Conscience and Shame

Let me begin with the story of Thomas Becket (1118-1170). As Lord Chancellor of England, Becket increased the incomes of King Henry II by levying more taxes on landowners and churches. As a loyal friend of the King, Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The King wanted him to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon that would limit the independence of the clergy. Becket refused and the rift with the King began. Becket was murdered by royal agents in 1170. Three years later the Roman Catholic Church made him a Saint.

The conversion of Becket from a king’s lackey to an independent religious leader is worthy of note. In addition, Henry II later regretted the murder of Becket, a once loyal friend. The King repented publicly by allowing himself to be whipped by the bishops and monks who were present at his repentance.

You may attribute the conversions of these two men to an act of God. I would add that this is the work of our conscience which urges us to do the right thing as exemplified by Becket. When we fail our conscience, we are burdened by shame as shown by Henry II.

Besides humans, which species in the animal kingdom exhibit conscience and shame? I think probably only humans possess these two inborn traits that are closely linked. They are the exact opposites to our instincts for survival, self-preservation and greed. Conscience and shame are not taught. As we mature, we gradually acquire these two traits unless we are influenced by extreme ideology or living conditions.

Conscience and shame always reside at the back of our minds. However, we have the ability to ignore our conscience and cover our shame. Conscience should serve as our guiding light for doing the right thing, especially for those in high powerful positions. If we fail, we should feel ashamed and try to make up for the wrong deeds. We are endowed with these two valuable traits that will act as a restraint or balance on our actions in daily life.

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From Self to Selfless

The idea of self for a person first comes as an instinct. It is nature’s gift for self-protection and preservation. Immediately after birth, the baby cries to start the lungs breathing, and sucks milk from a nipple for food. Some time later, the baby will feel the warmth of the mother and other family members. During the early stage, the infant is totally helpless. Love and care are provided by the immediate family members. Self-protection involves the basic behaviors of eat, sleep, cry and smile.

In a few years, the child learns how to behave and what is right or wrong besides just “I, me, mine”. The idea of self begins to change depending on his/her upbringing and the values of the society. The child must pay attention to the responses of other people. A system of rewards and punishments is in order to encourage and restrain personal behaviors.

When the child reaches adulthood, the idea of self becomes even more complex. He/she is subject to the influence of customs, ideology and indoctrination. For instance, young people must pay deference to the elders in most cultures. In the military, soldiers cannot question the justice of a war. They must face death when being sent to the battlefield, regardless whether the fight is right or wrong. Furthermore, adults also develop their own conscience and free will. Their values are influenced by what they choose to see or hear or ignore. Their behaviors follow accordingly. Their actions are restrained or punished by the law, or by someones they depend on materially such as their bosses. Their love, conscience and responsibilities also play a part in modifying their behaviors.

There are adults who take the idea of self to the extremes. Some act out of utter selfishness without bothering about the harms done to others. Most adults behave responsibly. They certainly act for their own benefits but with the necessary restraints to avoid hurting or causing inconvenience to other people. They take care of their young and weak, and make routine sacrifices of their times and resources. There are adults who behave selflessly. We hear stories about soldiers sacrificing their lives to save their comrades; parents going through extreme hardships to take care of their children; and doctors and nurses working in war zones or dangerous disaster areas.

The concept of self changes as a person matures. We become selfish mostly due to material seductions because we always want to own more stuff and are afraid to lose our possessions. Only when we understand the ephemerality of material things will we become less selfish. The reward will be much bigger — We will be able to reach a higher degree of satisfaction and peace in life.

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Natural vs Human Laws

There exist two kinds of laws: the laws of nature and the laws of humans. The former have been operating since the beginning of time. They govern the functioning of all non-living things not only on Earth but in the entire universe. Examples are the gravitational forces between big objects, and the nuclear forces between sub-atomic particles. With regard to living things on Earth, natural laws also govern their functioning such as their inborn instincts for survival and their abilities to adapt to hostile and changing conditions despite the certainty of aging and death.

We can never know the origination of natural laws unless we believe in a creator expounded by a religion. If we cannot trace the originator by scientific means, can we say that the natural laws are just there due to random factors? No. Failing to identify the source does not mean that the laws just happen out of randomness. It means we just don’t know the origin. From what we have observed, we know that natural laws are powerful, consistent, predictable and unchangeable, which we won’t hesitate to take advantage when we discover how. Given these facts, how can they be random? Do you dare to take a chance jumping from a cliff when you are absolutely sure of your certain death caused by the gravitational force?

Besides being powerful, natural laws are mysterious, too. They enable the birth of all living things and their ability to adapt for survival, but at the same time, the inevitability of death through aging. The other mystery is that natural laws enable humans to evolve and develop in such an intelligent manner that a diversity of languages, arts, sciences, and civilizations flourish, which are absent from all other species in the animal kingdom. It makes me wonder why humans are so special.

A very important aspect often being ignored is that natural laws have created an intimate relationship between humans and their environments so that they are mutually dependent for survival. You can easily see this connection on the surfaces of Moon and Mars and probably on other planets, too. Why are there no living things? Because the environments are so extreme, particularly with the absence of water and oxygen.

Most laws made by humans are designed for the short-term purpose of preserving order, security and peace. They are often enacted to protect the interests of an influential group of people rather than promoting the long-term health of the environment, or providing justice to the poor and weak. In the name of job creation, human laws continue to favor environmental exploitation such as burning fossil fuels, cutting down rain forests, destroying natural habitats, and polluting fresh water supplies. This kind of environmental exploitation is equivalent to spending your savings without finding a way to replenish them.

With the great advances in technology, we have already arrived at the stage where we can challenge the natural laws. Examples are flying that overcomes gravity, the release of nuclear energy from the atom, and genetic engineering to alter the natural course of biological development. It is important to understand that humans cannot create things made by nature. They can only counter, disrupt or alter the natural course. Hopefully, they do it for their own good because technology can do both good and harm. However, we now have the capability to do irreparable damage to the environment that sustains us.

The most urgent remedy is the will to switch from fossil to renewable energy. Can we master the resources to make this big leap? Although having sustained humans since the beginning, nature seems to have been victimized by human progress. However, we must not forget that nature will eventually win. When nature wins after all the human exploitation is over, it will be a condition where all living things will be excluded, such as that on the surface of Moon and Mars.

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EU and Brexit

The European Union (EU) began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community consisting of 6 founding members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). It has grown to the present size of 28 countries with free trade, labor movement and a single currency in a market exceeding 500 million people. Its integration effort also extends to a wide range of other areas including immigration, trade and environmental policies. France and Germany are the two pillars without which the EU cannot survive. They are strangely the victor and vanquished respectively of World War II, and also are logically the two largest economies of continental Europe.

In 1963, Great Britain applied to join the EU (then known as the European Common Market). Its application was vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle. In hindsight, De Gaulle correctly thought that Britain could only stay as a half-hearted member due to its legacy of a great empire and its special relationships with its former colonies particularly the United State. After the passing of De Gaulle, Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973. More than four decades later in June 2016, Britain decided to leave the EU after a narrow referendum. The actual secession will take place in March 2019 whether or not a deal can be struck with the EU.

Brexit has made Britain a divided nation. More than four decades of EU membership makes it very difficult to disentangle all the laws already put in place, not to mention the economic lives of the citizens and corporations. There has been talk about a parliamentary or popular vote to reverse Brexit. Scotland has voiced its opposition to Brexit, which may lead to another Scottish referendum to leave the United Kingdom. The existing open border between the Irish Republic (EU member) and Northern Ireland (British territory) is another flashpoint due to its importance for keeping the peace in Northern Ireland. The Labor Party now in opposition is waiting to assume power if the divided Conservative Party fails to execute a satisfactory Brexit plan. All of the above represent major political risks, which pale in comparison to surrendering some political sovereignty to Brussels while being an EU member with veto power.

While Britain is divided, the EU countries are surprisingly united in their collective bargaining with Britain over the terms of Brexit. They insist on Britain paying its dues for membership in exchange for all the benefits of a common market in Europe. The EU countries understand that as long as France and Germany form a united front, they can afford to lose Britain with an economy ranking in size second only to Germany’s.

The adverse economic impacts of Brexit will be felt in Britain in the years to come. There have been reports about higher prices of foods and drugs, and also shortages to be expected. The impact on Britain’s large banking sector remains unknown. What will the British banks do about their existing connections with Europe? The Brexiters should think about the loss of EU economic subsidies flowing to their less-developed regions, which their own politicians have never made known to them.

If Britain leaves the EU, can it count on separate trade deals with the rest of the world? Yes if you are a pure optimist. Britain should not count on its special relationship with the United States that seldom brings economic benefits. Theresa May was among the first leaders to pay a visit to Donald Trump who was also for Brexit. What did she get in return? Where is the special trade deal she was hoping for? Bilateral trade deals take years to negotiate and require approval by the legislatures on both sides. Britain must shed all its current entanglements with EU laws and regulations before other non-EU countries want to start the negotiation.

Britain’s special relationship with America stems from the old military alliance during the First and Second World Wars, but things are different now during peace times. The special relationship now only involves voluntary frequent consultations between the top leaders of both countries that seldom result in bilateral trade deals or formal treaties except the sharing of sensitive information and less-than-total support for each other’s policies. Examples: America sided with Britain in the Falkland war in 1982 despite being a member of the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2003, Britain joined the US in the invasion of Iraq in a “coalition of the willing”. However, things may go the other way. During the Suez crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower refused to support Britain and France who joined Israel in the invasion of Egypt, the reason being that America could not facilitate any military design of empire expansion against a third country.

What about Britain’s special relationships with its other former colonies around the world? They were all packaged into the so-called British Commonwealth that has been nearly phased out after 1973 when Britain joined the European Common Market. What remains of the Commonwealth now covers the non-binding and mostly non-economic relations between Britain and its former colonies. The Commonwealth members range from the wealthy (Canada) to the poor (Bangladesh). They possess divergent national interests. By comparison, British national interest is much more convergent with those of the other EU countries.

The British special relationship with the United States is much weaker now except for the English language being shared. Interestingly, we Americans, isolated by two oceans, tend to think of the British as a people who speak with a strange accent and drive on the wrong side of the road. Despite the fact that American society is multi-ethnic, there is no such distinct minority as English or British Americans. On the other hand, it is easy to name several minorities such as Black, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Cuban, Latino, Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, who are increasingly able to articulate and influence US policies affecting their cultures and ancestral lands. Regardless of what the British think, the American public has good reasons to believe that Britain belongs to Europe and must work closely with its neighbors of the same league such as France and Germany. After WWII, Great Britain is no longer a superpower. It is no longer an “empire where the sun never sets”.

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Public Perception of Kavanaugh

In the Senate confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, politics cannot be avoided even for this supposedly non-political job of US Supreme Court Justice. The reason is that the candidate must be nominated by the President and the full Senate must vote to confirm him. All of them except the candidate have been elected by the people in a political competition. However, the political maneuvers and emotions for this confirmation are the worst in the public eye due to the present toxic partisan atmosphere, and the accusation of sex assault by Dr. Christine Ford and two other women. Since a Supreme Court Justice serves for life, consideration for the job must cover the nominee’s character, temperament and ideological orientation besides mere career achievements in the legal profession. Any extraordinary bad behaviors in the past should be brought to light.

The key political calculus is that the Republicans in the Senate has a slim majority of 51-49. They cannot afford 2 no votes among themselves in the final confirmation step. Right now, 3 Republican Senators are sitting on the fence: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake who does not plan to seek reelection this year. As a consequence, the Republicans try their best to rush through the hearing process and the Democrats try their best to stall it as the 11/6 mid-term election draws near. This is fair game, and the two parties attacking each other’s political maneuvers is fair game, too.

The Senate hearing is not a criminal trial, but an effort to consider the nominee’s professional works, ideological thinking and personal character because it is a very important lifetime employment. You may correctly say that it’s an inquiry by two political parties. In laymen’s term, it’s a job interview for the Senate Judiciary Committee to decide. Therefore, anything relating to important matters should be considered, including the accusation of sexual assault, which may be serious enough to disqualify the nominee.

A sexual assault that occurred decades ago is no reason for ignoring it. The victims seldom report sexual assaults due to being overwhelmed by shock, fear and shame, plus all the obstacles regarding proof of credibility. It’s hell to go through the trauma multiple times if being investigated. The victims have little to gain but everything to lose if they report to authorities. This is not a problem for women only. Have you heard about men who were molested by priests when they were teenagers decades ago? This does not mean that all the accusers are credible, but we should listen with sympathy and then pass judgment.

A sexual assault case like Cavanaugh’s being heard in the Senate requires no proof, which is for the FBI to substantiate later. However, the accuser bears the burden to demonstrate truthfulness and credibility. The accused is expected to deny and point to any inconsistency in the assault story. The key is less about what but more about how the stories are presented. Dr. Ford has achieved credibility in the public eye by telling her story in a genuine manner, answering questions, and admitting that her memory fails to provide some specific details into which she welcomes an FBI investigation.

On the other hand, Kavanaugh’s defense story was delivered in an aggressive manner full of anger, defiance, disrespect and evasiveness, punctuated by tears all of which gave a negative public impression as seen below:
* Tears show that he was “weak” as Donald Trump describes those people he dislikes.
* He was angry because the sex assault story had “destroyed” his family and reputation. Had the same not happened to Dr. Ford, too? How should she handle it?
* He was also angry because the Democrats played the political game of delay. Had the Republicans not played the political game of rushing through the confirmation process?
* He produced evidence that he was a good boy: study hard, graduate from an elite school, go to church, play sports, love his family, keep a diary, etc. Is this what everyone of us tries to do? This does not prevent a person from succumbing to certain evil desires. Trying to be a good boy does not prove that he is innocent, same as Dr. Ford who cannot prove that her story is real, but only credible. That is why an FBI probe is in order.
* He showed disrespect for the Democratic Senators by not answering and evading their questions. Worse, he even tried to throw the questions back at them about drinking beer. If a candidate tries to do this in a job interview, he will be disqualified right away.
* If he has nothing to hide, he should welcome an FBI investigation into Dr. Ford’s story. Instead, he played the same political game by launching an attack on the Democrats. That’s hypocrisy!

As if to add gasoline to fire, some Republican Senators especially Lindsey Graham lashed out at his Democratic opponents for creating a circus out of the confirmation hearing. This shows that they are just a bunch of old “angry white men” who think that they are entitled to their old-time privileges without any challenge. The old “angry white men” cannot accept that America is fast changing while they are dying out. One of the most important changes is that women have gained more power professionally and politically. Being unsympathetic to women issues carries grave political risks because women represent more than half of the voting population.

To repeat, the confirmation hearing is not a criminal trial requiring proof of guilt. It is obviously a political maneuver because the candidate is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senators who are politically elected. This is a job interview that is essentially a public relations work requiring good optics and presentation that convey truth, genuineness, credibility and personal integrity. Brett Kavanaugh has failed in many respects in the public eye. He could still be confirmed because the Republicans hold a slim majority in the US Senate even after an FBI investigation. To what degree has this confirmation process angered reasonable people, especially women all across America? Only time will tell. It won’t take long for the mid-term election is coming up on November 6th.

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The American Electoral System

A democratic system does not simply mean voting by the people. The devil lies in how it is administered and executed. If being corruptly manipulated, the system may elect an evil person against the will of the people. Since no system is perfect and foolproof, a democracy must be carefully maintained to ensure fairness and the public good. It must also be simple enough so that all citizens are encouraged to come out and vote.

In a large continental country like the United States, the nationwide popular vote does not matter although the vote count is published. What matters is the electoral vote (also known as electoral college) as defined by the US Constitution. Each state takes full responsibility for its own elections from city to national level. The state divides its own territory into a number of congressional (or electoral) districts according to the population count taken by the US Census every 10 years. For instance, California, the most populous state, has 53 congressional districts (versus Texas 36 and New York 27). That means California sends 53 Representatives to the US House of Representatives, Texas 36 and New York 27. Each Representative is elected by the people living in his/her own congressional district. So each state has a diverse representation to the US House with respect to their different economic and other interests. Consequently, US national policy is theoretically driven by competing interests from all the 435 Representatives of the states of the federal Union, which are in turn driven by the voters living in all the local congressional districts. However, in practice it does not work that way. History has shown that some Representatives have become very powerful and carry bigger sways in federal decision making due to their personality or manipulating skills. There also exist other important factors as described below.

Besides the House of Representatives, there also exists the US Senate where all federal legislation must be passed before becoming effective. As defined by the US Constitution, each state elects two Senators to the US Senate regardless of its size. Thus the state of Wyoming with the smallest population of 0.56 million elects 2 US Senators, so does California with a population of 39.54 million. Consequently in the US Senate, California, despite being the most populous state, carries the least weight relative to all the other states. History has also shown that some Senators from smaller states have exerted a disproportional amount of influence on national policies. You may think that this is unfair but that reflects the nature of the American democracy where each state voluntarily joined the Union at different times in history by negotiation, not by coercion. The Senate system is one way of ensuring that the voices of the smaller states are not being drowned out by the bigger ones.

What about election of the President? The US Constitution stipulates that each state takes full responsibility of the election. The people living in each congressional district elect one presidential candidate in early November of an election year. The US Representative of that district is obliged (not bound by law though) to cast one electoral vote for that elected candidate in mid December of that year for the purpose of confirming the result of the election. In effect, there is no direct popular vote in the United States. The people vote for the elector who is the US Representatives of each district who will in turn cast one electoral vote for the people. The total electoral votes amount to 538 and it requires 270 votes to win the presidency. Each state is given a number of electoral votes equal to the number of Representatives plus 2 Senators. Thus California has 55 electoral votes, Texas 38 and New York 29. Think about this scenario: If an elector casts one vote for the other presidential candidate by ignoring the will of his constituents, it may flip the result if the election is a very close one.

Another major concern with the electoral college is the winner-take-all state rule for presidential election that is not stipulated in the US Constitution. Take California for instance, if 28 electors vote for a presidential candidate (the smallest majority), that person will get all the 55 votes allocated to California. Despite its unfairness on the surface, this winner-take-all rule apply to all 50 states except Maine and Nebraska.

A third major concern is voter suppression. The black votes have traditionally been suppressed in the Southern States although the Voting Rights Acts enacted in 1964 have reduced the problem. Fewer people coming out to vote usually benefits the Republican Party. That is why this party complains loudest about voter frauds which are more invented than real. The excuse of voter frauds makes stringent voting requirements necessary so that lower-income blacks and minorities tend to stay at home due to all the voting hassles targeted at them.

We all know that money corrupts every man-made system. American democracy is no exception because people are subject to material seduction. The evil of money politics has been around for a long time. Efforts to reform the American election system date back to almost the beginning of the nation but to no avail. Two factors have made it very hard to achieve reform. First, it takes millions of dollars to run a political campaign to drive an issue or to elect a politician. It is much easier to ask a few rich people or corporations for donation money than to raise millions of dollars from thousands of ordinary citizens. Besides, rich people or corporations will gladly come to the politicians to offer campaign money (legally known as political lobbying) because they want to promote their own self-interests rather than the public good. Bribing the politicians with money disguised as campaign contributions is considered legally acceptable in America.

So we see a democracy is messy and ugly and must be carefully and fairly maintained. Nevertheless, it is still better than an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime where money and power are allowed to corrupt the system openly without any restraint.

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Racism in America

Racism arises from collective hate which resides on the dark side of the human character. Racism exists in human societies since the beginning of time, only in different forms and degrees. Some of the most infamous cases in modern history are: the Holocaust in Europe, black slavery in the American South followed by racial segregation and discrimination, Apartheid in South Africa, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and most recently, the Rohingya exodus in Myanmar.

It is natural that we tend to associate with people who speak the same language, practice the same customs and follow the same interest. However, it is hard to fathom why we can go so extreme to hate an entire group of people most of whom are innocent and non-threatening. Racism is like a fire that can be created from something emotional, and whipped up by a demagogue using inflammatory language. The people who are racists and hateful usually belong to a small minority who can be subdued by the majority. However, if this minority manages to incite hate by tapping into the fears of the general public, racial violence may break out into the open. The most common trick being employed is scapegoating a target group of people for all the ills of society, and manufacturing and amplifying the threats that the target group poses to the society. In short, make the target group an enemy of the people.

Since America is an immigrant nation known as a “melting pot”, we can understand more about racism by examining its history. Three characteristics stand out: First, racism is not just about the color of the skin. It also involves ethnicity, religious practice, and other differences in lifestyle between different groups of people. In the earlier days, the Irish and Italians were discriminated against by the other Europeans mostly because they were Catholics and poorer. An Irish friend told me that it was hard for his father to find a job when they first arrived in America because NINA (No Irish Need Apply) was posted at many places of work.

Second, the perpetrators and targets of racism are constantly shifting depending on economic and other circumstances. The blacks in America have suffered the longest period of racism up to the present time. They did not choose to come to America in the first place. The early European settlers kidnapped millions of them from Africa and brought them over to be sold as slaves in the plantations of the South. Their black skin made them the easiest target of racism by all whites who could temporarily forget about their own racism toward each other. Thus the Southern States became an economic zone of white cotton producers employing black slave labor transplanted from Africa. The whites had found a unifying force to benefit collectively from slave labor, thus turning racism into an economic system of racial exploitation.

Third, although immoral and grossly unfair, racism is supported by the governments of the Southern States and tolerated by the US Constitution despite the sacred American Declaration of Independence stipulated that “All men are created equal”. It took a great president in Abraham Lincoln to challenge the immorality of slavery after so many decades. The Southern States saw this as a threat to their way of life and declared their secession from the Union. The American civil war erupted in 1861. Four years later in 1865, the agricultural South was defeated by the industrial North and slavery was finally abolished. Nevertheless, a period of racial segregation and discrimination continued in the South where “Whites Only” signs appeared in many public places including washrooms and water fountains. It took another president (this time from the southern state of Texas), Lyndon Johnson, to ban racial discrimination through the Civil Rights Act enacted in 1964. Even nowadays, a subtle form of racism continues as seen in the economic deprivation of black citizens, their mass incarceration, and the suppression of black votes by the Republican Party.

In America, we can see that an excuse can easily be found and politicized to scapegoat a particular group of people. To cite two examples: First, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (later repealed in 1943) was enacted when the California Gold Rush began to run out of gold and the American economy was suffering from stagnant wages. Second, the plain language of “Drug dealers, criminals and rapists” was used by Donald Trump against Mexicans to drum up political support. Trump’s inflammatory language also emboldened the white supremacists, who demonstrated and chanted “Blood and Soil” in Virginia. Fortunately, we have a free press which does not hesitate to report and criticize, which caused Trump to call them “enemy of the people”. Let the conversation begin even if people feel uncomfortable about it, because the truth will come out as a result. Racism is based on hate and manufactured untruth which cannot win if the majority insists on getting the evidence and refuse to be conned by fear.

Many people do not recognize the huge costs involved in subjugating a large racial group. In the American Civil War, the whites killed each other over the economic benefits of black slavery (more than 600,000 dead). Why were the Southern States a poorer agricultural country compared with the industrial North? They had benefited economically from slavery and racial discrimination for a long time but they failed to figure out the costs involved in maintaining an immoral and unfair system through legal and violent means. When subjugating a large racial group, they had also suppressed their talents, thus increasing the burdens on their own society. It is obvious that the cost of hate surpasses that of tolerance and inclusion. Has the South done better after the abolishment of slavery and public racial discrimination? Most Southerners will agree because their economy has now developed into auto manufacturing, energy, high tech and space exploration rather than relying on slave labor for cotton harvest. The benefits of tolerance and inclusion are easily demonstrated by Silicon Valley in California, where talented people of different races and backgrounds are working together to develop the technology of the future. Many Americans may feel uneasy about the idea of a melting pot. Old traditions always die hard. All it takes is a little patience and tolerance to build a more perfect Union for tomorrow.

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