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Seriously, about that Rolling Stone cover

[ 193 ] July 19, 2013 |

I was initially dismissive of the “controversy” concerning the latest Rolling Stone cover because it originated from people making arguments like this:

The cover of Rolling Stone was once reserved for the newest bands, the hottest singer-songwriters or the pop culture phenoms grabbing the country by the scruff of its neck.

Christian Toto, the author of this one, strikes me as one of those “internet researchers” whose store of knowledge consists of ideas half-mastered and mistakenly remembered, the sort that require a quick search to “confirm” that Rolling Stone is “about” music. He has no personal connection with or real knowledge of the magazine and doesn’t desire any. This lack of intellectual curiosity is made manifest in the rest of his post, which consists of quoting “celebrities” like Ralph Macchio re-tweeting the sage words of “one of the creative forces behind HBO’s Entourage.” The limitations of such critics notwithstanding, they accidentally stumbled over a solid point. To quote joe from lowell:

The picture they chose to make the cover of Rolling Stone looks too much like a rock star. It looks like a zillion Rolling Stone covers we’ve all seen. The graphic designers were clearly going for that “ordinary, attractive person is really a monster” effect that the text describes, but they picked the wrong pic. The photo doesn’t read as “ordinary, attractive person who might live next door,” but as “the latest pop star Rolling Stone wants to promote.” It gets in the way of what they were trying to do and muddles the message. They should have used a photo in which he looked a little goofy, or a photo of him at eight years old, instead.

The criticism here isn’t that a lowly music magazine is breaking from routine and lionizing Tsarnaev — it’s an aesthetic judgment that acknowledges what Rolling Stone tried and failed to do. The difference, in other words, between conservative and aesthetic critics of the image is that only the latter are capable of correctly assessing its intent and judging its effectiveness. Conservative critics legitimately believe that Rolling Stone‘s trying to disseminate images of dreamy Islamic radicalism to impressionable American youths, whereas aesthetic critics can read the words beneath the image and understand that the cover fails rhetorically. I think Other Scott need not fear the progeny of strange bedfellows — this is just the most recent case of deliberate conservative misprision. They see what they want to, so when they look at the Rolling Stone cover, instead of seeing what’s printed:

They see what’s politically convenient:

The context is still technically there, but it’s rendered inscrutable by the controversial imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that all should become offended by a universal flaw.” Defining the entire cover down to Tsarnaev’s self-portrait — treating it as if the words didn’t exist — allowed conservatives to circulate an ahistorical and acontextual version of it that’s offensive to everyone. Much like the fight between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman began when Martin landed his first blow, conservatives have managed to bracket the conversation about this “controversy” such that the image being discussed is, by and large, the second one above. Having done so, they can rally their cultural warriors against the Shariah-loving editorial board of Rolling Stone with the usual dishonest gusto.

But liberal and aesthetic critics should have sense enough to realize that the problem with this cover wasn’t in its intent so much as its execution. In all honesty, I don’t think Rolling Stone should be criticized for its visual-rhetorical failure here, but for rehashing the tired trope of “The Monster Next Door.” That’s Keith Morrison‘s bailiwick, and Saturday mornings on MSNBC would be infinitely poorer if Rolling Stone put him out of business.

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  1. Hogan says:

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that all should become offended by a universal flaw.”

    It’s 94 degrees here, but I went and put on a hat just so I could take it off to you.

  2. rea says:

    There are of course (heck as the history of this very site demonstrates) people on the right who go around looking for stuff they can take out of context and be outraged about.

  3. Manju says:

    Anyone know what the letters on his shirt say? “Paul is dead”?

  4. jim, some guy in iowa says:

    I’ve subscribed to RS for the better part of thirty years (though it’s a more on and off thing the last few), and I don’t see that as their typical rock star cover photo. Those, especially in recent years, are as airbrushed and photoshopped as any Playboy cover ever was. That’s obviously a self-taken picture, the kind most everybody with a smartphone can take, and that’s the point of using it for a cover. Choosing to use a “bad” or “goofy” pic would have diminished that point – that the guy wasn’t a pure monster from day one, that he was someone we’ve all seen around somewhere

    • JMP says:

      But see, that’s part of the problem; obviously anyone who commits a terrorist act is just a monster, not even really human, who was just born evil, and we should never look into what drives people to commit acts of horrific violence, just say “they’re evil” and be done with it.

    • calling all toasters says:

      I’m pretty sure they didn’t have an opportunity to get Tsarnaev into the studio with Annie Leibovitz, and frankly, what would you airbrush here? He looks great.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Choosing to use a “bad” or “goofy” pic would have diminished that point – that the guy wasn’t a pure monster from day one, that he was someone we’ve all seen around somewhere

      Huh?

      How does having a bad or goofy pic diminish the point that this was someone we’ve all seen around somewhere?

  5. pete says:

    If you consider this cover slightly more generally as “the latest star the media wants to promote” (and “promotion” includes setting up to attack) then it does make sense. There is an unhealthy aspect of the “star-making machinery” at play here, and Rolling Stone is either consciously critiquing it or unconsciously providing us with the opportunity to critique it. I accept that many people, especially in the Boston area, find this cover offensive, but I’m not ready to concede them the right to suspend such discussion. (Nor did I think Bill Maher should have been fired for saying that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowardly.) It’s really important that in the face of evil actions we find the strength to consider both context and uncomfortable comparisons.

    • SEK says:

      I accept that many people, especially in the Boston area, find this cover offensive, but I’m not ready to concede them the right to suspend such discussion.

      I hope my post didn’t come across as a call to suspend discussion. I judge the cover to be a rhetorical failure, but only after honestly assessing its manifest intent — i.e. what the words “THE BOMBER” and “MONSTER” signal like a semaphorist about to OD on dexxies. It’s not a subtle juxtaposition of word and text, so the only cause for confusion is deliberate self-blinkering.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        Is there a way to use that picture, or one like it, in a “rhetorically successful” manner? Or should RS have just photoshopped Tsarneav’s face onto the old WWII-era photo of Mussolini’s body hanging from the lamppost?

        • SEK says:

          Is there a way to use that picture, or one like it, in a “rhetorically successful” manner?

          About a million. The most obvious would be something like this:

          • daveNYC says:

            Might as well just photoshop horns on him. I don’t think it’s RS’s fault that people are incapable of comparing the image to the words under the image and working through those two conflicting messages.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              OH NO! NOT HORNS!

              Wouldn’t it be horrible if they made the terrorist look bad?

              I don’t think it’s RS’s fault that people are incapable of comparing the image to the words under the image and working through those two conflicting messages.

              The professional graphic designers who put together – at great expense, in an extremely detail-oriented process – produced a cover (a magazine cover, intended to be seen by as many millions of the general public as they can possibly get to look at it) that people didn’t get, but we can’t really blame Rolling Stone. Hey, what are they going to do, right?

            • joe from Lowell says:

              It’s ironic that the people who complain the loudest about others not being able to handle the juxtaposition of two competing messages are the first to insist that it is impossible to produce an image that reflects that juxtaposition.

              It is ironic that the people who complain the most about the cover’s critics being unable to wrap their minds around complexity are the first to insist that any graphic depiction of that complexity must necessarily amount to a one-dimensional exercise in demonization (devil horns).

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            Or take the picture, put it in a box, and have the background be the chaos and destruction of the bombing scene. I keep coming back to the idea that most pictures of “bad guys” on magazine covers put their faces in boxes or borders. Maybe that’s just Time and People cover conventions, which aren’t what RS does. But there’s something about the composition of the cover that gives me the shoe-not-dropping, dog-not-barking feeling of something significant missing in visual rhetoric terms.

            • SEK says:

              But there’s something about the composition of the cover that gives me the shoe-not-dropping, dog-not-barking feeling of something significant missing in visual rhetoric terms.

              That’s a damn fine way of putting it.

      • calling all toasters says:

        How did the words “a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam” not enter into your appraisal? It seems quite clear that the narrative is “good person becomes monster through circumstances in which he was passive.” Focusing on the first and last words seems like a less coherent approach than focusing on the photo.

        • SEK says:

          It’s a basic rule of graphic design that readers typically focus on the words in the BIGGEST FONT first, so I don’t think they intended people not to read it.

          • calling all toasters says:

            Yes, but “bomber” has a much less negative connotation than “monster,” and “monster” is in the same size font as the rest. Yet you cite “monster” and put it in all caps as if it is the only thing of importance in the subtitle.

            • SEK says:

              You’re correct, it wasn’t in all caps, just “THE BOMBER.” But it’s the subhead beneath the biggest text, so it’s obviously not being buried.

              • calling all toasters says:

                Just as all the other words in the subtitle, the ones you seem to still be avoiding, are there. The narrative is still “good person becomes monster through circumstances in which he was passive,” just as I described above. I don’t understand why you feel you have to tell me that the word “monster” is really, really there.

      • aimai says:

        I’m in Boston and I think its ridiculous to care what Boston thinks. But that being said I think that words like “monster” are so overused as to be too banal to undercut the image, which is not only similar to sexy rockstar but also classically feminized/sultry and represents the Tsarnaev visually (and thats the biggest part of the image) as vulnerable in a very feminized, erotic, way.

        The picture takes up the majority of the space and the text doesn’t really undercut that and never can. I’m not even sure it counterweights it much ironically, either, since the very “boy next door” trope, the monster in the innocent’s skin, is so overused.

        • Lee Rudolph says:

          Well, I’m in the next town over from Dartmouth, MA, and I think it’s ridiculous to care what (North) Dartmouth thinks. But my brainwaves, powerful as they are, haven’t been able to prevent the same kind of shit going on there (that is, in the on-line newspapers here; I have not been out and about even if it is a bit cooler hereabouts than in Boston), as at w w w.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130719/NEWS/307190330 (URL munged in an effort to avoid autocensoring).

          A “middling school” with “an utter lack of character” is how this week’s Rolling Stone cover story on Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev describes UMass Dartmouth.

          Staff and students bristled at the jabs Thursday and defended their school even as the campus store made a decision not to carry the issue, whose print edition is available today.

          “Middling school” is complimenting you, folks, honest it is. FFS.

          • Liam says:

            Yeah, but “utter lack of character”? With the Roger Dean Roger Dean architecture? Surely that’s unfair.

            • Lee Rudolph says:

              D00d, I don’t know from Roger Dean, but the architecture at UMD (at the time, Southeastern Massachusetts University; the student radio station got the call-letters WSMU precisely the year before the initials changed to UMD) won an award for Paul Rudolph.

              Who is no relation.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Whoa.

              I generally hate that style of architecture, but that’s a pretty damn cool specimen of the type.

              • Liam says:

                The only thing about it is a lot of the exterior stairs are normal depth but only like 1/3 normal height which can be a very strange experience.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  There’s dorm at Fitchburg State that has steps that rise diagonally up a hill. All of the steps are parallel, but each one is shifted about six inches to the left from the one below it, like this (hope it works):

                  _________________
                  ___________________
                  ____________________
                  _____________________
                  ______________________

                  so if you try to walk straight up them, you eventually run into the railing.

                  They say you can only walk up them if you’re drunk.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Dammit. Ignore the periods:

                  __________
                  …__________
                  ……__________
                  ………__________
                  …………___________

              • Richie Rich says:

                It would undoubtedly be better to work in (which I haven’t, but many friends have) if it had not been built on the cheap and/or corruptly: constant leaks do not conduce to edification. But even without the leaks, concrete benches? indoors?? really??? (And, as at Boston’s Government Center, the vertical texturing of the concrete, though it may look like friendly corduroy in the photo, up close and personal is something that reminds you—oh, all right, reminds me—that it would be a really, really bad idea to get pushed into it by the po-lice during an episode of crowd control, should anything untoward like that ever occur, which it never would, of course.)

          • medrawt says:

            I grew up in (North) Dartmouth. My father’s parents both spent the last two-thirds of their professorial careers at SMU (now UMD). My parents both received their undergraduate degrees there. My cousin just graduated there last year.

            Some of the people I just named are very bright and worthy intellectuals, but the school is far from a leading light of American academia.

      • pete says:

        @SEK: No, I didn’t read your post as a call to suspend discussion, in fact I was discussing in response to it. I think some previous comments did imply that nuance was inappropriate, and I strongly disagree with that. Tsarnaev may be both a pawn and an independent actor simultaneously, and the causes may be, and probably are, a combination of personal, familial, societal, etc …

    • TribalistMeathead says:

      For some reason the whole controversy seems like the flip side of this:

      http://blog.syracuse.com/shelflife/2008/07/medium_nycover.jpg

  6. LeftWingFox says:

    I’d make the following points:

    1) I don’t think the fundamental visual rhetoric is flawed here: “Here is an attractive young man, but he’s a monster.” Showing them as more attractive only heightens the disparity, it does not cancel it out, where as a less flattering photo or a mug-shot. would have spoiled the “boy next door went bad” thesis.

    2) What proportion of people will be swayed POSITIVELY by a single handsome photo? That it will “promote him” in a way that people will suddenly ignore the cover text, the inside story, or the bulk of news about him that comes up when trying to act on that promotion?

    • SEK says:

      I don’t think the fundamental visual rhetoric is flawed here: “Here is an attractive young man, but he’s a monster.”

      It’s just mundane, hence my Keith Morrison crack.

      What proportion of people will be swayed POSITIVELY by a single handsome photo?

      The stupid proportion? Look, I don’t think there’s no merit to the claim that some teenagers will see this dreamy boy and be led to areas of the Internet they wouldn’t have otherwise. I even think there’s some merit to the claim that one or two of those teenagers may end up radicalized because — given other circumstances in their lives — they did so.

      But I don’t think there’s any merit to the claim that, like a horror comic from the 1950s, the mere sight of this photograph will convince an impressionable Christian youth into committing acts of terrorism against their neighbors in the name of Allah. But protecting children from the pit of razors at the bottom of an improbably slippery slope is a conservative past time.

      • Another Anonymous says:

        It’s just mundane

        And the name of this magazine is …?

        I think the cover works fine, for what they’re trying to do.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          I think the cover works fine, for what they’re trying to do.

          \

          Set off a massive public firestorm, and have large numbers of people miss their point?

          Is that what they were trying to do?

          (Maybe it was. I’ve seen people offer the “anything for publicity” theory.)

  7. comptr0ller says:

    Note how the second image fortuitously gaussian blurs out the text box about climate change.

  8. matttbastard says:

    Conservative critics legitimately believe that Rolling Stone‘s trying to disseminate images of dreamy Islamic radicalism to impressionable American youths, whereas aesthetic critics can read the words beneath the image and understand that the cover fails rhetorically.

    Self-identified liberal Rachel Sklar seems to go one step further in presenting her aesthetic objections to the cover:

    The issue is not about Tsarnaev’s pretty face, it’s about how it is presented — and what impact that can have. Crouch notes that the Rolling Stone photo is the same one that Tsarnaev’s fans and devotees swoon over, the same one that has inspired “misdirected empathy.” It’s part of the mythology around Tsarnaev not as a pathetic fleeing killer who almost bled to death hiding in a boat, but a misunderstood heartthrob who won the world’s attention — and, girls. Could that glamour make a Tsarnaev-type path seem more attractive to a troubled kid? Make his angry claims about injustice seem more compelling? Copy-cat concernsafter high-profile mass killings are real. If a swoony Rolling Stonecover is glamorizing Dzhokar Tsarnaev, then by extension it’s glamorizing what he did to get there. Which — if I may — amounts to the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.

    • SEK says:

      To repeat what I wrote above a bit more pointedly: yes, and crime comics in the ’40s were more responsible for the continued presence of Prohibition-enriched mobsters in American society, and Tales from the Crypt, with its adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe shorts, was responsible for the Great Outbreak of Witches and Quicksand in the 1950s. Just because an infinitesimal number of readers are so stupid as to emulate what they read — typically in a manner so idiotic as to remind you of why they decided to emulate it in the first place — doesn’t mean that the majority of us should be deprived of supremely new and utterly innovative literary devices like “juxtaposition.”

      • JMP says:

        Just like Columbine, the Virginia Tech massacre and other school shootings were all caused by videogames. And most certainly not the easy access to guns in America.

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      Christ, even Charles Manson had groupies. Some people are susceptible to that kind of thing regardless of *how* the subject of their ‘crush’, for lack of a better quick term, is presented

  9. L.M. says:

    Most Americans aren’t comfortable thinking of bad people as anything other than cartoonish supervillains. It’s how we reassure ourselves that we aren’t bad people (I’m not a cartoonish supervillain), even though we’re all complicit in some pretty horrible things.

    • Thom says:

      Exactly. And this is why Mandela can’t be a man who engaged in and promoted violence as well as a great promoter of reconciliation, even though he was in fact both.

    • Lee Rudolph says:

      It’s how we reassure ourselves that we aren’t bad people (I’m not a cartoonish supervillain)

      Yeah, well, speak for yourself, eh?

    • Hogan says:

      Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

      Giles: You mean life?

      Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?

      Giles: What do you want me to say?

      Buffy: Lie to me.

      Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.

      Buffy: Liar.

  10. Karen says:

    Judging from my FB feed, conservatives object to the cover because “Jahar” is attractive. That’s it. I conclude from this that all too many people harbor the presumption that attractive people never do evil things, and its corollary, that anyone can determine that someone is evil just by looking. (See Zimmeran, George.) Another aspect is that they actually object to the article because analyzing the steps that a criminal took from, say, toddler to murderer somehow excuses murder.

    I think liberals need to respond to both points. It’s much easier to attack the first proposition; just find a picture of Ted Bundy or some of the handsomer guards at Auschwitz. Note, frequently, that our perception of a person’s social status affects our determination of that person’s attractiveness, and that higher-status people have the ability to just buy things that make us look better. Encourage artists to note the beauty in those of us who are not conventionally attractive. The second point is a harder sell, because to an extent conservatives are correct that explaining does excuse, at least a little. I would respond by saying that we study disasters precisely to see what we can do to ameliorate the damage. People will continue to commit crimes, but if we can, we should divert some of the potential criminals into more socially beneficial pursuits. No one thinks that that the NTSB approves of plane crashes, but their research has meant that planes that crash now kill in the tens instead of the hundreds. If we can find what triggers violence in men like Tsarnaev and disconnect that trigger before it springs, isn’t that worth it?

  11. EH says:

    How long before an artist named The Bomber gets famous?

  12. TribalistMeathead says:

    For some reason, the whole controversy seems like the flip side of this:

    http://blog.syracuse.com/shelflife/2008/07/medium_nycover.jpg

  13. Uncle Ebeneezer says:

    I thought the whole idea was to make us all do a double-take through the use of an almost self-parody-grade typical RS young-rocker photo contrasted with the text that reminds us of who this really is on the cover. Hammering home the point that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anyone could become a terrorist etc. Which is exactly the way I responded to it, so to me it was a complete success.

    • Dave says:

      Indeed, the voices saying that there is abso-fucking-lutely nothing wrong with this cover at all should be louder here.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        seems to me there are several levels of complaint against this cover: one is from people who have an emotional tie to what Tsarnaev did – and I respect that, and try to cut them slack.

        Then there are the professionally outraged, who live to make things like this into “controversies”. They can fuck off.

        and lastly, the people who say, “well, I support the basic premise of what RS is trying to do here, but since they didn’t do it the way I would have, I’ll let the professionally outraged get away with being totally manipulative assholes *again*”

        • joe from Lowell says:

          but since they didn’t do it the way I would have, I’ll let the professionally outraged get away with being totally manipulative assholes *again*”

          Is there a better definition of aesthetic Stalinism than this insistence that we have to put our aesthetic judgment away for The Cause?

          • jim, some guy in iowa says:

            I could give nothing less of a fuck about “aesthetic Stalinism” and if you could refrain from projecting *your* need for some sort of weird absolutism about the world onto me in the future, I would appreciate it very much.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Yes, Jim, the problem with shouting down aesthetic judgments on the grounds that they are politically inconvenient is clearly not a problem that you give a fuck about.

              Congratulations.

    • Anna in PDX says:

      Yes, I agree, this is how I interpreted the cover too.

  14. cpinva says:

    out of 325,000,000 people in the US, how many actually strongly objected to the RS cover? i’d wager the number is so small, it wouldn’t even register on a radar screen. the difference being that some of them objected loudly, and had access to some form of media to do it. 5 people shrieking doesn’t constitute “a lot”.

    while I agree that both SEK & joe from Lowell make excellent points, my initial reaction to it was the same as Uncle Ebeneezer’s.

  15. actor212 says:

    I have a couple of observations that I was going to post to my blog but my email etted them so I’ll sum up here:

    1) It’s not the photo. I think this issue comes out in January, and the kerfuffle is kept to a minimum. I think the timing sucks.

    2) That said, it is one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen on a magazine. It tells the entire story in a photo and blurb: a young handsome man…I mean, the kid got marriage proposals AFTER he was revealed as the bomber…who was your average American kid loving cars and girls and music and good times, kills and maims dozens of innocent people. Why? His face shows a hint of sadness. I want to know more.

    3) Rolling Stone featured Charles Manson on the cover just after the Tate-LaBianca murders, not as pretty a portrait but you could hardly call it a Time-Magazine-hack of OJ Simpson. Rolling Stone sells magazines. This image will sell magazines. Why do conservatives have a problem with free enterprise?

  16. Anna in PDX says:

    I would like it to lead to us questioning the overwhelming pop culture equation of physical beauty with inner goodness, but of course it won’t because people would rather not think about this at all, but want their villains to look ugly.

    I am still not getting this argument at all. I do see that RS used the photo as it was. It was a photo he took. It was not shopped to be made more attractive. He was just a good looking guy. And a murderer.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      It was a photo he took. It was not shopped to be made more attractive. He was just a good looking guy.

      You are vastly underestimating the level of intent and deliberation that goes into the graphic elements of a major media production like a Rolling Stone cover. Nothing you see is “just” there. it is intentional. All “found art” is intentional, when it is presented as art. They found lots of things, but showed you this.

      Salman Rushdie’s passage in the Satanic Verses about what the camera sees during the ethnic riot is very relevant here. ‘Hey, it’s just showing stuff that actually happened. Are you saying that stuff didn’t happen?’

      • Anna in PDX says:

        I know there is deliberation in choosing a pic for the cover. I just don’t agree that it was morally wrong for RS to choose a flattering photo of a bad person, because I find this whole “good looking = good” to be intensely troubling and don’t understand why RS or anyone else should cater to it.

        Beauty *should not* be seen as reflecting character. By picking a beautiful picture of this guy, to me this is the message that RS was conveying (especially given that they had a blurb under it calling him a bomber and monster, and given the article itself, and I still refuse to see any logic in the argument that the article does not matter or share context with the cover).

        Everyone who is against RS’s choice of the photo is, to me, buying into the idea that beauty SHOULD be seen as reflecting character. Because if it didn’t, RS would not have done anything wrong.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          I know there is deliberation in choosing a pic for the cover.

          OK, good, we can do away with:

          I do see that RS used the photo as it was. It was a photo he took. It was not shopped to be made more attractive. He was just a good looking guy.

          …and talk about this as a deliberate choice.

          The problem is not that Tsarnaev is good looking. The problem is that the photo, and his appearance, are too reminiscent of standard Rolling Stone pop star covers. Barack Obama is good looking, but nobody would think that this cover made him look like a rock star.

          • Anna in PDX says:

            I guess on this issue I just disagree with you and CAT pretty strongly. I think their choice of photo (obviously they chose a photo, and it was a flattering one, but it was also a real one that he took himself – one does not negate the other) was a wise choice because it showed how beautiful a horrible person can be on the outside.

            • FlipYrWhig says:

              But would you feel the same way if it were a George Zimmerman beefcake shot?

              • Anna in PDX says:

                Sure. What is up with this argument? I am getting tired of this preemptive “you’d be a hypocrite if this was someone else you dislike worse” bogus argument. Just for the record, I don’t think Zimmerman is *worse* than Tsarneav, and who are you to assume that about me or anyone else? Actually Tsarneav killed more people, didn’t he?

                Will people knock it off with the hypothetical hypocrisy charges?

                • FlipYrWhig says:

                  I would be pretty disgusted if a magazine put a flattering picture of George Zimmerman on the cover. Realizing that made me more sympathetic to the view that there was something awry about the Tsarnaev cover. I’m not trying to catch you in hypocrisy for the sake of hypocrisy. I think I caught myself, though, and it’s interesting to me to try to think it through.

                • Anna in PDX says:

                  OK, sorry for assuming that was the point you were making.

              • SV says:

                If Zimmerman were dead, or had gone to jail for life, and the media used old photos taken by him himself, where he posed and tried to look cool/tough/handsome, that would be quite a different thing from a magazine putting on a photo shoot with Zimmerman now in which they made him look glamorous.

              • Slippery Jim says:

                Bingo- LG&M would be cool with that right?

            • joe from Lowell says:

              obviously they chose a photo, and it was a flattering one, but it was also a real one that he took himself – one does not negate the other)

              One thing – the choice and effort – negates the “it’s just a picture, they didn’t use it to mean anything” claim you made above.

              was a wise choice because it showed how beautiful a horrible person can be on the outside.

              While that’s a fine concept to try to portray with a cover image, I’m left to ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

              The problem isn’t what they were trying to do, but with the execution.

  17. The difference, in other words, between conservative and aesthetic critics of the image is that only the latter are capable of correctly assessing its intent and judging its effectiveness.

    Can I make an aesthetic criticism of that sentence? Or will you be writing a post on that soon?

  18. calling all toasters says:

    One thing missing in this discussion is the intended political (as in electoral) impact. For a couple of days after the bombing there was plenty of doubt about the political/cultural orientation of the bombers. Happening on Patriots’ Day, I guessed that it was a right winger in the tradition of McVeigh. I think a lot of other liberals thought that way. Everyone on the right assumed is was a Moslem, with all the stereotypes that ensue.

    Now we know that Tsarnaev is indeed a Moslem, but also very much an average American. Hey, most domestic terrorists are pretty much average Americans. I would like to know if Rolling Stone did profiles on McVeigh, Koresh, etc. from a “where did they go wrong?” perspective. It seems unlikely. Certainly none made the cover.

    I perceive this as very much a “how did one of us go wrong?” narrative. It would be assumed that McVeigh, et al. were wrong to begin with, being conservative. Which means that RS is saying that liberals own Tsarnaev in the way conservatives own McVeigh.

    The left cut its own throat a long time ago by defending Alger Hiss to the bitter end because he was one of us (and made Nixon a star as a bonus). I think (in a much smaller, more elliptical way) RS is pushing us to do it again. They surely knew they would be provoking outrage, and must have hoped that it would (a) sell magazines and (b) make liberals feel closer to them by being forced to defend them. So it’s all good for the magazine. Not so much for liberalism.

    It’s not that big a deal in the overall scheme of things, but I feel we’re being played, and I don’t like it.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      I think you raised a good point the other day about how the blasé, it’s-just-a-picture reaction we’re supposed to have to this use of this image would NEVER be so presumptive if it were, say, a “selfie” of a sweaty, disheveled, fitter-than-now George Zimmerman after training at his martial arts gym. Even if the tagline still called him a monster.

      • calling all toasters says:

        Thank you. I think blase (still don’t know how to do accents) is the perfect word. If there’s one thing that irritates people about academic-type liberals, it’s that always aspiring to the bigger picture only pisses off people who are still having an emotional reaction. Dukakis, Tsongas, Kerry, Bradley and the like never got this; Clinton did. That’s a large part of why he was so popular even when he screwed up.

        • Anna in PDX says:

          I’m actually having an emotional reaction to the insistence that bad people should not look pretty. I don’t feel blase about it at all. I think it was a powerful cover that undercuts the pop culture focus on physical beauty, and reminds us that it’s irrelevant to character, and I am kind of horrified at so many who think RS should have made him uglier because they are “glamorizing” him. So just being subjective here, to me this is not being blasé (the accent is Alt-130 on a keyboard, FYI). This is being honest and kind of angry. I see it as a brilliant commentary and pretty much the opposite of glamorizing.

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            I don’t know if I think the cover is wrong per se, but I also think it’s important to walk through the thought process: IMHO something like “Holy shit, he looks like an indie-rock star there, let’s roll with it and make that aspect of self-construction a visual sign of what our story is about.” And that’s specifically designed to create a particular kind of shudder. So, OK, we’ve analyzed it, we’ve figured it out, done. Kudos to us!

            But, and this was what “calling” brought up the other day, what if it was an image of George Zimmerman in his MMA training days, fit, glistening and glowering? Would we still all say, “Pfft, big deal, it’s just a picture, and the text SAYS he’s a killer”? I highly doubt that. We wouldn’t be sanguine, we’d be pissed right the hell off.

            • Anna in PDX says:

              Speak for yourself. I don’t think this is true. I think if they made a similar aesthetic point with another monstrous murderer, I would feel the same way. I don’t get why you are thinking that Z is so different than DT. If they captioned it as “cold blooded killer works on his six pack” or whatever, I would see both the caption and the photo. And I would think, Hmm. A coward who shot an unarmed teenager also works out at the gym and has the bod to prove it. So what?

              • FlipYrWhig says:

                That’s you, then. I would think, it takes a big swinging set of balls to put a killer on the cover looking sexy in an image he himself created. And I think people in general, particularly around the blogosphere, would be seriously up in arms, rather than the ho-hum reaction that has prevailed to the Tsarnaev cover.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            I’m actually having an emotional reaction to the insistence that bad people should not look pretty.

            Perhaps when you cool down, you’ll notice that nobody is saying that.

            • Anna in PDX says:

              At this point I am tired because I do not really see a middle ground on this. Either you think that aesthetics should have a message about morality, or you don’t. I really think the message is “aesthetics cannot show morality” and that is a full stop. Changing the type of beauty, picking a different awful personality, all these things don’t change that. Arguing that RS cannot make this argument because it usually shows similarly pretty pictures of famous people does nto make sense to me either. You and FlipYrWhig and Calling All Toasters now seem to be making a much more nuanced argument than merely “he’s too pretty” which is “he looks too much like RS’s normal celebrities” but this still seems to be buying into the idea that “the outside should exemplify the inside” which is what I am just against. So I guess this argument is going nowhere slow.

              I think I am so frustrated in this thread because I usually agree with all three of you on a vast majority of issues and I guess I just want you to hear and acknowledge the idea that there is a reading of this that is really good and important.

              It is very important to me (a not extremely attractive person) to make the point that beauty is irrelevant to character, and I am so glad RS went there, that I am taking the whole thing too seriously.

              Anyhow we are obviously not going to get much closer to agreement on this, we just interpret the cover’s meaning very differently.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                this still seems to be buying into the idea that “the outside should exemplify the inside”

                I’ve spent a great deal of effort explaining that that concept has nothing to do with the argument.

                I can’t help it that it still “seems” that way to you. I’ve done my best.

                • Anna in PDX says:

                  I think you are not making much of an effort to engage my reading, either. I think that is why we are both frustrated. I actually made an effort to see where you are coming from, and disagree. But I don’t think you’ve engaged my argument, at all. I think you have simply dismissed it.

              • FlipYrWhig says:

                I think you’re right about what RS is trying to do, which I would describe as creating a two-step shock of recognition. Step 1: “who’s that guy, I feel like I recognize him, from that band with that song?” Step 2: (after looking closely) “Oh, shit, that’s the Boston bombing guy!”

                But that’s also risky because it capitalizes on the idea that Tsarnaev can pass for a rock star or some other celebrity du jour. And that in turn means that we the viewers become for at least a moment complicit in Tsarnaev’s self-presentation. And we’re supposed to squirm at that. That makes it interesting, provocative found art. But it’s also upsetting. RS could have made it less upsetting by creating more distance between the criminal and the celebrity. They went this way instead. I’m sort of with them…

                …and then, thanks to calling all toasters, I ran through the hypothetical about Zimmerman, and I didn’t like it at all. And my reaction challenged me to try to be less sanguine about the Tsarnaev image. So that’s where I am for now.

              • calling all toasters says:

                Nice post Anna. I see what your context is now. RS publishes a string of “beautiful people” (either literally or figuratively), and has now interrupted that to put someone on the cover who is implicitly critiquing that practice– that all this beauty actually doesn’t show they (i.e. the past cover models) are anyone to be admired. I’ll have to think about that.

                But if that was their intent, they failed. Most of the public is viewing this as being a continuation of their tradition of promoting and glorifying stars with cover shots, and so am I.

                • Anna in PDX says:

                  Thanks, well, I am sorry it failed with a large number of people, including you. In your case, I think it failed largely because you have a very uncompromising view of RS’s covers over time and what interpretation to give them, and therefore don’t see this message as possible coming from them.

                  That’s a fair point, maybe I lack your familiarity with the mag, though I do subscribe and have read it for years.

                • calling all toasters says:

                  I think that subscribing to it actually takes you out of the mainstream interpretation of it. A whole lot more people know the famous covers of RS than know who Matt Taibbi is. The question is whether the cover was aimed at the core audience, who are much more likely to have your view (I would bet the political coverage is among the most-read parts of the magazine), or at sending up a flare to attract the attention of the general public. Obviously, I’m betting on the latter.

    • Liam says:

      I think the preferred terms nowadays are “Musselman” or “Mohammedan”.

    • GFW says:

      Did not plenty of magazines and newspapers research and print stories on the backgrounds/histories of McVeigh, Koresh, and others? Certainly there was enough (too much, some unsubstantiated) similar analysis regarding the Columbine killers. Maybe it means absolutely nothing that Rolling Stone was first major magazine to do this regarding Tsarnaev, or maybe it just shows them as less fearful of the current political orthodoxy. It definitely doesn’t mean that RS speaks for all liberals, or that RS or liberals have any ownership of this man’s backstory.

      • GFW says:

        Complete this word analogy:
        McVeigh is to conservative militias as Tsarnaev is to ____.

        a. Chechen radicals
        b. Liberals
        c. Shining Path
        d. U Mass Dartmouth

        I’m going to have to go with A (by proxy via his brother).

        • calling all toasters says:

          Well, you know it’s A, and I know it’s A, but consumers of mass media are now being told it’s B. That’s why this pisses me off.

        • Anna in PDX says:

          Thank you! Why does Tsarnaev have any connection to B? Just because liberals are the only people who are interested in people’s backstories at all? Does that mean we have to own monsters because we are the only people who try to understand how they became thus? If that’s the case then all abnormal psychologists or people who read about true crime are Hitler, I guess.

      • calling all toasters says:

        “It definitely doesn’t mean that RS speaks for all liberals, or that RS or liberals have any ownership of this man’s backstory.”

        I agree, but it’s a matter of pushing in that direction.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        I never saw a magazine that made McViegh look like a pop star.

        Anyway, nobody is complaining about the story. The editorial in yesterday’s Boston Globe went out of its way to laud the story.

    • John Glover says:

      Please, McVeigh is still viewed as a hero is some of the crazier corners of the conservative movement.

      http://www.topix.com/forum/city/jacksonville-fl/TMG3UPAOVIM52CTFG

      • calling all toasters says:

        Exactly. They own him even now. It’s not something that endears them to the larger public.

        • Prodigal says:

          And that is why your claim that liberals now own Tsarnev the way that conservatives own McVeigh fails to hold up – I have yet to encounter any evidence of even the remotest fraction of liberals upholding Tsarnev as a hero the way that some conservatives do with McVeigh.

          • calling all toasters says:

            But if we make the case for a sympathetic understanding of him it will amount to the same thing. It’s pretty universally true that people will excuse (if not condone) members of their own group for acts they would condemn in outsiders.

            • GFW says:

              Although Anna in PDX said it better a little bit up the page, wanting to understand what internal and external forces can lead to such extreme acts does not make us sympathetic to the subject being studied.

            • Prodigal says:

              But if we make the case for a sympathetic understanding of him it will amount to the same thing.

              Nonsense. You can want to understand what led to someone committing an atrocity while also not applauding that person.

    • JL says:

      Which means that RS is saying that liberals own Tsarnaev in the way conservatives own McVeigh.

      I don’t really see this when it comes to the cover, but I sort of do when it comes to the article (which is being underdiscussed in all the controversy about the cover). There’s a lot of good stuff in the article but I was very uncomfortable with that aspect of it (and frankly I’m surprised that conservatives are wasting their time complaining about the cover instead of jumping on out-of-context bits of the article to bash Cambridge).

    • lawguy says:

      Alger Hiss? Really, Alger Hiss?

    • calling all toasters says:

      How in the world can you consider being on the cover of Time as equivalent to being on the cover of Rolling Stone?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_covers_of_Time_magazine_(2010s)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_on_the_cover_of_Rolling_Stone
      ..and that’s just who (or what) is on the cover, forget the glamorous nature of the RS shots.

      • JL says:

        Rolling Stone has put assholes on the cover before. Charles Manson, OJ Simpson, Roman Polanski. Also Nixon and Kissinger, who were a different type of asshole.

        • FlipYrWhig says:

          Assholes giving the camera a pouty, smoldering look? Because that’s what Tsarnaev is doing. That’s kinda important to the “visual rhetoric.”

          • John Glover says:

            So when the NY times does it – same photo, above the fold on page 1, and a similar story with the same theme – it’s good journalism. But when the Rolling Stone does it it’s “visual rhetoric.”

            http://dankennedy.net/2013/07/17/some-thoughts-on-that-rolling-stone-cover-ii/

            I guess you don’t consider the Rolling Stone to be publish legitimate journalism. Maybe you should actually read it sometime.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Yes, John, context is an important part of how meaning is constructed.

              You’re just discovering this now?

            • FlipYrWhig says:

              What are you on about? “Visual rhetoric” is SEK’s term of choice for reading the language and construction of visual images. This picture, used in this way, works differently, signifies differently, than it would in other contexts. One chief reason is that it joins a line of “Rolling Stone Cover Images,” which have certain commonalities among themselves. “New York Times Cover Images” are not the same set, and don’t have the same internal structures.

              • SEK says:

                But when the Rolling Stone does it it’s “visual rhetoric.” I guess you don’t consider the Rolling Stone to be publish legitimate journalism. Maybe you should actually read it sometime.

                I’m not sure what you’re getting at. When I taught literary journalism, my syllabus included works published in Rolling Stone. You’re sensing some animosity that just isn’t there.

                • FlipYrWhig says:

                  Maybe he thinks you/we are using “rhetoric” to mean “spin” or “puffery”?

        • Anna in PDX says:

          I was looking at the list that Calling All Toasters linked her yesterday and noticed that BASTARD Polanski was on there, and wondered if it was before or after he had fled the country (I wish they had put dates next to the issue numbers – it would have helped me put them in context). I also noticed Chris Brown was on there (specifically mentioned by Calling All Toasters as someone who liberals would object to) but of course it was before the domestic violence. Kissinger is a bloody murderer, who killed lots and lots of people. So is Bush. Polanski is a monster too. If he looked like George Clooney instead of like a very ugly person, I would still think he is a monster, and it would still be OK for RS to have him on the cover. This preemptive assumption that we would all be hypocritical about this issue if the cover was of someone else, is really irritating.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            FlipYrWhig: “giving the camera a pouty, smoldering look”

            Anna in PDX: “looked like George Clooney instead of like a very ugly person”

            Does everyone understand the difference between these two concepts?

            • Anna in PDX says:

              Care to elaborate? Because this “if it were Zimmerman you would be mad” argument is not working. I picked the most sexy person I could think of to make my point, if I had used the words “pouty” or “smoldering” it would not have changed this.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                There’s no connection between my point and the “if it were Zimmerman you would be mad” argument, except your reaction.

                My point is simply that you are misunderstanding the argument. It isn’t that Tsarnaev looks like an attractive person. He looks like an attractive person in Scott’s alternate cover, too.

                if I had used the words “pouty” or “smoldering” it would not have changed this

                Yes, it would have, because “pouty” and “smoldering” are not innate traits to someone’s physical appearance, but ways of presenting oneself or one’s subject.

                • Anna in PDX says:

                  OK, assume that George is pouting, then.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  If I see George Clooney on the cover of a Rolling Stone giving the camera a pouty look, I’m going to assume that George Clooney has a movie coming out, and Rolling Stone is promoting it and him.

          • calling all toasters says:

            Of the ones I’ve seen of people of whom we should disapprove, the cover of Romney was a cartoon, Bush was 2 cartoons, and Nixon was 2 cartoons and a tremendously unflattering close-up from below. Their visual rhetoric is really quite simple, and quite propagandistic.

            • calling all toasters says:

              Found the Polanski cover: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/rolling-stone-cover-volume-340-4-2-1981-roman-polanski.html
              So he’s a cartoon, and therefore bad, but smiling and “on the lam,” and therefore rougish and loveable. Which is the perfect straddle for a West Coast entertainment rag to make. Polanski had and has a lot of defenders in the movie biz, after all.

              • Anna in PDX says:

                Thanks for finding it, so it was after he had fled the country after all. That cover is interesting. It pisses me off not because I think RS should do something different, but just because I dislike cocky rapists. It does evoke a different feeling than the Tsarnaev cover, that is for sure. But in both cases I don’t really see that RS did something wrong by putting the picture on the cover.

                • calling all toasters says:

                  I guess I’m spending entirely too much time on the rhetoric of RS covers, but I think the Polanski cover is just weird, which reflects the mixed feelings they must have had. I, too, dislike cocky (you did that on purpose!) rapists, but arts people support arts people. I have no idea what a nun is doing on the cover.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      But, come on, McVeigh doesn’t look cool, or brooding, or rumpled like he’s just been up all night drinking absinthe. It’s an image of a criminal defendant that couldn’t possibly pass for an image of Jim Morrison or Marc Bolan or Julian Casablancas.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Seriously, I don’t consider the Tsarnaev photo any different than this one.

      Wow. OK.

  19. John Glover says:

    The problem isn’t the cover or the story. It’s the fact that it’s the Rolling Stone that published it.

    http://dankennedy.net/2013/07/17/some-thoughts-on-that-rolling-stone-cover-ii/

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Yes, John, context is a part of how meaning is constructed.

      This point seems to be less widely-understood that I previously thought.

      • John Glover says:

        Yes, we do live in a world where the identity of the messenger is more important than the content of the message. I really don’t consider that to be a good thing.

        • calling all toasters says:

          Well, Rolling Stone has spent 40+ years crafting its identity. Why don’t you write them and tell them to knock it off?

          • John Glover says:

            It’s like saying that if Rush Limbaugh says we should all be scared of black teenagers in hoodies we can dismiss that, but if Richard Cohen says it then, well, it must be reasonable, right?

            • joe from Lowell says:

              It’s like saying that the sentence, “That neighborhood has a large black population” comes across differently when Rush Limbaugh says it than when Erik Loomis says it.

              Go on, tell me it doesn’t, and that there must be something wrong with me if I’d read a different meaning into each sentence.

            • calling all toasters says:

              I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                He’s saying that the most indefensible application of context he can think of discredits all use of context as a way of constructing understanding.

                • calling all toasters says:

                  Oh. And here I thought he might be accusing me of shifting my allegiance from Ward Churchill to Richard Cohen. Or possibly Limbaugh. Or maybe Tiger Beat.

            • FlipYrWhig says:

              How is the one like the other? I don’t understand your argument. If someone is making an album cover and puts a prism on it, it clearly evokes and creates a dialogue with _Dark Side of the Moon_. If someone is creating a sale catalogue for high school lab equipment and includes a picture of a prism, it probably doesn’t refer to Pink Floyd. You follow? By extension, similar images in different contexts can evoke very different associations, and the way that association works in our minds is not necessarily a straightforward, unproblematic process like you seem to think it is, judging by the examples you give.

              • calling all toasters says:

                …and, as jfL notes below, the entire country has picked up on that dialogue. Citing argumentative alleged counterexamples isn’t going to change that.

    • calling all toasters says:

      You’re halfway there. Now all you have to do is figure out how the contexts are different.

  20. John Glover says:

    I’d be giving a lot more credence to the people who are objecting to this photo, but for the fact that many of them have the same mindset as the people who do this sort of thing:

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/07/17/house-republicans-rejected-bill-to-ban-gun-sales-to-suspected-terrorists/

  21. DFH no.6 says:

    I’m with Amanda Marcotte on this.

  22. wengler says:

    I’m not going to remark on the cover, but I will say that there seems to have been, with the way that story played out that week, some effort to make the Boston Marathon bombings equivalent to other terrorist acts that were many orders of magnitude bigger.

    The pressure cooker bombings were equivalent to an IRA bombing in England during the ’80s. They are bad, worthy of attention and a lot of people got hurt, but there is not this level of fascination with the people that actually carried them out. And unlike those, these bombs were the work of obvious amateurs who in the end didn’t even have more than one handgun to continue their violent spree. So maybe the question should be why even have Tsarnaev on the cover in the first place?

  23. LFC says:

    Way upthread, Aimai commented that the picture shows him “as vulnerable in a very feminized, erotic way.”

    Yes. This is, I think, a considerable part of the problem, part of the reason the cover doesn’t work visually the way it was probably intended to work. It’s not so much that he’s generically good-looking or attractive, but rather the particular way he looks.

    There’s a certain blankness in his expression that could be read, esp. retrospectively with knowledge of what he did, as a flatness of affect (to use psychological jargon). But this blankness is more than offset by the slightly raised eyebrow, the hint of a smile (he’s not actually smiling but seems as if he might be about to). The result is that the picture reads as one of an innocent, vulnerable kid who also happens to be handsome, but it’s the vulnerability, the implied softness that perhaps stops just short of effeminacy, that I think creates much of the problem from the ‘visual rhetoric’ standpoint and accounts for the feeling that something is just not right here, or accounts for the, as FlipYrWig put it upthread, shoe-not-dropping feeling.

    It’s not that monsters have to look monstrous or that attractive people can’t be bad or evil (of course they can be and some are); rather it’s that the gulf between the caption (with the word ‘monster’) and this particular photo is simply too wide.

  24. MIke D. says:

    I think my issue is not that the visual rhetoric may fail, but that it may succeed where it conceivably shouldn’t.

    Do we know RS’ basic narrative about the kid is right? I don’t really care if he was a nice boy led astray or the devil incarnate at birth, he did what he did either way. But, if the idea here is to take RS’ words on Tsarvaev seriously as journalism, then it seems to me that we ought to be wary of the ability that his beauty gives them to advance that narrative irrespective of the facts of his life or their writers’ ability to knit them into a convincing, truthful portrait of him as a person, regardless of his looks. If Tsarnaev had been ugly, RS would not have been able to prime us to accept the narrative they want to advance to us is this exact way, and the fact that he was is a random, contingent historical coincidence.

    This is not to say that RS is wrong to use images to help them create a portrait of a person in the news. But if their factual account of his life isn’t very tightly on the up-and-up (and, again, I don’t really care), I think we’re in our rights to view their advancement of their narrative using his beauty with less than full admiration.

    IOW, what I see in these threads are people discussing whether the image is appropriate given the portrait RS’ article is trying to paint. But the image clearly primes us to accept that account. Given that Tsarnaev’s looks are not relevant to the accuracy of the written portrait the magazine paints, we should be wary of the account they give, given that they’re leaning on this image to get them started in telling their written story.

  25. […] by LG&M, it Captures a broader behavioral trend: The criticism here isn’t that a lowly music magazine is […]

  26. Anonymous says:

    Context is all important?

    First, the criticisms start from people who are paid to be angry about everything that might possibly be to the slight left of Louis XIV. They are then taken up by the “Well now let’s be fair to everyone” crowd. And here we are at a 200 comment discussion.

  27. lawguy says:

    Nuts that was me.

  28. […] Is Too Damn Poor Let’s Get Real with Numbers: The Financial Reality of Being a Tenured Professor Seriously, about that Rolling Stone cover Just a dude walking down Boylston with a parrot perched on his hand A wonderful night in Boston […]

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