Graham Greene’s The Quiet American & the Dangers of Ideology

When it comes to examining the world around us, most people find it impossible not to let their ideals of how the world should be influence their view of how the world actually is.  To the individual, the ideals s/he project onto the world are not just some arbitrary concepts, but the very mode by which a person’s identity can be defined; it is in this mindset that ideologies are created.  And once one’s ideology–one’s ideals–become a personal cause, the greatest difficulty confronting the individual will not be finding the means by which to further this cause, but maintaining the sketchy line between one’s greater identity and one’s circumscribed ideology separate; to keep the former from fully succumbing to the latter.

Set in the backdrop of 1950s war afflicted Vietnam, the prominent theme that runs through Graham Greene’s war novel The Quiet American, is the omen of letting one’s ideals of life take precedents over life itself.  This message is explored through the contrasting characters of Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle.  The former (Fowler) is a cynical, middle-aged British reporter, who views his role in the warring country as staunchly nonaligned with any side or ideology, stating, “It has been an article of my creed.  The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved” (page 28).  Pyle, on the other hand, is an impressionable, idealistic young American, enchanted with the romantic idea that it is his duty to help spread democracy to the oppressed parts of the world. [I should note that at the time the book was published, 1955, the conflict in Vietnam was still predominantly a struggle between the French (who had up to then held the country as a colony), and the Vietnamese Communists looking to end France’s colonial rule and establish an independent (communist) state; during all of this, America’s official role in the region was still much subtler than what it would become in the 1960s and 70s.]

Throughout the plot, Fowler refers to Pyle as innocent, to describe the way the young man viewed the world and the childlike affect this has on him:

I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth when reality didn’t match the romantic ideals he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set.

Characters like Pyle are not complicated or hard to explain.  He is someone who has been educated to venerate and see the absolute nobility in the notions he has come to value.  In the book, ideas of freedom and democracy are as tangible to the young American, as any object or person.  Unsurprisingly, this puts him at odds with the pessimistic Fowler, who scoffs at the youngster, “I laugh at anyone who spends so much time writing about what doesn’t exist–mental concepts” (page 94).  He is a reporter, first and foremost, and his job is to observe and report the unfiltered facts of the situation.  At times, the reader is left wondering how much of Fowler’s cynicism stems from having observed and reported on so much despair in the world, that the promises of hope offered up by any ideology seem too hollow in light of life’s suffering to even bothering considering.  This sentiment is best captured when Fowler and Pyle are stuck in hostile territory, and the two engage in a heated discussion about Pyle’s idealistic convictions; the exchange begins with Fowler stating:

“Sometimes the Viets have a better success with the megaphone than a bazooka.  I don’t blame them.  They don’t believe in anything either.  You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.”

“They don’t want Communism.”

“They want enough rice,” [Fowler says].  “They don’t want to be shot at.  They want one day to be much the same as another.  They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want […] If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats” (pages 94-95).

Fowler understands that Pyle’s hopes and dreams for the Vietnamese people come from benign intentions (page 133), but he has little patience in humoring the idea that the underlying motivation of the idealists behind all the virtues the young man treasures is little more than naive armchair philosophizing.  Nonetheless, Pyle holds to his belief that his principles are of benefit for the people, in contrast to the alternatives being offered:

“They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.”

“Thought’s a luxury.  Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?”

“You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated?  Are they going to be happy?”

“Oh no,” [Fowler says], “we’ve brought them up in our ideas.  We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut […]  Isms and ocracies.  Give me facts” (page 95).

To the reader, a great bit of irony comes from the fact that Fowler’s own anti-ideology stance, sounds much like an ideology in and of itself; a staunch conviction to remain untainted by the stains of ideals.  Fowler himself appears to notice this problem, and quickly amends, “I don’t take sides.  I’ll be still reporting whoever wins” (page 96).  Pyle is unconvinced of the sincerity in Fowler’s words, and pointedly remarks how his apathy to which side (i.e. ideology) wins the war, conflicts with his statements about individual value:

“Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould?  You’re arguing for the sake of arguing.  You’re an intellectual.  You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do” (page 97).

To which Fowler bitingly responds:

“Don’t go on in the East with that parrot cry about a threat to the individual soul.  Here you’d find yourself on the wrong side–it’s they who stand for the individual and we just stand for Private 23987, unit in the global strategy” (page 97).

Fowler’s point is that the idea of military endeavors standing in as the great defenders of the individual, when military personal are by necessity trained to eschew their individuality for the sake of becoming a monolithic unit, is a highly facetious proposition.  Furthermore, one can deduce from Fowler’s tone that he views the individual to be an entity that exists in the moment, for the moment; thus ideologies (and the ideals they are founded on), which perpetually aim to always establish a desired state of existence for some future condition, are innately antithetical to the interests of the individual.

Despite his animosity with Pyle’s idealistic views, Fowler does not consider the American to be the cause of this problem he has with ideological thinking, but a consequence of it.  And as a consequence, Pyle is doomed to give the necessary sacrifice to the cause he chose to allow to define him as a person:

“They killed him because he was too innocent to live.  He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved.  He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, ‘Go ahead.  Win the East for Democracy.’  he never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him.  When he saw a dead body he couldn’t even see the wounds.  A Red menace, a soldier of democracy” (pages 31-32).

It is easy to philosophize about the world, create values and meaning safely within the confines of one’s head, but it’s when one sets out to make such mental concepts a reality, that it becomes clear how reality is not contingent on the romantic musings you have constructed from your desk.  Yet, ideologies aren’t really dependent on reality either, they are based on further mental constructs, limited solely by one’s conception of possibilities; aimed at what situation can be achieved, not what the situation currently is.  And if it weren’t for our conviction that reality is negotiable, would humanity ever have accomplished as much as it did?  Did we not, in our brief history as a species, constantly redefine and reevaluate what is possible–what is attainable in reality?  Ideals are dangerous in the way they can consume a person’s self-identity, but without ideals would we have no prospect for betterment as a whole?  It may be true that reality simply is what it is, and not what we want it to be, but if we can convince enough people to believe otherwise–to subscribe to the ideals and values we wish to promote–does it really matter what reality is anyway?  The strict definition becomes relative and redundant–for most of us.

Bibliography

Greene, Graham.  The Quiet American.  Penguin Books:  New York, 1955 (1973 reprint).

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The Clinton Conundrum

If it is the case that Hillary Clinton secures the coming Democratic nomination, and subsequently wins the Presidential election thereafter, it will mark a unique turn in the history of this nation.  No, I’m not talking about the fact that for the first time a women will be serving as President of the United States, nor the fascinating tidbit that said President rose from the ranks of former First Ladies (an equally unprecedented feat).  What I’m referring to is that, if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency in 2016, it will mark the Obama administration as the sole outlier in a 30 year executive roundelay between the Bush/Clinton dynasties.  I can’t be the only one that finds it remarkable that the last three decades of politics in a democratic Republic have been presided over by two competing last names (e.g. Bush and Clinton).

The American Left has a dodgy relationship with the Clintons.  Although Bill Clinton is lucky to have preceded the colossal brain aneurism of an administration that was the Bush presidency (thereby ensuring his impression in history books as the more competent executive my default), his actual track record of liberal accomplishments is lackluster, if not downright antithetical.  Whatever image this man wants to present to the public now, let us not forget that this was the man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act that set back civil rights for gays at the time, butchered social services that his base constituents heralded, repeatedly backed corporate interests over–and to the great devastation of–the environmental issues he campaigned on (one can go on, but the point ought to be clear already).  Bill Clinton may have been out of office for well over a decade, but as long as his legacy continues to be championed by liberals in this country as a score for leftwing policies, these caveats deserve at least a casual mention, never mind an actual defense (or even an apology).

Hillary Clinton has been a political figure in her own right long enough that there’s no need to refer to her husband’s record to assess her stances on any issue.  Unfortunately for the Clinton campaign, its candidate’s own liberal cred is every much as questionable as her husband’s.

In the past decade and a half, she has been foolishly hawkish when she backed the Iraq war for as long as public opinion could stomach it; she currently speaks out against corporate greed, yet seems to forget that she sat in government, not proposing or supporting a single piece of legislation that might have curbed the coming market crash in 2008, or reformed the financial sector in this country in any way whatsoever; she has never given more than passive support for the rights of gays, low-income families, the labor class, or anybody else for that matter, until she was absolutely sure that such stances polled favorably with the electoral public.

In short, the conundrum that faces the Left in this country when it comes to electing Hillary Clinton is similar to the one that faced them in the 90s with the first Clinton.  Namely, the Clintons have no ideology, political or otherwise, to propose, stand, or even fall on: the sole purpose on which any Clinton campaign is fueled by is strictly the unyielding need to get elected.  All other concerns are secondary, if nonexistent to this guiding purpose.  And that is the alpha and the omega underlying this whole façade of a political family.

People as Currency

Like the majority of people in the world, I watch my bank account dwindle every month as the continuous onslaught of bills and expenses bombard my meager earnings.  When it comes to engaging in any sort of leisure activity the first question that pops into my head is never, “How much will I enjoy this?”–rather, I bicker to myself, “How much will this cost me?”  This is because the cost of living is the underlying value of life for many of us.  We orientate and restrict our movements based on the dollar value attached to our names; to the point that said value becomes more important in shaping our identity than our very names.

Think about it like this: when it comes to potential employers, mortgage brokers, insurance premiums, interest rates, or  financial aid distributions, the primary judgement of your character as a worthy human being rests on the fitness of your past financial history.  If your financial history has even a speck of a blemish on it (debts, foreclosures, bankruptcy, etc.) your social standing as a person drops, due to the assumption that the essential components of your personal character are deducible from your credit score alone.  Rightly or wrongly, your personhood has a cash value attached to it; rendering your humanity anything but priceless to the socioeconomic forces that act on our daily lives.

Do not mistake this for a cliched “Money is the root of all evil!” diatribe.  Money or no money, the act of bartering is unavoidable in anything that could be considered a developed society.  As is the fact that those who have more to barter with will occupy a higher status above those who do not.  I cannot imagine a single manageable system of commerce where this would not emerge as a necessary reality (though I’m willing to accept the possibility that this might be an intellectual flaw on my part, since my lack of imagination is not an absolute metric for reality).  However, the emergence of a financial system, in which faceless, personless sets of numbers not only determine the financial worth and economic standing of the individual, but her/his human value in relation to the greater machine operating at the center of the system, sounds somehow needlessly inhuman.  It gives the impression that, if we were to step back from the scene–observe it from outside in–people will not appear as the arbiters of currency, but as the currency themselves.  Yet, one cannot step back to make a clear observation of this, since we cannot opt out of a monetary system where you serve the role of the capital running the machinery.  Currency has no say in its route or destination, it just gets past around with no mind (literary) on the matter.

When examining an economic model (from whatever political angle you fancy–I honestly don’t care) where human value is inseparable from its dollar amount, what happens to the individual whose personal identity is completely defined by the worth that has been assigned to her/his financial standing, when the worth of the currency withers more and more?  How does one fix an economy (again, from whichever political angle you prefer) where the currency risked on the market is not just a collection of bills and coins, but people’s very own identities?

I don’t know.  But this shit going on now, just doesn’t smell right by any measure.

Maintaining Modesty

I awake yesterday morning with the startling resolution that my life has been a long dogmatic list of uncompromising stubbornness, and it could easily be improved through a healthy does of inoffensive moderation.  Which I immediately set out to follow, but then stopped myself just in time to wait a good 15 minutes; just for modest measure.

As I boarded the bus to work, I decided that since both the 6:24 am & the 6:31 am bus can get me to work on time, a healthy compromise would be to walk to the next bus stop down from where I usually wait, for a refreshing walk and to catch the later of the two.  The 6:31 am bus was running 15 minutes behind schedule, and I was 10 minutes late to work.

At lunch I decided instead of having my usual combination of donuts, fries, and soda, I would substitute it with a moderately healthy diet of apple, mashed potatoes, and green beans (note to self, fruits and vegetables make for powerful laxatives).  After lunch, two coworkers asked me to settle an issue of the utmost importance:  Who would win in a fight between adult Simba from the Lion King and adult Baloo from The Jungle Book?  Although I am convinced that Simba would shred Baloo to pieces (he took down Scar for goodness sake), I instead opted to spare both person’s feelings with a humble, “I don’t know.”  A compromise that satisfied no one.

On the way back home from work (taking the earliest bus I could catch this time), a man told me that he desperately needs money to buy himself new pants for work.  I humbly gave him $40, and advised him to get a new shirt too, so he can also cover up the needle marks on his arms.  Then I slapped his face as compensation (it was the modest thing to do) and got off the bus.

Once home, I informed my spouse about my new found insight and suggested we appreciate it through a moderate dose of coitus.  Since it would be unfair for both of us to expect an equally thorough performance, I suggested that we compromise by deciding on who would be climaxing tonight, and then we’ll rotate on a weekly basis; so as not to exhaust ourselves with too much wasted energy.  We mutually decided that the most modest compromise would be for me to sleep on the couch tonight.

A Word on Assisted Suicide

The desire to both alleviate suffering and protect life are two ethical principles upon which much of modern society shapes its moral values around.  However, there are several situations that present a clear conflict between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to protect life.  The debate over assisted dying is probably the most difficult of these (from a moral standpoint) because it involves a person whose suffering is so great that she or he wishes to just end her/his life as a final recourse to the pain, often even if there exists the possibility that medical attention can either save or prolong her/his life.  The ethical dilemma of whether such a person’s wishes should be respected, or whether the ability to save a life at all costs ought to take precedents is not a simple issue to resolve through purely philosophical musings.

Just about everyone can image a scenario in which an individual’s physical pain is so great that it would seem downright cruel to force her/him to continue to be tormented just to appease our collectively idealized standard over the sanctity of life.  Certainly one could make the case that even a painful life is better than no life at all, but the caveat that cannot be ignored is the question of by what right any one of us can demand for a person to continue to live in agony to preserve our ideals about the greater value of life.

“What if the person’s pain is causing them to speak from hysteria and fear?  What if they would have changed their mind about wanting to die?”  What if is a line of reasoning that though interesting is destined to remain unresolved by virtue of its phrasing.  Case and point, what if the person ends up living only a few months longer, all in agonizing pain, only to die anyway?  You could have spared them these final moments of unspeakable pain, but didn’t.  Does that seem more morally sound than letting them die?

A conflict does arise of whether anyone else’s opinion besides the suffering individual’s should be considered (such as family members not willing to let their loved one die at any cost if it can be avoided).  This is the part of the assisted suicide debate where it becomes difficult to insist on a clear course of action.  It’s redundant to state how almost no one wants to see someone they love suffer.   Now add on the caveat of not just having a loved one die, but to actually assist in the process.  I recognize that this is undoubtedly too great a burden for many to go through, seeing as how I, too, would no doubt be torn to my core if such a decision faced me.  However, I still have to maintain that, as heartbreaking as it is to consider the torment that someone will suffer at losing a loved one, I still don’t see how the alternative is any better (i.e. how much the individual her/himself is currently physically suffering, and how s/he must continue to do so partly because I cannot take the mental anguish or moral burden of assisting in her/his death).

Being a person who does feel a great deal of empathy for his fellow man, I see the many moral difficulties that arise from the debate over assisted dying from both sides of the argument.  I also understand that many such cases will have different circumstances that call for different considerations.  But I simply cannot bring myself to insist that a suffering person (whether their pain has a physical or psychological source) must continue to exist in torment in order to appease any personal moral hangups I have on the topic.  And I find it hard to see an intellectual means to get around this problem without descending into gross oversimplifications on a very sensitive issue.

Nationalism vs Patriotism: A Challenge to George Orwell

In one of his essays, titled “Notes on Nationalism”, George Orwell drew a distinction between nationalism and patriotism by defining the latter as a passive adulation of one’s national/cultural heritage, and the former as an active attempt to enforce the will of one’s national/cultural identity onto others.  In other words, the patriot may look on his country of origin as the greatest place on earth, but he will do so with no interest to convince anyone else of the fact.  In contrast, the nationalist feels compelled not just to convince others of the greatness of his homeland, but to bring about the capitulation of all other nations under its great power.  As much as I respect Orwell as a writer, I find this attempt to conjure up a distinction between underlying mindset characterizing the two concepts unconvincing (to say the least).

If you hold the opinion that the country you happen to be born in (or identify with for other reasons) is the greatest in the world, then by logical extension you have to also hold the opinion of all of the other countries, in which all other persons reside, as simply subpar in comparison to your own.  And if you believe that other countries are substandard to your own, then you must also believe that the nation you identify with possesses something (strength, character, wealth, power, a particular model of governance, etc.) that makes it worthy of reverence.  From here, does it also not logically lead you to infer that whatever it is that makes your nation greater than every other, all the other nations who currently fail to measure up to its greatness would benefit if they too were to possess this particular trait/characteristic/resource/ideal/whatever?  Moreover, in this mode of reasoning, would you–the patriot– not be justified to believe that a great contribution your nation could do for the rest of the world is to bring it as close as possible to the better model under which your superior country operates under?

All else aside, affirmative responses for the above statements and inquiries would still place one merely as a patriot by Orwell’s criteria because one has still not taken an active step to impose one’s national will onto other states; hence, by the writer’s terms it would be incorrect to ascribe to the hypothetical individual the label of a nationalist since, up to this point, he displays no active desire to secure more power (presumably at the expense of other nations).  But to me this seems like a very flimsy distinction to be made, designed primarily to absolve patriotism from the ominous history created by 20th Century nationalism.  Yet, the reality remains that one cannot honestly have nationalism, sans the basic ingredient of patriotism.  And–following the conversation in the preceding paragraph–the factor that would separate a patriot from a nationalist appears to be more situational than ideological (i.e. it’s not the individual worldview that needs to change to lead a person from patriotism to nationalism, just a particular set of environmental circumstances; namely, how passionate, threatened or confident one feels about the current state of one’s country of origin).

If the redeeming distinction between patriotism and nationalism rests on the basis that unlike nationalism, patriotism has no desire to force itself on other people/nations, I have no choice but to protest the very premise on which such an argument is founded, on the grounds that the underlying reasoning in favor of patriotism are largely indistinguishable from the underlying reasoning applied by the nationalist.  The fundamental mentality–“my country is greater than your country”–is the same, and drawing distinctions of passivity vs. aggressiveness seem more aptly as representations of differing modes of expression of the same ideology, rather than opposing sides of differing/contrasting ideologies.  The simply truth (as it seems to me) is that, for the sake of consistency, whatever points one finds praiseworthy about patriotism, these same points can easily be extended to argue in favor of nationalism.  And whatever one finds undesirable about nationalism, one can just as easily extend to a critique of patriotism.  To split hairs between these things, just comes across like special pleading.

Thought-Crime is Imaginary

Every person of a halfway sound mind can distinguish between her/his fantasy life and the real world.  We all occasionally ponder away, daydreaming about a fictional version of ourselves, doing things we know we couldn’t possibly accomplish in reality; that’s why it’s called fantasy, where our minds offer us an escape from the limitations of our daily environment.

We know that we will never start a rock band; we will never write a bestselling novel; we will (probably) never get the opportunity to do something extraordinary in the face of human history; people will not travel far and wide seeking our grand wisdom when we are old and “wise”.  And none of that matters.  Because when we are daydreaming about the alternate us–the us we can imagine ourselves being–the fact that we recognize the futility of the scenarios created by our minds is a non-issue.  In this regard, fantasizing about oneself as more accomplished, more polished, stronger, and in other customarily decent settings, is perfectly acceptable and expected to just about every person (because, as already stated, we all do it).  However, from what I can gather, this reasoning also appears to completely negate itself when our fantasies go out of the acceptable fold of social decorum.

We find it disturbing when we hear that someone is having impolite thoughts on a topic, or about a person.  Thoughts of violence, sex, and misconduct, are seen as more threatening in comparison to the more positive-minded daydreams we occasionally indulge in.  Unsurprisingly, we grant more validity to people’s thoughts when we see it as potentially harmful to ourselves (and others), even if the source of these threatening thoughts is the same as the source of the uplifting thoughts.  And the fact that there is as much of a chance of any person acting on their indecent thoughts as there is of her/him acting on their decent ones, does nothing to the way we reason that the potential for harm is far too great to leave it to pure chance, causing us to respond with due repulsion towards the originator of the bad thoughts–the person having the indecent fantasies.  Moreover, our behavior towards said individual is such that it makes little distinction between someone having thoughts about an action, and actually carrying them out (after all, it is true that the first step in committing a crime, is thinking about committing the crime).  Hence, despite the low probability that anyone who has ever thought about doing something horrible to someone else (be it a fantasy about committing assault, murder, robbery, etc.), one never knows whether or not the person doing the thinking is simply soothing their frustration through daydreaming, or seriously plotting to make good on their unsavory fantasies.  Although all of this is completely noncontroversial, there is one fact that needs to be addressed on this topic; namely, that thought crime is imaginary.  And it is imaginary in the literal sense of the word, in that it occurs solely in a person’s imagination.

Now, the question becomes how exactly can one be held accountable (or be treated as if to be held accountable) for actions that, at the core of it all, never happened?  For example, if someone has a fantasy about physically hurting me, but never acts on these thoughts, why is it that (were this person to reveal these thoughts to me years down the road) I would instinctively behave as if an attempted crime has actually been committed?  No harm has actually been carried out against me, and more importantly no harm will be carried out against me; the offense was, quite literally, completely imaginary.  So, why the moral indignation on my part?  Of course, it should be mentioned that this is solely a hypothetically generic me, I personally don’t think I could care less if anyone is daydreaming about hurting me, as long as they don’t carry out the act (to be honest, I’m fairly certain that more than one person I’ve known has thought about punching me in my face on more than a few occasions).  But that’s not how we collectively react to hearing about someone else’s repulsive fantasies, even more so if these fantasies are about someone other than ourselves (in which case we will gasp in union at the plight this innocent person has suffered for being the subject of the potentially-dangerous thought-criminal’s mental trespasses).

At the base of it, I think the lack of control we are capable of exercising in regard to any other person’s thoughtful offenses against our person is what motivates the knee-jerk repulsion we fell towards any criminal fantasies someone might daydream about against us, or any other individual; since we do not have direct access to any mind other than our own, we reason that we can never be completely assured of the daydreamers true intent.  This is all understandable, and most of us recognize the threat associated with criminal thoughts, even if no actually desire exists to follow through on said thoughts.  And this is the reason why most of us choose to never share our darkest, indecent thoughts with anybody, lest we risk being ostracized from social discourse.

The thing that is left unanswered for me, though, is the reason for the inner guilt a person feels for having thoughts that might verge on the criminal, despite being fully aware of never actually wanting to carry them out.  Most don’t really need other people scolding them for their “wicked” thoughts, they do a fairly decent job of performing the mental self-flagellation all on their own.  I understand feeling repulsed at the knowledge that someone else has been having uncivil thoughts about a third party, since you don’t have any way of accessing someone else’s mind to truly confirm just how serious the potential harm is, but you do have access to your own thoughts; you can know how dangerous your crime-infested daydreams are to others.  And if you can say with reasonable certainty that the indecent things you have fantasized about have little to no chance in manifesting themselves in your real life interactions, then why engage in this immense grief over your imaginary crimes; at least in the case where you yourself are the perpetrator, is it still inappropriate to say that thought-crime posses of no real danger?  And if not (and you fear that to accept your indecent thinking would desensitize you to actually doing indecent things), how can you carry on contributing and interacting with a society, when you can’t measure or control the seriousness and danger of the mental concepts that you have created?  And how badly does it speak of a society that has taught you to fear the thoughts in your own head as being so lethal that you should internally apologize and repent for any impolite/uncustomary thought that pops into your mind?  Or can society even be blamed for a reaction that is so fundamentally human(e)?