THE 1619 CONNECTION: We'd describe this as embarrassing work!


Babes in arms enter the schools: As with the show the kids put on in the Mickey-and-Judy film, Babes in Arms, the New York Times' 1619 Project came together amazingly fast.

The speed is especially striking given the sweep of the project. Somehow, a bunch of journalists got it into their heads that this ambition made sense:

The 1619 Project 

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

Finally! Finally, someone was going to tell our [nation's] story truthfully!

No one  had ever done it before. It would now be done by these kids!

When the truthful story emerged, their work was perhaps underwhelming. There was little new about the story, which had been told many times before.

Everyone already knew the story. Needless to say, though, the kids went on to win a Pulitzer prize.

The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones is a good, decent person. In the project's introductory essay, she told the story of her father, and of her father's mother.

Her father's mother came from what was truly our "greatest generation." By the time this generation had completed its endless sacrifices, a new generation had emerged which was perhaps just a bit hubristic.

In fairness, we humans are all inclined to be that way as soon as we get the chance.

A few years before, Hannah-Jones' long report for ProPublica was full of information about Tuscaloosa's public schools. That wealth of information had been the fruit of deep reporting. 

Now, she described a familiar (brutal) history, giving it a bit of a "TV miniseries" feel. Especially given the importance of its subject matter, the project had come together amazingly fast—and, according to Bret Stephens' recent account, it even included this:

STEPHENS (10/11/20): About a month before the project’s publication, [editor Jake] Silverstein reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 curriculum for schools. Soon thereafter, the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.

We can't vouch for the perfect accuracy of that chronology. At the same time, we know of no reason to doubt it.

That chronology comes from a recent column in which Stephens made some sensible points about the 1619 Project, while also wandering afield at times. For one thing, Stephens engaged in a pointless dispute about when the nation's "true" founding occurred. 

If our nation had public logicians, they would have rushed to tell us that semantic disputes of this type serve no useful purpose—that there are many important dates in this nation's variegated history, and that 1619 and 1776 are two such important dates.

Our nation's culture and essence arise from various points of departure. Aside from satisfying the age-old desire for war, there's nothing to gain from arguing about when the "true" or "real" foundational moment occurred.

In our view, Stephens made that timeless mistake, but he also made some perfectly decent points about the project. Along the way, he produced that chronology, describing the astonishing speed with which this underwhelming project had been introduced into the nation's schools.

According to Stephens, the Times reached out to the Pulitzer Center in July 2019. "Soon thereafter," a curriculum was being introduced into classrooms. Not long after that, the Pulitzer board gave the Times its latest prize.

At Education Week, a young journalist named Madeline Will reported on this part of the  project. 

Will was five years out of college; in 2014, she'd graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science. In familiar fashion, Education Week was describing her as an (unspecified) "expert."  So too with everyone else on its staff.

What was this young reporter an expert in? Education Week didn't say. But after a somewhat jumbled start to her report, Will described a thoroughly sensible point of concern:

WILL (8/19/19): To bring this groundbreaking project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. The curriculum asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory. 

A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there's no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools—and lessons often miss crucial components to understanding this fundamental American topic. It's taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out. And just over half of the teachers surveyed said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery.

Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty. (There are also teachers who do slavery simulations, like a mock slave auction or a game about the Underground Railroad, to try to convey the brutality—but experts and educators say that these simulations can minimize horrific events and cause emotional trauma to black students.)

Did a lot of teachers voice such concerns?  If so, we'd have to say that their concerns were valid.

Our nation's brutal racial history takes us deep into the ugly realm of "the world the slaveholders made." We enter very delicate territory when we "teach" children about such topics. This is especially true when we're working with the youngest children in the earliest grades.

Long ago and far away, we talked about "race" with the good, decent kids in our fifth grade classes. We discussed the life of Frederick Douglass, our fellow Baltimorean. (Also, our fellow American and our fellow person.)

One year, we discussed the nightly airings of a new miniseries—Roots.

In 1851, Douglass published the first of his several autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In the book's opening chapters, Douglass described his early years on Maryland's "Eastern Shore."

In those first few chapters, Douglass describes behaviors of astounding cruelty—behaviors he was forced to observe as a child.  These behaviors occurred not long ago, right here in this very state.

Because those kids were in fifth grade, the books they read about Frederick Douglass didn't go into such vicious detail. Still, those children were puzzled by an obvious question. They wanted to know, and they asked:

      How could people ever have treated other people that way?

We told them we'd tell them what we thought, but that it was just our own opinion. We told them that they would decide what they thought about all such questions as they grew up. 

We told them they should always talk to their parents or their guardians about such matters first. We told them that we would tell them what we thought, but that we were just their teacher, while their parents and guardians were the people who, for them, came first.

Teachers who voiced those concerns to Madeline Will may have known whereof they spoke. Our racial history is astonishingly brutal and ugly. 

Meanwhile, the conceptual frameworks the slaveholders made stay with us to this day. This includes the conceptual framework according to which everyone has a "race."

Public schools should be very careful in the ways they approach such matters. They're dealing with the most painful topics we have, and with children's tender minds. 

Public schools should be careful. But straight ahead rushed the Pulitzer Center, before giving the Times its top prize.

Question: How much does the Pulitzer Center know about public school education? It wouldn't be easy for anyone to create curriculum in such a difficult area, but why should the Pulitzer Center be the agency rushing ahead on this project?

In our view, the (extremely limited) curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center is a sad, familiar embarrassment. 

We're especially struck by the foolish way the Center says that some of its materials are suitable for "All Grades." On a much smaller scale, we're struck by the way the Center seems to have had a young person who was one year out of college authoring this part of its curriculum.

The kids had decided to put on a show; they'd rushed ahead with their staging. They dragged the Pulitzer Center in. Later, they won its top prize.

Way back when, Maureen Dowd also won a Pulitzer prize. She won the prize in April 2000. Seven months later, on the Sunday before our presidential election, she started her column like this, headline included:

DOWD (11/6/00): I Feel Pretty

I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy . . .

O.K., enough gloating. Behave, Albert. Just look in the mirror now and put on your serious I only-care-about-the-issues face.

If I rub in a tad more of this mahogany-colored industrial mousse, the Spot will disappear under my Reagan pompadour...

If memory serves, this was the seventh column in which Dowd featured Candidate Gore speaking to his bald spot.  In this column, he was singing about how pretty he felt. 

This extended a mainstream press corps theme in which Candidate Gore had been cast as "today's man-woman" (Chris Matthews). Our liberal elites sat and stared as their award-winning colleagues played these pitiful, braindead games over the course of two years.

Twenty years later, the New York Times won another Pulitzer. We think its rushed, D-minus curriculum helps drive home a pair of  points we've persistently made:

No one cares about black kids. Also, our self-branded modern elites just aren't super-sharp.


  1. Let's start reforming the press, by having them point out the obvious bigotry of the Right-wing, and not have them recoil when the liars push back on the reporting.



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  2. Is this the same Somerby who didn't want the press to point out that Trump voters are bigots, because telling the truth about Trump voters doesn't help Democrats get elected?

  3. "the New York Times' 1619 Project came together amazingly fast."

    The project was commemorating a date that is fixed in time. If they were going to do it at all, they needed to do it by the 400th anniversary. Of course it came together fast. Because this is a topic that is the main work interest of many of the contributors, it isn't as if they only started thinking and writing about it right before the publication date. Somerby implies that the project was thrown together and thus incompetent, when that is far from the truth.

    It is as if Somerby were saying that Judy and Mickey only learned to dance in the days before their show.

    When someone engages in empty criticism like this, it signals an underlying motive to disparage, not a truth-seeking desire to correct the record. Somerby dislikes this project for what it is, not for anything mistaken it says.

  4. "Everyone already knew the story. Needless to say, though, the kids went on to win a Pulitzer prize."

    When Somerby uses the word "everyone," he cannot mean literally everyone, since 25% of our nation is estimated to be functionally illiterate. You would not encounter this information except at the college level and the majority of people still do not graduate from college. Maybe Somerby means every academic knows about this, but that isn't what he says. Most voters don't know it, since at least 40% of them are Trump-supporting bigots who don't know the basic facts of racial literacy. And if our population doesn't know about the history of this large minority and its role in our nation's founding, how can we move toward mutual understanding and greater racial harmony?

    Somerby is being an ass. This 1619 Project is a public service that goes above and beyond expectations for a newspaper. And no, everyone didn't already know what it said. Just as many people don't know that Puerto Ricans are US Citizens and that Mexican immigration has been declining for years. I'd like to see a similar project about other minority groups in the US. Somerby doesn't even know that women are underpaid relative to men in the workplace. He may not be the best person to tell us what "everyone" knows.

    1. It’s hard to see how a blogger who mocks the press for supposedly saying “The American people are really sharp”, when he is at pains to show how irrational and stupid they are, can then turn around and say “everyone knows” something like this.

  5. “the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.”

    The passive voice is a tell. One is led to ask: “Who is introducing the project into classrooms across the country?”

    To hear Stephens put it this way, it makes the reader think it’s being pushed into classrooms by the Pulitzer Center or the NYT or some other nefarious meddling outsider.

    But according to the story in Education Week, which takes a balanced view of the 1619 project:

    “On Twitter, many educators said they were eager to bring the conversations inspired by the 1619 Project into their classroom:”

    So, while it also says “many teachers were concerned”, many were eager and “there's an incredible amount of interest in the project.”

    Apparently, there are many teachers who think that the project is important and that they can find a way to teach it that doesn’t automatically traumatize their kids.

    Unlike Somerby, apparently.

  6. "When the truthful story emerged, their work was perhaps underwhelming. There was little new about the story, which had been told many times before."

    There is no need to hold Thanksgiving pageants because everyone knows about the pilgrims and the Indians, so why repeat that every year? There is no need to have a nativity scene and do nativity plays at Christmas either. Everyone has heard that old story already. And why create memorials of any kind when everyone has heard about WWII and WWI, in fact why have a WWI museum in Kansas City? Who needs any of that stuff when EVERYONE has already heard about all of it?

    Somerby entirely misses the point that this anniversary is important to African Americans and should be important to all of us, if we care about black people. Somerby, however, only wants to care about those beautiful black kids, who he is convinced no one else cares about. What an asshole Somerby is, and he isn't fooling anyone with this attempt to erase black history by insisting that it has already been heard, so sit down and shut up about it.

  7. Newspapers have been providing materials for use in schools since the 1950s.

  8. Typical conservative response:

    Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, wants to ban the 1619 project from classrooms.

    Somerby has called it “dreck.”

    Does he stand with Cotton?

  9. "Our nation's brutal racial history takes us deep into the ugly realm of "the world the slaveholders made." We enter very delicate territory when we "teach" children about such topics. This is especially true when we're working with the youngest children in the earliest grades."

    Many of us have memories of shocking moments when we learned horrific things in school. I had nightmares because of the warnings we got about crossing streets safely. But then, I grew up with air raid warnings and drop drills.

    My school taught about war but also about the horrors of war. We read "The Red Badge of Courage" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." But nearly as distressing was "Follow My Leader," a children's book about a child blinded while playing with fireworks. I was upset when Beth died in "Little Women" because it shocked me that children can die of illnesses. And of course, children are routinely shocked to learn that their parents have lied to them about Santa and the Easter Bunny, and where babies come from.

    You don't deal with childhood distress by avoiding unpleasant topics but by helping children work through their fears and concerns. Disappearing the history of black people because it may be embarrassing or upsetting isn't the way any similarly distressing topic is handled in schools. Why should this be different? The answer has to do with racism and our queasiness about discussing race, especially across racial groups, but that needs to start and is the point of this project. If children can discuss race in school maybe they will continue doing it as adults.

    1. I suppose Somerby's Catholic school classes never discussed the horrors of hell that were used by the nuns to terrify children into good behavior?

    2. What is so difficult about unambiguously telling children (white and black) that slavery was bad and that's why it was abolished?

      When I was a child, I was shocked by lynchings and Jim Crow, but I was even more shocked in college to find out that it was still happening in the South in the late 50s and early 60s.

      Being from California, I was shocked to learn that Mexicans who had lived on their ranches and farms for generations were lynched by Americans moving into their territory in the 1800s. I was shocked to learn about the treatment of Japanese people who had lived in the US for generations, their removal to places like Manzanar, but more shocked to hear that their property was confiscated and that they received no payment for it. It was pure theft.

      We have a brutal history of bad behavior toward many people. Children will be shocked by the fact of child labor, and the fact that animals received protection under law years before children did. Coming of age is about dealing with many kinds of shocking new knowledge. Glossing over such knowledge makes the shock greater when children learn the truth.

    3. In my 7th grade gifted and talented class, in the deep south, we were taught that communism was bad by showing a terrifying film on how they neglected the elderly, in opposition to how the US treated the elderly by security! The irony.

      Couple grades later we had to read The Lottery and watch the film, a sick and demented story with anti-democratic themes.

      Instead of capitalism propaganda through fear-mongering, I would have preferred to have been taught the realities of slavery.

  10. “We told them they should always talk to their parents or their guardians about such matters first. We told them that we would tell them what we thought, but that we were just their teacher, while their parents and guardians were the people who, for them, came first.”

    But is this the best way to develop critical thinking skills in children? Telling them to always defer to their parents?

    I understand the balancing act that public school teachers have to perform. But too often, parents don’t want their kids educated, but rather indoctrinated. That is why they put their kids in private or religious schools.

    The increased Naep math and reading scores notwithstanding, one wonders about the critical thinking skills of students these days. Doesn’t that echo what Somerby says about how Americans really aren’t that sharp, or rational?

  11. "we're struck by the way the Center seems to have had a young person who was one year out of college authoring this part of its curriculum."

    The young people who are coming out of college and hired to write curriculum are likely to have degrees in education and to have taken courses in "curriculum development" and "developmental psychology". They will know a lot more than Somerby did when he was hired to teach right out of college, with no education courses, no classroom experience, no psychology courses (based on his lack of knowledge about mind and behavior), and nothing to prepare him beyond a summer seminar put on by "Teach for America," an organization that believed that teacher education was bad because it taught new teachers to use tired old methods that made classrooms drudgery and a boring hellhole for kids. In today's education degree programs, students get supervised classroom teaching experience as part of their courses.

    Now Somerby wants to claim that (1) someone he doesn't know probably has no training to do a job she was hired for by the Pulitzer organization, and (2) classroom experience and teacher education are suddenly much more important than they were for him in his own career. You can suggest that Somerby has learned the importance of such things, but he has recently been admiring his old favorites by Holt and Kozol, books that disparage traditional teaching methods.

    So, it is OK for Somerby to teach black kids without any experience or training, but not OK for the Pulitzer woman to write a curriculum based on the 1619 Project with whatever background she has (which may be considerably more than Somerby's -- he doesn't say what her training is beyond a degree, which makes her at least his equal).

    But we understand that Somerby's main concern seems to be to suppress the exposure to the 1619 Project, not to protect young minds from too much knowledge about history. Heaven forbid they find out that slavery is wrong and that African Americans have, as a group, been mistreated until the recent past. Someone might wonder whether they are still being mistreated and then things might have to change.

  12. "If our nation had public logicians, they would have rushed to tell us that semantic disputes of this type serve no useful purpose—that there are many important dates in this nation's variegated history, and that 1619 and 1776 are two such important dates."

    This reminds me of Somerby's response to the Juneteenth episode, how he insisted that no one knew about Juneteenth until Watchmen portrayed the Tulsa Massacre. Today he argues that 1619 is unimportant because "everyone" already knows about it, and that it should be just another day among other important dates, despite having special significance to African Americans because it was the beginning of the slave trade in the US that brought many black people to this country.

    When I started meeting Mexican American people in Los Angeles, they told me that it was odd that Americans wanted to celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a Mexican holiday when September 16 was much more important to them.

    The importance of a date should be determined by the members of the minority group to whom it is important, not by the larger majority. If you want to respect people, you find out which dates they consider special, and do not impose your own ideas about their subculture on them.

    Somerby seems to think that if we recognize 1619 as an important date, then we cannot also recognize 1776 for the things that occurred then. But why would he expect former slaves to prefer to celebrate a date that enslaved them by edict over dates when they were freed, for example? And why does Somerby think that white people should choose which dates are important for black people? That makes no sense and might be something for his public logician to think about.

  13. Somerby keeps referring to kids, babe-in-arms, and young persons, not when talking about children, but when discussing people in their 20s-30s, and even Hannah-Jones who is 44. I believe this is another way he disparages them, but it is really a drawback to be younger? All of these younger adults will have had more recent experience and training than Somerby, and that tends to be better by virtue of what has been learned over time and improvements in methods. Paradoxically, grad students often know more in their fields than distinguished older faculty. So it is wrong to consider youth a liability, as Somerby does almost daily.

  14. Lincoln freed the slaves. And everybody lived happily ever after.
    Shorter Bob.

  15. The original live show of "Babes in Arms" had a racial subtheme. The group of youngsters who put on a show to raise money included a black person. There was pressure to leave the black person out, but the group resisted the pressure.

    1. Those damn Hollywood liberals.

    2. David said "original live show," which occurred on Broadway, so it is those damn New York liberals.

    3. In 1937, the lefties hadn't yet been weeded out of the entertainment business by McCarthyism.

  16. "Meanwhile, the conceptual frameworks the slaveholders made stay with us to this day. This includes the conceptual framework according to which everyone has a "race."

    A conceptual framework does justify racism and the mistreatment of fellow human beings. Unfortunately, it isn't the classification of people by race that is bad. It is the designation of one race as innately inferior, unworthy of equal treatment, and therefore subject to exploitation that is bad. It is the dehumanization on the basis of race that is bad. Not race itself.

    As Somerby should know, the designation of race wasn't even defined the same way in the past as it is now. Race designated what we now call ethnicities or nationalities. Italians and Irish were considered distinct races as recently as the mid-1900s. Saying, as Somerby does, that classification by race is wrong, ignores that there are differences among people that are important. Women are different than men. Young and old people are different. People of different races do tend to be different to the extent that they are members of and identify with distinct subcultures based on race. Ignoring that is ridiculous because those differences are important to people themselves, not just to others.

    But it is a problem when one group denigrates another, defines it as socially inferior, classifies it as subhuman, treats it differently under law, based on group membership. Even children can understand what it means to treat someone as less than human. But adults have always been squeamish about telling children that they have human rights, since they too are a dehumanized group in our society (fortunately also protected by law).

    If Somerby were to get his wish and all concepts of race disappeared, you still would have people mistreating other people based on skin color or ethnic origins or gender, because the mistreatment wouldn't have gone away, and it is the problem, not the designation of race.

    It is no accident that white supremacists are also misogynists. These are men who have the need to mistreat other people and have invented a mythology to justify doing so. There is a mythology around race that justifies exploitation of others. That needs to be attacked, not the simple concept of race itself. Because people can always find a mythology (grounded in observable differences between people) if exploitation is permitted within a society. If you address the exploitation instead of the categorization of people, then you can eliminate the problem while preserving differences that make people interesting and define communities and subcultures.

    It strikes me as odd that Somerby, with his exposure to civil rights in the 60s and his California high school years, would have such confused ideas about race, but maybe there is some indoctrination that occurs when people live in the South and interact with people whose ideas justify the discrimination and segregation that are part of living there.

    If you had a society where taller people had more privileges because they were considered better than shorter people, you wouldn't do away with discrimination by eliminating the concept of height. It would just make it difficult to buy clothes that fit because the differences are obvious to all. The belief in superiority due to height is what needs to be challenged. And the belief that if one is superior one is entitled to abuse others. Neither of those beliefs has anything to do with the concept of height itself. Race works the same way.

  17. "This extended a mainstream press corps theme in which Candidate Gore had been cast as "today's man-woman" (Chris Matthews). Our liberal elites sat and stared as their award-winning colleagues played these pitiful, braindead games over the course of two years."

    I'm afraid to ask what Somerby might think about our changing attitudes toward gender.

    Dowd's writing was called "gender-bending" at the time. Today, an enlightened reader might wonder why it is considered bad for a man to have female characteristics or engage in feminine behavior. The preening in a mirror would be considered a negative stereotype attributed to women and Dowd wouldn't have gotten a Pulitzer for having gender stereotyped views. But why would such preening, if Gore had actually engaged in it, be wrong or funny or odd? All of the things that were used by Dowd and others to label Democratic men as effeminate are now recognized as obvious dog whistles to homophobia and misogyny. That may be why Somerby is still so upset about it, years later. He roomed with Gore, after all, and has never married, so he is perhaps sensitive to such call-outs.

    Somerby reserves special ire for Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper. Is it a coincidence that they are both gay? Or do they evoke the same sense of shame that Somerby attaches to Dowd's portrayal of Al Gore feeling pretty?

    Today, people would not only reject such a characterization but also recognize it for what it is. But not so among conservatives, who wish to preserve "traditional" gender roles to the point of persecuting transgender children. They love Trump for being manly (despite his ridiculous bald-spot combover) and kicking around women, and would no doubt consider Dowd not only funny, but saying true things about those girly-men in the Democratic party. Why does Somerby buy into their memes? Does he too believe them, or is he trying to advance Trump's chances by reminding us that Republicans are the he-man women-hating party and Democrats all wear mascara. There has to be some reason why he keeps harkening back to Gore's humiliation.

    1. Women need to shut up.

    2. So do men like you.

    3. Women need to get back to the kitchen and shut up. They don't have any brains. Period. End of sentence. What part are you not getting?

    4. "There has to be some reason why he keeps harkening back to Gore's humiliation."

      He has said the reason is because it led to the greatest war crime of the young millennium by far, with hundreds of thousands brutally killed and tortured by American forces.

    5. @8:01 What makes you think women can cook (without any brains)?

      Glad to see you know how to punctuate, with that huge brain of yours. Probably good at eating too, I'll bet.

    6. Women are good for cooking and cleaning, raising the babies, scrubbing the floors. They have huge brains for that. Much bigger than men. After that, there's nothing there. Their brains are completely empty. That's why they need to shut up and do some laundry. Period. End of sentence.

      That's about it.

    7. Congratulations to Bob for getting the entire Right-wing to post on his blog at 10:17 last night.

    8. Somerby likes young women, but they are not particularly fond of him. He is clearly a frustrated dude.

      There is no evidence Dowd or Matthews contributed to Gore's loss.

    9. Women have always played a vital role in humanity's cleaning and cooking.

      Always have, always will. Period. That's all there is to say.

    10. In 1:01's world, men mess up the world and women straighten up after them. It is only fitting since every man on this earth was created by a woman.

      And why is 1:01 so obsessed with periods? Perhaps because he cannot have one?

    11. Men created a world where women don't need men and can keep themselves safe from them if they choose not to perform their natural function of cooking and cleaning and raising children and giving love and relatedness. That had never happened in human history until the last century. I guess that's not enough.

      Women forgo their natural duties in an insane pursuit of equality with men. Women are for cooking and cleaning, scrubbing the potatoes, the floor etc and for love and relatedness, beauty and balance. The soul of the feminine is natural and wild and women throw that out the window, angry they are not all CEO's. They never ask themselves “What am I really hungry for?, What do I long for? What do I wish for now?” which makes them fall into all sorts of traps. When women do this, they give up their natural regular cycles of self-expression, soul-expression, soul- satiation.

      Women are a total mess these days. They lost the plot. They think they are men.

    12. Isn't it cute when men try to define women?

  18. I can see that it would be embarrassing for a bigoted parent to be confronted by a questioning child, but why must the sensibilities of bigots be protected to the point of distorting our American history in the classroom?

  19. Most of that careful explanation Somerby says he would give the kids is aimed at protecting himself from parental complaints. What a brave guy!

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