Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Waning of the Nation

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Waning of the Nation

Article excerpt

We live in a dissolving age. The institution of marriage provides a case study. Strong forces aim to erase the difference between male and female. But the trend is not limited to intimate life. The nation state is eroding as well. Pope Francis celebrates Mass on the border between Mexico and the United States, a symbolism that negates, or at least downplays, national differences. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government positions itself as a "global leader" dedicated to solving "the greatest problems confronting our world today." These are instances of a growing cosmopolitanism. Whether inspired by the universal Church, the Republic of Letters, or global commerce, this sensibility discounts the nation's once strong claims on our loyalty.

The trend is apparent in Europe. The European Union represents a vision of post-national political and economic life. There's pushback. Britain is currently engaged in a fierce debate about whether to leave the E.U., and if so, on what terms. The dramatic influx of migrants into Europe has led some countries to erect border fences. Populist movements challenge European establishment parties, all of which have invested in the project of an "ever greater union," as one of the treaties that laid the foundation for European integration put it more than fifty years ago. But the powerful forces driving us toward a post-national future remain. I'm willing to bet that over the next ten years, the grip of Brussels will get stronger, not weaker.

A recent conflict between Apple and the Obama administration's Justice Department highlights some of the global trends that work against national identity. Syed Rizwan Farook, along with his wife, killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, last December. The FBI thinks his iPhone contains important information that law-enforcement officials need to have. The more thoroughly we understand this terrorist attack, the better able we'll be to detect and forestall future ones.

The problem is that, like all recent iPhones, Farook's has very strong security software. The FBI wants Apple software engineers (who created the security software in the first place) to design a new operating system that can be loaded onto Farook's iPhone, allowing government technicians to circumvent the encoded security and "unlock" it. This Apple refuses to do, even to the point of refusing to comply with a court order, which it has appealed.

In an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook justifies his decision. Allowing the federal government to order his software engineers to write the code necessary to break down the security of a single iPhone creates a "master key," one that can be used on any iPhone. Who's to say the government won't use it on your phone? Or some other government won't? Or criminals? Cook presents himself as a white knight protecting us from these dangers. He will not allow his company to cooperate in any weakening of iPhone security, for it will "make our users less safe."

There's a legitimate debate to be had about where to draw the boundaries between the government's fundamental interest in securing public safety and our rights to privacy. But on its face Cook's rhetoric is striking. A super-rich global company presents itself as a more reliable guardian of our safety than the United States government.

This does not surprise me. Denizens of Silicon Valley culture are confident that technology controls the future. This confidence works alongside a tendency to dismiss the always stolid, often ineffective, and technologically Precambrian government bureaucracies. The technosupremacist mentality reasons as follows: Innovation rules the future. Government never innovates. Therefore we, the creative class, need to take responsibility, because the realities of the hyper-connected digital world now outrun the competence of government.

As Cook has put it, big business has to step up and run society. The civil responsibility of companies like Apple-the captains of the future-"has grown markedly in the last couple of decades or so as government has found it more difficult to move forward. …

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