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July 13, 2012 8:30 pm
There is turmoil in the strange world of citizenship tests. The UK is planning to revise its test for would-be Britons, adding questions on crucial issues such as the life of the poet Robert Browning. In France’s test, introduced this month, applicants must obviously know about Brigitte Bardot. Meanwhile a recent survey by Xavier University found that more than one-third of Americans would fail their own country’s naturalisation test. Only 8 per cent could name even one author of the Federalist Papers. And Denmark is quietly scrapping its test. No wonder that no country seems quite happy with its citizenship test. Being a citizen has little to do with what’s in your head.
Tests for wannabe immigrants or citizens came into vogue in the era after September 11 2001. Most seemed designed to weed out Muslim fundamentalists. The Netherlands made this most explicit: along with its test, it released an integratiefilm featuring a gay wedding and topless Dutchwomen. These images were presumably meant to shock Muslims out of coming to the Netherlands, just as they would have shocked most Dutch people of a generation ago. The idea was so brilliant that the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party proposed sticking breasts into Denmark’s film. However, the Dutch soon had to offer a breast-free version of their film, after discovering that diligent, aspirant Dutchmen caught with the hardcore version in, say, Afghanistan, might get into difficulty.
The Iraqi refugee Rodaan al Galidi, who wrote a prizewinning novel in Dutch, failed the Netherlands’ integration test. He explained afterwards: “I don’t know when a woman gets her period after a miscarriage, because I have never been pregnant. I can prove that.”
Other countries took the high road. The UK felt that prospective Britons should have some familiarity with the Magna Carta. At a debate on the matter in London, someone asked who in the room had actually read the Magna Carta. Of the several hundred overeducated Londoners present, only two or three raised their hands.
Every country has made much the same discovery: few natives can answer basic constitutional questions. The German Green politician Volker Beck said Germany’s citizenship test “expects knowledge that Germans only have after they’ve studied law for a semester”.
Immigrants memorise the answers, and generally pass, though it’s doubtful how much knowledge sticks. A Filipina I know recently attended her day-long “citizenship course” in Paris. That evening I asked her what she’d learnt. There was this European organisation, she said, which excluded Turkey. Or maybe, she added, it included Turkey. What had most impressed her that day were the constant meal breaks, which may indeed be the best introduction to Frenchness.
The most famous story about citizenship tests points up their essential wrongness. In 1947, the great Austrian logician Kurt Gödel went to a hearing in Trenton, New Jersey, to acquire American citizenship. His friends Albert Einstein and the economist Oskar Morgenstern came along. The story has long been shrouded in myth, but “the lost Morgenstern document”, containing Morgenstern’s 1971 memories of the affair, surfaced some years ago. We now know what happened.
Gödel had taken the hearing seriously. “Since he is a very thorough man,” recorded Morgenstern, “he started informing himself about the history of the settlement of North America by human beings. That led gradually to the study of the History of American Indians, their various tribes, etc.”
Eventually Gödel got to the American constitution, and made a terrifying discovery: a malevolent president could exploit a loophole and set up as a fascist dictator! Ah, said Einstein and Morgenstern, best not to raise this at the hearing.
Morgenstern drove them all to Trenton. In the car, Einstein teased: “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” As Einstein had intended, the remark made Gödel even more anxious.
In Trenton, the judge asked Gödel where he came from. “Where I come from? Austria,” replied Gödel in heavy Teutonic tones. The judge asked him about Austria’s form of government. Gödel explained: “It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.”
“Oh! This is very bad,” said the judge, and added consolingly: “This could not happen in this country.” “Oh yes it can!” shouted Gödel, “I can prove it.” Whereupon Einstein, Morgenstern and the judge hastily shut him up, and the hearing concluded. That’s because these tests require only memorised factual answers. Any deeper knowledge creates trouble.
And even a modest factual test is probably pointless. It would be nice to live in a polis where all citizens have some familiarity with the Magna Carta, but we never will. To be a citizen, it doesn’t matter what you know, or what crazy stuff you have in your head. If you believe homosexuals are infidels, that’s fine. In a democracy you can believe what you like. You just can’t act on certain beliefs.
Penniless governments could save themselves some cash by ceasing to examine people’s minds.
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