Following Toby Young’s article on funerals and the letter last week, I thought you might like to hear another example of British phlegm. My stepson, who is now a successful theatre director, was an assistant at Chichester Theatre. The audience tends to be predominantly pensioners. A few years ago when he was closing up the theatre, he noticed two people still in their seats. When he approached them the lady was very apologetic. ‘I think my husband died in the first act,’ she said, ‘but we didn’t want to cause a fuss.’ He was indeed declared dead on arrival at the hospital, and my stepson could not but admire her stoicism. I particularly admired the fact that she thought ‘we’ didn’t want to cause a fuss. 

Johnny Cameron 
Fyfield, Wiltshire

Are Europeans Making Themselves Stateless?

If ethnic Italians were no longer a majority in Italy, would it still be Italy? Does it matter that ethnic British are no longer a majority in London? Would it matter if they weren’t in Britain? Would it be a problem if ethnic Ugandans ceased to be a majority in Uganda, and Europeans overtook them? These are all essentially the same question, though the answers might feel different in each case. They are all asking about the relationship between an ethnic group and its home country, and about the meaning of becoming a minority in the country it considers its own. Does being the majority ethnic group in a country carry any moral or political significance? Is it something which an ethnic group may legitimately aim to preserve? How does this interact with ideas of racism—the taboo par excellence of post-war Western culture?

Ethnicity and race are typically avoided these days when thinking about the constitutive features of a nation or state, particularly Western ones. In their place, writers who take an interest in such matters tend to ground their ideas in culture, shared beliefs and customs. Samuel Gregg, for instance, writes of the shared bonds of “a common culture, language, beliefs, shared memories, sense of a common patrimony, and association with a particular territory with recognized boundaries.” What is often left unsaid, presumably for fear of attracting the poisonous charge of racism, is any connection this culture might have with ethnic origin.

This is all the more curious when you consider that on a sociological and anthropological level the connection between culture and ethnic group is very strong indeed. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more pronounced correlation between two observable factors than this. Logically, of course, there is no essential or necessary connection between an ethnicity and a culture, and in principle a person of any ethnic group could be raised in any culture and become accustomed to its norms. But this purely logical point only exceptionally translates into real world experience, where assimilation is rarely carried to perfection, the call of ethnic origin frequently pulls a person back towards traditional cultural forms, and experience of living as a minority often intensifies a commitment to traditional beliefs and practices amongst a group of people.

This is particularly true, of course, where such an outlook is encouraged, as was the case in Britain and many other Western countries under the doctrine of multiculturalism which dominated social policy between about 1974 and 2004, and arguably still does. But even without government encouragement people will naturally link their identity to their ethnicity and their ethnicity to the culture associated with it. This is surely why post-war ideas of anti-racism led very quickly to ideas of multiculturalism and, more recently, to identity politics—because of a sense that you cannot really affirm a person’s ethnic heritage without also affirming the culture associated with it. And it is only a small step from there to the thought that there is something imperialistic, intolerant, and dehumanizing about expecting a person to conform or assimilate to another culture. Today this worry has reached new intensities with ideas of cultural appropriation and micro-aggression rife among the educated, especially at universities.

Whatever else you want to say about ethnic diversity, then, it is plainly inseparable as a real world phenomenon from cultural diversity, for an ethnically diverse state will always to some degree or other be a culturally diverse one. Consequently, ethnic diversity within a state necessarily sits in some tension with the idea of a unified national and civic culture of a kind which is known to be strongly associated with high levels of social cohesion, solidarity, trust, and stability. In our very understandable and proper desire to avoid racial prejudice and be hospitable to newcomers of whatever background, therefore, we have perhaps lost sight of important general principles of social stability and harmony that should be forefront in our minds as we formulate social policy.

What does this mean for the prospects of the European peoples? A combination of high immigration, high birth-rate amongst immigrant communities, and low birth-rate amongst the indigenous population has resulted in dramatically increased (and increasing) ethnic diversity, alongside predictions that indigenous ethnic groups will become minorities in their home countries in the not too distant future. Were this to happen (and short of some drastic change in immigration policy and unforeseen reversal in demographic trends it is hard to see how it will not) it raises the strange possibility that European peoples will become stateless nations within their old countries. What does this mean?

A stateless nation is an ethnic group that currently lacks a state in which it forms a majority such as enables it to express its distinctive culture and achieve self-determination. Being in possession of a state allows the nation to protect itself from undesirable social outcomes such as colonization, subjection, persecution, prejudicial treatment, and assimilation. Prominent examples of stateless nations today include the Kurds, the Tamils and the Rohingya. Previous stateless nations that achieved statehood in the twentieth century include the Jews, the Serbs, and the Croats. If such nations are defined by the existence of secessionist or autonomist movements amongst a distinct ethnic group then there are an estimated seventy-eight in the world at the moment.

It is important to be clear here that this talk of stateless nations has nothing to do with white supremacy. There is no intimation of comparing races and claiming the superiority of one and its right to rule the rest (morally a deeply objectionable idea). More generally there is no suggestion of an imperative to preserve racial purity—ethnicity is an inherently living thing which evolves over time through processes such as immigration and intermarriage and little good is achieved by preventing that from occurring, at least at a rate consistent with integration and assimilation. Talk of stateless nations is rather about considering the sociological and psychological connections between ethnicity and culture and their links to nationhood and statehood, and asking questions about what self-determination means, how it is achieved, and how desirable it is.

Every state includes ethnic minorities of course. Sometimes, as with blacks in America, and Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, these minorities have a special and historic (and not always happy) relationship with the country and state within which they live. In other cases the minority group has been a more recent addition to the state’s ethnic mix. How a state incorporates these minorities, and how it understands them to relate to its concept of nationality, can vary considerably between groups and change over time depending on various historical factors and contingencies. For example, before the twentieth century, America conceived of itself as an ethnically European (white) nation, but more recently has sought to understand what it means to include black people (and other minorities) as full and equal citizens. The natural and tight relationship between ethnicity, culture, nationality and statehood means that such enterprises will never be straightforward and will always be fraught with tensions and difficulties, some of them intractable. The moral imperative of equal respect makes such enterprises necessary, but even allowing for that there is surely wisdom in aiming to prevent the degree of ethnic diversity in a state from increasing beyond levels consistent with social cohesion and the general welfare.

We need I think to take much more seriously the social, psychological, and moral threads which run between ethnicity and culture, and then on into nationhood and statehood. While avoiding racism or any of the old imperialism, this shift needs to work a revolution in the minds and attitudes of European peoples towards their home countries, their cultures, and their concern for self-determination as peoples and nations. This needs to proceed in the emergence of radically altered approaches to immigration, citizenship, culture, and even fertility and family, such as are sufficient to ensure that European states will retain their essential character as the home countries of the European peoples well into the future.

Can I see this happening? Only on days where my faith for miracles is high. But the alternative seems to me extraordinarily bleak, as European peoples face becoming minorities in their home countries, becoming stateless nations, and social discord and division increase beyond what free countries can realistically bear. I hope to be proven wrong in this, but I confess I am not holding my breath.

[Will Jones (2017), Crisis Magazine]

John Wick 3 (2019), Directed by Chad Stahelski

The Coming Software Apocalypse

It’s been said that software is “eating the world.” More and more, critical systems that were once controlled mechanically, or by people, are coming to depend on code. This was perhaps never clearer than in the summer of 2015, when on a single day, United Airlines grounded its fleet because of a problem with its departure-management system; trading was suspended on the New York Stock Exchange after an upgrade; the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s website crashed; and Seattle’s 911 system went down. The simultaneous failure of so many software systems smelled at first of a coordinated cyberattack. Almost more frightening was the realization, late in the day, that it was just a coincidence. Software is special. Just by editing the text in a file somewhere, the same hunk of silicon can become an autopilot or an inventory-control system. This flexibility is software’s miracle, and its curse. Because it can be changed cheaply, software is constantly changed; and because it’s unmoored from anything physical, a program that is a thousand times more complex than another takes up the same actual space: it tends to grow without bound. “The problem,” says Nancy Leveson, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.” This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical: “The complexity is invisible to the eye.” When you press your foot down on your car’s accelerator, for instance, you’re no longer controlling anything directly; there’s no mechanical link from the pedal to the throttle. Instead, you’re issuing a command to a piece of software that decides how much air to give the engine. The car is a computer you can sit inside of. The steering wheel and pedals might as well be keyboard keys. Software has enabled us to make the most intricate machines that have ever existed. And yet we have hardly noticed, because all of that complexity is packed into tiny silicon chips as millions and millions of lines of code. But just because we can’t see the complexity doesn’t mean that it has gone away. While Chris Granger was at Microsoft, he arranged an end-to-end study of Visual Studio, the only one that had ever been done. The findings surprised him. “Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant.” [James Somers (2017), The Atlantic]
In the past 10 years, at least $2.5 trillion has been spent trying to replace legacy IT systems, of which some seven hundred and twenty billion dollars was utterly wasted on failed replacement efforts. Just how big a problem is this? The size of the problem really is unknown. We have no clear count of the number of systems that are legacy in government where we should be able to have a pretty good idea. We also have really no insight into what’s happening in industry. In fact, a recent report by the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General basically said that even they could not figure out how many systems were actually legacy in Social Security. A few years ago, a Bloomberg article noted that every mile of fresh new road will one day become a mile of crumbling old road that needs additional attention. Less than half of all road budgets go to maintenance. Do we see the same thing in IT? Do we keep building new systems, seemingly without a second thought that we’re going to have to maintain them? Yes, and for good reason. When we build a system and it actually works, it works usually for a fairly long time. The irony is that the longer these systems live, the harder they are to replace. Paradoxically, because they’re so important, they also don’t receive any attention in terms of spend. Typically, for every dollar that’s spent on developing a system, there’s somewhere between eight and 10 dollars that’s being spent to maintain it over its life. But very few systems actually are retired before their time. Almost every system that I know of, of any size tends to last a lot longer than what the designers ever intended. It’s easier to build new systems, so there’s money to build new systems, and that’s what we we constantly do. So we’re building new IT systems over time, which has again, proliferated the number of systems that we need to maintain. The other aspect is, as we build these systems, we don’t build them a standalone systems. These systems are interconnected with others. And so when you interconnect lots of different systems, you’re not maintaining just an individual, you’re maintaining this system of systems. And that becomes more costly. Because the systems are interconnected, and because they are very costly to replace, we tend to hold onto these systems longer. And the probability of failure is also huge. We’re starting to see the realization that IT, which at one time—again, systems designers were always thinking about 10 years is great, twenty years is fantastic—that maybe now that these system’s, core systems, may be around for one hundred years. [Steven Cherry and Bob Charette (2020), IEEE Spectrum]


O tempo é sempre percebido interiormente. Não temos uma noção calendarizada do tempo que passou. Há textos em que a mudança interior é percebida pela mudança dos sítios. Alguém pode pensar que não mudou assim tanto, mas vendo a mudança do lugar pensa que também deve ter mudado alguma coisa. (Pedro Mexia)