2019
December
19
Thursday

Today, our package of stories delves into big changes in the composition of the federal judiciary, the state of Michael Bloomberg’s election campaign, one man’s interpretation of the Ninth Commandment, a Bahamian Christmas tradition, and why each generation gets its own adaptation of “Little Women.”

First, have you heard about the startup that’s offering people $10,000 to leave the Bay Area?

The company, MainStreet, was launched by former Google employees who started wondering, “How do you create jobs and opportunity in suburban and rural America?”

It’s a question many cities and states are asking. At a time of record low rates of relocation – fewer than 10% of Americans moved in 2019 – some employee-starved locales are suddenly acting like Kelly Services. North Platte, Nebraska, aims to attract new talent by matching company signing bonuses, up to $5,000, for transplants. For Vermont, whose tiny population is aging faster than its artisanal cheeses, the New Worker Grant Program provides assistance to those moving to the state. (If that isn’t incentive enough, we hear the state’s most famous company, Ben & Jerry’s, is hiring.) 

MainStreet is enticing tech workers to less-expensive cities such as Sacramento, California. It helps its recruits find full-time jobs as remote workers inside one of its coworking spaces. Employees get a higher quality of life. Companies get talent that doesn’t cost Silicon Valley rates.

The goal, says product manager Dan Lindquist, is to redistribute capital to “have-not” cities. He hopes it will help repair the “social fabric that mixes together and makes us see eye to eye as people – and what draws us together as a nation.”

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1. Trump presidency’s most lasting impact? A transformed judiciary.

Although the tussle over who gets to sit on the Supreme Court receives a lot of attention, the makeup of the federal judiciary is often overlooked. Here’s why it matters.

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The Trump administration and Senate Republicans – along with The Federalist Society, the conservative legal group tasked with vetting reliably conservative nominees – have over the past three years developed a pipeline of relentless efficiency for lifetime judicial appointments.

The volume of confirmed judges is arguably the greatest achievement of President Donald Trump’s first term, and undoubtedly will be his longest lasting. The two Supreme Court justices and 133 district court judges, along with the now 50 appeals court judges he has appointed to date all have lifetime positions.

“Nobody’s done more to change the court system in the history of our country than Donald Trump,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a Trump rally in November. “And Mr. President, we’re gonna keep on doing it. My motto is, ‘Leave no vacancy behind.’”

In particular, Republicans have focused like a laser on filling the 13 circuit courts of appeal – the courts that have the final word on all but the roughly 75 cases the Supreme Court decides each year.

In addition to being young – half of his appellate appointments were under 50  – and deeply conservative, Mr. Trump’s chosen judges are also overwhelmingly white and male. About 1 in 4 of his appointments have been women, and just over 1 in 10 have been people of color.

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Trump presidency’s most lasting impact? A transformed judiciary.

In early November, during the impeachment inquiry against him, President Donald Trump threw a celebration in the East Room of the White House.

The guests: a group of Senate Republicans and Leonard Leo, head of The Federalist Society. The occasion: President Trump’s appointing 44 federal appeals court judges – about one-quarter of the entire appeals court bench.

The Trump administration and Senate Republicans – along with The Federalist Society, the conservative legal group tasked by the administration with identifying and vetting reliably conservative nominees – have over the past three years developed a pipeline of relentless efficiency for lifetime judicial appointments.

The volume of confirmed judges is arguably the greatest achievement of Mr. Trump’s first term, and undoubtedly will be his longest lasting. The two Supreme Court justices and 133 district court judges, along with the now 50 appeals court judges he has appointed to date all have lifetime positions.

Or, as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska put it in a press release: “On the [Senate] Judiciary Committee we chew bubblegum and confirm great judges – and we’re all out of bubblegum.”

In particular, Republicans have “focused like a laser” on filling the 13 circuit courts of appeal – the courts that have the final word on all but the roughly 75 cases the Supreme Court decides each year – according to Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who tracks federal judicial appointments.

“That’s where the policy is made,” he adds. “The people appointed have been young, extremely conservative ideologically, and mostly recommended by Leonard Leo.”

SOURCE: The White House, Wikipedia
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

In addition to being young – half of his appellate appointments were under 50, with six under 40 – and deeply conservative, Mr. Trump’s chosen judges are also overwhelmingly white and male. About 1 in 4 of his appointments have been women, and just over 1 in 10 have been people of color.

A number of appointees have also been criticized for being inexperienced, particularly those nominees rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Conservatives have long been critical of the ABA – a private legal organization that has issued advisory ratings of federal judicial nominees since 1956 – claiming that its ratings are biased against Republican nominees. Some academic analyses have backed up this claim, and President George W. Bush refused to allow the ABA early review of his nominees throughout his eight-year presidency. His successor, Barack Obama, brought the ABA back into the fold. He never nominated a candidate rated “not qualified” by the organization.

Four of President Trump’s nominees have been rated unanimously not qualified by the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, with at least a portion of the committee rating 24 other nominees not qualified. (Almost half of his nominees have been rated “well qualified.”)

SOURCE: American Bar Association
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

In rating a nominee, the ABA examines their personal background and legal writings, as well as interviewing the nominee and, confidentially, some of their colleagues. A recurring feature of the “not qualified” ratings for Trump nominees has been a lack of experience.

Sarah Pitlyk, a former clerk for Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to a Missouri district court this month, received a unanimous “not qualified” rating because she has never tried a civil or criminal case, examined a witness, taken a deposition, picked a jury, or argued a motion in a state or federal trial court. (The committee did not comment on Judge Pitlyk’s career advocating for anti-abortion clients and policies.)

Justin Walker, a law professor in his 30s, had similarly sparse courtroom experience – though he’d clerked for both Justice Kavanaugh and former Justice Anthony Kennedy – and a “substantial majority” of the ABA committee rated him unqualified. He was confirmed to a district court judgeship in October.

The ABA’s preference for 12 years’ experience isn’t what most bothers Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. What concerns him is how the committee evaluates the temperament and reputation of some nominees – notably Lawrence VanDyke, a former state solicitor general, confirmed to the Ninth Circuit last week, who the ABA reported to be arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and unqualified.

“When [ratings] move to subjective facts like temperament I have much stronger doubts, because often those are code words for, ‘We don’t like their politics,’” says Professor Blackman.

Senate Democrats haven’t been using code words to hide their dislike of the politics of Mr. Trump’s judicial picks. (“I’m concerned about her ability to fairly and impartially apply these important [abortion] precedents, given her strong personal views,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said during the confirmation hearing of Neomi Rao, who was nominated to replace Justice Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court.) But Senate Republicans have also, on occasion, questioned the ideology of nominees – accusing them of being insufficiently conservative.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also voiced “deep concerns” over the judicial philosophy, and views on abortion, of Judge Rao – concerned that she might not be anti-abortion enough. The Senate eventually confirmed her, but Judge Halil “Sul” Ozerden, a nominee for the Fifth Circuit, has not been so fortunate. His nomination has been stalled by opposition from Senator Hawley and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, in part due to his 2012 dismissal of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. Judge Ozerden said he dismissed the case on procedural grounds.

Republican senators “are stress-testing these judges’ ideology,” says Jill Dash, vice president of strategic engagement at the progressive American Constitution Society. “It’s not enough to be conservative. You have to be extremely conservative.”

It’s still too early to know if Mr. Trump’s selections are having a significant effect on the law, according to Professor Tobias, but that could be arriving soon.

The D.C. Circuit ruled last month that the House of Representatives can subpoena Mr. Trump’s tax records. Judges Reo and Greg Katsas, both Trump appointees, dissented from a decision denying a rehearing “en banc” (by the full court), calling the subpoena “unprecedented” and a “threat to presidential autonomy and independence.” The Supreme Court will review the case in March, and those dissents could form the legal basis for a majority of justices to rule in Mr. Trump’s favor.

But abortion is the issue where judges selected by Mr. Trump – who said as a candidate he would appoint “pro-life judges” – could make their mark soonest.

Four Trump appointees to the Fifth Circuit joined a 9-6 majority denying a rehearing en banc of a decision allowing a restrictive Louisiana abortion law, bearing striking similarity to a Texas law the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, to go into effect. The high court will review that ruling in March. Last week the justices also declined to hear a challenge to an opinion authored by Judge John K. Bush, a Trump appointee to the Sixth Circuit, upholding a Kentucky law requiring doctors who perform abortions to perform an invasive transvaginal ultrasound – probing patients, displaying pictures, and describing the images to women.

Opinions like that are why Democrats should make judicial appointments more of a campaign issue in the 2020 election cycle, says Ms. Dash. Republicans certainly have.

“Nobody’s done more to change the court system in the history of our country than Donald Trump,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told supporters at a Trump rally in November. “And Mr. President, we’re gonna keep on doing it. My motto is, ‘Leave no vacancy behind.’”

And as much as anything else, the likelihood of an election cycle focused on judicial appointments is what concerns Professor Tobias.

“It’s corrosive for the federal judiciary, it politicizes the courts,” he says.

“Trump’s view is the courts are like anything else. They can be manipulated and trained and bent to his will,” he adds. “That’s not what the founders anticipated. It’s very troubling.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest federal judicial confirmations.

SOURCE: The White House, Wikipedia
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. Michael Bloomberg is everywhere – except on debate stage

The Beatles famously sang “Money can’t buy you love.” But can it buy you votes? Michael Bloomberg tests the idea with the bold gambit of a $100 million ad campaign.

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Michael Bloomberg isn’t just a billionaire candidate. He’s also a record-setting one. In his recently announced bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Bloomberg’s ad spending of more than $100 million is already nearly twice the personal funds that Donald Trump spent on his entire 2016 campaign. 

Mr. Bloomberg’s ads are ubiquitous in major states like California, where other leading Democratic candidates will appear at a televised debate tonight. His positioning as a moderate is a tough sell to party faithful, despite his focus on gun control and climate change. But some political analysts say it’s too soon to rule him out, given the possibility that key rivals might stumble in early primary elections.

Still, the road to elected office is littered with self-financing candidates who lost. Since Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran in 1992, a half-dozen presidential candidates have contributed more than $1 million to their races. Only Mr. Trump was victorious.

“Money is never enough on its own. Candidates still need to have all of the other pieces of the puzzle: charisma, connection to voters, good ideas, a good campaign operation,” says Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

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Michael Bloomberg is everywhere – except on debate stage

Michael Bloomberg, the last-minute entrant to the Democratic presidential primary, won’t appear on the debate stage in Los Angeles on Thursday. But he’s all over California, Texas, and other Super Tuesday states, where viewers can see him in an unprecedented ad campaign that outspends all of his party competitors – combined.

The ads are everywhere, clustered around game shows like “Jeopardy,” news and late-night talk programs, soap operas, and football. They underscore an unconventional campaign that is skipping the “first four” states to concentrate instead on the delegate-rich ones that follow in March. They also highlight in big green dollar signs the record-breaking sums that this multi-billionaire is pouring into his self-financed campaign, raising the question of whether an election can be “bought.”

Actually, there’s widespread agreement on that one. From the Bloomberg campaign itself to political savants and the track record of history, the acknowledged truth is that, while money sure can help, it is no guarantee of victory. Not even close. The road to elected office is littered with failed campaigns of the super wealthy.

“Money is never enough on its own. Candidates still need to have all of the other pieces of the puzzle: charisma, connection to voters, good ideas, a good campaign operation,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in elections.

On the other hand, unlimited resources are a “big plus,” says Ms. Krumholz. They will allow Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, to fund an extensive field operation and give him an “immediate surge” in his ability to get his message out and introduce himself to voters.

That surge is reflected in opinion polls, where the Real Clear Politics average has the self-made businessman and philanthropist at 5% support among Democrats nationally. That’s fifth place behind Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. Interestingly, the other self-made billionaire in the race, Tom Steyer, is stuck at less than 2%.

Still, Mr. Bloomberg has a track record of success and a Super Tuesday oriented strategy that some political analysts say could prove viable if key rivals stumble.

Tough history of billionaire candidates

Forbes calculates Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth at $55.7 billion, one of the richest people on the planet. His spending on ads so far – more than $100 million, according to Advertising Analytics – is nearly twice the personal funds that Donald Trump spent on his 2016 campaign. (President Trump’s tally was $66.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but he also benefited from billions of dollars’ worth of media attention, so-called earned media.)

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas, where Mr. Bloomberg has campaigned and is also advertising in expensive media markets, says it’s entirely possible the latecomer could double or triple what he’s spent so far on the primary, and put out $1 billion or $2 billion for a general election. “We’ve never seen funding at that level.”

But warning signs for such a candidacy abound. Voters tend to be highly suspicious of money in politics, says Garry South, a longtime Democratic consultant in California. “They kind of resent rich candidates who pop out of nowhere and spend unlimited amounts of money.”

Since Texas billionaire Ross Perot funded most of his losing presidential bid in 1992, a half-dozen presidential candidates have contributed more than $1 million to their races. Only Mr. Trump was victorious.

California is itself a showcase for failed self-funded candidates seeking executive office. An exception is Republican celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor who tossed $5 million of his own money into a recall election that was a special circumstance – involving no primary and 135 names on the ballot.

Mr. South questions whether Mr. Bloomberg can build the necessary field operation in California or generate enough enthusiasm among base voters. The billionaire governed New York for three terms as a Republican and only registered as a Democrat last year. He was strongly supported by his GOP predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani – now the Democrats’ villain – and has donated to Republican candidates. His “stop and frisk” policy as mayor angered Democrats, though he recently said he was wrong and apologized.

And then there’s the mere fact of his wealth – at a time when candidates like Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are railing against millionaires and billionaires.

“I think it’s very difficult for a candidate like Bloomberg to set up a real ground organization in California,” Mr. South says. “You have to do it with Democrat activists. You can’t do it with rent-a-maids. And there’s no reason for Democratic activists to be interested in his candidacy.”

Could this time be different?

The Bloomberg campaign is well aware that history is not on its side when it comes to self-funding campaigns.

“Overwhelmingly, they lose,” admits Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the campaign. But, he counters, Mr. Bloomberg is an “outlier” who has proved he can win “again and again in the largest progressive city in the country, in New York City, and can govern extremely effectively, with high marks from New Yorkers, who are frankly tough graders.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s entry into the race less than a month ago precludes a run in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Instead, his unorthodox strategy is to simultaneously and immediately run two parallel campaigns. One is a primary effort that targets states in March and April where Democratic competitors are not presently focused, but which hold more than 65% of the delegates needed to win the nomination. The other is a general election campaign in battleground states where President Trump “has had a free run,” says Mr. LaVorgna.

Unlimited resources allow the campaign to go head-to-head with President Trump on digital advertising, and to widely distribute Mr. Bloomberg’s story as an entrepreneur (he made his money on the “Bloomberg terminal” used by investors worldwide), a mayor, and a philanthropist. His ads portray him as a doer who has won battles with the gun lobby, coal, and tobacco – and who can beat President Trump.

In his campaign talks, he addresses his wealth head-on, saying he plows most of the profits from his business into his causes and was a self-made man who grew up in a Boston suburb where the most his dad ever earned was $6,000 in a year.

Amid the focus on Mr. Bloomberg’s eye-popping ad buys, his spending paints a much broader picture. His “Everytown for Gun Safety” initiative has connected him with activists all over the country. Last year he spent extensively on electing House Democrats, and this cycle is putting up to $20 million into a voter registration drive, primarily aimed at minority voters.

One mayor’s endorsement

Support for a mayoral training program at Harvard University has graduated a nationwide network of mayors who know him, including Michael Tubbs, the progressive African American known for testing “universal basic income” in Stockton, California.

Last week, Mayor Tubbs endorsed Mr. Bloomberg during a visit to the Golden State in which the New Yorker also talked with former Gov. Jerry Brown at a climate event in San Francisco. The popular former governor did not endorse him, but the two launched a climate initiative together in 2017.

Analysts call Mr. Bloomberg’s unusual campaign a long shot that can only work if no clear front-runner emerges before Super Tuesday, which is March 3. Clearly, he is running in the moderate lane. Mr. South believes he could end up as a power broker at the Democratic convention, perhaps with 200 or 300 delegates who could be deployed to prevent the nomination of liberals like Senators Warren or Sanders.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, another experienced observer of California and presidential politics, is not closing the book on Mr. Bloomberg.

“Normally, I would say his strategy is risky. It still may be,” she says. But the four top leaders – notably fellow moderates like Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg – could all emerge “bloodied” from the early states. Given his resources, record on some core issues that Democrats care about, and his three wins in New York, “he ain’t just walking precincts.”

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The Ten

How people use the Commandments in daily life

3. The Ninth Commandment goes to Princeton

The commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” ties in with the dictum, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here’s how one individual strives to practice those ideas.

Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Alexi Sargeant, shown here at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, is managing director of the Aquinas Institute, Princeton University’s Catholic campus ministry.

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In college, Alexi Sargeant was full of “nerdy” questions: “What is truth? How do we get there? What does that mean for our lives?”

In essence, his understanding of the Ninth Commandment – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” – got a workout. Mr. Sargeant spoke to the Monitor about this commandment as part of our series exploring ways in which the Ten Commandments’ ancient concepts continue to matter in modern life.

Mr. Sargeant and his wife, Leah Libresco Sargeant, are now serving as staff for the Aquinas Institute, Princeton University’s Roman Catholic campus ministry. The young couple are known for “skillet cookie” gatherings of friends at their home, where vigorous conversation is the hallmark.

“They’re careful about their lives bearing witness to reality,” says Claire Gilligan, a friend.

One thing that Mr. Sargeant believes should be discussed with scrupulous honesty: life issues, including abortion. “When stakes are high, there’s the temptation to grab a piece of evidence without putting it through the rigor of fact-checking,” he says. “The imperative is never only to pursue an end, but to pursue it virtuously.”

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The Ninth Commandment goes to Princeton

At Princeton University, you’d better have your facts right. Especially if your topics are sensitive, misunderstood, or controversial. If you’re wrong, you can count on someone here to set you straight. If not that, 10 libraries are within steps of you, their stacks just begging to challenge your conclusions.

One person who’s up for the challenge is Alexi Sargeant. He’s an artist at heart and an ideas person by temperament, and he has a fact-checker’s conscience, making him keenly aware of the value of truth in argument and principle. Managing director of the Aquinas Institute, the university’s Roman Catholic campus ministry, he spoke to the Monitor about the Ninth Commandment – Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (Exodus 20:16). The conversation was part of our series exploring ways in which the Ten Commandments’ ancient concepts continue to matter in modern life.

“I was an extremely bookish kid,” says Mr. Sargeant, whose dining room features a shrine-like homage to William Shakespeare, complete with a nearly life-size bust. His appetite for “thick books,” along with his boredom in public school, led his parents to home-school him from third grade through high school. He went on to get a degree in English and theater at Yale. While he was there, he – as well as his parents and siblings in Pennsylvania – converted to Catholicism. The conversion was a long time coming, he says, the Episcopal Church of his childhood finally too “fractured” for the family’s liking.

It was his college debate club that gave Mr. Sargeant’s understanding of the Ninth Commandment a workout. At the time he was full of “nerdy” questions: “What is truth? How do we get there? What does that mean for our lives?” His most convincing interactions were with what he terms “traditionalist Catholic” students, a minority in a mainly libertarian group. In a reference to his conversion, he says the students “helped pull me across the Tiber.”

Recruited together

After graduation and work in publishing, Mr. Sargeant – and his wife, writer Leah Libresco Sargeant – were recruited to serve as staff and resident role-model couple for the Aquinas Institute. Here, the young couple aim to round out an already robust worship community with the intellectual and social side of Catholicism via lectures, debates, and plays. Mrs. Sargeant, a fellow Yale alum, is a former atheist who also is a Catholic convert.

The views that Mr. Sargeant holds now with so much conviction can be flashpoints in the worlds he straddles: education, religion, theater, art, publishing, and even game design. “I know there are people who would object to things I believe in as a Catholic,” he says.

He grapples with the need for integrity in the ways he presents himself. “Is forthrightness the thing I’m called to do? I don’t know if I live up to that.” But he tries. “I’m pretty consistent about wearing a cross necklace wherever I go,” he offers as an example. The piece reminds him of his own convictions, sends a signal to kindred spirits, and holds the hope of mending any perceived wrongs that may have been inflicted by his faith-mates. “I want those even with legitimate problems with Christians they’ve encountered to encounter me as kind and gentle,” he says.

Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
When Alexi Sargeant was a boy, his appetite for “thick books,” along with his boredom in public school, led his parents to home-school him. He went on to get a degree in English and theater at Yale.

Mr. Sargeant can walk from his home in town through the Gothic-style campus to the 1880s Murray-Dodge Hall, which hosts religious groups at Princeton. A recent evening seminar and supper he hosted there took up Titian’s painting “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” and Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast.” The aim: to discuss how Catholic practices of fasting and feasting, both literal and figurative, might connect with ordinary life.

Arthur Acuna, who hails from Las Vegas, would seem an unlikely attendee of such an event. He’s a freshman chemical and biological engineering student, and rarely has time amid his studies for what he calls “the aesthetics.” Still, Mr. Acuna attended not only this event, but also most of the other six seminar meetings organized by Mr. Sargeant this semester.

The conversation on fasting and feasting resonated with Mr. Acuna. “I came to realize that these seemingly minute tasks, if you take the time to look at them, and why we do them in the first place, are beautiful – that the means of nourishment, and how we intake that nourishment, elevates us in daily life,” he says.

Fact-checker stint

In dealing with his charges, Mr. Sargeant makes sure to separate fact from fable, a holdover from his stint as proofreader and fact-checker for Magnificat. The prayer book, published monthly, runs a regular feature on Catholic saints. While many of the saints have strong historical records, others’ stories are shrouded in folklore or pious legend. When editing the feature, he sought to clarify the stories in ways that honored the truth without judging their validity. “I’d add tags, consistent with my philosophy that we do want to distinguish those things,” he says.

Claire Gilligan, Mr. Sargeant’s friend and predecessor at Magnificat, recruited him to be her replacement knowing that the religion side of the job would appeal to his faith, while his judgment, integrity, work ethic, and smarts would make him good at it. “He works hard and absorbs a lot of things in great nuance,” she says. “I knew that he would be meticulous about anything he cared about.”

Ms. Gilligan had been swept into the Sargeants’ inclusive and diverse circle of friends one day after church, when they were networking for a play reading. The couple are known for “skillet cookie” gatherings of friends at their home, where vigorous conversation is the hallmark and the prevailing ethos is “I don’t care what you think, but that you think.”

“They’re careful about their lives bearing witness to reality,” Ms. Gilligan says of the couple. They’ve encouraged her to do the same. When she shifted from a career in theology to one in software engineering, the single piece of advice Mr. Sargeant had for her was to “work someplace that matters.”

One stumbling block

As acknowledged by Mr. Sargeant, one stumbling block – especially across an ideological divide – are words themselves. A telling example when it comes to life issues is the classic “fetus” versus “baby.” “Some of the most interesting conversations we have had across the divide have been with people willing to work out what lexicon to use, or with people willing to [set aside] the language” in the interest of an exchange of ideas, he says.

That language has become personal for the Sargeants through the course of repeated miscarriages they have suffered. In particular, they felt that as their miscarriages were taking place, the doctors shifted their language away from talking about “the baby” too quickly. “We felt that wasn’t being true to the reality we were experiencing,” Mr. Sargeant explains. The couple are expecting a daughter, Beatrice, in January.

It also follows that Mr. Sargeant wants scrupulous honesty in the discussion of life issues. “When stakes are high, there’s the temptation to grab a piece of evidence without putting it through the rigor of fact-checking,” he says. He is not convinced, for instance, that there is evidence for a link between breast cancer and abortion, something often cited by anti-abortion activists. “The imperative is never only to pursue an end, but to pursue it virtuously,” he says. “If the goal [of life] is union with God – who is truth, beauty, and goodness – then adopting evil means is self-defeating.”

He adds, “I aspire to be a good example in these conversations – to win a convert, not just an argument.”

Counsel on a T-shirt

If there’s a perfect marriage of art, intellect, and morality for Mr. Sargeant, it would have to be his recent direction of the reading of “Equivocation” for Princeton’s Being Human festival. Shakespeare with a twist, the Bill Cain play centers on the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt by English Catholics to take the life of King James I. With its central moral dilemma whether to equivocate and betray moral principles or risk life for truth, it shines a light on the integrity of the question at hand.

These may be complex thoughts for a complex time, but not for Mr. Sargeant. With a flourish worthy of the Bard himself, he flashes a T-shirt he’s wearing under his flannel. It cites the play’s conclusion: “Answer the question really asked. And answer it with – your – life.”

Part 1: The Commandments as a moral source code in modern life

Part 2: How does the First Commandment fit in today?

Part 3: ‘I have to have humility’: How Second Commandment helped man find freedom

Part 4: One woman embraces Third Commandment in feeding 1,600 at Thanksgiving

Part 5: ‘Remember the sabbath’: How one family lives the Fourth Commandment

Part 6:Growing up is hard’: How Fifth Commandment guided a child during divorce

Part 7: Is saying ‘I’d kill for those shoes’ OK? One woman and Sixth Commandment.

Part 8: Is chastity old-fashioned? An NFL veteran’s take on Seventh Commandment.

Part 9:Thou shalt not steal’: Even someone else’s joy, says one educator

Part 10: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’: Ninth Commandment goes to Princeton

Part 11: Jealousy at Ivy League level: How a law professor views Tenth Commandment

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4. ‘It wouldn’t be Christmas without Junkanoo.’ How Bahamians make merry.

In the Bahamas, the carol “Silent Night” doesn’t seem apt on Christmas. A boisterous Yuletide street carnival tradition is poised to bring cheer to the hurricane-ravaged islands.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Dudley "Doc" Gilbert, 71, plays the cowbells with the Saxons Superstars junkanoo band as they rehearse down Bay Street Nov. 8, 2019, in Nassau, Bahamas. Gilbert has been rushing with junkanoo since he was 5 years old.

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In the Bahamas, Christmas night means Junkanoo. Nassau residents head not to bed but to downtown Bay Street, in raucous groups that beat goat-skinned drums. The junkanooers “rush out” into dance, wearing fanciful costumes of rainbow-colored crepe paper.

Junkanoo is an exuberant expression of Bahamian culture with African slave roots. It’s among the most unifying traditions in the Bahamas, and perhaps this year more than ever after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the island nation in September. “It lifts the spirits,” says Arlene Nash Ferguson, a junkanooer and cultural historian. She says Junkanoo grew from Christmas tradition, when the British Crown granted everyone, including slaves, three days off in its Caribbean colonies. They used the time to re-create their festivals from home.

Today’s parades are competitive. Much like Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the entire year is spent saving money for costumes and rehearsing. The biggest parade takes place on Christmas night through Boxing Day the following morning. Then the groups do it again just after the clocks strike midnight on New Year’s Day – and a handful of other celebrations year-round.

“It is like the biggest show on earth for us,” says Nassau local Dudley Gilbert. “I live for this.”

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‘It wouldn’t be Christmas without Junkanoo.’ How Bahamians make merry.

On Christmas night, after church services are over, after the children have finished unwrapping gifts, after the turkey is finished and the plates are washed, most people fall, if they don’t collapse, into a deep lull.

But not in the Bahamas. Here, Christmas night means Junkanoo, an exuberant expression of Bahamian culture with African slave roots. In Nassau, residents head not to bed but to downtown Bay Street, in raucous and deafening groups that shake cowbells and beat goat-skinned drums. The junkanooers “rush out” into dance, wearing fanciful costumes of rainbow-colored crepe paper glued onto cardboard and held together with aluminum rods. Some can weigh over 100 pounds.

Dudley Gilbert, a retired engineer, is ceaselessly blowing a whistle that doesn’t leave his mouth, using his hands for the constant ringing of two cowbells. This is a November rehearsal for his group, the Saxons Superstars, in downtown Nassau. To the tunes of “Amazing Grace” and “Down By the Riverside,” the trance-like beat is so irresistible that bystanders join the troupe, dancing and twirling alongside them.

It’s a far cry from solemn Christmas caroling that is more commonly associated with the music of the season. But for Bahamians, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without Junkanoo,” Mr. Gilbert says. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Members of the Saxons Superstars junkanoo band "rush out" Bay Street, Nov. 8, 2019, in Nassau, Bahamas, during a rehearsal-turned-protest against political interference in their annual parades. Junkanoo is a tradition in the Bahamas and other English-speaking Caribbean countries.

Creative resistance

Junkanoo is among the most unifying traditions in the Bahamas, and perhaps this year more than ever after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the island nation in September.

Junkanoo isn’t just for Christmastime, but its biggest parade takes place on Christmas night, starting at 10 p.m., through Boxing Day the following morning. Then the groups do it again just after the clocks strike midnight on New Year’s Day – not to mention for Independence Day celebrations, summer festivals, and jam sessions year-round.

The parades are competitive, and much like Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the entire year is spent saving money for costumes, creating them in “shacks” – structures typically in the back of someone’s house, dedicated exclusively to the whimsical outfits – and to rehearsing the beat, the rhythm, and the choreography of each group’s show.

Arlene Nash Ferguson is a junkanooer and cultural historian. She runs a museum dedicated to the practice, called Educulture Bahamas, in her childhood home in Nassau where she showcases all of the costumes she has worn over a lifetime (created by her husband Silbert Ferguson, a former president of the Junkanoo Corp. of New Providence, the island where the capital Nassau is located).

She says that Junkanoo grew from Christmas tradition – the most important time of year in the Anglican calendar – when the British Crown granted everyone, including slaves, three days off in its Caribbean colonies. They used the time to recreate their festivals from home, using feathers or any materials they could for costumes.

“That it started as a resistance reflects the strength of the people of the Bahamas, who could have the strength of character to renew and celebrate their essence in the thick of one of the most inhumane circumstances known to man, chattel slavery,” she says. “You are affirming, if only to yourself, ‘no, I’m not an animal.’”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Arlene Nash Ferguson (right) dances with the Saxons Superstars junkanoo band as they rehearse down Bay Street on Nov. 8, 2019, in Nassau, Bahamas.

Educulture runs workshops for school groups so that Bahamian children understand the true meaning of Junkanoo beyond the competition and cash prizes. 

Ms. Ferguson hosts a Saturday morning radio program on Junkanoo. She asked one of her guests how Hurricane Dorian would impact the parades this year. 

“He said, in essence, ‘you have an obligation to put them on. ... For all the refugees who have come to New Providence, let Junkanoo do what it does best,’” she recalls. “It lifts the spirits. I thought that was so profound, to ensure that those parades go on at Christmas.” 

For entertainers like Ms. Ferguson, Junkanoo is a compulsion. “We do not understand what drives us to go into these dilapidated buildings and work on these costumes all year just for a few hours on Bay Street,” she says. “For me, this is another opportunity to trace the footsteps of the people who made it possible for me to be here.”

‘I live for this’ 

During Junkanoo season, which starts in the fall, rehearsals take place throughout the Bahamian capital. On a recent Sunday in a parking lot at Arawak Cay, where Nassau’s “fish fry” is located, smoke from a bonfire billows into the humid air. Around it lie 23 goat-skinned drums, heated to make them taut. This is the Saxons Superstars’ usual rehearsal spot.

Marvin Roberts, a lead drummer for the group and mattress factory worker, says he’s been a junkanooer since age 14. “It kept me out of trouble,” he says. But what’s kept him coming back for 25 years, he says, is the camaraderie, uniting young and old, blue collar and professional. Their stamina is impressive. They fall into line at 9 p.m. and practice for hours, never letting go of the beat – or the volume.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Members of the Saxons Superstars junkanoo band put their drums near a bonfire to tighten the goatskin before a rehearsal on Nov. 8, 2019, in Nassau, Bahamas.

“It is like the biggest show on earth for us,” says Mr. Gilbert. “I live for this. I can’t wait for this time of the year. It’s a time to forget about all the stress of life. It’s like a spirit that comes over you.”

It makes for a hectic Noel. Mr. Ferguson says he doesn’t really celebrate Christmas – until February. In recent years the couple has pushed back their own Christmas lunch with children and grandchildren, which they always host, to the Sunday before Christmas, so that they aren’t pushing out their guests early. “Arlene is a Christmas person,” he says, with just a tad of mirth.

She’s also, it’s fair to say, a Junkanoo fanatic, and that’s probably no coincidence. That spirit that Mr. Gilbert talks about is, for her, suffused with yuletide wonder. As she put it in a documentary about Junkanoo: “I just thought that it was truly magical that after all of the beauty and drama of Christmas, just when you thought life couldn’t get any better as a child, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the street, people are dancing.”

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Film

5. A modern take on the March sisters

How does a novel first published in 1868 remain relevant? The latest film adaptation of “Little Women” hones in on the book’s themes of empowerment – and even makes Amy likable!

Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures/AP
Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet star in “Little Women.” The film, like its source, offers women more than marriage.

Two ways to read the story

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First published more than 150 years ago, “Little Women” has been a surprisingly limber tale – adapted into everything from a comic strip to an opera. Each generation gets its own version, and each version stretches to fit the time in which it’s received. In every iteration, one question remains relevant: What sells nowadays? 

In 2019, the answer is empowerment. Writer-director Greta Gerwig retells the story for an age that imagines a future for women outside marriage. Bookended by business discussions between heroine Jo March and her glib editor, the film is itself a negotiation: between fact and fiction, author and audience, and the Americas of 1868 and 2019. Now on its sixth trip to movie theaters, “Little Women” is back perhaps for the first time on Louisa May Alcott’s original terms. 

Ms. Gerwig’s vision was informed by her understanding of the book, and of Jo. “She was able to sort of go underneath the story without changing the story,” says Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. “Underneath you see and feel emotion and ambition that isn’t necessarily stated outright in the story, but it’s there.”

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A modern take on the March sisters

Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of “Little Women” begins with Jo March, the heroine, squirming as an editor cuts full pages from her story – skimming and slamming them on his desk like a judge with his gavel. Then the editor accepts it (for less money than usual) and offers Jo some advice: “People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” 

His comment is a bit of fun for Ms. Gerwig, the writer-director, as it applies as much to today as to Jo’s world in the 1860s. First published more than 150 years ago, “Little Women” has been a surprisingly limber tale – adapted into everything from a comic strip to an opera. Each generation gets its own version, and each version stretches to fit the time in which it’s received. In every iteration, the editor’s unspoken question remains relevant: What sells nowadays? 

For Ms. Gerwig, the answer is empowerment. Bookended by business discussions between Jo and her glib editor, the film is itself a negotiation: between fact and fiction, author and audience, and the Americas of 1868 and 2019. Now on its sixth trip to movie theaters, “Little Women” is back perhaps for the first time on Louisa May Alcott’s original terms. 

“[Ms. Gerwig’s] knowledge of the book and then her interest in the real woman behind Jo March ... really informs the way she made the film, because she was able to sort of go underneath the story without changing the story,” says Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, who worked as a consultant for the film. “Underneath you see and feel emotion and ambition that isn’t necessarily stated outright in the story, but it’s there.”

A wider view of women

Published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, “Little Women” immediately stood out in an America unaccustomed to realistic books about women, says Anne Phillips, an English professor and Alcott expert at Kansas State University. The March sisters, says Professor Phillips, “play and they savor life and they have intellectual and artistic ambitions. It’s just a world of difference from what else was out there for young women in the time it was produced.”

At a time when 9 out of 10 women got married, says Professor Phillips, “Little Women” actually explores female goals outside domestic life. More than just wives-to-be, the March sisters pursue their dreams, what they call “castles in the air.” Jo longs for literary fame, Meg wants “heaps of money,” Amy’s “modest desire” is to be the world’s greatest painter, and Beth – the golden child (there’s always one) – just wants to stay home and play piano.

The novel’s progressive style and plot reflect its author – herself unconventional and forward-thinking. Alcott came from an abolitionist family and was the first woman in her town to vote. She was bold when girls were expected to be modest, an athlete who enjoyed playing alongside, and often outracing, boys, says Orchard House’s Ms. Turnquist. 

Ms. Gerwig’s film emphasizes these same traits in Alcott’s characters. Rarely “little,” the March sisters are spunky and assertive as they test the boundaries of what’s permissible for young women in their day. Unlike previous movie versions, such as Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, the March sisters by and large worry less about acting proper.

Meanwhile, the relatively few men remain meek and mild – particularly Timothée Chalamet who as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the main male lead, looks fragile next to pugilistic Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and charmingly petulant Amy (Florence Pugh). 

Casting outspoken feminist Emma Watson as Meg, the most domestic of the sisters, also challenges common perceptions of female empowerment. When on Meg’s marriage day, Jo asks her older sister to call it off, Meg responds, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” 

Even gentle, content Beth becomes Jo’s muse later in the film, spurring her sister’s writing as male criticism never could. It’s this relationship that helps set Ms. Gerwig’s adaptation apart, along with the made-over Friedrich Bhaer, who hardly resembles Jo’s poor and plain professor husband in the book.

For an adaptation so loyal to its source material, the change is deliberate. At the film’s end, an ambiguous twist makes it clear that the new (and improved) Bhaer is a sign of empowerment for the heroine.

Alcott compromises, Gerwig doesn’t

When the second part of “Little Women” was published 150 years ago, Alcott’s editor and audience pressured her to marry off her highly autobiographical heroine. Coupling her with Bhaer, rather than rich and handsome Laurie, was the author’s act of rebellion, challenging reader expectations of the day. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” Alcott wrote in her journal. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

In 1869, Alcott compromised her novel to partially meet the demands of her audience. In 2019, Ms. Gerwig retells the story for an age that imagines more futures for women than as brides. The perseverance required to achieve that ending, though, communicates in some ways how little things have changed – and thus why the story is still relevant, says Greg Eiselein, an English professor who researches Alcott with Dr. Phillips at Kansas State.

“Women still struggle with confinement, with expectations, which hold them back in various ways,” he says. “And that can be frustrating, but also encouragement to keep on – to keep on trying, even when the publisher says, ‘I don’t like your novel.’”

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The Monitor's View

Helping college students avoid money woes

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College students like to think about the future, the satisfying careers and happy lives to come. But without good financial planning, these dreams can turn to dust. Students today confront a dizzying array of financial choices, and they are often woefully unprepared to make them. The result can be anxiety that affects their studies, or a debt load that may burden them for years.

In January the Higher Education Financial Wellness Alliance officially came into being. The group aims to help colleges find ways to remove barriers to students completing their degrees caused by poor financial planning and to promote lifelong financial skills.
One recent survey found nearly three-quarters of college students said their financial situation was “often” or “always” stressful. 

Colleges are taking a number of approaches to help. Last year at Austin Community College in Texas, for example, 3,800 students participated in a financial planning workshop. They earned $25 if they met with a financial coach and another $25 if they applied for Federal Student Aid.

College degrees will serve students better if they are accompanied by sound financial planning.

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Helping college students avoid money woes

College students like to think about the future, the satisfying careers and happy lives to come. But without good financial planning, these dreams can turn to dust. 

Students today confront a dizzying array of financial choices, and they are often woefully unprepared to make them. The result can be anxiety that affects their studies, or a debt load that may burden them for years.

As teachers of financial literacy, parents and public schools haven’t been getting the job done. That’s caused more and more colleges to decide that they must take responsibility for teaching it.

Only about 1 in 6 high school students are required to take at least a semester-long course in personal finances, according to a survey by Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit group. 

What’s more, many college students arrive on campus from households where the parent or parents themselves lack financial planning skills. In other cases, parents who micromanage their children’s college education may take charge of all financial decisions, leaving the student with little idea of how his or her education is being financed.

In January the Higher Education Financial Wellness Alliance officially comes into being, the result of a 2019 summit that brought together 340 attendees from 175 institutions. The group aims to help colleges find ways to remove barriers to students completing their degrees caused by poor financial planning and to promote lifelong financial skills.

A lot of data shows that college students are financially stressed, says Phil Schuman, director of financial literacy at Indiana University. One recent survey found nearly three-quarters of them said their financial situation was stressful, from “often” to “always.” 

In another 2018 survey, 65% of college students said they were worried about how they would pay for college. Half of them said they had trouble paying their rent, and 16% even had been homeless while in school.

The problems don’t end when they leave college. A 2019 report from the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission showed that some 43 million people owe $1.5 trillion in college debt, about $33,000 per person.

Colleges are taking a number of approaches to help. In recent years Indiana University has sent student borrowers a summary of where their student loan amounts stand, including how much they would owe at graduation and what their monthly loan payments would be. The program has contributed to student loan borrowing at the university dropping by $126.4 million, about 19%, between 2012 and 2018, Mr. Schuman says. 

Innovative teaching methods help keep students interested in the topic. One asks students to imagine their lives 10 years from now. They set up budgets, taking into account what kind of job they have and their income, and household expenses such as rent, utilities, and loan payments – even the saving they’ll set aside for their own children’s educations. 

Last year at Austin Community College in Texas, 3,800 students participated in a financial planning workshop. Students could earn $25 if they met with a financial coach and another $25 if they applied to Federal Student Aid from the U.S. Department of Education.

These and other such programs are badly needed. Students’ college educations will serve them better if they are accompanied by sound financial planning.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Prayers for Australia

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Our hearts go out to those in Australia, which has been experiencing drought from an intense heat wave and raging bushfires that have left a hazardous smoke haze hanging over Sydney. Here are some ideas to inspire prayers that kindle hope, courage, and confidence in God’s care for His creation.

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Prayers for Australia

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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In support of those facing the drought, intense heat, smoke haze, and bushfires in Australia, we’ve compiled some articles from The Christian Science Publishing Society’s archives specifically selected for their relevance to what’s going on. Within each one you will find some thoughts about how God’s power has helped those who have faced similar conditions, which we hope will inspire your own prayers today – whether you’re right there in Australia or wishing to help from afar.

In “Australia – just a prayer away,” a woman from Melbourne, writing during another period of severe drought in Australia, explores the power of prayer that affirms God’s love for all, and urges everyone to take part. “No matter where in the world you live,” she notes, “your prayers are beneficial.”

Inspired by the courage of those fighting wildfires, the author of “Undaunted courage” considers how even a glimpse of the power of God, divine Love, arms us with a strength not our own, even when things seem hopeless.

In “After the fires, a ‘still small voice,’” a Californian explores the power of God’s limitless love to support, sustain, and empower individuals and communities, even in the face of overwhelming and tragic situations.

The fullness of God’s love, enough to meet our needs” includes an account of how a woman prayed during a drought when her well was nearly empty – offering practical ideas for experiencing God’s inexhaustible goodness.

And just a sweet thought in this poem titled “Stillness,” which points to the idea that whatever the situation, we can pause to listen for and feel God’s angels, or inspiration, bringing calm.

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Viewfinder

A pup in Parliament

Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Emma Harper, a member of the Scottish Parliament, raises awareness of the illegal puppy trade and responsible pet ownership during a photo call in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dec. 19, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 20th, 2019 )

We hope today’s stories have given you a fresh perspective on each of their subjects. Tomorrow, l’ll be joining two of the other biggest “Star Wars” fans on staff to chat about the values underlying this cinematic Force.

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 19, 2019
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