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On History and Fear, Then and Now

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This is a guest post by Piki Ish-Shalom, A. Ephraim and Shirley Diamond Family Chair in International Relations and Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is part of our series on The International History of Social and Political Theory, eds. Tarak Barkawi and George Lawson. It is in response to the article that Daniel Levine describes in his post earlier this week

On one level this article is an exemplar of Daniel Levine’s writing. Levine is probably the most voracious reader among IR scholars and his work is simply a carnival of knowledge and intellectualism offering a display of learning of unsurpassable breadth. His numerous areas of expertise cover IR theory, critical theory, Judaism, Zionism, and Middle East politics and history. And indeed this article is no exception while adding European history and historiography to Levine’s areas of expertise. The article is a trove of knowledge just like all Levine’s articles and its pages present us with such familiar and forgotten names as Zalman Rubashov (the third President of Israel), Friedrich Meinecke, Jakob Burckhardt, Jürgen Habermas, Hayden White, Theodor Herzl, Leopold von Ranke, Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Judith Butler, and Walter Benjamin. These and many others are part of the colorful mosaic which Levine assembles for his readers. And then there is the epistemological and ethical bottom-line which I could not agree with more. As Levine concludes,

one cannot properly speak of history or theory as isolates; theory is always in history and predicated upon it. If that is so, the appropriate questions are less about epistemology than ethics: what modes of critical self-reflection are necessary, and sufficient, for the student of international politics who wishes to be something other than a partisan actor within history?

A noble question, no doubt. But on another level his article exemplifies the inherent problems that such a perspective raises; it raises questions I keep struggling with when I consider these issues: how to moralize the academic endeavor of theorizing without politicizing it? Which criteria distinguish the academic from the political and the moral from the ideological?

The article left me feeling unsure that there can be adequate answers to these questions, and not only because Levine offers no answers. I surfaced from my reading bothered that he had failed profoundly in this article and had blundered into a moral (or is it political and/or ideological?) morass. I kept wondering about the aims of his comparisons and the criteria that guided his choice of whom and what to compare. Were there any moral/political/ideological intentions behind his choices, and were those choices conscious? Levine’s reference to the historian Hayden White wasn’t much help in allaying my worries: “What matters less than the factual basis of claims made by particular historians is what White (1975) has called their figurative content: their ability to artfully and compellingly summon up a world that coheres morally, ontologically, and aesthetically. Factual and procedural-methodological disagreements are of course possible; but they are also, at least partly, beside the point (104).” And here ostensibly, Levine assumes the historian’s role of locating the origins of social and political theory.

This left me with two concerns. The first one is meta-theoretical while the second is more concrete and moral. On the meta-theoretical level: if indeed the factual basis is of no ultimate importance how should we refute alternative facts? What are our resources when we try to moralize and responsibilize academia without falling prey to its politicization? Could it be that all that we are doing is faking facts—albeit more artfully and coherently than, say President Trump? Personally, I am not satisfied with such a relativist answer. Something substantive must delineate academic work from other social endeavors. Otherwise why would “the student of international politics” hope and aim “to be something other than a partisan actor within history?” What can she bring to the public discourse that differs in any way from the “the public use of history (104)” and as such has some added value due to the academic way of doing things? Why should the public take any notice of us and our account of facts that might be not alternative? Levine owes his readers some good answers to these meta-theoretical questions.

The lack of satisfactory answers also projects onto what I consider a concrete and moral failure on Levine’s part. And I return to the questions raised above: What were the aims of the comparisons that Levine conducts and what criteria guided him when he chose whom and what to compare? Were there any moral/political/ideological intentions in the choices he makes and were those choices deliberate? Since although Levine keeps calling for caution in inferring conclusions from his comparisons and warns us not to assume “determinist causal “arrows” between that horror [holocaust] and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (103),” he also adds that “neither does it relegate these events to comfortably isolated moral-political universes (103).” Subtly or not, consciously or unwittingly, when what little methodologically is said and done the comparison is laid out for us. On the one hand there is this Zionist Rubashov, whose historical lesson is a kind of militarism and chauvinism, and on the other hand, we have this German historian, Meinecke, who may even have flirted with Nazism (112) and yet is the bearer of the cosmopolitan message: “German particularism was to be expressed not through conquest, but through the cultivation of German culture (114).” Yes, there were certain historical contexts and events that led Meinecke and Rubashov to draw their obverse conclusions and Levine even acknowledge them. But somehow these historical contexts are set aside for White’s figurative content. It even doesn’t matter much that Rubashov was primarily a politician who didn’t deal professionally with history or philosophy (although he did study them). He is placed side by side with the accomplished and revered academic historian Meinecke. And the comparison does not, to say the least, speak highly of Rubashov. And since Rubashov is the only representative of Zionism in this study[1], Zionism is shown as merely militarist and chauvinist; an ideology that though should not be simplistically compared with Nazism to draw “simple moral equivalences”, is there to be compared with Nazism and is there to fare no better, maybe even worse.

So I ask what were Levine’s criteria in his choice of comparison. Are these criteria legitimate? And what would have happened if Levine had not compared Meinecke with Rubashov but with say Martin Buber or Judah Magnes? What might have been the conclusion if Levine had brought in another intellectual, say a Palestinian, to his mosaic? Then I recall that Levine did briefly mention Edward Said— and who could be a more noble, representative of that cosmopolitan spirit which Levine searched for in vain in Rubashov and Zionism? And I ask myself uncomfortably whether Said is the only Palestinian historian and philosopher around and if he was even Rubashov’s contemporary?

Again, what would have happened if instead of comparing Rubashov to Meinecke, Levine had taken his American contemporaries, the American politicians of the post-world war era, as a baseline for comparison? Or better still some of the American academics populating Ido Oren’s excellent study of American academia (2003)? Perhaps a more methodologically rigorous and complete analysis of the era would have rendered a fuller picture of the republic of academic (or not so academic) letters? Would Rubashov and Zionism have fared any better then?

And let me be clear about my own standpoint. I had my own Noam Chayut moment of awakening to the extent that I found myself in military prison, refusing to serve the occupation. And I am not alone in Israeli academia and I am certainly not alone in criticizing my country and the occupation of the Palestinian people. This is a moral criticism and duty. We Israeli academics who feel morally bound to criticize Israel and the occupation see a lot of McCarthyism and Trumpism in Israel — but not Hitlerism. To compare Zionist history and the Zionist present with Nazism, even in an implicit and subtle way, does a political and ideological disservice to academic integrity and responsibility. Nor does it provide a politically workable and defensible strategy for moving the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock forward.

Perhaps if instead of figurative content we had looked for a real and methodologically rigorous analysis (comparative or otherwise) we might have found the origins of social and political theory and gained ourselves the intellectual space to act as moral and responsible actors within history. Levine’s current (un)methodological choices and poor comparison will consign us to being no more than partisan actors in unbridgeable alternative histories.

But perhaps it’s just me and my sensitivities in these days of BDS.

[1] Noam Chayut, former Israeli soldier and current dissident, is discussed briefly in the article to prove there is another option, is someone who has lost every shred of Zionism.

  • Daniel Levine

    Thanks for this reading, Piki, and for taking the time to be part of this.

    So I can’t help but feel as though some of the point of my original argument was missed. I don’t know whether it’s my writing or your reading, but let me try to correct what I think are the most damaging misreadings at work here. First, I don’t quite accept the claim that Shazar was not an historian: he studied at Gunzberg’s institute at St. Petersburg, then with Meinecke in Germany, and published fairly extensively. It’s true that his public work took over his academic work in a way that it did not with historians like Benzion Dinur, Yitzhak Baer or Yehezael Kaufmann (who actually were historians, whereas Buber and Magnes were not). It’s certainly the case that, in the essays/speeches I cover he is more _calling_ for a new kind of history than actually writing it. But I don’t think the history he calls for is terribly different than the history we get: his voice, and the voice of official historical works like _Sefer Toldot ha-Hagana_ (The ‘official’ multiple-volume history of the haganah, edited by a team of professional historians and ex-haganah commanders) is not terribly different.

    Second, I haven’t so much chosen to compare Rubashov/Shazar to Meinecke, so much as to trace out a common way of using history to do or think politics. I didn’t choose Rubashov, the editors of Ma’arakhot did, when they published his speeches. Ma’arakhot was, and is, an intellectual production that fuses the academic and the practical-political in particular ways, and for particular ends.

    What I tried to do was to look at how those speeches tried to explain to rank-and-file members of the Haganah — ‘anshei ha-shura’ as the folks at the time put it — where they were, and what their mission was. More broadly, I’m interested in the connection between a particular historical worldview (historicism) and its connection to political realism. That Rubashov uses history in a particular way to produce a particular kind of tragic, prudent political subject is interesting to me. And the fact that he was the student of one of the most well-respected historicans of the time — and a leading theorist of historicism — is of particular interest. Both Meinecke and Rubashov find themselves facing catastrophes. Both of them argue that those catastrophes necessitate doing contemporary politics differently. And both of them get there by reworking extant understandings of the past. That strikes me as inherently interesting. This is less a comparison than an attempt to show what follows from a certain mode of thinking. It’s true that the details of the catastrophes to which these two men have to respond is somewhat different — or rather, it is roughly the same catastrophe but they have different perspectives on it — but the fact that their thinking proceeds in similar moves is what interests me. It is not my judgement of what they said that matters; it’s the grammar of the thinking itself. (This is not to say that I am not invested in Rubashov’s reading of the past; of course I am. I’m even, actually, pretty sympathetic to it. But all the more reason, if so, to trace out where it leads.)

    The move to Chayut, and to Said, follows from this. For what’s interesting about Chayut is not his post-zionism (Yehuda Shaul, another prominent leader of Breaking the Silence, is not a post-zionist) but the fact that once he loses his history, he can’t function as a soldier anymore. Put differently, the editors of Maarakhot got what they wanted; their creation of a new past _did in fact_ make a new kind of Jewish subject possible in the present.

    Said, for all his noble humanism, does the same: to locate his binationalism in israeli-palestinian space, he calls on historians to locate it in time. What this tells me is that it seems to be impossible to think politically without first placing oneself ‘in history’ after a certain fashion — an argument that has consequences for zionism, certainly; for the academy, certainly; and for politics more generally. For that new post-national history will be political no less than was Shazar; it will, therefore, create winners and losers and engender its own counter-movements and forms of ideological resistance.

    But suppose we shift away from Israel and Palestine for a second. There’s an enormous body of work that comes out of looking at climate change in the context of human activity and the power of human agency. One approach to this work is to suggest that sometime around the time of the industrial revolution, the world entered into a new historical era — the anthropocene. Entry into that era changes the basic conditions of human existence and the terms of its interaction with the non-human; that’s the reason to mark a point of departure from the holocene to something else. Here, again, then — it seems to be impossible to think through a moment before locating that moment in time, marking it off as distinct. And when people reject that historical narrative, despite all good evidence to the contrary — well, what can we learn from this? What are they actually rejecting?

    This is what the epigraph to the paper tries to allude to — the business about a historian being ‘a bridge to his people’. At some point, sociologists like Weber, Tonnues and Durkheim (and Jewish historians/theorists from Dubnov and Rotenstreich to Yerushalmi and Eyal Chowers) told us, modernity sundered human communities from a common network of mythic time and communal belonging. The turn to historical thinking was meant to sew up that breach. But can it? Most historians and social theorists agree it cannot. And yet, we keep trying.

    One of the things we try to do as scholars is use history to adjudicate contemporary conflicts or political questions. But if it turns out that the past yields any number of possible accounts of itself, then that attempt to make history the adjudicator of the past is probably not going to work. It will turn into what Weber describes when we try to use science to replace myth — a series of rival religious sections, rather than a community. But isn’t that what we have now?

    • Daniel Levine

      One more point: why might all of this matter? Because one of the things we try to do as scholars is use history to adjudicate contemporary conflicts or political questions. But if it turns out that the past yields any number of possible accounts of itself, then that attempt to make history the adjudicator of the past is probably not going to work. It will turn into what Weber describes when we try to use science to replace myth — a series of rival religious sections, rather than a community. But isn’t that what we have now?

  • Matt

    Could you clarify how you separate politics and morality, partisanship and responsible scholarship? Your post implies, I think, that being a responsible scholar means avoiding particular types of comparison (Zionism against Nazism) and comparing ontologically similar things (public intellectuals with public intellectuals, academics with academics, etc.). Is there more? Less? Something else in being responsible?

    • Piki Ish-Shalom

      Hi Matt, this is not what I imply. My arguments, among other things, are that one needs to have sound and explicit criteria for comparisons. If you have those we can go ahead and discuss why this is the case that it makes sense to compare oranges and apples, or for that matter Nazism and Zionism. When this is not the case you can find yourself doind exactly that, comparing oranges and apples. And at times this mistake is a political and moral error, with harming consequences. I think Daniel’s move fails at that. If you think otherwise go ahead and offer criteria (suited to whatever is your aim) and let’s discuss them and the dovetailed comparisons. This is a simple move that is methodological and moral at the same time.

      And responsible academia would not deter from comparing what needs to be compared and will do so it in the public realm, even against public conventions. Some of us try to do so in Israel, most of us (including me) don’t do that enough. But if you follow Israel’s politics you would see that whatever little we do is maddening enough to the politicians, and hence is the recent attempt to shut us up with the proposed “ethical code”.

      How do I seperate political and moral? I discuss that in my own publications, here is a relevant discussion (a bit shortened) from my article “Time is Politics: Temporalising Justifications for War and the Political within Moral Reasoning,” Journal of International Relations and Development, 19, 1 (January 2016): 126-152:

      The political and the moral are similar categories that share common ground and features. The similarity lies in their being socially directed modes of thinking that guide collective activity. Or, using Hanna Arendt’s terminology: both are actions. But is that inasmuch as the political and moral share similarities they also diverge in their orientation. The political tends to be the realm of the adversarial, partisan, and sectarian. It is where interests are shaped and sectarian conflicts arise over those interests. The moral is the realm of the universal and as such establishes values, principles, and norms.
      Though jointly the two above-mentioned conventions distinguish the political from the moral they nevertheless allow a wide overlap between the two categories of actions. As such, many scholarly approaches adopt both conventions. For example, according to constructivist literature, norms and interests recursively construct each other. Furthermore, we do aspire to and sometime conceive of a moral system of politics. On the most basic daily level, we expect normative procedures to regulate and harness political behavior and political power. The mirror expectation is for morality not to be devoid of practicality, which is often understood to mean that it requires political viability. And, of course, the moral realm is not devoid of disagreements and contestations. This is the point of moral argumentation, the attempt to persuade by the power of the better argument. Accordingly, the political and the moral can be understood as categories, which as ideal-types would have been categorically delineated from each other but which in reality intermingle and overlap to a considerable degree.

      Piki

      • Matt

        It would be hard for me to agree with your claims on Levine’s chapter (as I have not read it), but I do generally believe that working through assumptions deployed in description of the world (though it does seem from his post that he’s doing comparisons within his analysis, even if he’s tracing similar historical trajectories, and should work through a defense of why comparisons are used by him in such a particular way). My point in posting was just to get more out of you in terms of the abstract criteria of legitimate comparison in social science research — and the point sounds like it’s more about explicating in the abstract as a method/methodology and then moving to an empirical analysis to do responsible comparisons within a book, article, essay, analysis (rather than a narrow set of methods like most similar and most different case studies). It sounds like the political science/social science lit lacks the definitive repertoire of abstract principles for comparisons (other than abstracting principle and moving from the abstract to the concrete). Maybe I am mis-reading you. As for the moral-political difference, I will check out your article.

      • Daniel Levine

        The problem with this argument, though, Piki, is I am not comparing Zionism and Nazism, nor am I comparing, in an intensive way, Rubashov and Meinecke — except in one sense. What I’m doing is comparing two different approaches to historicism, each one parsed through a particular catastrophe. What unites them is that, in each case, a well-known public intellectual responds to a contemporary catastrophe by making an argument about how history needs to be ‘done’ differently. That’s the work the chapter does, and I think it bears a closer and more careful — less defensive — reading than the one you gave it.

        The point here is that it seems to be impossible to think politically without thinking historically. This is why I use Chayut — not because he’s a post zionist, but because he tells a story about ‘losing my history’. And it’s why I use Edward Said: because he ALSO cannot think politically without thinking historically. When a German nationalist (he was not a Nazi, though he was certainly not an especially nice person by my lights), a leading MAPAI public intellectual, and a Palestinian binationalist make parallel intellectual moves — even if the practical upshots of those moves differ markedly — then it would seem that we have found a deep connection between time, our narrations of time, and how we act politically. THAT’s what the paper proposes to explore.

        • Daniel Levine

          Not to put to fine a point on it, but here’s what I wrote: “The remainder of this article seeks to develop this connection though comparative readings of the public intellectualism of both Rubashov and Meinecke. In each case, the public historian effects a presentist critique of history: Jews and Germans have inherited a public understanding of their
          collective pasts that is at odds with the strategic imperatives of the present. The aim of the historian must therefore be to reimagine the past: to construct an historical narrative that provides a coherent framework for understanding and acting in the present. Or, as the epigraph to this article puts it, ‘to build a bridge’ between peoples and their pasts.”

          • Daniel Levine

            The mistake, if you’ll permit me to say so, is that you’ve read these thinkers as though I’m using markers to set out intellectual positions that I either like or dislike — the ‘bad’ Rubashov, the ‘good’ Said. But that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m trying to do is show how they all, in the process of making contemporary political claims, wind up making historical claims. That should tell us something if we think that ‘historical international theory’ — the subject of this edited volume — is meant to resolve problems left over from positivism, behaviorism, or ahistorical ‘middle ground’ constructivism.

          • Daniel Levine

            One last point. The question you raise — “if indeed the factual basis is of no ultimate importance how should we refute alternative facts” is indeed the $50,000 question. I agree that we have fallen into a morass of “post-factual” relativism. I agree that it’s not a good thing. I agree that a popularized version of historical critique (viz. Bruno Latour’s essay from 2004, “Why Critique has Run out of Steam”) is partly to blame. It’s why I wrote the book I wrote. The only problem with all this is that _we cannot use history to adjudicate historical claims_. Not because we don’t wish to, but because _the practice of history doesn’t actually furnish us with definitive answers._ Historians can correct bad or false claims on a one-by-one basis — the Prime Minister’s claim, for example, that Amin El-Husseini actually ‘thought up’ the shoah has been roundly shown to be false. But larger historical worldviews — realpolitik vs. whiggism/liberalism? Not so much. The archive produces Ilan Pappes, Benny Morrises, Anita Shapiras — and Yoav Gelbers. There’s just nothing for it.

          • Matt

            Daniel: it sounds like a fascinating chapter (that I will have to read as soon as I can ILL it). While I cannot assess what you are doing in the chapter (as I have not been able to read the chapter or the edited volume), it makes me curious about the general question that Piki started with in the post. Your work, as I have seen it in your book and other places, has been an interesting intersection of different political science subfields that possess different sets of standards for comparisons. It looks like you are on the boundary of comparative politics, history, and political theory. Is there a set of discussions that are useful to look to in terms of comparison (that these subfields and disciplines can agree upon)? Are there thinkers and texts that are useful for understanding the limits and possibilities of comparisons (as a method and methodology)?

          • Daniel Levine

            If there are, I don’t know of them! I feel as though I am scratching around in the dark with a candle.

          • Daniel Levine

            ps – get in touch with me if you have trouble with ILL, I’ll make sure you get a copy. Thanks for your comments. 🙂

  • Daniel Levine

    Thanks for this reading, Piki, and for taking the time to be part of this.

    So I can’t help but feel as though some of the point of my original argument was missed. I don’t know whether it’s my writing or your reading, but let me try to correct what I think are the most damaging misreadings at work here. First, I don’t quite accept the claim that Shazar was not an historian: he studied at Gunzberg’s institute at St. Petersburg, then with Meinecke in Germany, and published fairly extensively. It’s true that his public work took over his academic work in a way that it did not with historians like Benzion Dinur, Yitzhak Baer or Yehezael Kaufmann (who actually were historians, whereas Buber and Magnes were not). It’s also certainly the case that, in the essays/speeches I cover he is more _calling_ for a new kind of history than actually writing it. But there is no great difference between him and ‘professional’ historians. Meinecke too is calling for a new history but not actually writing it. And I don’t think the history Rubashov/Shazar calls for is terribly different than the mainstream history we get in Israel: his voice, and the voice of official historical works like _Sefer Toldot ha-Hagana_ (The ‘official’ multiple-volume history of the haganah, edited by a team of professional historians and ex-haganah commanders) is not terribly different.

    Second, and more important: I’m just not sure if the comparative aspect of this essay is there. I’m not offering an intensive comparison between a ‘bad’ Rubashov/Shazar and a chastened or ‘good’ Meinecke. Rather, what I’m trying to do trace out how the turn to history happens in moments of catastrophe, moments in which prudent political action can be hard to arrive at. Rubashov’s catastrophe is the destruction of European Jewry. Meinecke’s catastrophe is Germany after national-socialism, in which his dream for a German imperial power must give way to something new. What’s on the block here is not zionism, but historicism; the way a particular view of the past feeds into our understandings of the present. I draw on this comparison because Rubashov was Meinecke’s student.

    Thus, the question of whether the historians I choose are ‘representative’ of ZIonism is sort of beside the point. I didn’t choose Rubashov, the editors of Ma’arakhot did, when they published his speeches. Ma’arakhot was, and is, an intellectual production that fuses the academic and the practical-political in particular ways, and for particular ends. In this period, Ma’arakhot was associated most closely with a wing of the Labor Zionist movement known as the ‘activists’ — Eliyahu Golomb, Dov Hoz, Shaul Avigur, Eliezer Livne, and others. They have chosen Rubashov because this speech did work for them. That’s what makes it interesting. That, and the fact that Rubashov’s ‘key’ to making sense of the present is to write a critique of how we read the past — and Meinecke makes the exact same move. That ought to tell us something.

    The move to Chayut, and to Said, follows from this. What’s interesting about Chayut is not his post-zionism (Yehuda Shaul, another prominent leader of Breaking the Silence, is not a post-zionist) but the fact that once he loses his history, he can’t function as a soldier anymore. Put differently, the connexion Rubashov and Meinecke glimpse between history and worldly action seems to hold pretty well.

    Said, for all his noble humanism, does the same: to locate his binationalism in israeli-palestinian space, he calls on historians to locate it in time.

    If this still seems obscure, suppose we shift away from Israel and Palestine for a second. There’s an enormous body of work that comes out of looking at climate change in the context of human activity and the power of human agency. One approach to this work is to suggest that sometime around the time of the industrial revolution, the world entered into a new historical era — the anthropocene. Entry into that era changes the basic conditions of human existence and the terms of its interaction with the non-human; that’s the reason to mark a point of departure from the holocene to something else. Here, again, then — it seems to be impossible to think through a moment before locating that moment in time, marking it off as distinct. And when people reject that historical narrative, despite all good evidence to the contrary — well, what can we learn from this? What are they actually rejecting? Perhaps what they are rejecting is a particular worldview — a universe with a particular kind of cause and effect, a universe in which divine intervention gives way to a complex mix of human freedom and human precarity.

    That is certainly what early zionist historians were trying to deal with as well: without the security of messianic redemption or the ancient covenant on which to rely anymore, they had only themselves if they were going to find a way in the world. That would require calmness, level-headedness, prudence, understanding, courage. That’s why Rubashov didn’t like the older liberal historiography of Heinrich Graetz or the non-zionist history of Simon Dubnow — because those histories would not be useful to the project of surviving in this world. The problem isn’t aesthetic or intellectual, in the first instance; it’s practical.

    This is what the epigraph to the paper tries to allude to — the business about a historian being ‘a bridge to his people’. At some point, sociologists like Weber, Tonnies, and Durkheim (and Jewish historians/theorists from Dubnov, Ruppin, and Natan Rotenstreich to Gershom Scholem, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, David Myers, and Eyal Chowers) told us, modernity sundered human communities from a common network of mythic time and communal belonging. The turn to historical thinking was meant to sew up that breach. But can it? Most historians and social theorists agree it cannot. And yet, we keep trying.

    One of the things we try to do as scholars is use history to adjudicate contemporary conflicts or political questions. But if it turns out that the past yields any number of possible accounts of itself, then that attempt to make history the adjudicator of the past is probably not going to work. It will turn into what Weber describes when we try to use science to replace myth — a series of rival religious sections, rather than a community. But isn’t that what we have now?

  • Daniel Levine

    I keep trying to post my reply, Piki and Matt, and it keeps getting taken down as spam. I’m sorry, and I will try to reply to these points as soon as I can.