as it is true of so-called schizophrenia.

When we cannot readily identify with the depressed person’s plight, more often it is due to our own lack of understanding than to the obscurity of the causes.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 126.

And, once again, on schizophrenia:

On July 27, 1986, 60 Minutes produced a show entitled Schizophrenia. It was based on biopsychiatric theories, and one of their experts declared, We know it’s a brain disease now. It’s like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease. On the show, vignettes of patients were presented to impress the audience with the bizarre quality of their communications, and hence the absurdity of any psychological meaning or underpinning to their disease.

The first 60 Minutes patient, Brugo, bolsters his identity with spirituality, as well as religion, and declares that he’s not extinct: And I’m Croatian Hebrew, which is Adam and Eve’s kin. And I have been Croatian Hebrew for centuries and cent–upon centuries. And I’m a Homo-erectus man, and I’m also part Neanderthal, and I mean to keep that heritage, ’cause I’m not extinct.

Packed into these few remarks is symbolism about his desperate need for personal value and dignity, his identification with religion and humanity, and perhaps his awareness of primitive impulses stirring inside himself, as well as his fear of personal extinction. Here is more than enough material to stimulate anyone’s desire to communicate with him.

The second patient, Jim, is dismissed by the interviewer because he is convinced he was shot to death when he was a baby. Yet his brief remarks seem like a metaphor for child sexual abuse by a male: I had my head blown off with a shotgun when I was two years old. And–and before that, things happened in my crib. I remember all these things and stuff, but I just remember, you know. I remember all this stuff.

A therapist with experience in listening to people immediately would wonder about what lies behind Jim’s direct hints about terrifying memories from early childhood, not to mention the symbolism of the crib in relation to his present trapped condition. More than one patient of mine has begun with just such anguished fragments of memory before discovering the agony of his or her abusive childhood and its relationship to current entrapments.

. . . The patients’ quotes were selected by 60 Minutes to demonstrate that so-called schizophrenia is a biochemical disease rather than a crisis of thinking, feeling and meaning. Yet people with real brain disease–such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, or a tumor–don’t talk symbolically like these people do.

Instead of metaphors laced with meaning, brain-damaged people typically display memory difficulties as the first sign that their mind isn’t working as well as it once did. They have trouble recalling recently learned things, like names, faces, telephone numbers, or lists. Later they may get confused and disoriented as they display what is called an organic brain syndrome. In fact–and this is very important–advanced degrees of brain disease render the individual unable to think in such abstract or metaphorical terms. The thought processes that get labeled schizophrenia require higher mental function and therefore a relatively intact brain. No matter how bizarre the ideas may seem, they necessitate symbolic and often abstract thinking. That’s why lobotomy works: the damage to the higher mental centers smashes the capacity to express existential pain and anguish. As we’ll find out, it’s also why the most potent psychiatric drugs and shock treatment have their effect.

How are we to approach people who get labeled schizophrenic? Do we think of them as troubled humans struggling in a self-defeating style with profound psychological and spiritual issues, usually involving their basic worth or identity? Or do we view them as if they are afflicted with physical diseases, like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, in which their feelings, thoughts, anguishes, and aspirations play no role? Do we try to understand them, or do we try to physically fix them? . . . If we are beings rather than devices, then our most severe emotional and spiritual crises originate within ourselves, our families, and our society. Our crises can be understood as conflicts or confusion about our identities, values, and aspirations rather than as biological aberrations. And as self-determining human beings, we can work toward overcoming those feelings of helplessness generated by our past spiritual and social defeats.

By contrast, the typical modern psychiatrist–by disposition, training, and experience–is wholly unprepared to understand anyone’s psycho-spiritual crisis. With drugs and shock treatment, the psychiatrist instead attacks the subjective experience of the person and blunts or destroys the very capacity to be sensitive and aware. No wonder the treatment of mental patients often looks more like a war against them. It often is.

— Peter Breggin (1991). Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy, and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the New Psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 23–26.

See also:

Seasons’ greetings

Here’s an item which seemed appropriate and topical to me, given the occasion.

(I refer, of course, to the occasion of Guy Fawkes Eve.)

I rag on Utne, but of course the reason that I read them is that they do occasionally come through. For example, by reprinting this really excellent article by none other than Gene Healy, about the imperial power of the modern Presidency, for an audience full of comfortable professional-class Progressive Obamarchists:

I’m not a preacher, Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm's fund-raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm's mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today's candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher–and much else besides.

In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is Yes we can! We can, the Democratic candidate promises, not only create a new kind of politics but also transform this country, change the world, and even create a Kingdom right here on earth. With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a cause greater than self-interest, he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office and nourished the soul of a great nation. President George W. Bush, when he was passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the commander in chief as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears to be stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humbly.

— Gene Healy, Utne Reader (September-October 2001): Supreme Warlord of the Earth

Read the whole thing. Along the way you’ll find Healy introducing Utne readers to the basics of Higgs crisis analysis and Bourne’s dictum that War is the Health of the State. The only thing to add to Healy’s analysis is to complete the thought: to stress that the progress of the Presidency from a minor administrative position to an elective dictatorship, and from an elective dictatorship to a world-spanning imperial warlord, was not just some unhappy accident, or the result merely of a a decadent culture, or of a conspiracy against the public interest by a few motivated scoundrels. It was the necessary result of an ever-expanding warfare State, and the ever-expanding warfare State was the necessary result of the whole experiment in a centralized, nationalistic limited government (where the only effective limit on the Executing branch of the government are other branches of government, mainly a legislature composed of aparatchiks from the same national political parties from which the President is drawn). The incentives we [sic] have given for the warlord Presidency are built into the structure of the Party State itself, and while massive changes in cultural attitudes towards the Presidency might check or even temporarily roll back the imperial Presidency, but no lasting or fundamental change will happen without structural change — ideally meaning anarchy and freed-market competition in self-defense and neighborhood defense. Or, at the very least, the abolition of the one-man Presidency, just as such.

See also:


Question: in a city racked by poverty and a long history of antagonism between cops and the local populace, how can you instill trust and inspire public confidence in your police department?

Answer: by firing police who attempt to communicate with the public. Let’s thank Flint police chief David Dicks for this useful tip.

Remember, nothing says transparency like opacity, and nothing says public servants like a tightly-organized, intensely secretive cabal of heavily-armed professional muscle, who absolutely refuse to discuss their business in the open.

On class consciousness

Oh, Utne. What won’t you romanticize?

Fellow workers, I know that times are tough. Lots of people are losing their jobs. Lots of people are losing their homes.

But I’m sure that, as you hit the skids, or as you try to figure out how to feed yourself and your family without any income, you’ll be very glad to know that your economic pain is contributing to a national character correction, which might eventually lead to your city’s government adding a few more bike lanes, to penny-pinching high-enders shopping for their overpriced organic arugula at Safeway instead of at Whole Foods, and to some other high-enders, who had enough money in the bank to spend the past several years on a fossil-fueled consumerist binge that they need to be jolted out of, to possibly stop buying quite as much stuff as they used to buy. I am sure that you will feel grateful for your chance to play your part in this great national exercise in character-building and simple living. Right after you finish eating saltines for dinner.

By the way, in case you were wondering, other great ways of making a national character correction include a total-war command economy and blowing the hell out of a few million fellow workers in far away countries.

Do I need to mention what a special kind of professional-class Progressive self-absorption, callousness, and obliviousness it takes to write something like In Praise of Economic Pain — and then to pass it off as Leftist commentary, no less? Do I need to mention how very clear it is that the intended audience of an article like this are people who, as a class, are generally fairly secure in their own living situation and income, and so in no really great danger of ever feeling much of the economic pain that they are so quick to praise?

Well, if do, then I guess I just did.

Fellow workers, are these your allies? Do they speak for you? Have their methods worked for you? Is this the change you can believe in?

If not, then what we need to do is to get together — all of us who are small enough to fail — and cut through the seasonal noise and start talking about ways that we can unite amongst ourselves in order to take control of the conditions of our lives and our labor. We need to talk fighting unions and the victories that they can win. We need to talk mutual aid and how we can help each other, person to person, in our own neighborhoods and through our own efforts, through both bad times and good. We need to talk direct action, about organizing and taking control of the conditions of our lives in ways that don’t take ballot boxes or political parties or coalition partners who are too busy Believing in Change to bother themselves about whether we eat or starve, about the ways that we can do these things ourselves, with our own hands.

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