Chomsky on Self-Determination


Chomsky gets his round in, in The Black Man, pub, Govan (1990) after Self-Determination and Power conference


Prof Noam Chomsky, author of “Occupy”, is a linguist, philosopher and political activist who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955.

He came to public attention during the 1960s as a protester opposing the Vietnam war. And his activism and speaking engagements continue to take him all around the world. Furthermore, he knows what it’s like to drink in a Govan pub.

In “A Night Sky in the Coffee Cup”, Dundee seafarers perished in the Arctic and Greenlandic crew were laid to rest in Aberdeenshire. But some might say the perils of the deep are not confined to Scotland’s past: the SNP’s “Scotland Forward” document states that, “We don’t even have the ability to say yes or no to the siting of nuclear weapons on our soil and their deployment on submarines that cruise our waters … ”.

In preparing for my discussion with Prof Chomsky, I e-mailed Chris Mullin – former Labour MP and writer of the political thriller “A Very British Coup”.

Regarding the removal of nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed vessels, Mr Mullin said in his reply that: “I imagine, but I am not certain, that the decision would rest with Whitehall, although the Americans might have to be consulted … Assuming, however that the UK government retained control over defence and foreign policy – as I believe the Nats have suggested – then there would presumably be no objection to it staying.”

So I wondered what Prof Chomsky’s thoughts were around this subject.

One of the things the US likes about the UK is the military bases in Scotland and they’d remain, I presume. On the role of the the US in whatever negotiations take place, I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. The relationship of subordination to the US is so overwhelming that they’d have to be consulting with the US – both the Scottish and the English. I’m sure the US would be insisting at least that it maintain the military bases and any advantages for investment and whatever else it has there. In fact, it might expect these to be enhanced in an independent Scotland. The UK subordinates itself to the United States, but it’s not an abject servant – it’s powerful enough to have a certain degree of independence in the world. That would be less so if separation took place.

And it seems that one of the first ever commercial oil refineries was built in, of all places, West Lothian. According to an 1865 article in The Scotsman, “it is questionable whether the great paraffine trade would ever have become one of the recognised industries of the country had … experiments not been carried into the mineral fields of Linlithgowshire”.

The refinery – the Bathgate Chemical Works – had been founded fourteen years previously by a Mr James Young.

The same piece in The Scotsman goes on to mention, “belching chimneys”, “branch thoroughfares of boilers and tanks”, and, “great puncheons of oil from the stores”. Bathgate “paraffine” is​ described as pr​oducing a, “lambent white light … mild and pleasant to the eye”, whereas the lubricating oil from Linlithgowshire was reportedly “held in high esteem by watch and clock makers” as well as, “philosophical instrument makers and other tradesmen”.

But in part six of The Nation’s ​“Peak Oil and a Changing Climate”, Prof Chomsky spoke about “a kind of … institutional contradiction” oil company CEOs find themselves in nowadays; they may believe fossil fuel usage is putting their grandchildrens’ future at risk but, needing to make profits in the short-term, they preside over continued resource exploitation.

In “Self Rule in Greenland – Towards the World’s First Inuit State?”, Prof Mark Nuttall wrote that, “Greenlandic politicians widely agree that attracting foreign investment for the development of minerals and hydrocarbons is the key to financial, economic and eventual political independence”.

The secret 1974 report by Prof Gavin McCrone contained information about North Sea oil that, it was thought, could have fuelled not just internal combustion engines, but Scottish independence.

Indeed, a 2005 article in the New Zealand Herald stated: “An independent Scotland’s Budget surpluses, wrote McCrone, would be so large as to be ’embarrassing’. Scotland’s currency ‘would become the hardest in Europe with the exception of the Norwegian kronor'”.

So I asked Prof Chomsky if democratic representatives and leaders – particularly those in smaller areas where political independence had popular support – might end-up in a similar squeeze to the CEOs.

The institutional pressures are different. If you’re a CEO of a corporation and you’re in a semi-competitive system, suppose you put resources in cars that ten years from now will be superior – well, you won’t be around ten years from now because your competitors will put resources into cars for tomorrow.

So they’ll be able to beat you in the short term; there are institutional imperatives that are just part of the market system.

States do have pressures but they’re not exactly those. Nevertheless, what you’ve described could take place.

A couple of years ago, Alaska elected a governor on the platform of independence – ‘lets get out of the Union’, you know? And they had all kind of illusions that they’d become like Saudi Arabia and so on.

An episode of Al Jazeera’s “48”, filmed in 2008, gave me the impression that some in Greenland might be looking forward to climate change. As I mentioned in “A Night Sky in the Coffee Cup”, the presenter stated that, “global warming does mean easier access to the wealth buried under Greenland’s ice sheet”.

Prof Chomsky has more than once ​drawn attention to a significant minority within the scientific community, including some of his colleagues at MIT, who caution that consensus climate change forecasts are misleadingly positive.

In “Peak Oil and a Changing Climate”, P​​​rof Chomsky claimed that some of the “leading scientists” at his institution have concluded that “their own results are an understatement ’cause they don’t take into account such things as effects of methane emission after permafrost disappears, and so on”.

Fearing that I was asking a dumb question, I reluctantly asked Prof Chomsky if he believed that there would ever be a place in the world, particularly a region seeking political independence, that would leave (suspected or confirmed) oil resources in the ground because they did not wish to contribute to further global climate change.

It’s not a dumb question. There are examples where the option of developing destructive resources has not been accepted for these reasons. This is happening all over the world. One of the most interesting areas is South America. There’s a large indigenous population in South America, and in some countries it’s actually a majority, like Bolivia and others – it’s pretty close to it in Ecuador. And typically the indigenous populations are opposed to development of resources.

There’s a big struggle right now in Ecuador where the government wants to follow a developmentalist policy to exploit their oil reserves, and the indigenous people do not see any reason why their lives and society should be destroyed so that people can sit in traffic jams in New York. They don’t want to develop those reserves.

India’s practically at war over this. The tribal societies in the forest areas, the Adivasi, are people who’ve lived in relative autonomy with their own lives and societies.

But they happen to be sitting on a lot of mineral resources, and the big corporations want to get their hands on it and the government wants to make money from it. So there’s a literal war going on, it’s covering large parts parts of India.
Just this morning I happened to be talking on the phone to people I know in Colombia who I’ve visited, and the issue is efforts by the government to expropriate land, mountains and hills which they’ll sell off to mining companies which will devastate the local communities.

It’s happening right here. The state of Wisconsin has been in the news the last couple of days. One thing that isn’t being reported is that there are huge mining activities going on to dig-up some special kind of sand they have in Wisconsin which is useful for fracking – used for extracting oil by advanced, sophisticated techniques – all of which is devastating the environment. It’ s quite a beautiful state in many ways. It’s wiping it out.

Right now in El Salvador, the mildly social democratic government tried to impose some environmental restrictions to prevent destruction of the country by mining.

Well, one of the big mining internationals has just filed a suit against them at the World Trade Organisation claiming that, under WTO rules – or under CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement – under those rules, countries are not permitted to impose environmental constraints that might reduce the profits of multinationals.

They’ll probably win. That’s the way the WTO was set up. These things are happening all over the world, and it’s a major struggle. You’re not asking a hypothetical question, it’s a very real one.

But moving closer to home, I wondered if Prof Chomsky believed that there was a strong case to be made for the UK, or an independent Scotland, to eschew future North Sea oil exploration – or even wind-down existing operations – purely on environmental grounds?

A very strong case. Unfortunately, we’re going in the opposite direction, led by the US and most of the business world, which are exulting in the opportunities to destroy the prospects for decent survival even more rapidly than anticipated by exploiting new technology to allow us to wallow in fossil fuels for 100 years.

In “A Night Sky in the Coffee Cup”, Prof Nuttall said, “How Greenland has managed to organise its economy … and how it plans to control sub-surface resources is of interest to Scottish nation-builders.”. And in Prof Chomsky’s ‘other life’ as a linguist, he once said, “an extra-terrestrial observer – looking at us the way we look at frogs – would say there’s only one human, and one language, with minor variations”.

Given that this discussion centres around politics and history, I wondered what Prof Chomsky imagined aliens might say about what happens on earth when new nations are created – if the extra-terrestrials had had the chance to look down at Scotland’s patch, i.e. Europe, over, say, the past 150 years?

If I can stretch the timeline a little, if aliens were looking at Europe, and in fact the world, with this question in mind, what they would see is that the nation state system – which is substantially a European invention – has been extremely brutal and savage.

I mean, to impose the state system in Europe itself required centuries of mutual slaughter, destruction and savagery. The Thirty Years’ War alone killed-off probably a third of the population of Germany; the English Civil War was highly destructive. And on and on.

There were many great achievements in Europe – the Enlightenment, science, Shakespeare and so on. But at the same time, it did create both the technology of savagery and kind of a culture of savagery which enabled Europe to conquer the world. England in the lead, in fact.

As the Europeans conquered the world, they imposed nation sate systems almost everywhere, and they were almost entirely artificial, so the lines were drawn for the benefit of the imperial power. They often had nothing to do with the local populations.

Take, say, the most conflicted areas today like Pakistan and Afghanistan – they’re divided by the Durand line which British imperialism imposed, which happens to cut right through Pushtun territory.

No Afghan government that had any independence ever accepted it, the Pushtuns certainly don’t accept it. We now carry out bombing and killings and so on because we say that infiltrators – terrorists – are crossing the line, but from their point of view they’re going from one part of their country to another.

A short walk from Waverley Station in Edinburgh, about half-way across North Bridge, will bring you to a stone monument commemorating Scottish lives lost in six military campaigns – including Afghanistan 1878-1880, Chitral (today North-western Pakistan) 1895 and Tirah (Pushtun territory in what is now North-western Pakistan) 1897-1898.

In August 2007, Mr Neil Davidson of the University of Strathclyde wrote of the “pervasive fantasy on the Scottish left that Scotland is an oppressed nation, rather than a leading component of the British oppressor” (mentioning “Livingstonia” and “Blantyre” – actually names of places in Malawi).

​And interviewed by STV in October of last year, the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman remarked that Scots have been “ferocious British imperialists”, stating that the United Kingdom had been established, “after Scotland had been almost bankrupted by a crackpot attempt to create an empire of its own.”.

But would the alien observers only have trouble of this kind to report in Europe, Afghanistan and Pakistan?

It’s the same everywhere you look.

Take, say, the US-Mexico border: that border was established by violent aggression like most borders. Up until very recently it was a pretty open border – people visited their cousin on the other side an so on. The last twenty years it’s been militarised as part of the so-called Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA.

It was pretty obvious to the Clinton administration that the terms they were imposing would have very harmful effects on Mexican peasants, Mexican small business and so on.

And they presumably anticipated a big rise in illegal immigration so they militarised the border, so now people get killed trying to cross the border and so on.

In Europe itself, this process continued until 1945; at that point, Europeans had to recognise that the next time they play their favourite game of slaughtering each other, it’s going to be the last. You can’t do it anymore – they’d reached much too high a level of savagery and destruction. So there’s been a period of peace basically, within at least Western Europe. And that led towards moves towards integration which have partially eroded Nation State boundaries, but I think not enough.

That’s what the Euro-zone crisis is about right now – the economic integration was not matched by sufficient political integration, and it’s sort-of reminiscent of what happened in the United States.

Until the 1860s, the phrase United States was plural, it was referring to states that were united kind-of like the European Union. After 1865, the phrase became singular, but that was because of violent conquest.

But there are still plenty of problems about division of authority between the federal government and states and so on.

Well, I think Europe is kind-of in that transition – there’s been a tendency towards unification, and centralisation, but that’s led to a counter-tendency towards regionalisation. People like their own regions: if you’re in Wales, you like Wales; if you’re in Catalonia, you like Catalonia.

In Spain where the process has gone farthest, people, say, in Catalonia or the Basque Country don’t even refer to Spain – they refer to the Spanish State.

I think Scotland’s in that kind of ambiguous position now. What form of integration with England – and, beyond that, with the European community – will the people of Scotland find to be their preference? And there are a lot of complex issues that arise in that connection. They’re not simple. You gain things from regionalisation but you also can lose things – as you can see in the EU right now, or in the US back in the early 19th Century.

The relationship between Scottish nationalists and the European community has not always been straightforward.

According to an entry in Tony Benn’s diaries from 22nd October 1973, Jim Sillars – then a Labour MP – stated privately that ” … if Britain stayed in Europe … “, his response would be to, ” … become a Scottish Nationalist member.”.

And two years later, the New Statesman reported a question the SNP’s Donald Stewart publicly put to his party – had they been fighting, he asked, “to return decision-making to the Scottish people only to hand it on a plate to the Brussels conspiracy?”.

These days, Scotland has won a degree of devolution within the UK – a UK that’s within the European Union. But Scottish independence, of course, remains the SNP’s goal. And although a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ referendum choice will be offered, remarks made on the BBC by Prof James Mitchell could make one wonder if Devo Max is really dead and buried.

But if Scots vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum, they won’t be able to ‘un-elect’ independence four or five years later. And however proud Scots may be of their Scottishness, anxiety about what exactly they would be signing-up for, in voting ‘Yes’, remains.

So how might Scots get an idea – perhaps considering examples from elsewhere in the world – about what ‘the day after tomorrow’ can be like?

My own personal sympathy, for what it’s worth, is towards devolution. I think it can be very valuable.

To give you a personal experience in Europe, I visited Spain – or the Spanish state, if you like – shortly after the fall of Franco.

When you walked through the streets of Barcelona you didn’t hear a word of Catalan, you didn’t see any signs in Catalan – all the residue of Franco’s extremely ugly and brutal rule were still present.

I happened to visit a couple of years later and it was totally transformed.

All you heard was Catalan, the streets were in Catalan. I happened to stay in a hotel which was right near the central plaza where the big cathedral is. Sunday morning, I saw people flocking to the central square: musicians went up to the steps of the cathedral, people were milling about in the square, and they started doing traditional folk dances and singing traditional song.

It was nice to see, it was a real cultural revival. Not just the language but of the traditional culture.

Now, nationalist and localist tendencies can have their unpleasant side, you know – ‘keep the other out of here’, that kind of thing. You see it in neighbourhoods.

We’re Jewish and when my wife and I were looking for a house, there were neighbourhoods where we were just told ‘you won’t be happy there’ – meaning they don’t let Jews in.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told that there was also a period of discrimination and repression against Spanish working people from Spain who were in Barcelona. So there’s that side of localism too, which is all over, but there are positive sides.

How you balance all of this is a hard thing to answer. But I don’t think there is any general answer, it depends on specific circumstances, specific places and so on.

Another part of the British Isles very much concerned with devolution and nationalism is, of course, Wales. And, in terms of population percentages, far more people in Wales speak Welsh than Scottish people speak Gaelic, Doric or Norn (combined).

In the 1974 report mentioned earlier, Prof McCrone stated that, “Scottish nationalism has been much more concerned with economic prosperity … Unlike Wales there is no great cultural movement attaching to the preservation of a language”.

In his book “Margaret, daughter of Beatrice”, Welsh Labour MP Leo Abse explained that he opposed the 1979 Devolution Bill because, “ … One of the important strands of Welsh socialism was its anarcho-syndicalist tradition. The essential sense of locality … ”, going on to cite, among other things, “… the local health schemes which were to become the prototype of the National Health Service … ”.

Abse lamented the passing of the “intense loyalty” then felt in his part of Wales towards the local communities. He also remarked that, “… nationalist flag-waving, Russian, Welsh or English, was anathema to those of us shaped in such a society .”

I happened to visit Cardiff about twenty years ago and a friend on the faculty, who comes from the mining valleys, took me through. My memories are “How Green Was My Valley” [the 1941 film by John Ford] and so on.

It was interesting to see but kind of sad in a way because of the Thatcherite elimination of the mining industry – mainly for political reasons, I think.

So it left what’s sometimes called ‘decent poverty’, people were taking care of their homes and so on, but you could see there wasn’t much in the way of economic development.

On the other hand, in Cardiff itself, it was pretty encouraging to listen to kids coming out of school talking Welsh. I think that’s kind-of like Catalan and Catalonia.

Another part of Abse’s opposition to the 1979 Bill was his concern that a new Welsh political institution could fall prey to “ugly chauvinist … prejudices”. As an English person living in Scotland, I can’t report any instances of hostility triggered by my nationality or my accent. None that I noticed, anyway.

But although Scotland is my home, and the Scots have made me feel very welcome, I am not Scottish. Culturally speaking, Scotland already exists as a nation.

I asked Prof Chomsky if he thought there is an important distinction to be drawn between, on the one hand, supporting political self-determination for the (cultural) nation of Scotland and, on the other, supporting ‘nationalism’?

Nationalism’ is very broad concept. Even political nationalism can take many forms. And cultural nationalism can survive – maybe even better – without an associated political form.

That lack of economic development observed by Prof Chomsky in Wales is something that many in Scotland, not to mention the North-east of England and elsewhere, know an awful lot about.

Under devolution as it stands, Scotland has managed to preserve free university education – unlike England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Even so, repeated disappointments, through Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown to Cameron, have led many to wonder if the political form of nationalism is the only hope of securing progressive, or at least moderate, politics in Scotland.

In 2003, Prof Tom Nairn of Durham University remarked that, “The real age of nationalism lies ahead … To make globalisation liveable, as distinct from profitable, people and peoples will have to stand up for themselves – on a smaller scale than before, but with greater civic courage and determination.”.

I sense a feeling among many nationalists that is reminiscent of the way Labour supporters felt in the run-up to the 1997 election. ‘Will it finally happen?’; ‘After all these years, will the change finally take place?’ And look what happened.

If you stand on North Bridge in Edinburgh, looking to the left of the memorial to the dead of Afghanistan 1878-80, you’ll see the squat, cylindrical mausoleum of one David Hume of Ninewells (a significant influence on both Prof Chomsky and myself, though we did not discuss this).

Hume died in August 1776, one month after Prof Chomsky’s country, the United States of America, declared independence from Great Britain.

And also in Old Calton Cemetery, only six paces from the cylindrical mausoleum, is a monument to the Scottish-American soldiers who fell in the American Civil War. And there are names – like William John McEwan of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, James Wilkie of the 1st Michigan Cavalry and Robert Ferguson of the 57th Regiment New York Infantry Volunteers. Lives of the 1700s and 1800s, almost coming to listen-in on our conversation today.

Discussions, then as now, are not just about the world of Scotland, but the world Scotland finds itself in.

So, in aspiring to separation – more than that, in actually making a break from the rest of the UK – will Scotland finally be able to rescue the political centre, or the centre left, from the ongoing political and economic legacies of the Thatcher and Blair governments?

Maybe, but I’d be sceptical. I would hesitate to predict. I wouldn’t have too many beliefs that major changes would take place – just like Blair and Obama. Politics is a lot of illusion making. ​


Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.​

In 2005, Barry Pateman edited the 256-page “Chomsky on Anarchism”, and the film “Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky And The Media”, by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, is currently available to buy on DVD. An extensive archive of letters, articles and audio-visual resources can be found at Prof Chomsky’s official website

The​ pdf of “The Shale District – Bathgate Paraffine Works”, from The Scotsman, May 8th 1865, is provided courtesy of

Comments (13)

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  1. wullie says:

    Ah the final word separation

  2. Yes, wullie, I saw that too.

    There is something about this piece, and about Chomsky’s responses when he is asked about a Scotland he doesn’t really know (with his sympathy being “towards greater devolution” and his warnings of the dark side of local and national identity), that misses the black and white, yes or no reality of this moment.

    Is he missing what this is really about, or does his thinking question what it is really about?
    – Is it really about nationalism: about another nation state being formed? And are nation states helpful? or alternatively:
    – Is it really about democracy: about reclaiming power from those who have wielded it so badly? And will the new ‘owners’ wield it better?

    But for me, the most powerful part, the part that brings the question of real democracy and real belonging to the fore is in answer to Iain asking Chomsky “if he believed that there would ever be a place in the world, particularly a region seeking political independence, that would leave (suspected or confirmed) oil resources in the ground because they did not wish to contribute to further global climate change.” And Chomsky reminds us of the battles that are raging across the world right now, raging to stop the war against people who don’t want their part of the earth, or any of the earth, destroyed for profit, or destroyed for anything.

    There is no ‘separation’ in that.

    There is resistance to being separated from what really matters, from our care for how our children’s lives will be in the future, and care for how children’s lives across the world are right now.
    – When nationalism is seen and recognised for what it really is, which is love for place and care for each other, not fear of other and policing of place (who is doing which sort of nationalism?)
    – When democracy is seen and recognised for what it really is, not voting for others to rule us once every 4 years, but reclaiming responsibility and bringing the power right back down here through real land reform, through reclaiming control of energy companies, transport companies, and bringing in real participatory democracy in the work place, the university, the school (who is pushing for which sort of democracy?)

    It is a Yes or No moment, but it isn’t a black and white moment – it isn’t even shades of grey.

    It’s flames of brilliant colour, threads unravelling from an old cloth that never fitted and was so uncomfortable to wear. Fine to run naked in the summer but the winter is drawing in and times get cold, we are weaving a new cloth from the old threads – neither black and white nor yes and no, but yes this, yes that, and yes the other – and no to all that tears us from participating in ensuring all belong, and all can contribute and nothing is wasted, and the black gold is kept in the ground because we have wave power and huge tides and winds aplenty, and golden sunlight when all else fails.

    1. JBS says:

      ‘Fine to run naked in the summer…’

      Will people be required to do this in an independent Scotland?

      What will the Kirk say?

  3. Hi JBS

    Yes after writing that response I thought “that’s gonna be taken the wrong way” which was quickly followed by “aw leave it in, it’ll amuse someone”

    It’s the same logic that says there’s no point using pseudonyms.

    1. JBS says:

      Hi Justin

      Actually, I agree with what you say in your comment. It’s just that…well, purple prose…fair gets my goat, so it does.

  4. Greg McCarra says:

    I was reading this with interest until I came across the statement on nuclear weapons that “Assuming, however that the UK government retained control over defence and foreign policy – as I believe the Nats have suggested – then there would presumably be no objection to it staying”. This demonstrated a deeply-flawed understanding of SNP policy (which is to remove them). I finally stopped reading 3 paragraphs later.

    If I commented that initial research on the Higgs Boson was at (of all places) Edinburgh University, you would expect a rather indignant response from Prof Higgs and his colleagues.

    Similarly, I was rather disappointed at reading: “one of the first ever commercial oil refineries was built in, of all places, West Lothian”.

    You will understand why when I say that I am, yours sincerely,

    Cllr Greg McCarra (SNP)
    West Lothian Council

    1. iainwriter says:

      I’d like to thank Cllr McCarra for his valuable comments.

      I included what I took to be speculative and hesitant remarks from Mr Mullin because they provided me with a stepping stone to openly wonder about US-based influence on the implementation of nuclear weapon-free Scotland policy.

      At the time of writing, my feeling was that the removal of nuclear weapons from an independent Scotland was sometimes envisaged simply in terms of ‘Holyrood vs Westminster/Whitehall’. To what extent, though, might the US also be a factor – officially or unofficially, for good or ill?

      Regarding SNP policy itself, I quoted from the SNP’s “Scotland Forward” document prior to mentioning Mr Mullin’s e-mail, and took it as read that Bella Caledonia readers would be aware that the SNP wants to have nuclear weapons removed from Scotland.

      In the back of my mind, I wondered (still wonder) how the challenges faced by leaders of an independent Scotland – seeking to remove nuclear weapons with a democratic mandate behind them – might parallel those faced by Harry Perkins in “A Very British Coup”? And, for what it’s worth, I don’t see that as scare-mongering.

      But having re-read paragraphs 3-6 in light of Cllr McCarra’s comments, I would word them differently if I were writing the piece tomorrow. So I’m very grateful for his responses.

      Regarding my, ” … of all places, West Lothian.” remark, I can only say that I this was not intended as a belittling comment. If I caused indignance in this instance, perhaps my words were ill-judged?

      1. iainwriter says:

        It might also be worth underlining that, although I present Prof Chomsky’s comments very soon after I quote Mr Mullin, Prof Chomsky’s remarks (“… On the role of the US in whatever negotiations take place …”, etc) do not stand or fall on the content of Mr Mullin’s defence/foreign policy conjecture.

        Apologies for any confusion caused.

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