The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Jonathan Hansen on World War I (Part II)

March 24, 2014

July 1917: U.S. Secretary of War, blindfolded, draws the first number in the draft lottery.

ZACH DORFMAN: The Selective Service Act of 1917 initiated America's first mass draft. Under its terms, 24 million men registered for military service. This was an unprecedented mobilization for the United States. As a consequence, the mass draft prompted a vigorous public debate on the boundaries of state power and on the meanings of American citizenship. What insights did the "cosmopolitan patriots" bring to the debate about citizenship and patriotism in America? Do they have any bearing on modern debates on the topic?

JONATHAN HANSEN: They certainly do. Let me start with patriotism then move to citizenship. What does it mean to be patriotic in a nation founded on a set of putative universal principles and composed primarily of immigrants and their descendants? This is a timeless question that first came to a head in World War I and received renewed attention (though not much debate) in the wake of 9/11. If post-9/11 political rhetoric is any guide, to be patriotic means to pledge uncritical loyalty to the U.S. government and military in wartime. But surely this definition fails to recognize important forms of civic devotion and leaves lots of work undone. Such patriotism bears little relation to good governance, after all, and seems out of date in an era in which local and national developments have global repercussions.

Evidence suggests that the current reduction of patriotism to militarism is a legacy of the national reconciliation struck by Union and Confederate veterans at the end of the 19th century. These Americans subordinated the causes for which the Union and the Confederacy had fought to abstract martial valor. Thus Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., addressing the graduating class of Harvard College on Memorial Day, 1895, could praise as "true and adorable" the faith "which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use."

If Holmes's sentiment seems unremarkable to us, remarkable indeed may seem the fact that, in stark contrast to today, many of Holmes's contemporaries protested his reduction of patriotism to soldiering. "We are sometimes asked," Frederick Douglass remarked, back in 1871, "in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember, with equal admiration, those who struck at the nation's life, and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery, and those who fought for liberty and justice." Douglass himself would not abide the divorce of patriotism from democratic principles.

Nor would William James, a lifelong friend of Holmes's. At the 1897 unveiling of the Shaw Memorial in Boston (honoring Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment), James celebrated the war for having once and for all exposed the "truth" perverting American nationhood. "Our great western republic had from its origin been a singular anomaly," he wrote. "A land of freedom, boastfully so-called, with human slavery enthroned at the heart of it....For three-quarters of a century it had nevertheless endured, kept together by policy, compromise, and concession. But at last that republic was torn in two; and truth was to be possible under the flag. Truth, thank God, truth! Even though for a moment it must be truth written in hell fire."

Steamrolled by the loyalty oaths and the Espionage Act of World War I, James's ideal of civic, critical patriotism tottered fitfully along until the Vietnam War, when the left bitterly abandoned an ideal apparently indistinguishable from jingoism. At some cost, I might add, as thereafter liberals have strained to make the case for economic justice in a rhetoric that might appeal to the nation as a whole. 

Like the debate about patriotism, the debate about citizenship that burst open during and just after World War I also had its roots in the late 19th century. In the spring of 1894, Theodore Roosevelt surveyed the United States from Washington, D.C., and concluded that the nations lacked the spirit of "true Americanism." Absent that spirit, the U.S. Civil Service commissioner warned, American democracy would succumb to social disintegration. A critic might protest that social disintegration is typically a byproduct of economic and political maladjustment; Roosevelt simply insisted that all could be made well if citizens did as their forefathers had done, namely, think, work, conquer, live, and die "purely as Americans."

Ostensibly the purity Roosevelt invoked pertained less to cultural homogeneity than to political and economic commitment. In Roosevelt's civic ideal, ethnically diverse, morally autonomous individuals pursued private ends within the constraints of a liberal political economy. But Roosevelt's vision was not culturally neutral. Anybody could participate in this national enterprise so long as he or she valued what Roosevelt valued—above all, the self-interested individualism at the core of Anglo-American liberal thought. Glorious opportunities awaited all who "cease to be Europeans, and become Americans like the rest of us," Roosevelt exclaimed. If "anarchists," "laborers who tend to depress the labor market," and assimilation-resistant "races" were disqualified out of hand, the rest had only to forsake old loves and loyalties—"to talk and think and be United States"—to qualify as true Americans.

Two decades later, on Independence Day, 1915, Louis D. Brandeis, soon to be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, propounded his own vision of "true Americanism" at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Amid mounting agitation over the war in Europe, President Wilson had urged his fellow citizens to make the Fourth of July "Americanization Day." Brandeis was only too happy to comply. "What is Americanization?" he demanded. Superficially, Americanization entailed immigrants' adopting American clothes and customs; significantly, it meant immigrants' learning and using English "as the common medium of speech." Yet language was nothing compared to the more fundamental shift of allegiance that Americanization implied. "Immigrants must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment," Brandeis remarked. Only then could they be said to "possess the national consciousness of Americans."

Thus far little distinguished Brandeis's ideal from Roosevelt's. But Brandeis acknowledged something Roosevelt did not: despite their strange customs and lack of English, many immigrants arrived in the new world "already truly American"—that is, already in harmony with American ideals. If their allegiance eroded on their arrival, the fault lay not with the newcomers but with the hosts' failure to extend liberal democratic rights and privileges to strangers. Prejudice and industrial dependence, not cultural diversity, threatened American democracy. It was the duty of all true Americans to safeguard equal opportunity and fair play.

Thus did World War I-era debates about patriotism coincide with an attempt by several prominent Progressive Era intellectuals to dislodge liberal democracy from its mooring in Anglo-American culture and history and to reestablish it on a civic foundation consistent with cultural pluralism. These thinkers all assumed that effective government requires a sense of community or "peoplehood." They all recognized that political communities, like cultural communities, are constituted by boundaries and exclusions. The nation's urgent challenge, as they saw it, was to articulate an ideal of American national identity capable of balancing the principles of individuality and cultural inclusiveness with a sense of civic solidarity.

ZACH DORFMAN: In many quarters of the United States, World War I was deeply unpopular. Did dissidents attempt to organize and act politically as a group? How were individual dissidents such as Randolph Bourne, Jane Addams, and Eugene Debs treated, and what impact did this have for the future treatment of dissident groups across the country?

JONATHAN HANSEN: The entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917 swamped cosmopolitan patriotism in a wave of jingoism. The civil loyalty that the likes of Addams, John Dewey, and Louis Brandeis had hoped to cultivate via economic and political reforms and social insurance was created artificially by court order, nationalist propaganda, and loyalty oaths. The nation that emerged from war in 1919 was arguably less tolerant of ethnic and racial minorities than at any time in its history. Government officials and other shapers of public opinion campaigned assiduously not for cultural pluralism but against communism, anarchism, and other movements for social equality. The ensuing Red Scare spawned conditions favorable to the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which, by establishing immigrant quotas based on national origin, effectively silenced the idea that cultural diversity was America's greatest asset. Pluralist arguments would emerge episodically among American intellectuals over the next 50 years, but not until the 1960s and 1970s would Americans take up the problem of cultural diversity in a serious way.

Like their pro-war compatriots who had hearkened to Woodrow Wilson's millennial promise, Debs and Addams had to come to terms after the armistice with the dashing of their prophecies of peace. America's wartime jingoism along with the political reaction and renewed racism that followed the return of American troops from Europe soured the cosmopolitans—as it did so many American intellectuals and cultural critics—to the very concept of patriotism, which never recovered its association with critical vigilance.

Released from jail in late 1921, Debs spent the last five years of his life futilely trying to capitalize on the momentous events of the Russian Revolution; ironically, Debs's focus on Russia robbed his critique of potency by eroding its emphasis on American principles. Jane Addams renewed her search for a mechanism by which to end war. But she stopped referring to the long-sought "moral substitute" in the language of patriotism. In 1918, Addams helped found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization that occupied much of her time during the 1920s, directing her attention away from the problem of American identity and toward the issue of international mediation. Du Bois grew increasingly frustrated at America's racial intransigence. Throwing himself back into the fight for civil rights, he expressed less confidence that the United States might become a truly cosmopolitan nation; the thought that the country would one day allow African Americans to vote seemed implausible enough. Meanwhile John Dewey, apparently overcompensating for his self-described naiveté about the potential benefit of war, embarked on a campaign to "outlaw" war entirely.

In 1922, Jane Addams looked back on her effort to promote a pacifist, cosmopolitan, industrial democracy and concluded that she had not anticipated how stubbornly individuals would cling to the ideal of "separate national existence." By almost any measure, her and Debs's cosmopolitanism had failed abjectly. Except in the minds of a few idealists, war appeared to be as entrenched as ever, the new international order seemed an idle shibboleth, and Americans had become more isolationist, more suspicious of strangers, and readier than ever to erect new barriers to immigration.

One cannot fault Debs or Adams their idealism. But one can critique the assumptions that led them to predict, on the very eve of war, that war has lost its legitimacy and allure. At the heart of their miscalculation lay an indomitable faith in the power of Western principles to promote international comity. They presumed that other cultures would yield obligingly before the advance of Western technology and commerce, never acknowledging that commerce and technology could serve paradoxically as the engine of war. Though pacifist, their imperialism was not benign. By promoting Western principles as the world's salvation, they may have inadvertently encouraged the messianism that spirited America into battle.

If the Great War proved anything it was that war makes losers of all parties.                                                                  

ZACH DORFMAN: Even on the very eve of World War I, many of the cosmopolitan patriots (as well as some other public figures of the time, like Andrew Carnegie) believed that creating a world free of war, founded upon a shared global morality, was possible. Amid the carnage and horrors of World War I—and then, of course, in the aftermath of World War II—this kind of transnationalism was dismissed by many as mere naïveté. While the vision for global citizenship proffered by the cosmopolitan patriots failed during their own lifetimes, what do you think of its long-term legacy and impact? How can the concept of a shared global morality be reconciled with 21st century challenges?

JONATHAN HANSEN: There is no denying that cosmopolitan patriotism met its match in World War I. At its best, cosmopolitan patriotism refused to separate local economic, political, and moral practices and commitments from national and global developments. War imperiled cosmopolitan patriotism by eroding the sympathy and reciprocity that sustained awareness of these interconnections. Rooted in a commitment to civic vigilance, cosmopolitan patriotism withered in a political atmosphere impatient with civil liberty and democratic deliberation. Increasingly on the political defensive, Debs, Addams, and Du Bois resorted to bald pronouncements and bland prophesizing. Cosmopolitan patriotism lost its dynamism.

That said, at their best, James, Addams, and Du Bois, especially, distinguished the global diffusion of conditions conducive to self-realization and democratic governance from the forced imposition of American institutions and Western civilization on allegedly laggard peoples. James warned that it is hard for one people to understand another people's ways and needs; hence, he remained deeply skeptical that Americans could recognize, much less promote, the interests of the Filipino people, once they were free of Spanish oppression. Addams insisted that the will to self-government was by no means the province of the West, and that Americans could learn as much about self-government from, say, the Filipinos as the Filipinos could learn from us.

In sum, the cosmopolitan patriots aimed to promote genuine social and cultural reciprocity between Western and non-Western nations, though they perhaps inadequately appreciated how difficult it is to achieve reciprocity in the face of economic and political inequality. This seems a lesson in need of constant reinforcement, in our day as well as theirs. Common work is the source of commonweal—whether local, national, or global. It seems wishful to me to expect global affiliations, global morality, to trump or displace national and local affiliation. All are essential components of who we are and who we'll remain. Yes, these affiliations are often in tension; tension, too, is an ineradicable fact of human life.

ZACH DORFMAN: You and other historians have described Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy as "idealist" in orientation, given his focus on the principle of national self-determination, international institutions, and global democratization. Do you think the "idealist" label for Wilson is appropriate? And what did the cosmopolitan patriots, many of whom considered themselves idealists of a sort, think about Wilson's foreign policy principles?

JONATHAN HANSEN: In November 1912, Americans selected as their next president a man whose first four years in office would make him look like a cosmopolitan. In November 1916, Americans returned that president to power, little reckoning how war could transform a practical and charismatic leader into a sullen and solitary ideologue. The latter Woodrow Wilson lay dormant in the former, suggesting the vapidity of cosmopolitanism when cut loose from local political practices. The more Germany and its allies seemed to imperil American democracy, the more Wilson adopted policies contradictory to democracy to vanquish the German threat. Of the cosmopolitan patriots and their allies only Debs, Addams, and the critic Randolph Bourne resisted war's siren call. But their fortitude proved cold comfort in the end, as war bred a popular fury inimical to their pragmatism—one that equated skepticism with dissent, and dissent, in turn, with treason.

Wilson's cosmopolitanism was as much a product of historical circumstance as of ideological commitment. The legislative achievements of his first term reflected national resolve, mounting over the course of the previous two decades, to correct the blatant indignities of corporate industrialism. This was an epoch unprecedented in American history, Wilson announced in his Second Inaugural Address. Never before had the nation as a whole been so eager to "set our house in order, correct the grosser errors and abuses of our industrial life, liberate and quicken the processes of our national genius and energy, and lift our politics to a broader view of the people's essential interest." Progressives such as Addams shared the president's enthusiasm. Campaigning for Wilson in autumn 1916, Addams praised his administration for protecting workers' rights, promoting the general welfare, and furthering the cause of international peace. In foreign affairs, Addams marveled, Wilson's "consistent concern for the man at the bottom" inspired the remarkable conviction "that the Mexicans should have an opportunity to work their own political institutions" free from outside coercion.

Like the cosmopolitan patriots, Wilson viewed political cynicism and the disempowerment of immigrant minorities as the principal impediments to national well-being. With them, he regarded sympathy and mutual obligation as essential civic virtues. On Independence Day, 1916, he associated a multitude of flags arrayed before him with Americans' obligation to take an interest in one another. "Every one of those flags," the President chided, "ought to have suggested to every one of us that we have not yet fulfilled the full conscientious duty of America in understanding each other and, through comprehension of each other, understanding and serving the world." Familiarity was essential to democratic coalition building. Where authoritarian regimes demanded only their subjects' fealty, democratic rule depended on citizens' readiness to work cooperatively.

On point after point, the president's rhetoric seemed to accord with the tenets of cosmopolitan patriotism. And yet there was a portentous quality to Wilson's words. As long as calm prevailed, Americans might uphold his association of honor and honesty, patriotism and candor, and nationalism with individual autonomy. But calm proved elusive in a nation composed of representatives of Europe's warring parties. German naval aggression polarized American opinion in the second year of the war. Wilson's thinking betrayed a conformist impulse; his calls for unity conveyed a certain volkishness. Lately a champion of democracy and dissent, Wilson grew hostile to dissent on the eve of his second term.

Historian Thomas Knock portrayed the author of the Fourteen Points as the pivot of a spectrum of Progressive and radical Democrats extending from Herbert Croly to John Dewey to Max Eastman, Mother Jones, and Debs. But no matter how much Debs and Addams may have sympathized with Wilson's vision of a League of Nations, long before 1918 they had become skeptical of his commitment to democracy. By the time that the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Wilson had all but throttled free speech. To be sure, war also compromised cosmopolitan patriotism; but, no matter what their professed opinion of the war, the cosmopolitan patriots remained skeptical of the idealist fallacy that one could suspend democracy in democracy's name without wreaking inestimable damage.

In April 1915, President Wilson warned that the word "neutrality" did not adequately describe America's perspective toward the combatants. As the custodian of "justice and righteousness and human liberty," America could never watch indifferently or self-interestedly—as neutrality seemed to imply—while modern civilization went down in ruin. "We are compounded of the nations of the world," he told the Associated Press; "we mediate their blood, we mediate their traditions, we mediate their sentiments, their tastes, their passions." Thus America was uniquely equipped to comprehend the nations, Wilson maintained, not individually but collectively. With its eye on the big picture, the United States could straddle the scales of justice, interpreting the warring parties to on another, arbitrating differences, paving the path to peace. But only as long as Americans withstood war's centripetal force, an imperative that called forth virtues never before realized, according to the president—"absolute self-control and self-mastery."

Among other things this meant elevating truth over innuendo. Truth, the president suggested, tended to be a stabilizing force, whereas innuendo fueled flights of fancy incompatible with mastery. Historian Garry Wills traces Wilson's decent from mastery to the sinking of the Lusitania. By demonizing the submarine as he would later demonize pacifism, Wilson lent his imprimatur to Americans' forfeiture of critical vigilance to blind loyalty. In the interest of permanently exorcizing evil, who could oppose a temporary abridgment of civil rights? By the time Wilson embarked on his preparedness campaign the next fall, his latent idealism had pushed its way to the fore. "I love peace," Wilson told an audience in Pittsburgh, "but I know that peace costs something" and is dependent on "respect." I loathe might, he assured his listeners, but America's was the "might of righteous purpose and of a sincere love for the freedom of mankind." Where liberty and justice had once been Wilson's watchwords, by 1916, "honor" and "flag" had become his operative terms.

A month before America formally entered the war, Wilson proved war's peril to cosmopolitan patriotism. Though there was work left to be done at home, Wilson announced in his Second Inaugural, Americans knew "that the greatest things that remain to be done must be done with the whole world for our stage and in cooperation with the wide and universal forces of mankind, and we are making our spirits ready for those things." Where term-one Wilson had regarded America's foreign and domestic initiatives as part of a single, simultaneous, and open-ended enterprise, term-two Wilson distinguished between work done at home and abroad, thereby clearing the way for persecuting individuals who remained as committed to local liberty as they were about the nation's international agenda. Persecution was not long in coming. On Flag Day 1917, the president accused all who disagreed with his war platform of sympathizing with Germany.

ZACH DORFMAN: In your opinion, what was the most important consequence of World War I? If there was one consequence or lesson you would wish to impart about how the effect of that war still lives today in the laws, norms, or culture of the contemporary United States, what would that be?

JONATHAN HANSEN: If the experience of World War I can teach us anything, it is the seemingly obvious but nonetheless constantly overlooked lesson that war unleashes consequences that simply cannot be anticipated. Dewey especially came to understand that war is an unlikely vehicle for progressive change, as many liberals and neo-conservatives today count on it to be. Were the cosmopolitan patriots around today, they would undoubtedly sympathize with America's immediate military response to 9/11, but they would not be among those liberal and conservative voices that refuse to connect the events of 9/11 with a broad and deep-seated, historically-rooted hostility to American global hegemony. The cosmopolitan patriots would be skeptical of the Bush administration doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention, first, because it seems likely to lead to unforeseen and unwanted consequences, and second, because it ignores a less costly, more morally defensible type of pre-emptive action—namely withdrawing U.S. support for autocratic political regimes around the world while promoting individual well-being via investment in global health care, sanitation, and human rights. Above all, the cosmopolitan patriots would regret the ideological hubris, sanctimony, and self-righteousness issuing from liberal militarists and conservatives alike, which has radically constrained (if not entirely quashed) democratic deliberation in today's America. That, too, has its analog in World War I—in Woodrow Wilson's steady descent into ideological purity, really a form of blindness. Let's hope we can avert the disaster that ensued thereafter.

The "simplistic, jingoistic, rah-rah Americanism" that passes for patriotism in our day first emerged at the end of the 19th century, as corporate and political elites attempted to stifle dissent and defend their interests under the rubric of patriotism. The cosmopolitan patriots insisted, first, that love of country need not imply hostility to other countries, and, second, that dissent—or critical engagement with one's country—constituted an essential form of "love." They vigorously denied the notion, ascendant in their day, that patriotism entails uncritical loyalty to the government and to the military in wartime. America was born of an act of defiance toward Britain, after all, making the dissent equals disloyalty argument patently absurd. The cosmopolitan patriots sought to realize equal opportunity and equality before the law for all Americans, and they associated America with these political ideals. They simply did not equate "country" with a given political administration, nor with the American military—both of which seemed as likely to pursue policies unfavorable to liberal democracy as those conducive to it.

Citizens can disagree, of course, about whether U.S. policy in the Middle East promotes or erodes liberal democratic values, but to impugn the loyalty of those who dissented from Bush administration policy in the aftermath of 9/11 was, to paraphrase John Dewey, to be a traitor to democratic principles. Opposition to Bush policy had nothing to do with supporting or not supporting our troops; the cosmopolitan patriots readily acknowledged the valor of citizens who would sacrifice themselves for their nation. But to distinguish troops fighting to promote liberal democracy from, say, Spanish troops that fought to maintain possession of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, one has to keep a critical eye on the political validity and moral rectitude of the cause at hand. In the absence of such critical vigilance, patriotism becomes utterly arbitrary.

The cosmopolitan patriots would have been mystified by the suggestion that dissent is somehow un-American. America was born in an act of defiance; the American republican experiment can be declared dead once political minorities lose the right to dissent publicly. Social and political progress depends on dissent. Those who would quash dissent are inherently reactionary and self-serving—indeed, unpatriotic. Evidence that the Bush administration exaggerated accounts of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as many critics feared, highlights the necessity, nay imperative, for citizens to critically scrutinize government policy. As cosmopolitan patriots like James acknowledged, nowhere is critical scrutiny of government more necessary and more difficult to maintain than in the area of foreign policy, with all its "classified" secrets. In this arena perhaps more than anywhere else, citizens have to ask questions and speak out.

We live in a fragmented society, with people of a variety of cultural, religious, and social backgrounds struggling to find common cause. The cosmopolitan patriots have much to offer those who would try to balance nationalism and pluralism, keeping America strong and safe with safeguarding individual liberties and seeking social justice. Their world was not so different from ours. In general, they argued that the best way to retain a sense of national solidarity, or loyalty, was to demonstrate the importance of the national solidarity—specifically the federal government—to the well-being of all Americans rather than simply to the interests of the elite few. E Pluribus Unum meets Quid Pro Quo. The cosmopolitan patriots did not regard local loyalty (whether ethnic, racial, religious, regional) as anathema to national loyalty, or national loyalty, in turn, as necessarily inimical to global affiliation. They recognized, as we say today, that identity is "dialogical": that is, that our identities develop in relationship to the constraints entailed in and opportunities provided by various sorts of communities. For example, we first learn what loyalty means at the local level; without the education in obligation we get at the local level, national loyalty would be impossible.

The cosmopolitan patriots defended cultural pluralism—the right of different ethnic and racial groups to flourish—but never as an end in itself. Their end was political, rather than cultural. Above all, they prized the right of individuals to self-realization achieved through politics and the vehicles of equal opportunity and equality before the law. True liberal individualists, they were always suspicious about claims to cultural authenticity because they knew, first, that culture is never static, and, second, that such claims typically advance the interests of the arbiters of authenticity rather than the well-being of the ordinary members of cultural communities. In short, the cosmopolitan patriots recognized that solidarity is perhaps the most potent form of power. And that affiliations change with context. When America is attacked by terrorists, the citizens of America will come together to defend and assist one another. But such solidarity will inevitably diminish...until the next attack. Meanwhile, more local and/or global affiliations move to the fore. This practical fact does not mean that our various affiliations are inherently contradictory—though they may, indeed, conflict. But conflict is what makes life interesting, challenging, both morally and politically. A patriotism that defines itself in opposition to local interests and global needs undercuts its two most crucial sources of sustenance and support.

ZACH DORFMAN: How should World War I be commemorated—if at all—in a manner that is both meaningful and relevant to our times?

JONATHAN HANSEN: As a historian, I'm the wrong person to ask if World War I should be commemorated. Obviously! We are now a nation at war, if not a warring nation, and scrutiny of how past wars have influenced our social and civic life seems potentially instructive. A nation that is not fully conscious of its past is like a person with a partial memory—like a not fully constituted subject—prone to blindness and blunder and a lack of self-awareness. We all know what it's like to confront such a person; much of the world knows what it's like to confront such a nation when it confronts the United States, so ignorant of much of its own history.

How does history construct? I think Santayana overstated the case that history repeats itself when forgotten. We go to history not to sidestep crises unanticipated in a former era, nor for answers to the problems we face, but to understand the problems themselves, and how others have responded to them—for tendencies, patterns, insight, rather than for solutions. The examples that I have examined here provide insight into the sort of dilemmas an economically stratified, culturally diverse, and politically divided society will face when it galvanizes for war. It's not a pretty story, but war is never a happy medium. In our division there is strength.

For Part I of this interview, click here.

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