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The Right after Fusionism, Part 1: Whittaker Chambers and the Nationalist Temptation

If conservative fusionism—combining social conservatism with economic liberalism—is no longer politically viable, must the Right choose among the unappealing options of religious and ethnic nationalism, libertarianism, or the atavistic rejection of modernity? These are the options that now command the most attention. But a fresh encounter with Whittaker Chambers’ critique of fusionism would help open our minds to other possible directions for the Right.

This is the first of a series considering three now-tempting directions for the Right in light of Chambers’ thought. This article considers the temptation of nationalism. Future articles in this series will consider the economic and nostalgic temptations, and what other alternatives an encounter with Chambers might suggest.

Why Identity-Politics Nationalism Is So Tempting

A blood-and-soil nationalism, grounded in religious and/or ethnic identity politics, is one obvious possible direction for the Right after fusionism. A cogent nationalist critique of fusionism is simple to state, even if most of the spokespeople for ethnic/religious identity politics who get on television are too busy pandering to base passions to state it. Economic liberalism’s market structures are built on the assumption that cultural loyalties are irrelevant to moral formation. It treats the moral rules upon which economies depend (don’t steal or cheat, don’t build a business model on activities that undermine the necessary social preconditions of market exchange, etc.) as existing on a sort of universal plane, equally known to all and interpreted in the same way by all.

In globalizing markets, immemorial traditions and community institutions are destroyed as people reorganize their lives to realize market efficiencies. Economic liberals don’t see this as a mortal threat. They just shrug and say, “you can’t fight the market.”

But people find it harder and harder to make moral sense of their world under these conditions. The moral formation upon which markets depend is always connected to local loyalties. We learn what is right and wrong from our tribes. If the tribe’s traditions and institutions are destroyed, where will we learn not to steal and cheat? We won’t, which is why economic liberalism is rapidly creating an increasingly corrupt and repulsive world.

The tribe, on this view, must have veto power over markets to protect institutions that provide moral foundations both for the tribe and for the market. This is inseparable from some kind of ethnic and/or religious chauvinism. The tribe cannot teach us right and wrong if it protects all traditions and institutions indiscriminately. It must favor its own traditions and institutions over others in order to be what it is. An increasing number of people on the Right seem to be embracing identity politics out of a sense, often unconscious, that such chauvinism is the price of the tribe’s survival in the face of vocal opponents.

Fusionism’s Blind Spot: The “Crisis of History”

Chambers helps us understand why fusionists are so poorly equipped to respond to the nationalist challenge. This issue was at the heart of Chambers’ critique of fusionism in his letters to William F. Buckley, explaining his resignation from National Review. Chambers was firm in his commitment to individual rights and economic liberalism. And he was also a deeply religious man who saw moral failure as the core challenge of modern society. Nevertheless, he had always refused to call himself “conservative.” In his resignation letters, he explained to Buckley that he had come to a fuller realization of why conservatism on the fusionist model won’t work.

Chambers conceded to Buckley that you can’t have individual rights and economic liberalism (to which they both were firmly devoted) without accepting growth, mechanization and social modernization (which Buckley welcomed and Chambers distrusted). But he pointed out to Buckley that this market reorganization of society destroys traditions and community institutions. Conservatism had not developed an account of how to sustain moral formation in the kind of world free markets create. For all its socially conservative policy commitments and all its talk about how we rely on churches and communities to make us moral, fusionism had no resources—intellectual or practical—for assisting people when their traditions and institutions are destroyed by globalizing markets.

Today, about 60 years after Chambers’ resignation, fusionism still does not have much account of how to keep a society moral as the market constantly upends its traditions and institutions. It can only scramble, with decreasing plausibility, to blame moral breakdown on Big Government. There are a few cases, like school choice, where economic liberalism really does “fuse” almost seamlessly with concern for institutions of moral formation; on the whole, however, harmonizing markets and morals is proving harder than fusionism anticipated.

G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that the only problem with conservatism is that a white post has to be constantly repainted (i.e. revolutionized) merely to remain what it is. Left alone, it will not remain a white post, it will become a black post. Jonah Goldberg once drew on this observation to complain—on Twitter, I believe—that for critics of conservatism, “everything is Chesterton’s post.” I’m sympathetic to Goldberg’s concern to resist mere faddism and contempt for the past. But I’m increasingly convinced that in the constantly changing social environment created by economic liberalism and globalizing markets, everything really has become Chesterton’s post. Keeping our moral institutions moral requires defending them, but also constantly reinventing them.

In addition to showing why fusionism’s responses to identity nationalism have been ineffective, appreciating the crisis of history also highlights why nationalism is consistently drawn toward ethnic and religious tribalism. Some conservatives are now trying to build a benign version of “nationalism,” asserting the primacy of the nation-state against the unaccountable power of trans-national liberal elites without falling into ethnic or religious identity politics. But until we have developed an adequate response to the crisis of history, what will supply the moral content of our nationalism, if not the identity politics of ethnic and religious tribes? Until we figure out how to build moral consensus under conditions of modern markets without resorting to toxic tribalism, the wiser course would be (as Goldberg suggests) a careful distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” with a stern prohibition on the latter.

Why Nationalism Doesn’t Work

Chambers’ thought also suggests how we might think more seriously about the moral foundations of societies and markets without falling into the nationalist trap. We do not know what Chambers would have said if he had lived long enough to develop further the insights in his letters to Buckley. And in any event, he famously declared that he did not see how the crisis of history could be overcome. Nevertheless, he provides several helpful starting points for reflection.

In Witness, Chambers insists that we take the crisis of history seriously, showing the enormous magnitude and complexity of this challenge. But as it has drifted away from the influence of people like Chambers, the Right has begun talking as if the moral breakdown of society would automatically take care of itself if we could just get Big Government out of the way. Important as limitations on government are—Chambers was, it bears repeating, inflexibly devoted to individual rights and free markets—the reflex to describe every social problem as an opportunity to roll back government must be unlearned. This is not because government doesn’t need to be rolled back, but because so many other things also need to be done.

Chambers also shows why we must not give tribes a final veto power over people’s choices. Tribes consistently fail to live up to their own standards. If given a veto over our lives, tribal leaders will not use it to build us up morally. They will use it to insulate themselves from moral accountability. That’s part of the crisis of history, from which tribes are not immune. Under modern conditions, it is no longer possible—as it was when we were radically poorer and less mobile—to uphold traditions in society without giving unaccountable power to people who will abuse it.

Chambers’ life story is a series of confrontations with tribal institutions that fail morally—from his unhappy home life to the widespread oppression and mistreatment of workers by big businesses, his experiences among the extremely marginalized, his expulsion from a religious society, and his abuses at the hands of both the Communist Party and the leading institutions of the U.S. government and media. In each case, when Chambers refuses to acquiesce in the tribe’s moral failure, the tribe’s response is vicious. This theme is what gives Witness its tremendous power as both a personal and political meditation on modern life.

All this implies that, while we may learn about right and wrong from our tribes, our tribes are not the ultimate source of the morality they teach us. The fallacy in giving the tribe a veto in the name of morality is that it reduces “morality” to “whatever the tribe does.” This empties our morality of all meaningful content. Real freedom and virtue demand that we limit local loyalties in the name of the higher power that is the real source of moral obligation.

Few people have ever loved their country as much as Chambers loved his. He sacrificed everything he had to save America, even as all its leading institutions were doing their best to destroy him. There is a lesson in that for nationalists. People who really love the tribe hold it accountable to its own moral commitments—and such people are persecuted by the tribe more often than they are welcomed by it.

Nationalism and the Right

Amid the crisis of history, the moral coherence we need cannot be regained by giving the tribe a veto over people’s lives. It can only be regained in the opposite direction, with people exercising a moral veto over their own tribal leaders. For the Right, that requires reining in ethnic and religious nationalism.

White ethnic chauvinism is not just a short-term embarrassment for the Right, it is a cancer that destroys the Right’s moral principles. We can defend the Constitution and the classical liberal regime because they are right, or because they belong to our social group, but not both. Pandering to ethnic passions, whether explicitly or through dog whistles, would once have earned a speedy and irreversible one-way ticket out of the movement. It is now not only tolerated, but built into the business models of some of the Right’s key institutions, especially in broadcasting. We are a long way from Bob Dole’s resounding “the exits are clearly marked” at the 1996 GOP convention. Failure to escort the ethnic nationalists to those exits, even at great short-term cost, has not only destroyed the Right’s moral credibility but undermined its moral philosophy.

The Right must also rethink the relationship between religion and public morals. Ultimate moral standards are needed, but the religious institutions uniquely capable of holding up such standards are themselves increasingly loci of amoral tribalism. Fusionism relied on a simple binary between “religion” (good) and “secularism” (bad). That may once have made some sense. But globalization and the crisis of history have scrambled that simplicity. As people search desperately for some stable and reliable source of moral coherence, religion has not declined, as many predicted. But it is being used more and more aggressively as a way to regain lost tribal loyalties. This, ironically, perverts religious morality into the selfish assertion of our tribe’s interests against those of others, emptying religion of moral content. The Right must become sensitive to the increasing tendency of religious institutions to turn into destructive idols of power-worship—including not only “the other side’s” religious institutions, but the very ones the Right has historically valued.

To generalize from these particulars, the crisis of history forces us to choose between amoral tribalism or moral reform of our institutions. Granted, no one claims to have an easy five-point plan for moral reform. (Well, okay, actually lots of people do claim to have that, and we’ll get to them in a future article in this series.) But it’s not hard to figure out where to start: Defenestrate the ethnic hucksters and religious sellouts, or repudiate them where we cannot defenestrate them. As C.S. Lewis once said in another context, the road is hard, but the path is clear.

This essay continues here.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 20, 2018 at 10:14:31 am

[…] Law & Liberty runs part one of my three-part series on how Whittaker Chambers can help the Right rethink its future after […]

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Whittaker Chambers and the Right, Part 1: Nationalism – Hang Together
on November 20, 2018 at 11:01:14 am

This essay is an intellectually pretentious, morally self-righteous exercise in anti-nationalist dimness and anti-populist pomposity posturing as conservative political omniscience. It is appallingly smug and cluelessly self-confident yet displays pervasive ignorance of modern Western history, American culture and American Protestantism and Catholicism. The writing reeks of Bill Kristol-like personal animus posturing as political preeminence.

To say more would be to risk awarding the essay minimal credit, which it does not deserve, by appearing to take it slightly seriously, which I do not.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on November 20, 2018 at 12:45:06 pm

An interesting piece (and not pretentious at all; your other commenter would do well to actually engage with its ideas rather than throwing out insults), but it could be more finely tuned. In particular, its critique of tribal moral standards needs sharpening. The problem with tribal morality is *not* that the tribe fails to observe its own moral standards, but that its moral standards are indistinguishable from tribal mores. A Christian like Chambers would surely be aware that the Christian faith stands *above* the tribe and holds it to universal standards--standards that tribes, by their nature reject, even if they label themselves "Christian."

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Image of David L Carlton
David L Carlton
on November 20, 2018 at 13:16:05 pm

I agree with you. I commented on Bayer's piece of even date:

"The more interesting question is whether popular self-government is possible absent an extremely egalitarian monoculture that already agrees on most of the hard moral and political questions. By 1800, the conditions that made self-government possible in the colonies were already breaking down and today, none of the original conditions exist."

Forster's assumption in his piece is that the morals of all tribes are fungible and so morals of a tribe of death worshipers who believe in human sacrifice are no better or worse than those of a tribe esthetic sun worshiping vegetarians and no better or worse than anything in between these two extremes.

Of course, I come down on the side "blood and soil" nationalism in an English Reformed moral system as opposed to anything Forster suggested might be the alternative.

I also wondered why Forster did not substitute "the commerce clause" for "global markets" in the passage:

"For all its socially conservative policy commitments and all its talk about how we rely on churches and communities to make us moral, fusionism had no resources—intellectual or practical—for assisting people when their traditions and institutions are destroyed by globalizing markets. "

Is he afraid to look look too closely on the facts on the ground?

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EK
on November 20, 2018 at 13:27:14 pm

Your generalization about "Christian faiths" may be true of high church Catholics, Anglicans and, to a lesser extent Lutherans who specialized in national churches, but it is certainly not true about low church reformed and covenanted protestants.

For us the tribe is first; that's why we did so well from 1533 to 1942.

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EK
on November 20, 2018 at 15:46:20 pm

Chambers is one of my all time hero's. But I fear you are reading your bias into "Witness" what isn't there. if anything I think that Chambers disagreed with Buckley more on strategy.

Frankly, this article is bizarre. Who are the leaders of this nationalistic religious white tribe? I thought our only "tribal" unity was the Constitution which emphasizes self-rule. Are you really trying to say that borders are bad in a self righteous, faux academic way?

Just like a lot of pompous dandies around me these days, you are trying to give me a problem I don't have. No thanks.

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Lydia
on November 20, 2018 at 18:12:27 pm

"“For all its socially conservative policy commitments and all its talk about how we rely on churches and communities to make us moral, fusionism had no resources—intellectual or practical—for assisting people when their traditions and institutions are destroyed by globalizing markets. ”"

Because he probably is a) ignorant of it's impact or b) is completely unaware of it.

As for Forster's slant on Chesterton's "White Post", this would fit very aptly in a symposium on the Living Constitution as Forster would appear to be desirous of considerable change in our "antediluvian based" mores.

Oddly, Forster also fails to recognize that the *higher* standard, the higher mores, towards which we strive are both present and are reflective of the only proper form of nationalism extant - American constitutionalism which limits, and is so intended, majoritarian (in this instance religious) contrarian and anti-democratic impulses and which not only permits, but under its' original understanding PROMOTED the practice of all manner of religious impulse and beliefs.

And how are we to change? Are we to rid ourselves of the "limits" that we placed upon ourselves by adopting and ratifying our *constituent* law, i.e. COTUS? Are we to permit more change to satisfy Forster's desire for "defenestration"? or are we to reaffirm our original position that all manner of belief shall be permitted consistent with constitutional limits.
Forster fails to see that it WAS change that resulted in our present situation; specifically as EK suggests above, the change in the meaning and import / extent of the "commerce clause" which has enabled the government to intrude into every single village / business / interchange between citizens AND it is that change that has inundated us with countless rules, restrictions and unwanted and unpopular obligations and belies his claim that reducing government interference is neither a primary nor proper objective for conservatives.

If one wishes to observe "religious hucksterism" and "tribal loyalties" operating to the detriment of the citizenry, one need only study any one of thousands of Federal / state or Municipal agencies in operation.
their faith in their mission, their moral certainty and their evangelizing, and their denigration of those that have not accepted the new doctrine, is akin to that of the newly baptized religious zealot.

As for me, I will take a does of that "ole time religion" - the US Constitution and its simultaneous limits on and inducements to religious and community impulses.

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gabe
on November 20, 2018 at 19:27:31 pm

Lydia's got Chambers right, where he belongs morally, and politically. He certainly was not a globalist since he fought the insidious anti-Americanism of Communism, the greatest imperialist movement since the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon and the Nazis.

Forster twists and distorts Chambers and seems not to have understood the man, which is also my assessment of Forster's limpid grasp of the centripetal patriotic power of genuine American nationalism (which is hardly, as Forster wrongly suggests, akin to Nazi "blood and soil" cultism,) the unifying historical effects of the varieties of American religious experience (which in theory and practice are anything but tribal) and the centrality of the US Constitution (which is both the unifying heritage and the conservative/ conserving political focus of resurgent American nationalism.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on November 20, 2018 at 20:04:31 pm

Trying to place Chambers into such categories to appeal to some Neo con authority is just wrong. He wasn’t a theologian, a policy analyst or a pundit. He was a thinker. Dare I say, reluctant philosopher? And I doubt there are many today who understand the totalitarian mind and tactics as well as he did.

I do believe the Neo cons have gone off the deep end. But I had to defend Chambers to any prospective new readers. He won’t disappoint. But be prepared -not only to be moved but to think.

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Lydia
on November 20, 2018 at 20:31:18 pm

I share your great admiration for Chambers. Witness is one of the most important books I have read. I have also read numerous of Chambers articles and book reviews in Time Magazine. Deep and moving thinker.
It is shameful that a gentle extraordinary man would be callously abused both during his life and in memory for reasons of political opportunism.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on November 20, 2018 at 21:44:11 pm

Lydia:

It is beyond bizarre - it is "tawdry", an excrescence sprayed upon the soul of a man far greater in acumen, understanding and moral character than the excreter, the putrescent product of which activity is not successfully masked by *spraying* it with healthy doses of concern for the effects of religious hucksters and some vaguely alluded to, but clearly ill-defined, morality and anti-tribalism.

I am a member of a tribe. I REJOICE in that membership. I am an American and like Lydia I am neither willing nor able to accept a problem offered to me by (mal)educated pompous dandies. (Absotively luvv'd the phrase)

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gabe
on November 20, 2018 at 21:57:17 pm

Pukka:

BTW:

Thanks for the recommendation on Harzony re: Nationalism. Had read a review somewhere and wanted to buy it but forgot. Your link was sufficient to spur my failing memory. Will start soon.

seeya
gabe

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gabe
on November 21, 2018 at 06:07:16 am

[…] of electoral potential for the GOP in “a creative and unifying new nationalism.” The Right’s old fusionism won’t do, and a permanent minority status awaits the Republicans if they cannot find a better way […]

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A Republican Party After Trump?
on November 28, 2018 at 20:01:51 pm

It’s time to recall history only to avoid its mistakes, such as the U.S. establishing freedom of religion rather than support for civic integrity. It is time not to go back to before but to establish local civic integrity under local republicanism.

“Real freedom and virtue demand that we limit local loyalties in the name of the higher power that is the real source of moral obligation.”

Forster leaves this profound sentence without authority: why?

I suggest that Forster and other scholars, cognitively or not, would suppress the message Albert Einstein delivered in 1941 at a conference on science and religion. The speech is entitled “The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics.”

Now that confirmation of gravitational waves elevated Einstein’s general theory of relativity to a law, Einstein’s message could be paraphrased: Physics, the object of discovery, continually proves that lies beg human loss and misery. In other words, Einstein's speech appreciates physics as the source of integrity, with no need for ethics. (Integrity defines ethics.)

From the actual reality of physics, the object of study, humankind continually discovers the-objective-truth. Social scholars neglect the-objective-truth at their own peril.

Yet, some students imagine a concern and construct a confirming doctrine plus a remedy, never allowing the unproven possibility that the concern was a mirage. According to their scholarship, it is sufficient to wait an eternity for disproof of an eternal mystery.

We seemingly reached the age when scholars, politicians, the clergy, and all local inhabitants may admit they are first fellow citizens and collaborate to discover statutory justice based on the-objective-truth rather than conflict for a dominant opinion. Fellow citizens may reserve spiritual pursuits, responsible or not, as private practices for mature believers.

History shows that there will always be dissidents to equal justice under law (EJUL). Most families are not aware of this principle, and therefore members may develop internal enmity rather than mutual appreciation. Fellow citizens are mostly unaware of EJUL. Therefore, few U.S. citizens trust-in and commit-to the civic, civil, and legal agreement that is offered in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. This 230-year old habit could change.

A substantial responsibility for this civic, civil, and legal tyranny is that the U.S. preamble was labeled “secular” whereas it is neutral to religion as well as gender, race, wealth, ethnicity, hopes and many other characteristics that make a person an individual. The U.S. preamble was established on June 21, 1788, and the 1789-1793 Congress obfuscated the agreement by May 1789.

The U.S. preamble tacitly proposes civic self-discipline by willing citizens, who may use the articles that follow to limit their local, state, and federal governance. The consequence of widespread use of the U.S. preamble might be individual happiness with civic integrity. However, until a culture of civic integrity is established by this nation, it makes no sense for the U.S. to pretend to offer the good beyond its own borders: Republican nationality by the U.S. is good for the world.

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Phil Beaver
on December 05, 2018 at 14:14:14 pm

[…] for this decline and an appealing alternative to current ways of rethinking the Right. For example, he shows why fusionism has been unable to fight off nationalism, and also why nationalism would be a wrong […]

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Image of The Right after Fusionism, Part 2: Whittaker Chambers and the Economic Temptation
The Right after Fusionism, Part 2: Whittaker Chambers and the Economic Temptation
on December 05, 2018 at 14:16:18 pm

[…] decline, but the limits of these alternatives. Having looked at the first two alternatives in previous articles, we now turn to the third: romantic nostalgia for the lost world of moral coherence before […]

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Image of The Right After Fusionism, Part 3: Whittaker Chambers and the Nostalgic Temptation
The Right After Fusionism, Part 3: Whittaker Chambers and the Nostalgic Temptation
on January 11, 2019 at 08:03:10 am

[…] I’m allergic to the word “nationalism,” I think Hazony is right about the underlying issue in this case. […]

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Image of Protestant Theology and Nations as Moral Communities
Protestant Theology and Nations as Moral Communities
on April 10, 2019 at 11:41:01 am

[…] responsibility, would help Christians on the left understand conservative concerns better. His unsparing portrait of the many forms of injustice that thrive in America—the mistreatment of workers, the brutality of white supremacy, the alienation of the […]

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Image of Returning to Witness – Hang Together
Returning to Witness – Hang Together
on April 10, 2019 at 16:38:18 pm

[…] personal responsibility, would help Christians on the left understand conservative concerns better. His unsparing portrait of the many forms of injustice that thrive in America—the mistreatment of workers, the brutality of white supremacy, the alienation of the […]

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Image of A BLOCKBUSTER BEST-SELLER ABOUT GOD AND POLITICS | The Log College
A BLOCKBUSTER BEST-SELLER ABOUT GOD AND POLITICS | The Log College
on May 12, 2019 at 14:55:11 pm

[…] personal responsibility, would help Christians on the left understand conservative concerns better. His unsparing portrait of the many forms of injustice that thrive in America—the mistreatment of workers, the brutality of white supremacy, the alienation of the […]

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Image of A Blockbuster Bestseller on God and Politics - Reformologist
A Blockbuster Bestseller on God and Politics - Reformologist
on July 03, 2019 at 12:48:56 pm

[…] on how Chambers can help us see through the temptations on the Right toward irresponsible forms of nationalism, libertarianism and nostalgia. In addition to my desire to help more people encounter this great […]

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Image of This Fourth, Learning to Cross the Desert – Hang Together
This Fourth, Learning to Cross the Desert – Hang Together

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