Interregnum

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana.

In 1818, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Ozymandias was a fictional character, but even Shelley’s fourteen line sonnet provides a compelling “historical” tale of the rediscovered visage of a fallen leader in a fallen land, and reminds the reader of the truth in Santayana’s observation. For me, the combination brings to mind the current American political season along with the (far too oft-repeated) myth of American Exceptionalism which, when examined through history’s unbiased eye falls on extremely hard times. In that vein, I offer a (somewhat lengthy) perspective, one based on truth and historical reality rather than on popular mythology. Does one dare to hope that we as a nation might catch on before it’s too late? I can only suggest that based on current signs, optimism is tricky at best. Still, it can’t hurt to try. Right? Following is an admittedly narrow — but historical — preview of tomorrow’s American interregnum, a reflection on the potential consequences of our emergent period of diffuse groping and political stumbling.

Yesterday
For at least a thousand years prior to the early sixteenth century European invasion of the Americas, intellectually-advanced aboriginal populations were leaving their indelible marks on human culture and knowledge.  Whether Inca, Maya, Aztec, Hohokam, Salado, Mogollon, Sinagua, Anasazi, Iroquois – to name but a few – their cultural remnants persist in ways which both puzzle and enlighten those of us whose ancestry is far less remembered, far less culturally profound.  The Iroquois Nation has been called ‘the oldest participatory democracy on Earth’, and there are more than casual evidences that ideas contained in the Iroquois Gayanashagowa, their ‘Great Binding Law’, were incorporated into the Constitution of the United States by America’s founding fathers.  Few argue the immensity or accomplishment of, e.g., the Mayan culture, and we can only speculate about what might have been lost when the Spanish Padre Diego de Landa saw to the destruction of countless ancient Maya texts, codices and documents on the basis that they were ‘heathen’ works.  That the great pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas were highly advanced in astronomical observation – far moreso than their European contemporaries who were barely escaped from their own religious Dark Ages – is seldom questioned.  And yet, the first order of business of the invaders was to destroy, plunder, and pillage – and, of course, ‘save’ the heathen by converting them to whichever version of Christianity they brought with them.

In the American Southwest, the Great Cultures escaped the wrath of the invaders, they had already disappeared a hundred or more years prior to Columbus’s “discovery”; their descendants remained, however, and faced the original onslaughts of both soldier and priest.  The Hopi, Zuni, and Pima all suffered at the hands of the Spanish military and religious cadres, as did the relative newcomer (Athapascan) Navajo and Apache peoples.  Overall, the scenario covering the nearly 700 years from 1200 C.E. to Geronimo’s surrender in 1886 (which heralded the cessation of the Indian Wars in the Southwest) reflected a period of immense change for indigenous peoples, though the change was not of singular cause.

The younger Anasazi cliff dwellings in northern Arizona  – known today by the Navajo names Betatakin and Keet Seel – were constructed in the early- to mid-1200s and were abandoned about 1300, probably due to the protracted drought which began circa 1276 but which apparently built upon accumulated effects of a fifty year drought that desiccated the landscape between 1130 and 1180.  Drought in arid lands, even when brief, imposes a severe impact on local populations – an obvious proposition, but one which is all too easily ignored or dismissed until it’s too late; a lengthy drought must invariably prove fatal.

When the Spaniard Francisco Vasquez de Coronado rode north in 1540 in search of the rumored Seven Cities of Cibola, he first encountered the Zuni villages in present day New Mexico.  After looting, raping, pillaging, and plundering the Zuni, Coronado’s representatives located the Hopi village of Awatovi in Arizona, and eventually met with Hopi representatives in Oraibi.  There were no obvious riches there, however, so contact was intermittent until 1598 when Juan de Oñate arrived and arranged that the Hopi formally agree to become subjects of the King of Spain.  In 1629 the Franciscan Missionaries arrived and began the task of converting the Hopi to Christianity, a task which, to this day, has never been accomplished; the Hopi were (and have remained) strong enough in their own beliefs to resist the calling of the white man’s God, to resist participation in what the Hopi came to refer to as the “slave church.”

In 1680, the proud descendants of the Anasazi – Hopi, Zuni, the Taos pueblo, et. al. – came together in revolt against the ruthless Spaniards, the Castillas.  Every pueblo in the region revolted, and by the time it was all over some 500 Spaniards were dead, including 29 missionaries; churches, along with government and church records, were destroyed, and the remaining Spaniards fled to safety in Mexico.  By the spring of 1700, however, the Spanish priests had returned and managed to baptize 73 residents of Awatovi.  Not long thereafter, the other Hopi villages banded together, attacked Awatovi, killed its residents, destroyed the village, and purged themselves once and for all of the “slave church”; Awatovi remains in ruin to this day.

Meanwhile, far to the south, Spanish Jesuit missionaries were busy establishing visitas and building churches in Mexico’s Pimeria alta, the land of the upper Pimas, now southern Arizona.  The Pimas were hunter-gatherers who some believe to have been descendants of the once grand Hohokam civilization which a few hundred years earlier had prospered along present day Arizona’s Gila and Salt rivers.  The Hohokam were accomplished farmers and builders of extensive irrigation canal networks in the desert valleys adjacent to the perennially-flowing rivers.  Though no one knows for certain, it’s thought that it may have been a consequence of too much water rather than drought which finally forced the Hohokam to move on. The Salt River Valley demonstrated the problem to early anglo farmers when, by virtue of the free-flowing river and irrigation of peripheral acreage, the subsurface water table rose high enough to force salt to the surface which killed the crops (high water tables are no longer a problem – ground water pumping has drastically lowered them, sometimes to depths which have cause substantial land subsidence).  Similarly, before the Salt and Gila Rivers were controlled by upstream dams, flash floods in periodic wet years often inundated their adjacent flood plains which have long been considered to be choice and easily irrigatable farmland.

Given the strange hydrological proclivities and paradoxical precipitation deviations of the northern Sonoran Desert, it becomes almost as simple a task to propose, as reason for the disappearance of the Hohokam, too much water as it does to propose drought.  Perhaps we’ll never know for sure. In any case, what is certain is that the Hohokam, the Anasazi and all other advanced pre-Columbian civilizations once indigenous to the present day American Southwest disappeared, each and all within the same approximate time frame.  The artifacts and ruins each culture left behind are compelling to archaeologist and historian alike, and most surely speak of peoples who understood that their position in the natural world was neither greater nor lesser than that of any other life form, that they, too, were simply a strand in Nature’s web of life.  These were intellectual peoples who were well-advanced in a great many ways, ways which the white invaders, themselves recent refugees of a multi-century Christian-insisted medieval darkness, would not begin to either appreciate or master for several centuries to come – if, indeed, ever.

Today
Enter now the year 2012 C.E., more than 500 years beyond the ‘discovery’ by Europeans of the Americas; much has changed even as much remains the same.  The white race has brought its people, its culture, and its religion to this new world and has superimposed each on top of the peoples, cultures, and religions which were here long ago.  The United States has become the world superpower which many seem to believe has long been its due; but in spite of the nation’s power and ‘wealth’, all is not well.  North America’s once presumed inexhaustible resources and riches have been slowly exhausted and spent, and Nature seems to have become a bit angered by extractive and polluting practices which are slowly overcoming all efforts, however bold or feeble, thus far expended on means to either preserve, protect, or even restore lands, forests, wetlands, etc.  It’s often noted that the U.S.A. contains roughly five percent of the Earth’s total population but is using nearly twenty-five percent of Earth’s resources, all in effort to preserve a ‘standard of living’ which is variously referred to as elevated, prosperous, extravagant, or wasteful.

In post-invasion North America, lines were eventually drawn on maps in order to define the boundaries of Canada, the USA, and Mexico, the three separate nations that today embrace the continent which was historically home to hundreds of separate cultures – Peoples – but with no distinct borders.  Among their numbers, those aboriginal cultures ranged from cosmopolitan and intellectually advanced ‘civilizations’ to the more primitive hunter/gatherer tribes, but all shared at least one apparent near-constant philosophical concept: a genuine religious sense of integration with Nature, with the Earth Mother herself.  Such a philosophy was in direct contrast with the incoming European Christian idea that man had been granted, by the Judaeo-Christian God, dominion (and, by extension, ownership) of Nature’s entire.  The clash was inevitable, and very quickly the lives of Native American tribal nations across the continent were irrevocably altered by the emergence of a capitalistic economy wherein the land, water, animal, and plant resources that historically sustained native cultures became simple commodities in market support of ever-increasing numbers of white Europeans and their descendants.  The invaders brought disease, guns, and insurmountable numbers; with ultimate victory ensured, they signed treaty after treaty with the tribal nations, and forthwith broke treaty after treaty, always in selfish pursuit of riches the lands offered.

By the mid-twentieth Century, the remnant populations of nearly all aboriginal North Americans were confined to reservations (‘reservation’ now synonymous with lands the newly-emplaced ‘Dominant Culture’ presumed to be valueless for either habitation or resource exploitation), many of which remained bastions of human poverty and hopelessness within a nation that had, by the mid-twentieth century, come to be defined by its now white majority as “… one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”  The words rang hollow to the victims of the fledgling superpower’s presumed and so-called “Manifest Destiny” even as the reservation residents were force-fed the white man’s culture and religion, even as the now Dominant Culture did its best to erase or destroy all vestiges of native culture, mythology, legend, and belief.

Nevertheless and despite myriad local indiscretionary behaviors, America initiated, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a ponderous progression in the direction of human rights for minority peoples.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act demanded equal treatment under the law regardless of skin color, or gender, or national origin (for some, a series of radical concepts both then and now); but never has there been an effort to reverse the rescinded treaty obligations with aboriginal tribal nations, all of whom were forced, post-conquest, to make do with what little was left to them.  In spite of the attendant hardship, many tribal nations have finally found ways and means to enrich their financial coffers by offering both services and resources which satisfy Dominant Culture’s consumption urges: whether via gambling casinos or oil, gas, and coal leases, tribal nations have learned to take advantage of the mega-society’s inbred gluttony and greed.  In result, there finally are accumulating tribal financial resources which may, eventually, relieve at least some of the poverty and the intellectual starvation which has been the result of long-term and enforced privation.

Today, America’s facade is that of a world superpower, an advocate of democracy and freedom for all people everywhere, a facade which represents the presumed envy of all who covet personal and societal wealth and prosperity.  But there remains a firm, albeit well-concealed, hollowness implicit in those claims.  As with an old storefront sporting new siding and fresh paint in the midst of an otherwise deteriorating mining town, a glittering facade can easily mask rusted plumbing and crumbling foundations in the basement, dry rot in the walls and rafters, plus aid the concealment of a healthy population of roof rats in the upstairs clerestories, maybe even an infestation that covers the entire top floor. Unfortunately – and sadly – it doesn’t take much creative thought to apply that entire metaphor to present day America, circa 2012 C.E.

There are curious undercurrents in today’s America, undercurrents that far too many deem to consider the norm, but which are, without a doubt, serious harbingers of unpleasantries that lurk just over yon hill.  The undercurrents arrived with the European invaders in the early years of the sixteenth century, and have since come to be seen as noble traits, but sans the traditionally attendant noblesse oblige, those well-understood obligations of nobility.

When, in 1519 Hernán Cortés and his Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Mexico, he was welcomed by the Aztec leader Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán as Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec version of the bearded white god who was commonly a part of the mythology throughout pre-Columbian America.  Cortés soon betrayed Moctezuma’s hospitality, however, as he laid siege to Tenochtitlán; by 1533, with Cortés’s victory complete, all of Mexico was claimed by the Spanish Crown.  Of course, Cortés was not by any measure a god, he was simply a warrior in search of gold and its power implicit. He was also a sworn agent of The Great (Christian) Commission to “make disciples of all nations”, to Christianize the heathen savages which populated the entire of the North American continent.  Cortés was not alone in either mission; virtually all contingents of European immigrants brought approximately the same agenda to serve upon all who inhabited the New World, and over the next several centuries, European immigrant colonists arrived with regularity and in sufficient numbers to alter forever both the natural and cultural face of the continent.

In 1756, John Adams wrote that when European colonists first arrived in America, “… the whole continent was one continued dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men.  Now the forests are removed, the land covered with fields of corn, orchards bending with fruit and the magnificent habitations of rational and civilized people.”  Those same “rational and civilized people” and their descendants soon spread across that continent, from ‘sea to shining sea’.  As they did so, they presumed to conquer the “dismal wilderness” by, in effect, exterminating all of the “wolves and [grizzly] bears” and by killing/exterminating all of the “savage men” – and women, and children – who got in their way (some might consider the word genocide to be an adequate descriptor of that gruesome reality) .  They staked claim to the land and its resources as they went along, and in the process destroyed natural assets which had supported tribal nations for untold centuries.  The buffalo population on the Great Plains, for example – long the principal sustenance of the Plains Indians – was reduced from approximately fifteen million to only a few thousand – in less than ten years. Why?  For sport, and/or for the buffalo’s tongue and robe which each brought a few dollars on the open market.  That slaughter is perhaps one of the most revealing records of colonial atrocity available, and serves to describe, both then and today, the mores and values – or lack thereof – of America’s emergent and now Dominant Culture.

With (and during) the conquest of the continent, Nature was set aside.  In the process, a great many species became extinct (the passenger pigeon and prairie chicken are oft-cited two of many), and hundreds, perhaps thousands more, are ever-increasingly endangered; wild lands have been tamed, rivers dammed, forests logged and clear-cut; vast prairies have been converted to farmlands or paved over as cities; waters are polluted or contaminated with common industrial waste products and with esoteric (often indestructible) man made chemicals; air pollution over large cities has become legendary, and extractable resources which once seemed inexhaustible have been exhausted, or nearly so.  Meanwhile, underground aquifers are drying up even as golf courses are watered daily; widespread use and aerosolized discharge of chlorofluorocarbons has resulted in a huge ‘hole’ in the earth’s protective ozone layer over the south pole, and though efforts have been made to reduce the release of ozone-destroying chemicals, the reality is that it will take Nature a hundred or more years to reverse the damage already done; carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are both causing and exacerbating a global warming trend to the point where the polar ice caps are melting and the ocean levels are slowly rising.  There is, quite literally, no end to the list of problems the Dominant Culture is bringing down upon itself, and for what good reason?

Wealth, of course.  Wealth as defined by money, by dollars.  Wealth equates, to the simplistically minded, with power; power – dominion – is primal to any sense of accomplishment in the Dominant Culture, and in the Dominant Culture, dominion is considered to have been granted to Human by none other than God Himself – the Judaeo/Christian/Islamic God, that is.  Dominion approves and enables the generation of wealth; generation of wealth requires consumption, which requires production, which requires extraction of resource.  Consumption is, therefore and by definition, fundamental: the more consumption, the more wealth for some, the better for all.  Waste, trash, garbage, litter, end products of production or discarded products themselves are all inexorably tied to consumption – which yields wealth, which IS power.  Therefore, waste is never contraindicated and resources ARE there to be used, not conserved.

Hernán Cortés brought the wealth/power/dominion equivalence with him from Spain and put it to good use in his conquest of Tenochtitlán. In the subsequent Spanish explorations, conquests, and Christian missionary forays into what is now the American Southwest, others carried the banners with equivalent zeal.  Today, in both New Mexico and Arizona are many remnants of the Spanish period including place names, architecture styles, and mission churches either still active, or in ruins.  But here the Spanish, too – and their religious converts – were ultimately overwhelmed by America’s Manifest Destiny and have, as such, become parcel of and subservient to the Dominant Culture.

Tomorrow
As I write this, the American Southwest — the historical venue of those advanced civilizations we refer to today as Hohokam, Sinagua, Salado, Mogollon, and Anasazi — is at least fifteen years into an ever more severe drought, and no end is in sight.  Scientists have suggested it could last anywhere from twenty or thirty years to even a thousand years or more.  And though it’s quite likely that a thousand years is a bit of an extreme guess, in practical terms it really won’t make much difference if the lower range of twenty to thirty years proves accurate.  Fifty-odd years ago, for example, the state of Arizona’s human population was barely over a million; today it’s well on its way to topping six million.  Phoenix, its capital city, has grown to become the fifth largest city in the United States, and even though more than half of Arizona’s current population lives in the greater Phoenix metro area, the pressures of supporting such a huge metroplex are spread across much of the rest of the state, the Southwest itself, and especially the watersheds west of the Great Divide in Colorado.  Note the word: watersheds.

Water.  Water is the key, the ancient key, to arid land civilization. Water. Today, Lake Powell, the upper reservoir on the Colorado River formed behind Glen Canyon dam, has more than once shrunk to less than forty percent of capacity, low enough to force reductions in hydro-power generation, low enough to severely restrict recreational boating on the lake itself because of high and dry marinas, and low enough to expose ancient ruins which have been underwater since the floodgates on the dam were first closed in the middle 1960s.  Spring runoff from snow melt in the Colorado Rockies has been reduced for the majority of the last fifteen years because of drought.  Downstream, Lake Mead’s level will slowly shrink as well, more rapidly once releases from Powell either slow to a trickle (or cease completely if/when the lake should completely dry up and become nought but a reminder of better times and wetter climes).  The so-called Lower Basin States (Nevada, Arizona, and California) are strongly dependent upon water allocations from the Colorado River; however, when crunch time arrives, Arizona is, by virtue of the Colorado River Compact, the first loser – California is legally entitled to preferential treatment and will be the last to suffer from shortages.

One wonders if the current situation isn’t somehow similar to that which arose in the thirteenth century, when drought apparently finalized the fate of the Anasazi.  If the current drought persists “only” as long as the Anasazi’s final drought (24 years, from 1276-1300 C.E., based on tree ring data), will Phoenix and other desert population centers find the means to survive?  Was it ever a wise choice to construct cities which are home to millions atop arid desert plains?

What of the huge forests which cover much of the West’s higher elevations?  In the last decade, millions of acres have burned, the bulk of the fires courtesy of Human’s carelessness with matches, cigarettes, campfires, etc.  If forests don’t burn, will their weakened trees further succumb to pine bark beetle infestations which have already claimed millions of trees in just the last few years?

Time will, of course, provide all of the answers.  Meanwhile, it seems terribly obvious that Human may do well to reconsider the fundamentals of his presumed dominion over Nature; he might also consider the possibility of seriously evaluating the collective impact of his constant assaults on the natural world, consider restructuring his culture and society in order to be less environmentally intrusive.  Perhaps the time has come for Dominant Culture to assume the philosophies of life which guided aboriginal peoples, behavioral concepts which allowed them to prosper, to run free, for however many millennia they existed before the European invasion and conquest called a halt to the idea of living in balance with the Earth.

Much work must be done; dare we hope for leaders wise enough to understand the problems, to take positive action toward equitable solution?  If recent history is predictive, the answer is very likely a resounding NO!  In November, 1980, C.E., a new tyranny assumed control of America’s destiny, of her future.  Across the ensuing years, the emphasis has been singular: to reward political patrons with legal favors which honor corporate America even as they spit upon the common man.  Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists – Christians – have gained a new foothold of political power and are using that power to insist the nation take a course which honors class hatred and bigotry.  They attempt to subvert science in favor of their own mythology: that hollow, biblical, Creationist agenda which proclaims Human to be of divine origin and therefore unique – and worthy of dominion – amongst and over all of life.  The first eight years (at least) of the 21st century bore witness to the mass overturning of environmental progress with new roads in roadless areas, huge increases in timber cutting, relaxation of air and water pollution standards, habitat destruction, and cessation of protections for endangered species.  The wave of destruction initiated by, among others, John Adams’s “rational and civilized people,” has returned, but with heightened and renewed energy. The likelihood that Human has finally signed his own warrant has increased proportionateley; Nature has begun to fight back, after all, and Nature will not lose.

Meanwhile, we ponder Human’s arrogance, once again, through the words of the poet Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Fiction? Historical record?  Predictive metaphor? Whichever be the case, it’s at least as thought-provoking as are any of the multitude of Genesis myths which seem to underlie the philosophical imperatives of today’s grossly imperfect Dominant Culture.  If it’s indeed true that Ozymandias offers an accurate reflection of the consequences of arrogant leadership, and if the reward for such arrogance is “two trunks of legless stone” with a “shattered  visage” lying “half sunk” in the sand, then America’s current leadership has surely been described, the nation’s ultimate fate defined and cast in stone.   All should be advised that to find Shelley’s “visage” which sports a “frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” we need look no further than Washington D.C., and to the person(s) therein ‘in charge’ of this country, “leaders” who are, each and all, completely true to the spirit of Ozymandias himself.  Q.E.D.: quod erat demonstrandum.

The times are once again dark and dangerous; there is much work to be done.

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5 thoughts on “Interregnum

  1. Wow, I am great fan of Jared Diamond – this piece put me in mind of it. Diamond maintains a disconnect and typcially focusses on the science – you’ve got a story told by poets, thinkers and humanists…. great work frugal.

  2. When we traveled through SD, WY and ID, my thoughts kept turning to the First People. It makes me angry to think how the First People were slaughtered or sent off to live where no one else wants to live. What I did like seeing was the signs advertising for casinos. It was a smart move by the First People to be making a profit off of the addictions of their greedy conquerers. In the end, it will be the First People that will survive.

    As for the states of SD, WY, and ID, these Republican controlled states hate big government yet it was big government that made their ranches and farms possible. It was big government that gave away swaths of land and sent the army to protect the “pioneers” from the native people that lived on those lands. Without the help of big government, manifest destiny would be nothing more than words on a piece of paper. The ranchers and farmers with these thousands of acres should get on their knees and thank big government every day for giving them something that never belonged to our government in the first place.

    Excellent post, Frugal.

    • I had mixed feelings regarding the casinos. On the one hand, we (white ‘Murkans’ kicked the natives off one god-forsaken reservation after another, untill we finally found places devoid of natural resources for them to live. On the other, my younger brother was addicted to gambling. It turned out to be a fatal addiction, as he committed suicide…. In the end, I voted in favor of the casinos in California.

      • To me, the true and genuine travesty is fundamentally simple: it begins and ends with the white European’s presumption that his ‘culture’ is superior to all others. Period. End of story. QED. He’s completely in error, obviously, but his attitude has been and remains responsible for untold and nearly unimaginable suffering around the globe and over many many centuries.

        When I lived in AZ I knew a Navajo artist/writer whose home was in the small town of Kayenta on the Navajo Reservation in NE Arizona. Shonto was highly successful by any measure, and had no problem living in and dealing with the white man’s America. But his family had a remote hogan located in the Navajo back country, and they would regularly spend extended weekends there. No plumbing, no elec., no phones, no TV or radio, no conveniences (INconveniences??) of any kind. Only the old ways. There they spoke only Navajo, and there they lived only the old tribal traditions. It was, to them, always a renewing time for everyone, elders and teens included. I always envied them their heritage. And they were some of the finest folks it was ever my pleasure to know.

        It can be done, i.o.w. Today’s First People are not all ‘closeted’ on their respective Reservations. But it’s not easy.

        I don’t care much for the Reservation casinos either. In fact, even though they’re fairly common on several of AZ’s tribal entities and do, indeed, generate lots of cold hard cash, the Navajo never went for them. There are better ways, and who knows but what maybe reverting to and embracing the ancient cultures might not one day return to define the current experience? It can work, I’ve seen it!

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