The Great Antidote – Shikha Dalmia

On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Shikha Dalmia. In their discussion, Juliette and Shikha cover Nationalism, its history, and its rise in the modern world.


Guest Bio

Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Week, a former senior analyst at Reason Foundation, and winner of the inaugural Bastiat Prize for Online Journalism. She served on the editorial board of the Detroit News for nearly a decade. She is a frequent contributor to Reason magazine and The Wall Street Journal as well as many other publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Weekly Standard, and LiveMint, India. She lives near Detroit and writes about a host of issues ranging from the auto industry and the economy to environmentalism and health care. She considers herself to be a progressive libertarian and an agnostic with Buddhist longings and a Sufi soul.


Episode Transcript

Juliette Sellgren: Hi! Today, it is my pleasure to talk to Shikha Dalmia. Shikha is a columnist at The Week and other places. She’s a tireless advocate for immigration reform, and today, I want us to talk about an issue that is somewhat related to immigration, if only indirectly, and that’s the rise of nationalism, specifically right-wing nationalism in the United States. Welcome!

Shikha Dalmia: Thanks a lot for having me on, Juliette.

Juliette: Before we get started, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?

Shikha: That’s a very hard question because I’m not sure what your generation knows because I’m 500 years old, so I’m not sure what you don’t know. In general, it is going by my experience from when I was your age to my age now, I think when we are young, we get taken up with the power of ideas, we understand the world through intellectual discovery, and that can be very exhilarating. That’s when we get one idea that helps us make sense of something we’ve observed or seen, we think ideas is all we need to make sense of the world, but the old cliche that experience matters is actually quite true. As you get older, you actually forget a lot of the things that you’ve learned or what you first knew. It’s amazing to me how much one forgets. What one starts relying on is like the aggregate of experiences that one has acquired over the years, as you’ve grown older.

My advice is that it’s very exhilarating when one is your age to discover new ideas, and that’s great. Keep discovering new ideas, but don’t get stuck on one idea. If I have an idea, I use it to engage other ideas, and that is broader in some set of experiences that you have, which will come in very handy later in life. Do not get too stereotypical, too ossified in your thinking. Experience, you’ll realize, will start to matter more.

I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think maybe it’ll make sense as you get older and you are 500 years old like I am.

Juliette: It makes a good amount of sense. I’ll definitely try to keep that in mind. That’s not something I’ve been aware of because to me, right now, ideas is the bulk of what I used to understand the world, so you’re right.

Let’s talk about nationalism. I know nationalism is used interchangeably with a lot of different words that are somewhat similar but have different distinctions within them. What is your definition of nationalism?

Shikha: Nationalism is sometimes an idea, and sometimes it’s an ideology. If you understand it as an ideology, it is an ideology which says that there is a fixed identity to a collective called nation. There is a nation-state, there is a country, there is America, France, India. Each of them have a defining idea that makes them a nation, as opposed to other countries that may have some other different ideas. It is a sense of an ideology that gives you an identity based on the country that you are living in.

Juliette: I see. It seems like, over the past years, nationalism has been rising over the entire world, from Donald Trump to Prime Minister of India, Modi, and the Turkish President, Erdogan, I think I’m pronouncing that correctly, the success of far-right parties all over Italy, Germany, Austria, in 2017, 2018, it seems to be on the rise everywhere. Let’s focus primarily on the United States because that’s where we are and that’s where the focus is. What was American nationalism and how does it differ from nationalism in, let’s say, India?

Shikha: Those are very good and big questions. First of all, even though nationalism right now is a right-wing phenomenon as you’ve mentioned, that has not actually historically been the case. Nationalism has been variously, for the last 250 years, both been associated with the left and right.

I think if you look at history, nationalism originally arose to push back against colonial domination. At that time, it was very much an idea of the left, because it was really progressive forces that were fighting against colonialism. At the end of World War I, you saw the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire, they collapsed and led to a whole set of nationalist movements within Europe. Nationalism was the idea that gave people the strength and sense of an identity that they needed, in order to push back against colonialism. It was a way of saying, “We have our own identity. We are a nation and we don’t want to be ruled by foreign powers.” That idea of nationalism that, “We are a nation and we need self-rule, not foreign rule,” into a real head of the Second World War, when after the defeat of Nazism and fascism, the British Empire which actually won, also collapsed. It collapsed very spectacularly in India, which is where I come from.

In India, you’ve heard of Mahatma Gandhi, he used a certain idea of nationalism to unite the Indian people, give them an Indian identity to fight back against British colonialism. It was extremely powerful. At that point nationalism was actually a unifying idea. India, in contrast to many other homogeneous countries, is actually a very diverse country. It has many religions, languages, even different ethnicities. Gandhi needed a way to unite all of them under one umbrella to be able to fight British colonial rulers. That was a good sense of nationalism. That was the inclusive sense of nationalism because it was against oppression by foreign rulers, injustice by foreign rulers who were ruling people whom they were colonizing not in their interest, not in the interests of the people who were colonized, but in the interest of the British colonies, whom they were representing. That was a good, powerful, progressive idea of nationalism.

What we are seeing now, in fact, is a different kind of nationalism. This is an exclusionary nationalism. This nationalism wants to say, “There are Americans and Americans are people who have certain characteristics. We will not include within this nationalism, these other people.” In different countries, who this “other” is, is different, different countries that are experiencing different forms of right-wing nationalism. The other can be, in the case of India, because it has a lot of Hindu people, I was born in a Hindu family even though I’m not a practicing Hindu anymore, but 80% of India is Hindu and Prime Minister Modi is a Hindu nationalist. He says, “You can’t really be an Indian unless you are a Hindu,” so his form of nationalism is a Hindu nationalism that wants to turn Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups in the country into others, into foreign people, even though they’ve lived in India for generations and centuries.

In America, the idea is different. The nationalism of Donald Trump, for us, he was against mainly immigrants, some other people do, but mainly immigrants. His idea was that even though, if you understand American history, you understand that America is a country of immigrants, yet he wants to slice and dice Americans into immigrants versus non-immigrants or native citizens. That’s what his idea of nationalism comes from, excluding people who seem foreign to him, or foreign to a lot of Americans. That’s like the basis of right-wing nationalism in America.

Juliette: When did this trend of not nationalism, in the inclusionary sense, when did that change occur in the United States, and why?

Shikha: That’s also a very good question. America, unlike many European countries like France or England, it never had any identity as such. One has a sense that it means something to be a Frenchman. You speak the French language and you have certain customs, certain way of living, which define you as French. The British have their own sense of identity. They have a common language, they have Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

America was never a country like that. America was founded by European settlers who were fleeing religious persecution and oppression in Europe. America, at some point, also had a lot of slaves. American founding was based on an idea. It was just based on this idea, which is to me, the cornerstone of what we call “liberalism” or “liberal democracy”, that defines people, and what makes people is not that they belong to a certain tribe or speak a certain language, but they adhere to a certain set of ideas. Those ideas are individual rights, equality before the law, justice, that these principles are what we all agree on and what makes us Americans. That idea has been getting lost in America in the last 30, 40 years. There are many theories about what has caused this loss in this faith in this American liberalism; what makes us Americans is a self-commitment to a certain set of ideas and principles of justice.

Now, the right over here is in search of an identity. It’s a search of an artificial identity to substitute this loyalty to ideas, to this loyalty to some other group
identity, whether it is language, religion, or something else. Over the last 30 years, the right has been trying different sources of identity. At one point, there was a huge movement against bilingualism in the United States. English was supposed to be what made Americans, Americans, that we all speak English. Hispanics, who speak largely Spanish, were considered not part of this identity. Now, that has broadened to include all immigrants. A lot of immigrants actually speak English, like I speak English, your mother is French, she speaks English, but that’s no longer the cornerstone of for the right of being American. Now, the action is on certain and religious identities that if you are Islam, it’s not a religion that’s considered to be compatible with this American identity. If you are not White, if you’re a person of color, then you are not part of that American identity.

Now, the rights idea is shifting from ideas to group identity, and the right is in search of what is group identity ought to be, to anchor this new kind of American nationalism.

Juliette: It’s very contrary to the whole pride of America being this place where anyone can come and join in. You don’t have to speak English, you don’t have to follow a certain religion, and that’s not enforced by law,. It just seems to go against all of that, which we were founded on.

Shikha: That’s absolutely right. In some ways, in my view, we are going to talk in terms of what’s American and what’s not American to me. Many immigrants come to America just because they are either fleeing some kind of religious persecution and they are looking for a place where they can practice their faith without persecution by the state, or they are just coming here to participate in a market economy which provides better economic opportunities. All of them, in some ways, are buying into American principles more than these new right-wing nationalists who want to understand Americans, not as individuals, but as part of certain groups, whether it is by race, religion, ethnicity, or what have you, but that’s, in some ways, fundamentally un-American[?] and all the people whom they are calling un-American are the [inaudible] Americans.

Juliette: It’s interesting to me because this doesn’t necessarily follow a trend, but from what I’ve observed in my own life is that immigrants usually have a bigger respect for things like the Constitution and our history, things which people who were born here, have been here, and have had family here for generations usually take for granted. It’s not everyone, but it’s more than, I don’t know how to explain it. Does that make any sense?

Shikha: Yeah, it absolutely makes sense. Actually, if you look at a few researches which does a lot of polls of attitudes about America and trust in American institutions and American values, interestingly, they always find that immigrants, even from Islamic countries, which these right-wing people will tell you, can’t be American, they have more faith in American institutions. They are more satisfied with their life in America than Americans over here. I think the reason for that is that because these people have come from places where they have seen [inaudible] oppression, they have seen real persecution, deprivation, economic deprivation, they have a reference point by which they can compare what America means to them, whereas Americans who lived here for a long time just take the power of these ideas and why America works, for granted. If you’ve been an American whose forefathers go back 7, 8 generations, you don’t see how America works. You can see why America doesn’t work because you don’t quite know how much worse things really can be. Immigrants who come over here, really from [inaudible] that are not functioning [inaudible], they have a reference point. They know why these countries don’t work, and America works. They have this intuitive, instinctive, emotional connection to America in a way that Americans who’ve been here a long time, don’t act. [crosstalk] Does that make sense?

Juliette: Yeah. What kind of policies do conservative nationalists want to see implemented?

Shikha: They haven’t quite figured out a full program of enforcing a certain kind of nationalism. The first thing is, they don’t want more immigrants. They think immigrants dilute whatever identity it is that they have in their head, so they look different, speak foreign languages, have accented English like I do. They think that prevents a certain kind of American collective identity from cohering. The first agenda is to not allow more immigrants to come.

You pointed out that I write a lot about immigration, and to me, America, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term, “the nation of nations”.

Juliette: Yes.

Shikha: That’s what America has been called, “the nation of nations”. They don’t want that nation of nations, they just want a nation. They want to stop other nationalities from coming to the United States, that’s one part of it. They also go further than that. They think that if America is for Americans, then Americans are entitled to certain kinds of privileges from the state, government, that other people are not.

Trump, one of the policies he initiated was “Buy American, Hire American” which meant that if you were going to do business with the federal government, if you wanted contracts from the federal government, then you needed to use American products and use American labor. You’re not only citizens of the United States. That was one way in which he was trying to promote his nationalistic policies.

The other part of it is they don’t like trade, which is interesting, because the right in this country, at least since Reagan, has always been more favorable to trade than the Democratic party. Now, that has reversed. Now, it is Republicans who are against trade, because trade means globalization, and globalization means that Native American workers have to compete with people in other countries, and they don’t want that. They attack trade. That’s another way of doing business in the country with Americans and not doing business with people outside the country, are like 2 pillars of this kind of nationalism.

Juliette: Trump’s whole “Buy American, Hire American” was continued by Biden and as you mentioned, their resistance to trade mimics that of the left. It seems as though they are joining together on this front, not in words, no one will say it, but in their policy plans and in the policies that they push, they seem very similar.

Shikha: In some ways, yes. It’s more rhetoric and rhetoric matters, actually. In some ways, that is the case. Historically, it is absolutely true that it was the left that was against globalization. You’re probably too young to remember this, but about 20, 25 years ago, when the question of trade with China, how much should the United States trade with a country like China, was a big issue. It was the left that was opposed to it in many ways. The left thought that globalization didn’t lead to prosperity in other countries. It felt it led to a race to the bottom as corporations in the West moved their operations overseas, and then used cheap child labor or poor working conditions, and they taught trade; therefore, in globalization, it was bad for these other countries.

What the right has done, it flipped the script. It’s saying globalization is not bad for poor, emerging countries; it’s bad for us. That’s the big difference between the left’s attack on globalization and the right’s attack on trade and globalization. Since they are both against globalization and trade, the 2 sides are now, in some ways, that’s my fear, that they’ll be this bipartisan consensus against trade. Immigration is different.

On immigration, I think the right is enough or worse place than the left. The left used to be in the same place as the right, but the right now is in a far, worse place on immigration than the left. Partly, it’s because I think the left is more interested in or cares more about minorities, poor people, and people of color. That keeps away some of the native sentiment from re-creeping in the left, although the left used to be pretty nativist in its own right, once upon a time.

Juliette: In A piece from Reason from 2020, you know that quote, “A top-down national engineering and anti-immigration project like the one pushed by the new right nationalists will absolutely not unite the country, but instead it will backfire and force Americans, paradoxically, to turn their backs on the one true source of the rootedness, the founding principles of equality, individual rights, and human dignity, universal principles that unite them, not just with each other, but with the rest of humanity.” Can you expand on this and explain what you mean when you say that?

Shikha: Yeah. The point I was trying to make over there was that the right in this country wants to be exclusionary, like we discussed. It wants to exclude mainly immigrants, foreigners from the country. How do you do that? It wants to have citizenship there, more if there is already a citizenship test if you have an immigrant and you want to become a naturalized citizen, you have to take a citizenship test. You have to show that you have a certain understanding of American Civics. You understand American form of government and all of that.

Now, the right wants to go further. What the right wants to do is, it wants immigrants who come to this country take something equivalent to a loyalty oath, “that we are going to be loyal to certain principles of America”. We can debate, they can debate how they are going to define that. My point in that was, “Okay, if you’re going to have a test for immigrants, there is inevitably going to be political pressure to then judge Americans by that test, too.”

If you don’t want immigrants in this country who are let’s say, against the First Amendment, you are then going to have to use that same test to judge Americans who are against the First Amendment. Now, I’m a big partisan of the first amendment. I think the First Amendment is a very good faith. There is a reasonable discussion to be had about the First Amendment. You know if you’re a free country, you are debating and discussing fundamental notions about that country all the time. If this is the case, then ironically, to protect the First Amendment, you are going to have to say that a lot of Americans who are not for the First Amendment are not Americans.

This principle eats itself up. If you’re going to judge immigrants by a political criteria, that same political criteria will have to be applied, eventually, to Americans. You will end up slicing and dicing Americans based on some political criteria. If you slice and dice Americans, what will happen is that instead of uniting Americans around a single idea, you’re going to divide them across many political criteria. Democrats will have their own political criteria, what an American ought to be, conservatives will have their own, religious people will have their own, instead of leaving us all alone, we are all going to be judged by various factions. Does that make sense?

Juliette: Yes. Yeah, I see. Is that the case anywhere else in the world? Are there places where there has been some grouping policy to exclude a group from a country or something like that, and then, it has been turned inward to hurt the people in the country?

Shikha: Well, the most famous example, of course, is of Nazi Germany. That is the epitome of a certain kind of nationalism. Nazism calls itself national socialism. It spectacularly turned against the Jews. That’s what you see in history. Polities turning against their own citizens is just about as common as you can imagine, historically. Having domestic enemies, that was a feature of Communism.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union in Russia, if you didn’t believe in the communist ideology, it didn’t matter how long you had lived in Russia, you were just an enemy of the country and you were the enemy of the state, and you were sent off to Siberia.

In Nazi, Germany, Jews and gypsies were famously considered to be enemies of Germany, and they were sent to concentration camps.

In India right now, you mentioned Prime Minister Modi, he is doing everything in his power to turn against the 120 million Muslims live in India. He wants now, all kinds of State policies to give fewer benefits and protections to Muslims. Where that’s going to go, we’ll see. Before corona happened, he was building detention camps all over the country to send off Muslims who could not prove that they were Indian citizens. He wants to send them to detention camps.

Not quite in America, it wasn’t quite as bad, but as you know, Trump was building detention camps for people from foreign countries, asylum seekers who were coming over here. That was more of an effort against outsiders, but the same effort that Trump was using against outsiders have been historically used against insiders many times.

Juliette: At Reason, Stephanie Slade wrote a piece about nationalism and patriotism. She quotes Orwell, and the quote reads, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism,” and then she continues, “Both words are normally used in so vague a way, that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since 2 different and even opposing ideas are involved.” They can be used interchangeably, but what is the distinction between the two? How does this relate to America? In the context of America, what does it mean?

Shikha: I think the distinction that Stephanie was trying to draw there was, there is a good sense of patriotism. Being patriotic simply means that you love your country; it doesn’t mean that you hate other countries. You just love your country because it’s your own country.

Nationalism, on the other hand, at least now, is more exclusionary change[?] to it, as we discussed. Nationalism is more about, “My country is better than your country,” as patriotism is, “I just love my country.” Now, that’s the distinction that I think Orwell was making.

On the other hand, I think Oscar Wilde, it was, who also called patriotism “the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Patriotism can be also just another cheap ideology where, “I’m better than you because I love my country. I’m more patriotic than you.” When it becomes a way of morally, assessing the citizenry, patriotism can also become a problem. That’s the path we are on in the United States, at least when it comes to certain right-wing ideas. During the last 6 years of Trump, I don’t know if you noticed it or your generation noticed it, but a lot of us were quite freaked out about this, this idea that there is a certain way of loving America, that there is a certain kind of love that you have to exhibit towards America. If you don’t love America in this particular way, then you are unpatriotic. That was a dangerous road to go in.

In my view, both nationalism and patriotism can be good or bad. It just depends on what kind of an idea they are anchored in. Patriotism, that’s a capacious patriotism that believes in Liberal democracy including everybody in that, is a good kind of patriotism. That kind of nationalism is a good kind of nationalism. That’s accomplished quite a few things in history. If patriotism which says, “I am better than you because you don’t love your country enough and I love my country more,” that’s not a good kind of patriotism.

Juliette: You mentioned Trump, and under him, we saw patriotism being equated with military parades and soldiers in uniform, saluting political authorities. This seems to be a departure from how Americans celebrated in the past. In France, on French Independence Day, which is the 14th of July, there’s military parade. In the United States, there is no national law that you must do this, or there’s usually not any military parade or governmental thing. It’s communities and neighborhoods doing their own thing, celebrating America and their own way. Do you think there’s a threat of the way we celebrate America being changed into something that is dictated more by the government and by this structure of, “This is how you will show your love for America,” and anything else, is wrong?

Shikha: Yeah, that’s a very good question. This is another way in which America has been different from many other countries because it did not emerge from a monarchy. All of Continental Europe and even Britain, they are, at one point or another, have a monarchy, and the monarchy was the Queen that’s really [inaudible] of the State. You had to show that you loved your country; you had to love the monarchy and the State. What did the monarchy do in order to bring people together? It held large festivals like in the Pomp Circumstance, parades, spectacles, extravaganzas, and the whole country would come together to look at this extravaganza and love their King or Queen. This tradition, then stayed in most of Continental Europe where even after the monarchy ended, the State became the anchor for loving the country. The state and nation, nation-state, they became synonymous. If you love your nation, you have to love the state, the government of that nation.

Now, America was founded on the whole idea of skepticism of limited government. It was not supposed to be the source of identity for Americans. Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, that, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that’s what America is about.” That’s what the government has to get in the Americans. The government is not an end in itself, but the government is meant for people to find their own individual projects of happiness. It was never any accommodation in America for Americans to start coming together and loving the State, the government. The Fourth of July, no tradition of military parades, the expression of State power. That is not what America has been about.

That’s what Trump wanted to start, he wanted to borrow from the French who have these kinds of parades to remind French of their allegiance to the State. He wanted to do that in America. He wanted in the Fourth of July, for the first time, I think in this country’s history, he gave this big national address, I think it was outside the Lincoln Memorial, and he had military drills by the Air Force, conducted in the air. That’s all very alien to American sensibilities.

Americans celebrate the Fourth of July by very spontaneous means. You have neighborhood parties over here. There is no government program, there is no government policy that requires you to do anything like that. Every city in America, every neighborhood in America will have their own way of having their own Fourth of July. They’ll have fireworks, barbecues, all kinds of things, but none of it is orchestrated or planned by the State.

That’s what Trump was trying to reverse, make the State the governing principle of America. That’s very alien to American sensibilities.

Juliette: The left isn’t immune to nationalism. Traditionally, that was the side of politics where we would see more nationalism evidently in the policies presented, but you and your husband Arthur Melzer recently wrote a piece that I found super important about why fighting against the rise of nationalism is important and significant. Can you kind of talk to us about that a little bit? Why is it so important?

Shikha: Yeah. That piece that you allude to, that was tracing the history of Weimar, Germany, and how Hitler came to power and examining some of the parallels in the current state of the right in America. In that piece, what we were saying was that if you looked at Weimar, which was, at that point, a liberal democracy, it had elections and there was even a constitution, for very briefly, which was supposed to guide how the government ruled, all of that came to an end because this virulent form of nationalism that Hitler came up with, became very appealing. This nationalism, in some ways, was similar to the kind of, I don’t want to make any parallels between our current situation and what happened then, very different situations, however, the one thing that the 2 had was, they wanted to return their country to some former mythical state of glory. “Make America great again,” that suggests that America is not great now. It was great at some point in the past, and we have to return to that point in the past.

That’s what happened in Weimar, who Hitler and Nazism wanted to return Germany to its glorious roots when it was a major power in Europe. World War I was a very humiliating chapter for Germany because Germany lost and it had to pay all kinds of reparations to the other powers around it. It was very humiliating, and he wanted to restore Germany’s honor. That was a very powerful principle, but it was also a very reactionary and regressive principle because that meant returning to a time which was actually not a very good time.

America shouldn’t be returned to some former state of glory because there was no former state of glory. America has a terrible history with slavery, [inaudible], discrimination, segregation, and what have you, and we shouldn’t be wanting to return to some mythical state of glory. That’s the sense in which that kind of nationalism which wants to undo the progress that has been made moral progress for equality, justice, and individual rights, and go back to some former principle of glory; that kind of nationalism is very dangerous and needs to be fought.

Juliette: Thank you. To wrap up, what is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on, and why?

Shikha: Young people, it’s weird, they can be both very idealistic, and they can also be both very cynical. When I was young, I was both idealistic and cynical, because I just thought the world just can’t live up to my ideals. The world is just like this dumb, unjust, exploited place. One thing I was super cynical was about people who went into public service or government. I grew up in socialistic India where the government was terrible. It was just synonymous with corruption. and I just felt like if you go into government, you’re doing something just bad. It didn’t matter to me whether good people went into government, or bad people went into government. They were just bad.

Now, I’ve actually come to disagree with it. I think it is important for good people to go into public service because it matters. It matters because if it’s corrupt people who are just giving into all the corruptive effect of power, then it will erode the trust in public institutions that people have. That is extremely dangerous. I’ve come to believe that it’s important for good, decent, honest people to go into government, even though the results that are going to be achieved are not always great, but the fact that they are trying to do something honestly does actually matter. I’m not quite so cynical about good people going into government anymore.

Juliette: I’m pretty cynical about that. Maybe I need to rethink things a little bit. Thank you.

Shikha: I would have agreed with you when I was 20 years old.

Juliette: Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I had such a good time and I learned so much. Thank you.

Shikha: Thank you. This is a very interesting and stimulating discussion, Juliette, great questions.

Juliette: Thank you.

Well, that’s all we have time for today. I’d like to thank my guest once again for their time and insight. I would also like to thank everyone who listens, subscribes, and shares The Great Antidote podcast. If you would like to be on the podcast or if you have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] Bye!


CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.

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