Can We Share the World?

a rambling attempt to get to the heart of the progressive vision

After the mid-term elections I lamented that “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” While Democrats had a lot of specific issues to sell to segments of the electorate — increase the minimum wage, protect access to health care, pay women the same as men, fix the immigration system, preserve access to abortion and contraception, subsidize renewable energy, and so on — it didn’t add up to a mythic vision on the scale of the conservative vision, which I summed up as: America is a city on a hill with barbarians at the gates.

Conservative zeal comes from a deep, almost mystical, sense of destiny thwarted, purity corrupted, and one last chance to set things right. In that vision, every tiny issue becomes a symbol of the larger struggle. When you hear about a 12-year-old Guatemalan girl fleeing the gang warfare in her country and showing up at our border, you instantly grasp her role in the cosmic threat to everything you hold dear. If somebody somewhere is scamming Food Stamps to avoid working, that’s not a fraction of a cent on your tax bill, to be weighed against all the genuinely needy people the program helps, it’s an invitation to God’s judgment against our nation.

To them, every race for every office is part of one big apocalyptic battle. That’s why their voters show up at mid-term elections and ours don’t.

But I don’t believe conservatism is inherently mythic and liberalism inherently pedestrian. I just think we’ve lost touch with the heart of our own vision and so lost our ability to tell the story of what we’re trying to do. At the end of that post, I pledged to spend my time in the metaphorical wilderness trying to get those things back.

The purpose of this post is to catch you up on what I’ve been thinking. I realize it’s less polished than the usual Weekly Sift post, but rather than wait for everything to come into perfect focus, I thought I’d toss the raw ideas out there in hopes of starting a productive discussion.

Roots of myth. I believe that the truly mythic ideas — the ones that just feel right, independent of current evidence — go way, way back. I’m agnostic about whether they have biological roots, but I think they’re older than civilization and are already present in some form in hunter-gatherer cultures.

In particular, as I meditate on my own deepest political intuitions, I find three hunter-gatherer notions at the root of both my liberal and my conservative impulses. The three don’t fit together cleanly in the modern world, which is why I’m vulnerable to framing: If an issue arises in the context of one of the notions, I might have a liberal response; but if you describe the same issue in terms of a different notion, my snap reaction my be conservative. The three notions are:

  • Nature belongs to everyone.
  • We’re all in this together.
  • The tribe has to defend its territory.

Nature belongs to everyone. In hunter-gatherer society, the forest, the lake, and the field are all there for you. If you’re hungry, go hunt, go fish, go gather. There’s no gatekeeper, no owner whose permission is required. There’s no such thing as an unemployed hunter-gatherer, because nobody has to hire you and nobody can fire you.

In the modern world, this notion cuts in both liberal and conservative directions. When Marx talks about public ownership of the means of production, or Pope John Paul II frames the ideal economy as a “Great Workbench“, or liberals want the government to be the “employer of last resort” they’re trying to preserve or restore this direct relationship to the Earth’s productive potential: If you’re able and willing to work productively, no one should be able to stand in your way.

In today’s economy, though, someone does stand in your way. Not just the forests, lakes, and fields, but also the factories, mines, malls, offices, and laboratories are all owned by someone. If you aren’t one of the owners and you want to work, someone with better access to the means of production has to hire you — and (depending on market conditions) may take a substantial cut of what you produce. If no one does hire you, you’re cut off from the productive economy in a way that no hunter-gatherer ever could be. [I explored these ideas in more depth in “Who Owns the World?“.]

That’s the liberal side of this notion. The conservative side arises when you either ignore the owner/gatekeeper role or assume that the hurdle it constructs is trivial: “You want something? Go work for it.”

We’re all in this together. A conservative take on the first notion might justify you gorging on a deer you’ve killed while less successful hunters look on in hunger. “There’s a forest out there,” you could tell them, “go get your own.”

But actual hunter-gatherers rarely act this way. Generosity gains you friendship and respect — social goods that don’t spoil like deer meat. In a world without money, banks, or privately owned land, honor among your tribesmen is the best kind of wealth you can accumulate. Some day you’ll be the hunter without a catch. Some day you’ll be the one with the bad ankle or the concussion, who needs help to get home. Having tribesmen around who owe you favors is a very valuable asset.

Today, this is the spirit behind social insurance and social goods of all sorts. Maybe today I’m the one with a job and money and health insurance. Maybe today my family is healthy and I’m still in my prime. Maybe I don’t have kids, or my kids are grown. Why should I pay for other people’s unemployment compensation and Social Security and Food Stamps and public schools? Because although there’s a lot of skill and hard work involved in success, there’s a lot of luck too, and nobody’s luck lasts forever. A society where we all look out for each other isn’t just friendlier, it’s also more secure.

Today, you are in a position to be generous. Tomorrow, someone else might be, and you might need generosity.

The tribe has to defend its territory. Hunter-gatherers usually aren’t humanists, they’re tribalists. The “everyone” in the first notion and the “we” in the second isn’t humankind, it’s the tribe. And “Nature” isn’t the whole world, it’s the tribe’s territory. Our forest, our lake, our field, our people. The tribe needs to command the resources necessary to provide its people with a good life.

Outside the tribe’s territory are strangers without number. They come and go, and they think differently. You can’t reach the kind of understandings with them that you can reach with your tribesmen. In some situations you may take pity on them and help them, but in others you may see them as wolves who want to kill our game and leave us with nothing, or as locusts or rats who will multiply to eat up any surplus we might generate.

This configuration of images and ideas also survives in the modern world, even though it’s not so clear exactly who our “tribe” is. But whoever we identify with — country, race, language group, social class, religion, neighborhood, family — it’s tempting to restrict our vision of the good life to people “like us”. We have to hang on to what we need to have a good life. What happens out there — outside the tribe, over the wall, beyond the oceans — is not our problem unless the outsiders try to take what’s ours. The world outside the tribe is full of greedy predators and teeming masses who carry strange diseases and can’t be reasoned with.

This idea is inherently conservative — it’s the root of the City-on-a-Hill-with-Barbarians-at-the-Gates vision. Under its influence, expansive notions of Nature belonging to everyone and all of us being in this together seem naive. Scarcity is the fundamental fact of economics. There is not enough for everybody, so the good life can only happen within walls, within fences, within borders. The Gospel of Malthus says that the poor will multiply to consume any surplus, so the privileged classes have to control their soft-hearted generosity. If no one is starving, then the good life that we enjoy is not secure.

If you focus on the third notion, the possibility of universal justice — justice outside the tribe — goes away. Some tribe will seize the best resources and live the good life, while pushing all the others into poverty. Will that be our tribe our some other? In the words of Humpty Dumpty: “The question is which is to be master — that’s all.”

In the context of global capitalism, this means that some comparatively small group of people will control the world’s oil, its drinkable water, its productive land. Some group will own the Great Workbench, and anyone who wants a seat there must buy it or inherit it or occupy it as a vassal for some lord. Some group of people will have their hands on the valves that control the flow of the world’s production, and can turn it on or cut it off according to its interests. Will that be our tribe, or somebody else’s?

One of the best expressions of the conservative horror of sharing the world comes from a minor character in Atlas Shrugged, a tramp who survived the fall of the once-great 20th Century Motor Company, which disastrously turned itself into a socialist enterprise. How awful it would be, he thinks, if such socialist ideas took hold on a worldwide scale.

Do you care to imagine what it would be like, if you had to live and to work, when you’re tied to all the disasters and all the malingering of the globe? To work — and whenever any men failed anywhere, it’s you who would have to make up for it. To work — with no chance to rise, with your meals and your clothes and your home and your pleasure depending on any swindle, any famine, any pestilence anywhere on Earth. To work — with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians sent through college.

In this vision, the needs of the outside world are infinite and will never be satisfied. What’s more, the benefits of investing in those people will never come back to you. It will never be the well-fed Cambodians who pick up the slack, and no college-educated Patagonian will ever be your doctor or invent a product you need. To see yourself as a tribesman of the World, rather than a defender of a territory sufficient to sustain your small group of people, is to be sentenced to endless labor with no hope of reward.

The small world. Today, we know some things the hunter-gatherers — and previous eras of civilization — didn’t know. We know the world is finite and has a finite number of people in it. We know that Malthus was wrong: As women become more educated and more confident that their children will survive, they have fewer of them, not more. We know that the Earth is one big productive system, and that the garbage we throw over the wall or let the waters and winds carry away isn’t really gone.

The world outside the walls isn’t vast and incalculable any more. In fact, it’s actually kind of a small world. It’s so small that the world inside the walls can’t really be managed without accounting for what’s outside.

Can we share the world? As I’m coming to see it, the liberal challenge — I’m calling it a challenge rather than a vision because I don’t think we have it that worked out yet — is to ask whether we can come to view humanity as one tribe with the Earth as its territory.

It’s tempting to jump forward right away and say, “Why yes, of course we can. In fact we have to.” But it’s a real challenge: Can we square some vision of the Good Life with what the Earth can provide for everyone? Because if not, then the City on a Hill dominating the teeming masses around it is the only good life we can hope for. If the choice is to live in hopeless squalor or to be part of the Master Race, then a sizable chunk of people in every generation are going to choose to be fascists. And who’s to say that they’re wrong?

Just as obviously, we can’t simply declare Universal Justice starting tomorrow. That really is naive. Because the world economy isn’t just a distribution system, it’s a production system, and the two are interdependent. Adding up global GDP and sending everybody a check for the average amount would be like carving a factory into pieces and sending one home with each worker.

And there really are predators in the world, and good people separated by such large and ancient walls of misunderstanding that they can’t possibly trust one another. What happens to them?

But still: One tribe with the world as its territory, offering each person a chance to work for the good life, and providing some kind of safety net for those who fail. Is there a way to make sense of that? Is there a way to get from here to there?

Don’t just say, “Yes. Of course.” If you take it seriously, you’ll see that it’s a real question, and the answer might be No.

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  • Gina  On December 8, 2014 at 11:35 am

    I think I understand what would be necessary and what would have to change about our thinking. I can imagine it, I can see it working. So in answer to “Can we?” I say yes, but in answer to “Will we?” I say not likely. Because I think I also understand what forces would work to oppose it, and I believe those forces are strong enough to win.

    But just for starters, I think we’d have to overcome the tendency of Americans to stay isolated in their own little pockets of America, living their entire lives without really being exposed to other kinds of people yet believing that they know everything they need to know about the world and its people. I would support some kind of mandatory student exchange program in high school where students must go and spend (a year?) in a significantly different place with another family. Or if not this, then I might support some kind of mandatory military service requirement that ensured young people get to travel and experience diversity in the world as well as within the country. The problem with military service, though, is that it seems to be just another little isolated pocket of Americans who don’t really get exposed to the people and places they visit.

  • Bobby Lee  On December 8, 2014 at 11:58 am

    The answer might be no, but it’s the only hope for our salvation. Tribal conflict is rooted in the twin evils of jealousy and envy. That war can only be stopped by people refusing to participate in it, refusing to jealously guard what they have or to covet what others have. Our leading cultural artform – moving pictures – teaches us that revenge is good, that countering violence with violence is often necessary, and that there are no repercussions when you kill a “bad guy”. But in the real true world, the result is always *more violence*.

    We *must* become “one tribe”. We must see all people as neighbors, not as “us” and “them”. We must not retaliate when we become victims of jealousy or envy. The only positive response, the only one that can save humanity, is to stop participating in violence. That’s the mythic vision that I choose to embrace.

  • Mark Norton  On December 8, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Good start, Doug. When you get the details worked out, expand it a bit and make it into a book. Liberals (like us), need this to be a book, not yet-another-blog-entry (not to denigrate what you are going). I think liberal story telling is important because, you say, the conservatives have their story and telling it makes their view compelling. We need that story badly.

  • Lanning, Jeff S  On December 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Really nicely done.

    I too have been thinking a lot about these ideas.

    I submit that there likely is a fourth hunter-gather notion that animates current politics as well–“know your role (and don’t try to change it)” or some more succinct description of class/caste. I think this notion interacts with the notion of tribe in our modern society to animate many of the liberal and conservative viewpoints, particularly when it comes to race and economic issues. Indeed, when I was reading your description of the tribe defending its territory, I felt that you were blending both tribe and caste responses. That would not be surprising as upper caste people who worry about caste issues typically try to recast (sorry) them as tribal issues to win broader support, which breeds confusion. I read the passage in Atlas Shrugged as just such an argument.


    Jeff Lanning

    • FD  On December 9, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      Jeff, could you be more explicit about which parts you see as caste and which parts you see as tribe? I went back and re-read that part and I’m not seeing it.

  • Sandy Graham  On December 8, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Your city on the hill with barbarians at the gates begs the question of who is in the city and who are the barbarians. Republicans would have us believe all American voters are inside when in fact their city only contains the wealthy. All others are barbarians and that flaw in their myth must be made clear to all Americans who can or should be able to vote.

    Voters respond to what is in their personal best interest. While the concept of a finite world and its needs is noble and good, it will not draw votes nor gain credence. Your myth must fight fire with fire and exposing the conservative self-interest should be its cornerstone.

    • Kim Cooper  On December 15, 2014 at 4:21 am

      It’s not really true that people vote what is in their personal best interest. People vote on their emotions, and stories, like the conservative myth Doug described, evokes emotions; issues do not.

  • Ash  On December 8, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Good on you for thinking about these issues, Doug.

    This is tricky. I’m no economist, but I know enough about the distribution of wealth to know that I am – along with probably every reader of this blog – in an incredibly privileged minority, globally speaking. Is the choice “to live in hopeless squalor or to be part of the Master Race”? No, it’s probably not that dramatic. But I strongly suspect that, barring a technological revolution in energy production (which I hope for, and probably expect one day), considering a wider sharing of wealth really is a choice between being a beneficiary of injustice, or having a significant downward revision of our expectations of ‘The Good Life’. Squalor? No. Less? Yes. And I suspect that’s true whether you’re looking to redistribute more evenly within your town, your country or – especially – the world.

    Now, that’s probably a good thing. I suspect lower expectations and a simpler standard of living would benefit us almost as much as the benefit flowing to those less privileged. But even if you’re framing better sharing as with a ‘wider tribe’, the tribal instinct is still very closely bound with the self-preservation instinct. Even if it’s to benefit the wider tribe, self-sacrifice – choosing less not only for yourself, but for your children, for your neighbours – runs counter to some pretty potent drives. It’s hard. And recognising that is crucial to any consideration of these issues. Failure to do so is why the Communist vision failed.

    Can we share the world? Of course. Will we? Probably not. As another commenter mentioned, there are too many potent mechanisms working against us in that regard. But understanding these drives, taking them into account, we just might have a chance.

  • k.a. ryan  On December 8, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    In what ways is Malthus wrong? -kr

    • weeklysift  On December 9, 2014 at 6:59 am

      Googling “Malthus was wrong” gets a long list of articles. Malthus would have predicted that in the wealthy world, population would boom even more than in the poor world, because more children will survive. In fact it seems that at a certain level of opportunity, children per woman starts to go down. Today, much of Europe would be losing population if not for immigration.

  • Kristi Apple  On December 9, 2014 at 12:13 am

    Hunter gatherers are egalitarian, There are few specialized roles. They don’t own land, or much in the way of possessions, so what and who are we protecting against. When hunter gatherers run up against organized opposition, say from people with guns, they usually go with a wimper. They aren’t mentally prepared to kill people, in general. There is no real outside inside. You live in bands, but if there’s some friction, and that is a given, you move to another band. You have relatives and friends in all the bands around you and further out. There is no hard and fast us/them. It is not a matter of I’m not going to share. Hunting and gathering are group activities. Individuals can’t survive. It really does take a village. It’s easy to romanticize true hunter/gatherer cultures if only because they don’t have our problems nor we theirs. Try The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

    • samuraiartguy  On December 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm

      Agreed. While Tribal groups had their Cheifs and Headmen, Medicine people, Shamans, fire-makers and arificers, the advent of Castes did not really take hold till the appearance of agricultural societies, and the excess foodstuffs produced allowed for the division of labor from food gathering. Typically, depending on how a given culture was organized, a managerial class generally rose to the status of rulers, usually bolstered by force of arms wielded by a warrior class, freed from the requirement to till the land.

      John Green talks about this in the quite good Crash Course World History series on YouTube

  • Jaylemeux  On December 9, 2014 at 7:36 am

    “Today, you are in a position to be generous. Tomorrow, someone else might be, and you might need generosity.”

    I’ve noticed a trend where conservatives often lack the imagination and humility to accept this possibility. Even when they fall on hard times, they maintain the delusion of the self-made man.

  • ted S  On December 9, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Doug, I imagine that you’re familiar with the Worldwatch organization. I’d like to recommend to your other blog readers (and to you, if you don’t know of these books) the last two State of the World books they have published.

    In 2013 the issue was called Is Sustainability Still Possible?, and this year the title is Governing for Sustainability. I have read the 2013 book very closely, and it has many articles in it that are closely linked to things you say above. I haven’t read State of the World 2014 yet, but believe that it is an attempt to address some of these issues.

    Worldwatch was founded by Lester R Brown in 1974. Their State of the World annual issues are composed of two or three dozen essays by experts in various fields, all directed towards examining the theme of the issue.

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2014 at 8:44 am

      Thanks. I’m familiar with WorldWatch, but I haven’t read their recent reports. I should catch up.

  • Jess  On December 9, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for taking a first swing at this. I’d rephrase the first notion as “Everyone has access to some land” or “Land doesn’t belong to an individual”. There’s a fair amount of evidence of established family gathering grounds or people claiming an oak tree (or even a branch of an oak tree) for acorn gathering. There was a fair amount of work put into maintaining the productivity of the land so if someone who wasn’t allowed came and harvested (especially in a way that caused harm) I’m be very surprised if there weren’t repercussions.

    A good book for more background on that is Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson. It’s a bit of a tome though. 🙂

    Aside from that I do think one of the big differences between the conservative story and the democratic assumptions (since they aren’t organized into a story) is that the liberal belief is that bad things can happen to anyone. Thus a safety net gives piece of mind to everyone and is something you have in your back pocket should you ever need it. I think that could be tied into the way our economy is changing – with resources, not labor being the limiting factor often. The vision might be to have a base salary for everyone and a steep progressive tax – thus removing the stigma of accepting government aid.

    It isn’t a story, but it’s possibly a concept to start with. That tied with the “we’re all in it together”

    • Gina  On December 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      >Aside from that I do think one of the big differences between the conservative story and the democratic assumptions (since they aren’t organized into a story) is that the liberal belief is that bad things can happen to anyone. Thus a safety net gives piece of mind to everyone and is something you have in your back pocket should you ever need it.

      I’ve been thinking about this bit, and I think I disagree. I think, as a white middle-class person with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, I am virtually certain that I will never be as bad off as a black high school dropout who grew up in a ghetto. I will never be as disadvantaged as an undocumented Mexican immigrant who barely speaks English and has a large extended family to support. I don’t believe in helping those people because I think I might possibly be like them one day and need that help myself, but because I believe that I owe something back to somebody in acknowledgment of my fortunate status, which I inherited at birth. (And I wasn’t born into any particular family of status, just the standard advantages of my race and citizenship.).

      I recognize the people who start the race with their legs hobbled, and if mine are free to run, I feel I ought to help them out. I honestly don’t understand people who don’t feel that way and rather blame the handicap on the person suffering it. Not because I may need help one day but because it’s what I *would* want if I did need that kind of help. It’s the kind of world I want to live in, the kind of person I want to be.

      • Jess  On December 9, 2014 at 5:28 pm

        Fair enough. That’s certainly also in there. Even as a white computer scientist I’ve seen people fall (through illness mostly) or working their way up through luck and way too much work. I feel like there are huge advantages/disadvantages based on where we start, but there’s also some chaos in the system.

        And additionally having a safety net allows people to try more risky things, which are often the things with a larger payoff to the community as a whole.

      • samuraiartguy  On December 10, 2014 at 1:10 am

        As Jess commented, fair enough.

        But one of my good friends and colleagues points out that there are degreed tech workers, and even entrepreneurs and business principals in Silicon Valley that due to the contractions in the myriad tech industries, find themselves fallen on very hard times. Some are dislocated even to the point of being homeless and hungry. It can indeed happen to *anyone.*

        I was at one time a Senior Art Director in a mid-sized publishing company in NYC. The industry post-9/11 contracted by about 35% and had stayed that way. Unpaid interns and brutally overworked entry-level young-‘uns have largely replaced experienced journeyman designers. I am now a full time (!?) freelancer making half of what I did in 2001. I have since left the NYC tri-state region to downsize my lifestyle and expenses to something sustainable. So I do rather *grok*.

      • weeklysift  On December 10, 2014 at 8:55 am

        There are a lot of different kinds of needing help. I agree you probably will never need help in the same way that a black high school dropout or an undocumented Hispanic immigrant do. But I also remember how smoothly my life was sailing along when my wife got cancer.

        That was 18 years ago, she’s doing fine, and our current lives are pretty smooth by most measures. But the experience left me with an appreciation of how anybody’s life can fall apart.

        It gets back to the imagination and humility that Jaylemeux was talking about in one of the previous comments: having the humility to be aware that your life could fall apart, and the imagination to then identify with people who are suffering very different kinds of misfortune.

      • Kim Cooper  On December 15, 2014 at 4:32 am

        It’s still possible: programmers are supposed to be young — there’s a lot of age discrimination in that world. If you lose your job because you’re older, but not old enough for Social Security or Medicare, and you can’t afford health care and are in an auto accident that costs thousands of dollars, you could be left with nothing if you didn’t have a lot of savings. I know someone with that story. The health care situation has improved a bit with Obamacare, but it still takes money to access it.

      • Gina  On December 15, 2014 at 9:10 am

        Several people have made that point. Yes, I know that I could lose my job and have a hard time getting another one. I could go bankrupt, lose everything, etc. etc. In fact, it has happened to me. I’ve even been homeless! But I still maintain that the kind of help I needed or would need is nothing like the kind of help I advocate for immigrants or people in poor black communities. When my life came crashing down, I had family to rely on. Those people have family members who are in the same boat and limited in the support they can offer. When my life crashed, I had no language barrier or racial prejudice to combat in fighting my way back up again. Consequently it took no more than a year before I was self-sufficient again, in my own place with actual furniture and household things like towels, dishes, etc. that I had lost before. I expect some people keep getting knocked down no matter how hard they struggle to get up. I believe in helping them because that’s the right thing, not because I think I might ever experience that.

  • samuraiartguy  On December 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Very thoughtful post, and does indeed set one to thinking. There is a very pertinent Bill Maudlin “Up Front” cartoon where Joe and Willie are in a foxhole in Italy, under fire and Joe is reading Stars and Stripes with a headline about the D-Day Invasion. And Wille’s caption, “The hell this ain’t the most important hole in the war. I’m in it!” Our civilization may likely depends on the ability of it’s member to see beyond their own foxholes.

    I’ll post this from a different thread concerning racism, but it’s just as relevant here, as racism seems to hinge on casting those of other races as “other,” and not part of a greater human family.

    With all the noise and thunder out there, with my odd ancestry, I have taken a rather personal interest. Not all that thrilled with the shouting, proclaiming and name-calling… but why do I care? Why do I pitch in, other then masochism, with a multicolored chip on my shoulder and a thick skin?

    “And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

    “And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

    “And I saw that it was holy” – Black Elk, Black Elk speaks.

    If you’ve ever seen a Lakota Medicine wheel, you will see the four colors – Black, Red, Yellow, White. Some teachings say those are the Four Nations of Two leggeds – Black Africans, Red Natives, Yellow Asians, and White Europeans. ONE Circle. The Changleska Wakan Oyate. The Sacred Hoop of the Nations. The Creator has made us all as relatives, and we should live and act as such. I think that’s worth working towards. I’ll keep on keeping on. I know damn well it’s a long haul and not easy.


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