Power of Ideas

Left-Wing Fascism and its War Against Conservatives

Lynne Cohen
January 5, 2022
What’s in a name – or a political label? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The standard view that fascism is a phenomenon of the far right has been immensely beneficial to the left, allowing it to conflate virtually any bad political beliefs, tactics or leaders with conservatism. Lynne Cohen, whose own political journey has included stopovers on the left, right and middle before returning to conservatism, has felt the wrath of leftists. This lends a personal dimension to her account of the damage done to conservatism through its linkage to fascism. Cohen mounts a spirited case that fascism doesn’t even belong on the right, but at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Power of Ideas

Left-Wing Fascism and its War Against Conservatives

Lynne Cohen
January 5, 2022
What’s in a name – or a political label? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The standard view that fascism is a phenomenon of the far right has been immensely beneficial to the left, allowing it to conflate virtually any bad political beliefs, tactics or leaders with conservatism. Lynne Cohen, whose own political journey has included stopovers on the left, right and middle before returning to conservatism, has felt the wrath of leftists. This lends a personal dimension to her account of the damage done to conservatism through its linkage to fascism. Cohen mounts a spirited case that fascism doesn’t even belong on the right, but at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
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To hear certain political leaders tell it, one might think there were fascists and racists lurking under every second bed across the continent. Among the earliest promises of Joe Biden’s Administration was to “Purge the Military of White Supremacists,” as a prominent headline put it. Biden’s new Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, “vowed to root out white supremacy and right-wing radicalism in the ranks” and soon ordered every military branch to stand down for a “deeper conversation” about racism. A military facing defeat in Afghanistan and a long-term strategic threat from China was ordered to fixate upon the personal beliefs of its own troops. The hunt for radical right-wingers was also made a main focus of the U.S. Justice Department.

Perhaps this wasn’t so surprising, for Biden had previously accused his predecessor of being a “fascist” who, if not actually another Hitler, was “sort of like Goebbels,” the Nazi propaganda minister. While such rhetoric is outrageous for any sitting U.S. President, Biden’s words and policies reflect the view prevailing throughout the ideological left, which dominates today’s Democratic Party and swathes of the media. One headline proclaimed Biden “not wrong” to use the fascist label.

Seeing fascists everywhere: The left frequently insinuates that all who oppose it are bordering on or actually fascist. Depicted, protesters at a rally against former U.S. President Donald Trump in San Francisco in 2017 (top), U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (bottom left) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (bottom right). (Source of bottom images: The Canadian Press)

Canada has its own though somewhat milder version of this phenomenon. Prime Minister Trudeau in late 2020, for example, declared that “Islamophobia and right-wing extremism have no place in our country,” implicitly equating the two. During last summer’s election campaign, he accused the pugnaciously populist Rebel Media (which this newspaper account helpfully characterized as a “far-right group” rather than a journalistic organization) of spreading “disinformation and misinformation,” even holding Rebel responsible for fomenting nationwide “polarization.” More recently, Trudeau explicitly denounced Canadians who choose not to get the Covid-19 vaccine as “very often misogynistic and racist.”

These and innumerable other instances have a common conceptual basis: middle-of-the-road conservatives, doctrinaire conservatives, harder-core right-wingers, the so-called “alt-right,” extremists and ultimately fascists (along with racists and white supremacists) all coexist on an ideological continuum on the right half of the political spectrum, separated only by degrees. The left has no involvement in any of it. This view permeates intellectual circles, the news media and the cultural industries, which spent the years prior to Biden’s election working themselves into a lather about the apprehended rise of right-wing extremism or even, as one put it, “1930s-style European fascism,” often attributed to the focal point of their fears, Donald Trump.

A nonsensical comparison: Former U.S. President George W. Bush (left) was often called “Bushitler” by his opponents, a wholly unsupportable claim based on the historical record of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (right). (Image sources: (left) AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, (right) Dpa Dena/DPA via ZUMA Press)

While not everyone goes that far, the essential point regarding this ideological continuum goes virtually unquestioned throughout society. Indeed, the logic of labelling any conservative as potentially extremist or proto-fascist depends on it. And it often works. Before Trump, previous Republican President George W. Bush was called “Bushitler,” and in Canada, former prime minister Stephen Harper was often accused of harbouring fascist tendencies or a sinister, ultra-right-wing hidden agenda. And for every president or prime minister so labelled, there have been innumerable lesser politicians, journalists, academics and other public figures.

But what if the basic underlying assumption isn’t even valid? What if fascism, as an ideology and method of practising politics, does not belong in its assigned location on the political spectrum?

Should Fascism Sit on the Right…or Left?

There is a solid conceptual argument backed by a body of evidence that Naziism, fascism and even white supremacy aren’t “right wing” at all, that they are creatures of the left and have been from the beginning. While they weren’t expunged as right-wing extremist symbols with the publication of Jonah Goldberg’s first book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change, they should have been. Its release in 2007 opened many eyes and minds to the truth.

While Liberal Fascism wasn’t enough to sway the public debate, prior to the book’s appearance just about every writer and thinker since 1945 assumed fascism and Naziism were manifestations of extremism on the right. It seemed plausible and fair. After all, counterbalancing fascism we had communism, the left’s own form of extremism. One really nasty political outlook was thus placed at the far end of each side, an evident symmetry that rendered Western societies’ political factions essentially even and discouraged further complaint or introspection about one’s assigned shade on the political spectrum. This orthodoxy was strengthened by the Cold War-era tendency of many non-Communist authoritarian regimes, often displaying the trappings of fascism and typically described as right-wing, to align themselves with the West. If fascists were anything but right-wing, why would such regimes make common cause with the capitalist democracies instead of the Soviet Union?

But there were always cracks in this cognitive armour. In truth, as my Grade 13 economics teacher pounded into the heads of his 1976 class, communism and fascism are at root virtually identical – however much they might differ in appearance, rhetoric, tactics or other superficial elements. As far back as 1951 Hannah Arendt, the German-born political philosopher who was once arrested by the Gestapo for studying anti-Semitism, and who later became world-famous for her analysis of the Nazi mind, made observations in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism that were similar to my smart high school teacher’s.

Goldberg’s thesis is plainly and intelligently argued in his almost 500-page book: “[F]ascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left. This fact – an inconvenient truth if ever there was one – is obscured in our time by the equally mistaken belief that fascism and communism are opposites. In reality, they are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space.”

 

Changing the conversation on fascism: Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change revealed the essential left-wing nature of fascism and its close connection to communism. (Source of left image: Terry “T.J.” Johnson)

Conservatives such as I have often felt the effects of the common misapprehension. As my own views evolved and crystallized over the years I used to feel intimidated by name-calling leftist friends, who warned me I was morphing into a Nazi. Even my brilliant liberal mother jokingly called me a budding fascist back in the mid-1970s when I stated that Ayn Rand had intriguing ideas. 

Such insults from my mom – whom I deeply respected and who issued them as lovingly as possible – helped morph me into a bleeding-heart liberal during my early university years. Then she scorned that too, correctly labelling my school a hotbed of left-wing radicals, which helped steer me back onto the right path.

While my mom never shed her view that communism and fascism were opposites, it is critical that we correct this ubiquitous misplacement of fascism, and not only because it is an error in definition being misapplied constantly and everywhere. Calling a person or a policy fascist is not a harmless mistake, as when a radio announcer uses “duplicitous” when he means duplicate, a minister of the federal Crown says “irregardless,” or a person’s name is mispronounced or misspelled.

Calling a conservative person a fascist is an accusation. It stops an argument in its tracks, ends the conversation and often results in the belittled target slinking away hurt and wondering how such well-reasoned ideas as those they offered could be subsumed under such a hideous ideology. That hurt person was me until I read Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Nowadays, conservatives have it even worse, for accusations of fascism are usually coupled with cries of racism, a package that can deliver swift career destruction, deplatforming and vicious social shaming.

A Particular Kind of Socialism

The first fascist to rule: Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took power in Rome in 1922, and for a while managed to make totalitarianism “cool” among the elites of politics, academia and culture.

How did this lie seep so deeply into the collective minds of so many seemingly intelligent people? As it happens, by both design and accident. During the disillusionment following the First World War in the early part of the last century, fascism became an acceptable, popular and even desirable form of government, and not just among retrograde nationalists, power-hungry politicians and opportunist businessmen, but progressives and liberals throughout Europe and even North America. Fascism’s supporters included significant portions of academe, arts and culture – all dominated by the left. Believe it or not, for a time fascism was cool.

Italy’s Benito Mussolini, who established the first openly-labelled fascist regime in 1922, coined the term “totalitarian,” meaning it as a positive. Mussolini was widely admired, including by the chief rabbi of Rome. In the 1930s, senior figures in the Democratic Administration of Franklin Roosevelt, the most left-leaning government the U.S. had yet seen, studied and recommended emulating a number of Mussolini’s most interventionist economic policies.

Variations on a theme: The regimes of Hitler (above) and Joseph Stalin (below) in Germany and the Soviet Union, respectively, represented national socialism and international socialism – with totalitarianism their essential similarity. (Image sources: (top) scalar.usc.edu, (bottom) Anatoly Egorov/МАММ/ russianphoto.ru)

And then came Adolf Hitler. He was not only a political but a cultural phenomenon who fascinated intellectuals and artists and, more prosaically, was widely regarded as just what a demoralized and unemployment-ridden Germany needed. Hitler never claimed or pretended to be “right-wing”; such a label would have puzzled him. He despised Germany’s old conservative elites, whom he accused of losing the war. Socialism lurched around the filthy alleys of his twisted mind and it’s always worth reminding ourselves that “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist” and that the rest of the movement’s full name was “German Workers’ Party.”

For a time, Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin even worked together, collaborating on weapons development, trading in strategic materials and, infamously, signing a secret pact to carve up Eastern Europe at the Second World War’s outset. Still, the two forms of socialism were competing for much the same constituencies in their respective countries and around the world – illustrating Goldberg’s point. Before coming to power Nazi “brownshirts” had fought vicious street battles with socialists of the “other brand,” and after 1933 Hitler purged Germany of all its traces and adherents. Hitler and Stalin now represented the two main socialist alternatives; which would the world choose?

Best friends, for a while: Prior to Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union collaborated in many surprising ways; pictured, German and Soviet officers shake hands after the fall of Poland in September 1939.

The quirks of Hitler’s psychotic personality included frequently overplaying his hand, and his internal campaign against “degenerate” art and the purging and oppression of scientists and professionals considered suspect or racially “impure” began to alienate the intellectuals and professionals he had initially bewitched. But by then it was too late to stop him. And in June 1941 the entente between national and international socialism ended with Hitler’s invasion of Russia.

Even then, it was only after the barbarities of the Holocaust were revealed that fascism became universally regarded as an ugly word, associated with something “uniquely evil and ineluctably bound up with extreme nationalism, paranoia and genocidal racism,” Goldberg explains. A few fascistic regimes hung on here and there, including the Phalangists in Lebanon, General Franco’s Spain and the pan-Arabic Ba’aathist movement, which ruled Iraq until the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and from which Syria’s Assad regime is descended.

The Shape-Shifting Left

Lingering remnants: Despite universal condemnation, fascist ideology continues to assert itself here and there. Pictured, Lebanon’s Phalange Party (top) and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria (bottom). (Image sources: (top) Marwan Naamini, (bottom) Louai Beshara)

In the rest of the world, however, the moving away from fascism was decisive and easy for intellectuals on the left: they largely projected their own follies onto conservatives and redefined fascism as “right-wing.” “After the war, the American progressives who had praised Mussolini and even looked sympathetically at Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had to distance themselves from the horrors of Naziism,” Goldberg writes. The tactic stuck beyond their wildest dreams. The horrendous slaughter between fascists and communists during the war had led hundreds of millions of people to assume the two bloodthirsty opponents stood for opposite political philosophies as well.

This wasn’t just the self-serving opportunism of former admirers nor the careless mistake of the inattentive. The era’s major scholars felt the same way. William Shirer didn’t second-guess this assumption in his 1,250-page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, simply mentioning that he was writing about a right-wing regime.Martin Blinkhorn’s more recent Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919-1945 admits to the difficulty in defining fascism, but never questions where the doctrine belongs ideologically.

Granted, as every serious writer on the topic has been forced to admit, a universal definition of fascism is maddeningly elusive. The ever-handy Google currently gives it a shot: “Fascism is an ultra-right-wing political system in which the state exercises complete control over economics and society. Fascism is usually nationalistic and is extremely authoritarian.” Not so bad, except that this definition applies equally to communism in every key word except “nationalistic” – and even that word applied to prominent communist exceptions like Yugoslavia, Albania and North Vietnam. Perhaps Google inadvertently let slip a great truth: fascism and communism are the same in their essentials.

Communist regimes in Yugoslavia (top right), Albania (left) and Vietnam (bottom right) were nationalistic if not xenophobic – showing another similarity with fascist regimes. (Source of top right image: Archive of the Museum of Yugoslavia, 1949)

So just what is fascism? Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany shared numerous characteristics – tyrannical leaders, ultra-nationalism, permanent states of crisis, Nuremberg-style racial laws, consolidation of all power in the state, economic micro-management and purging of internal enemies. But they differed in critical ways, including their territorial ambitions and relative obsession with race – which manifested in their attitude toward Jews. For 16 years, Mussolini shielded Italy’s Jewish community – with some even serving in his government – until he could no longer resist Hitler’s demands to impose racial segregation. Even then, Jews were not deported to the Nazi Holocaust until 1943 (late in the war) and a remarkable 83 percent of Italy’s Jews survived.

Attempting to define what fascism means has confounded many political scholars and theorists, including Roger Griffin (left) and Roger Eatwell (right). (Source of right image: Admanuk14, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Not even professionals have figured out what exactly fascism is,” writes Goldberg in his introduction. Many have grappled seriously with the term, including little-known scholars such as Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell, Emilio Gentile and Ernest Nolte. In the introduction to his book The Nature of Fascism, Griffin acknowledged “the welter of divergent opinion surrounding the term.” He then opted for a descriptive rather than definitional approach, calling fascism “an ideology that has assumed a large number of specific national permutations and several distinct organizational forms” and that “continues to evolve.” In other words, Griffin never pinned it down – but he still insisted it belong on the right. In more recent times, Italian philosopher and cultural critic Umberto Eco arguably came closest with his list of 14 key characteristics in his 1995 essay How to Spot a Fascist.

From Totalitarianism to Liberal Fascism

Nor did Arendt manage to define fascism. Her vastly greater contribution, however, was recognizing the essential commonality between Naziism and Communism: their totalitarianism. Totalitarianism was something new, unique and uniquely terrifying. “Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression,” she wrote in the abovementioned book. (Emphasis added.) “Wherever it rose to power, it destroyed all social, legal, and political traditions of the country.” That is because totalitarian movements recognize no limits to their own authority or power. As they rise to power they invariably seek to obliterate all constraints.

Totalitarian movements aim not only for total power but for the transformation of society and, Arendt wrote, “of human nature itself.” They represent a “radical evil” that creates “a system in which all [individuals] have become equally superfluous.” In addition, such a movement is “international in its organization, universal in its ideological aim, planetary in its political aspirations.” This aptly describes Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism – and explains their ultimate confrontation.

Arendt’s analysis obliterates the standard left-right argument – or renders it moot. She imputed greater similarity between Naziism and Leninist-Stalinist Communism than between Hitler and Mussolini, the alleged fascist cousins. As she saw it, Mussolini was never pursuing an actual totalitarian program even though he invented the term.

Getting it right: Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism that Nazism and communism are both totalitarianism movements which seek to destroy “all social, legal, and political traditions of the country” and ultimately to transform “human nature itself.”

Despite all of this ongoing vagueness, confusion and “wildly divergent interpretations” even among first-rate thinkers, Goldberg notes, “many modern liberals and leftists act as if they know exactly what fascism is. What’s more, they see it everywhere – except when they look in the mirror. Indeed, the left wieldsthe term like a cudgel to beat opponents from the public square like seditious pamphleteers.”

For his purposes Goldberg – among the recent scholars who place the anarchic and extraordinarily gory French Revolution at the initiation point of modern progressive, liberal and fascist ideas – attaches a set of characteristics to fascism. They are easily identifiable as such and they are decidedly non-conservative. But he also draws distinctions between what he terms liberal fascism and that of Hitler and other European countries, as well as some trade unions, each of which had distinctive traits.

In Goldberg’s mind liberal, American fascism is gentle and non-violent, “nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying.” Here one must pause and remember he was writing in the mid-2000s, and today these assertions seem almost quaint. I would argue that his major proviso has been cracking for some time and has been disintegrating with the intrusion of Covid-19 and its cold, hard lockdowns, the post-George Floyd riots of summer 2020, the rise of BLM and Antifa and the shocking rise in violence and criminality in mainly Democratic-run states and cities. There isn’t much that’s gentle about critical race theory, for example, nor the glee with which many leftists greeted the burning of churches across Canada last year.

Fingers crossed: Goldberg described the modern liberal version of fascism as “nice” and “not brutal.” Recent events undermine his hopeful view. Pictured, a riot in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death in May 2020 (top), a free speech rally in California disrupted by Antifa thugs (middle), and a burnt-out church in Parham, Ontario, June 2020 (bottom; source: The Canadian Press).

Still, Goldberg’s overall thinking is clear and his central point is truer than ever: all fascist movements including current-day liberalism are totalitarian at heart. When Mussolini coined the term, he meant a state “where everyone belonged, where everyone was taken care of, where everything was inside the state and nothing outside: where truly no child was left behind.” (Emphasis added.)

The belief in an all-powerful state unites fascists and socialists from every country. The state, among other things, becomes a replacement for God. It is a decidedly poor one, however, for it negates the individual as a being with intrinsic worth, endowed with a protected legal and moral status that is separate from their mere relationship to the state. In all totalitarian societies – fascist and communist – the individual belongs to the state. Fascists share, at their core, a utopian vision of their country, while socialists share one for the world; all believe in the need for a major crisis to bring about revolutionary change.

Like the original fascists, modern-day liberals cannot imagine a part of life that is not political, “from what you eat, to what you smoke, to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists.” (Notice that these are traits of the left.) There’s nothing quaint about that statement from 2007; here Goldberg was keenly prophetic about the track of North American society. For, God help us, health has proved the most political of all.

Despite this large body of evidence, the ideological definitional blunder continues, with numerous such entries popping up on search engines. For instance, an interview by writer Sean Illing of Yale philosopher Jason Stanley on Vox sidestepped the essential sameness of fascism and communism by latching onto their differing secondary traits. “I think [fascism is] clearly right-wing,” said Stanley. “Part of the problem is that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are tricky to talk about, and it’s true that there are dangerous forms of extremism on both sides, but fascism tilts pretty heavily to the right in my view…But just as extreme versions of communism suppress liberty on behalf of radical equality, so too do extreme versions of right-wing politics, namely fascism, suppress liberty in favor of tradition and dominance and power.”

Totalitarians at heart: For modern-day liberals, everything is political – from what you eat, to what you smoke, to what you say.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s “Fascism and Ideology” page also identifies the concept with conservative and right-wing causes. The Britannica website starts out connecting fascism with socialism but quickly changes course, claiming “the economic programs of the great majority of fascist movements were extremely conservative, favouring the wealthy far more than the middle class and the working class. Their talk of national ‘socialism’ was quite fraudulent in this respect.” It seems the narrative must be perpetuated and, accordingly, its messengers will say or write whatever it takes.

The Promise of Clarity

What might any of this mean to our world? Does it even matter where a particular slice of the political spectrum is placed? Well, it does – powerfully so. Big Tech’s increasing censorship of conservative and right-wing speech hinges on the perceived continuum from conservative to extreme/fascist. So do governments’ clampdowns on conservatives and their selective hunts for “right-wing extremists.” So, partially, do the ruthless purges of conservatives in academe and the news media’s habitual left-wing slant. These rationalizations would all be erased if fascism’s proper placement at the far left became widely known and took hold of the public mind. Further, nearly all political extremism would then be seen as falling on the left. It is hard to imagine more powerful real-world consequences driven by a single idea.

A popular misconception: While it is common shorthand to place fascism at the farthest right of the political spectrum, as shown on this graphic from educational resource quizlet.com, the alleged progression from economic liberalism to fascist dictatorship is illogical.

Understanding what fascism is and where it really sits also helps to crystallize what Antifa and BLM are all about, namely organizations of intimidation and violence that have borrowed (or perhaps reinvented) much from 1920s fascism, even down to some of the strange mannerisms like “black bloc” clothing and bizarre accoutrements.

More positively, removing the spectre of fascism from the right would lift the stigma of being conservative and the guilt or furtiveness so many feel at being or even considering becoming conservative, or pro-freedom, or in favour of smaller government, or pro-free-speech, or anti-CRT – all of which can be currently denounced as “extreme right-wing” and, accordingly, bordering on fascism itself. The shame that many conservatives feel would begin to evaporate and the shaming that the left continually practices would become much more difficult.

And definitely not least, it would become much harder to conflate conservatism with racism/white supremacism. We all agree that actual fascists are usually actual racists. Placing mainstream conservatism as “step one” on a clear line ending at fascism makes it easy to associate conservatism and conservatives with racism. As we all know, this is a habitual tactic from the left’s playbook. Placing fascism at the far left would end this effortless guilt-by-association while bolstering the argument that much of today’s racism resides in the left, including most of the anti-Semitism found in Western countries.
What’s the opposite of left-wing fascism? One possible answer is transcendent constitutionalism, which includes a principled commitment to individualism, representative self-government, adherence to the rule of law and robust political and economic freedoms.

If fascism truly is a phenomenon of the left, then what exactly is “far right”? If you begin your political journey in the middle, shift slightly rightward to mainstream conservatism, then slide farther on to clearly right-wing conservatism, and then keep moving right, what happens next? Is there just a gap at the end? I would argue that you arrive at a political and economic philosophy made up of everything that is opposed to totalitarianism and statism. Call it transcendent constitutionalism, as discussed in this recent C2C essay.

It is a view that begins with transcendent values as first principles, recognizes the individual as having intrinsic worth that cannot be negated by the state, and is committed to representative self-government, a state clearly restrained by an effective constitution, economic freedom, freedom of conscience in all circumstances, and the widest achievable free speech. A clear understanding of fascism and its proper placement at the far left yields a modified political spectrum with all forms of totalitarian statist materialism at one end and transcendent constitutionalism at the other, with your typical Western democracy floating still somewhere in the middle third.

After learning and absorbing the truth about where fascism really sits, it was a personal relief to know that, while I represent just about the farthest right a person can be, I am still a good person. I am not violent, racist or xenophobic. I don’t scream and cry when I don’t get my way politically, as I did while a liberal. I don’t call for the silencing and cancelling of those I disagree with. I don’t name-call. I don’t believe the government has the answer for everything, and that non-believers are heretics who should be locked up. I live a stable, contented, normal, religious life. Unfortunately for the hard left that seeks to undermine and ultimately destroy the West, they can no longer point their tut-tut fingers at the likes of me and accuse us of wanting to establish an intolerable fascist regime. Nope, that would be them.

Lynne Cohen is a journalist and non-practising lawyer from Ottawa. She has four books published, including the biography Let Right Be Done: The Life and Times of Bill Simpson.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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