Smart v. Stupid

Today’s battle for power is between smart and stupid.

Romney picks whites only election strategy

Posted on | June 7, 2012 | No Comments

The signals from the past two weeks are unmistakable. Mitt Romney has settled on a whites-only strategy for winning the White House. Demographically, he can still do that. Euro-whites are 66% of all registered voters. But he’ll have to walk the fine line of racialromney talk radio news svc pandering and denying it. Americans no longer elect overt racists.

In any case, a whites-only strategy means Romney must run an unseemly and distasteful campaign. He began it with a visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, a city known for both its cheesesteaks and its endemic black culture. Billed by the campaign as a reach out to the black community, the speech was actually used to hector black people about perceived failings. In reality, this kind of speech is aimed at some white people. It was nearly the worst speech Romney could have given if he’d actually wanted to court the black vote. But by itself, it was not quite a clear signal of an emerging whites-only strategy.

In hindsight, it would turn out to be the beginning of a week long, five-part roll out.

Any single-race strategy relies on fear. Some white voters believe a change of status is coming and they are afraid. Mostly, these are voters who are not racially discriminatory in daily word or deed. They fear becoming a minority for what they have seen it entails. They assume that contemporary people of color will behave just as badly as their own granddaddies did. So they can be convinced to vote along color lines. Call this “racialism,” something truly sad, but something a lot less loathsome than racism.

Still, whites-only remains a high risk strategy for Romney, because it also requires reduced turnout from non-whites. Last time whites were only 47% of actual voters – not a winning slice. In order for whites-only to prevail, a third party candidate would be helpful. Barring that, a race-biased voter suppression plan would be necessary. Oh…

If the Phillie visit wasn’t clear evidence, the three-day birther wallow that was Trump Week surely was. On Day 1, the campaign made a lukewarm attempt to distance itself from birtherism – while at the same time releasing Romney’s birth certificate. It was never made clear why, since no one had asked for it. So part two was to crack open the door.

Just 48 hours and five more coincidences later, it would become crystal clear. For the rest of the day, Trump made every cable appearance his people could book while the Romney Campaign pretended to wring their hands. Romney deplaned in front of Trumps gaudy brand while the campaign pretended it was “unfortunate.” Part 3 was to associate.

The next day, the three stooges of the Republican Party, Trump as Moe, Romney as Larry, and Newt Gingrich as Curly, held their much publicized dinner in Las Vegas. The event itself – it turns out – was low news and simply the pretext for all the rest.

Afterwards, when reporters asked Romney about Trump and birtherism, he mused, “I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.” Part 4 was to legitimize. Hey birthers, you’re good people and you’re welcome on the Romney team – just like Donald Trump!

Lastly, Newt Gingrich, still grinning like Curly, made the cable rounds to wink and talk about what a “good guy” Donald Trump is.

While the press opined that Romney had lost his message to Trump, Romney was able to double down on his Philadelphia dog-whistle and drive three days of birther meme. He had signaled birthers that they were welcome in his 50.1 percent tent. The whole thing had a Lee Atwater-evolved Southern Strategy feel to it, brilliant but sickening. And Romney enjoyed a noticeable bump in the daily tracking polls.

On the last day, Romney spoke what he claimed was a constituent quote,

“I’d like to have a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution, I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.”

Part 5 was a thinly veiled attempt to keep “birthplace” in the news. And with that, Romney’s whites-only strategy became impossible to explain away. He’d owned it.

No matter what contortions one uses to explain it, Birtherism is simply an election strategy used by one party to court voters of one race. Romney could win with a white’s-only and voter-suppression strategy, but this is probably the last election where that will be possible. Euro-white citizens do themselves (and their children) no service by using their declining majority to elect racial opportunists. The self-fulfilling tragedy of this kind of self-inflicted wound is boundless.

Why “Income Inequality” is a losing issue and how to fix it.

Posted on | May 31, 2012 | No Comments

With Occupy Wall Street sputtering during its spring reboot, it looks like the movement that dominated last year’s political discussion may not repeat. That’s not entirely unexpected. OWS promoted two concepts, one that resonated with Americans and one Supreme_Court usgphotothat didn’t.

The first was that governing for the “one percent” – coddling and pampering those moody rich folks – is contrary to American interests. “The 99 percent” resonated with Americans for its simple reasonableness and because two Bush terms of (take your pick) supply-side, trickle-down or tinkle-on economics had essentially destroyed our economy. It further fit because Wall Street got a bailout but “Main Street” didn’t. It drew bright lines.

The second concept, “Income Inequality,” generated considerable press but never really caught on. That’s no surprise either. It’s a statistical term that migrated to popular use. No one checked to see if people would actually hear what was being said. People didn’t, and the enemies of OWS were able to reposition the idea as socialist-style redistribution of wealth (which it wasn’t.)

Still, Americans aren’t really for income equality – never have been. Our entire viewpoint is based on the idea that anyone can be rich if he works extra hard. What Americans do believe in – almost universally – is equality of opportunity. Anyone can… is rooted in the idea that everyone could.

Unfortunately, Opportunity Equality is still entirely aspirational. A Princeton Research Study finds more than half of those under 30 believe they will be rich. By the time they reach 50, barely one in five still imagine it. Only a small few actually will. Reality intrudes.

And only a tiny slice of the poor will end up rich. Today crossing from poor to rich is virtually impossible. In recent years the very rich have doubled their share of the nation’s income but the number of rich people hasn’t increased markedly. The United States lags behind all leading European Union countries in the possibility of moving up.

So it is no accident that today’s corporate moguls attended Harvard or Yale, and it is no secret that it wasn’t hardship scholarships that paid the freight. Mark Zuckerberg grew up in the affluent exurb of White Plains New York. His parents were both doctors. That’s doesn’t undermine his substantial accomplishments, but it goes a long way toward explaining them. He didn’t have to worry about his future while he was busy creating it.

Similarly Bill Gates entered adulthood with a million dollar trust fund, compliments of his Grammy. His expensive prep school had computer access years before most high school students had even seen one. Again, his advantages didn’t make him successful, but they allowed him to devote 100% of his intellectual energy to getting there – without worry, doubt, fear, or responsibility.

Compare that to an imaginary guy named Ned. His family was lower middle class. His father worked, his mother worked part time. In today’s dollars, his family’s income was $45,000 – if his mom was working. His folks constantly worried about having some savings and keeping health insurance, often enough that he noticed. Dad was working toward a pension, back when those still existed. In the house on the right was a disabled vet, a nice man who didn’t work. On the left side, a father went to work at the plastic straw factory every day.

If you grow up in a wealthy family, you are virtually guaranteed to be able to go to college. You know well-off people. You won’t have to give up on your business idea because you need health insurance. You don’t have to work two jobs to pay your bills. And you are more likely to marry someone who is also expecting a significant family inheritance.

So how can we create greater Opportunity Equality? It is pretty simple actually:

  1. Make sure we can compete with entrepreneurs in European countries by decoupling health care from jobs and making it universal.
  2. Make community college free so that everyone gets the opportunity to qualify for merit scholarships even if they attended an awful high school.
  3. Establish entrepreneurship institutes in every high school. Give students access to mentors and backing to start a real microbusiness. Stop thinking of high school just as a place to train workers.
  4. Realign our economic policy and federal spending to revitalize manufacturing. Policy should actively discourage a dollar-store economy based on selling cheap stuff to poor people. We can’t compete with China on crap, but we can still compete with Germany in precision manufacturing.
  5. Realign our economic policy and spending to focus primarily on new energy. It’s time to graduate from fire, even if it is still cheaper. Non-combustion energy is the key product and they key to product-development in the next century.

Most Americans are unmoved by the idea that hard work should pay equally. But most of us believe that opportunity should be available to all. That’s an explanation that works.

How the Supreme Court ruined your child’s civics education

Posted on | May 25, 2012 | No Comments

Part one of our excerpts from the forthcoming book, The Rise of Stupidity – how dumb ideas are remaking America in their own image, argued Ronald Reagan’s seminal role in today’s broken politics. In part two we look at the Supreme Court decision that forever changed your child’s civics education.

In the 1980s the United States was in one of its periodic one-step-forward, two-steps-back conservative retrenchments. The battles for Civil Rights and the Vietnam War had dividedSupreme_Court usgphoto the country for two decades. By 1980 conflict-weary Americans were hungry for civil calm. Meanwhile, new President Ronald Reagan was claiming “a mandate to impose a voluntary return to traditional values.” He also called for a constitutional amendment that would require students to hear (arguably Christian) prayer in public schools. During that time much attention was also devoted to how to create greater order in the public school classroom.

It was in this context that a hoax about school discipline was making the rounds. The widely read (and reported) chain fax compared a list of trivial school discipline problems teachers named in the 1940s – like gum chewing, making noise and running in the hall – to a similar list from the 1980s that included rape, assault and robbery. Widely cited during the era by hundreds of newspapers, conservative columnist George Will and even some university presidents, the comparison turns out to have been entirely made up by a man named T. Cullen Davis. Davis was an anti-sex education, anti-evolution activist who had earlier been acquitted in killing his wife’s lover.

And so, while Reagan speeches harkened back to an uncomplicated past that never existed, and opinion leaders were relying on made-up facts, the United States Supreme Court agreed to take the case of BETHEL SCHOOL DISTRICT. NO. 403 v. FRASER. The case was brought by the father of Matthew N. Fraser, a student who had given a speech (that arguably contained sexual double-entendre) at a school assembly. This kind of small infraction probably didn’t warrant SCOTUS review.

It was a short. funny speech in the manner of adolescent humor. But in the context of the social era the court used it as an opportunity to define order in the classroom. In the ruling they held that school administrators could punish free speech they found to be “disruptive.”

Under the First Amendment, the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, but it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school.”

The original decision would have likely been consigned to the dustbin of obscurity except for one other sentence,

The inculcation of these values is truly the work of the school, and the determination of what manner of speech is inappropriate properly rests with the school board.”

School officials were now free to determine what constituted “disruptive” merely by labeling it so, whether or not any disruption had (or would) ever occur. No evidence was required. They were then free to punish the identified young citizen in any way they’d like – including expulsion – without judicial remedy. This in loco judicium approach, where some guy’s opinion is deemed legally sufficient, is rare in US law. (Notably, Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground Law relies on the same sort of logic.)

The decision was an invitation for a prude, zealot, or fanatic to impose his or her own social norms on an entire community of young people. School officials could outlaw anything that made them uncomfortable – and they did.

These excesses are familiar to many parents with school-age children. The orderly decisions many principals make: in dress code, speech prohibition, imposition of strict silence, or prohibiting musical expression, are sometimes rooted in their own visceral reactions rather than calculated assessments. Today’s principle can dispose of inconvenience or personal dislike merely by waving a hand and saying “It’s disruptive.”

On the near end of the spectrum are school rules that require students to conform to expression norms. At Lenoir City High School (in Tennessee) for example, atheist student Krystal Myers, editor of the school newspaper, was prevented from writing an editorial about the school’s policy of making students listen to prayer on the public address system. Constance McMillen was barred from her Itawamba High (Mississippi) Senior Prom for being gay. Transgender students are routinely barred from senior class pictures when they follow the other sex dress code. It’s disruptive to the yearbook, it seems.

Some prude-rules are less obvious, like gender-based seating charts and eccentric lunchroom rules. Or the one at Reservoir High School (Maryland) – a principal there decided that students could not stand up at games to cheer for their teams because it’s disruptive. Express your enthusiasm only while seated, young man.

Today our children spend a large share of their waking hours being taught that their civic responsibility is to behave as proscribed by the nearest authority figure. They spend half of their formative life in an environment where good order is more important than good sense.

You might think that this doesn’t really matter; that exposing school children to a public life without rights doesn’t affect their adult views. But a survey of nearly 110,000 high school students, teachers and administrators found that “Half believe the government can censor the Internet,” and “more than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

The surveyors blame a decline in civics education for the problem. But another plausible explanation is that the lack of experience of civic rights leads students to believe that these rights don’t really exist. After all, wasn’t student government originally envisioned as a way to prepare young citizens for adult civic life? The social and civics lessons we teach in school do have an impact.

The ignoble death of Arizona racist J.T. Ready

Posted on | May 18, 2012 | No Comments

In the past, I’ve offered Russell Pearce’s anti-Mexican jihad as an example of the kind of overt racism that is no longer tolerated in politics. Now just a few days later we learn that J.T. Ready, Arizona’s leading white supremacist, jt ready with creditappears to have killed himself. Along with, he allegedly murdered his girlfriend, her 2- year-old daughter, her adult daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend.

Ready was a protégé of Russell Pearce. Though Pearce has consistently claimed to have disavowed him in recent years, Ready called Pearce his “substitute father.” Last year, Pearce was recalled by his conservative Republican district for his stewardship of legislation that many have called racist (including SB1070, Arizona’s “papers-please” law.) Ready was prominent at pro-Pearce rallies leading up to the recall election.

Southern Poverty Law Center named J.T. Ready as one of the national leaders of America’s Neo-Nazi movement. He’s the founder of US Border Guard, an armed vigilante group that doesn’t actually patrol the border, but does sneak around (wearing camo and ghillie suits) in the Pinal County desert, some 140 miles to the north. He had recently threatened to run for sheriff of Pinal.

Ready was also the subject of speculation that he was involved in last month’s ambush killing of two illegal migrants. They were murdered in the Pinal County area where he was known to “patrol.”

J.T. Ready embodied the vile white-supremacist underbelly of Arizona’s anti-migrant movement, consistently promoting the notion of white supremacy and Neo-Nazi beliefs while pretending to stand for law and order. He was anti-Jew, anti-Latino, and pro-white – and he spoke adoringly about Adolf Hitler on at least one occasion.

He and his ilk are part of the same continuum of racial opportunists as some of Arizona’s top lawmakers, including Pearce, Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. All of them operate from the same playbook of imaginary threats:

“Sheriff Arpaio continues to crackdown on immigration and will not be deterred by activist groups and politicians for [sic] enforcing all immigration laws.”
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Press Release

“This is the minuteman project on steroids. We’ve got people with assault weapons. We will use lawful, deadly force when appropriate.”
J.T. Ready, reported by KOLD News 13 via Southern Poverty Law Center

“The simple truth is that the majority of human smuggling in our state is under the direction of the drug cartels, which are by definition smuggling drugs”
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer

“This is a white, European homeland. That’s how it should be preserved if we want to keep it clean, safe, and pure.”
J.T. Ready at a National Socialist Movement rally via Southern Poverty Law Center

Except for Ready, perhaps no one has been more of an opportunist on illegal migration than Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I believe SB 1070 was originally concocted not to reduce illegal intrusions but to give Arpaio legal cover from a mountain of civil rights lawsuits. At the time, Arpaio was threatening to challenge Jan Brewer for the nomination for Governor. When the law was passed, he changed his plans.

In 2010, the same year that Ready was promoting his vision of the white homeland, Arpaio was busy deputizing an “Illegal Immigration Posse,” ostensibly to round up illegal migrant workers, but maybe just to get some more publicity:

“Hollywood actors and real life law enforcement professionals Steven Seagal, Lou Ferrigno (The Hulk) and Peter Lupus (Mission Impossible) all signed on to work this detail. A retired Chicago police official aptly named Dick Tracy who now lives in Arizona has also joined this posse. And Wyatt Earp, a local resident whose uncle was the famous lawman, is joining the posse as well.”
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Press Release

Despite attempt these officials will make to distance themselves from J.T. Ready they still occupy the same side of the same street. Pearce, Brewer and Arpaio campaign by demonizing Mexicans. They invented an imaginary pestilence 180 miles to the south (the actual border) and invented phony crime statistics about it. Like J.T. Ready, they aggrandize themselves in white Arizona through the lies they tell about brown Arizona.

The takeaway, of course, is that there is not a lot of sunlight between the recognizable racism practiced by a J.T. Ready and the obscured racism of ethnicity-based lawmaking. Brewer, Arpaio and Pearce all dealt cards from the same deck as Ready. They just hid behind the Arizona flag while doing it.

Charting the rise of stupidity

Posted on | May 18, 2012 | No Comments

The following is excerpted from the forthcoming book, The Rise of Stupidity – how dumb ideas are remaking America in their own image.

The joke goes, “If Rick Perry wants Texas to secede, let’s pay him to go. If he takes Florida too, I’d give him a bonus.” It’s a commentary on how it seems that the dumbest ideas always begin in one or the other of these two states. You’d be surprised how often that’s true. Still, it would be hard to argue that foolish ideas all come from Texas or Florida. Today’s broken government, for example, grew from seeds planted in Washington DC some 35 years ago – during the Reagan Administration. President_Reagan_during_a_meeting_with_members_of_Congress_1983

It has taken that long for some utterly foolish ideas – supply side economics and “government is the problem” to name just two – to completely destroy America’s economy and largely decimate our world-leading position in invention, manufacturing, education and quality of life. In the better part of four decades, most of it under Republican presidents, we’ve also lost the cultural certainty that we can do big things and do them better than anyone else.

What’s left is a declining ability to compete in the world. Alone among our international competitors, our economic system is the one in which only those with no children or sick relatives (who need health insurance) can take entrepreneurial risks. Ours is the last first-tier economy to reward dirty energy and ignore its alternatives. Foreign students come here to get an education, but now they go home to use it. They used to want to stay.

To fill the gap, we have an entirely invented belief in something called “American Exceptionalism.” But that’s really just a flatulent way to try to salvage our dignity. The evidence is overwhelming that we are becoming more and more ordinary with each passing year. Peel away the jingoistic hyperbole and one is left with the realization that Russia is now our ride to the Space Station.

How do the roots of all these seemingly distinct problems weave together? Through Ronald Reagan it seems. Reagan’s embrace of “traditional values” as the solution to all problems led to the creation of a magical fairyland in American history when the country was supposedly greater than in the late 20th century. He said, ““There is a mandate to impose a voluntary return to traditional values.” (Think about that for a second, “a mandate to impose a voluntary…” Yes, it was Ronald Reagan speaking, not George W.)

A second seminal bit of fabric that holds all of this together was Reagan’s assertion that government is inherently bad. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem,” he famously said. So any solution that dismantles, destroys or damages the federal government must be a great idea, right?

The third layer of the fabric is the Republicans famous willingness to completely betray logic of character or consistency of principle when there is money to be made. Reagan didn’t invent this willingness, but he surely practiced it.

The final, very consequential element of the weave is what happens when one separates Reagan’s ideas from his considerable intellect. In the hands of someone of lesser brain power, say a John Boehner or a Paul Ryan, the result is a Pavlovian salivation, not a nuanced understanding: It is true because we repeat it because it is true because we repeat it.

The first casualty of Reagan-era ideas was the secular nature of our government. Next children lost their first amendment liberties. In this century, economic theories that promote coddling and favoring the rich (like supply-side economics, which was originally promoted – and later disavowed – by Reagan budget director David Stockman) ruined our economy and ran up our deficits. Now an intellectual moronocracy is poised to challenge the very notions that our nation was built on – partnership, cooperation and compromise. The US Senate, once called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” is today frozen in a custard of filibuster.

Even “Starve the Beast,” the conservative economic theory that is directly responsible for today’s massive deficits had its roots in the Reagan White House. ” The label, coined to describe a cut revenues and let the rest sort itself out approach was first attributed to an unnamed White House staffer by The Wall Street Journal. Reagan put it this way, “Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.

What Reagan didn’t anticipate and what George W. Bush was too simple to realize, is that people still expect a return on their investment in government no matter how little taxes they pay. This is especially true of the people who bought your presidency for you. Starve the Beast became Wimpynomics: I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today…

Now we are poised to watch the entire Republican Party double down on a legacy of cultural, social and governance failure, even though it has already wrecked our economy, poisoned our civic life, tried to exclude our fastest growing minorities and driven a massive political wedge between some Americans and other Americans. And because Republicans have been concurrently promoting dumbness, Americans as a whole may no longer be smart enough to stop it.

Next time: How one simple Supreme Court ruling forever changed what our children learn about free speech.

First published as Charting the Rise of Stupidity on Technorati.

Mitt Romney’s “bless his little heart” strategy in post-racist America

Posted on | May 3, 2012 | No Comments

romney davelawrence8 flickr commons cropNow that Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee, we’re starting to get indications of his general election strategy. Apart from trying to etch-a-sketch the radical-right positions he took in the primary, what is emerging is an election strategy based on two tactics: be vague and make liberal use of belittlement.

Be vague, is a publicly acknowledged plan for the campaign. Romney has said he believes he lost a 1994 Senate race and the 2008 nomination because he was too specific about what he’d do as president. In other words, when he said what he wanted to do, people wouldn’t vote for him. So he plans to talk a lot, but not say too much.

Unless you’re a potential donor, of course; in that case he wants you to know that he’d gut federal programs for low income housing and make the Department of Education’s only mission to oppose the right of teachers to organize in order to get better pay and working conditions. You can see his problem.

The second strategy, in essence, is to say bless his little heart; he’s a perfectly nice young man but he’s just not up to the job. I call it Southern-style snark. You can just imagine TV chef Paula Deen saying it as she throws another stick of heart disease into the roux.

So how will these two strategies work?

Certainly the platitudes-before-policies strategy has had longstanding success for Republicans, even before Reagan made high art of it. Republican voters practice what I like to call “faith-based politics.” They vote for people (like George W) who say the things they’d say. And they operate on a strict belief system. If something they believe in doesn’t work, it never crosses their mind that they are wrong. They just need to do it more, they think.

So for them, fist-pumping while yelling “America is best!” is enough. They’ll turn out for Mitt. Candidate Romney’s say-nothing strategy will get the votes of traditional Republicans and those “Independents” who always vote Republican. “We’re the greatest, thank God, and pass the ammunition!” is all they need.

But by itself, say-nothing won’t win a majority, much less an election. So Mr. Romney needs the second strategy. He needs to make Obama seem inept and foolish, despite the evidence otherwise. Ridicule is the most powerful force in politics. No one votes for the motley fool.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Michael Dukakis (who was killed by a funny hat) and Howard Dean (whose promising candidacy was killed by an enthusiastic scream.) Either would have been a good leader. But they were winning one day, dead the next.

The Republican Party has already been successful at holding down President Obama’s popularity by (arguably made up) ridicule about his popularity, his capability, his relatability and his experience. It works with anyone who is not listening too closely. That said, after years they haven’t managed to deliver anything close to a knockout.

Is Mitt Romney the guy to deliver a fatal blow? He has his own ridiculousness issues, of course. He’s the out-of-touch rich guy who likes to fire people. And Romney’s ridiculousness is entirely his own making. He calls Paul Ryan’s slash and burn budget “marvelous” a view probably shared only by Paul Ryan. Even before the primary, Mr. Romney was already famous for, as Michael Eric Dyson says, “blowing in the wind.”

Romney seems intent on making the case that rich people deserve to be honored, simply for being rich. This is the kind of talk you hear at country club cocktail parties, but it is usually privileged 20-something children doing the talking, not the grownups. Nonetheless, we’ll all be sure to admire Bernie Madoff, Muammar Gaddafi and Pablo Escobar, won’t we?

The other way that belittlement could backfire for Romney is if it is seen as racial. Certainly, any hopeful delusions of a post-racial America have been quashed of late. But just as certainly, we live in a post-racist America. The recall of Russell Pearce, architect of Arizona’s Paper’s Please Law and the national outcry over the killing of Trayvon Martin are clear evidence that a large majority of Americans – and most white people – simply won’t abide racism. Racism, when discovered, simply isn’t tolerated anymore.

If people come to believe Mitt Romney is calling President Obama “boy” his candidacy is over. It’s a fine line of perception that Mitt is probably not deft enough to avoid. Trying – or failing – may just neuter Romney’s attempt to ridicule – a tactic he desperately needs if he is to win without saying anything about what he plans to do.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Romney’s campaign was brought down not by any of his actual flaws, but by the views he made us guess about?

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