In Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, a novel set in the 1860s about a somewhat hapless member of Parliament, one of the crucial political issues of the day is “the ballot,” i.e., whether votes should be public or secret. Though Finn is a liberal, he thinks votes should be public, at least at the start of the novel (which I haven’t finished yet); he believes transparency deters voters from choosing a narrow self-interest. Electoral reform, however, is on the march. Even though MPs like Finn aren’t yet ready for a secret ballot, many citizens are, and at the end of volume one (it’s a three-decker), a large group of protesters is scheduled to meet outside the Houses of Parliament, in hopes of influenceing a debate inside about adding the secret ballot to a larger measure for electoral reform. Finn’s landlord, Mr. Bunce, supports the secret ballot and plans to attend the protest. Finn tries to dissuade him, not because he wants the protest to be smaller but because he doesn’t think a respectable man like Bunce ought to protest and he’s worried that Bunce could be arrested. The two have an argument, remarkably civil and considerate given that they hold opposing views, and the way they talk about the worth of street protest, or lack thereof, and how to balance freedom of expression with concern for law and order, makes the passage seem awfully relevant to America today:
“What good do you expect to do, Mr. Bunce?” Phineas said, with perhaps some little tone of authority in his voice.
“To carry my point,” said Bunce.
“And what is your point?”
“My present point is the ballot, as a part of the Government measure.”
“And you expect to carry that by going out into the streets with all the roughs of London, and putting yourself in direct opposition to the authority of the magistrates? Do you really believe that the ballot will become the law of the land any sooner because you incur this danger and inconvenience?”
“Look here, Mr. Finn; I don’t believe the sea will become any fuller because the Piddle runs into it out of the Dorsetshire fields; but I do believe that the waters from all the countries is what makes the ocean. I shall help; and it’s my duty to help.”
“It’s your duty, as a respectable citizen, with a wife and family, to stay at home.”
“If everybody with a wife and family was to say so, there’d be none but roughs, and then where should we be? What would the Government people say to us then? If every man with a wife and family was to show hisself in the streets to-night, we should have the ballot before Parliament breaks up, and if none of ’em don’t do it, we shall never have the ballot. Ain’t that so?” Phineas, who intended to be honest, was not prepared to dispute the assertion on the spur of the moment. “If that’s so,” said Bunce, triumphantly, “a man’s duty’s clear enough. He ought to go, though he’d two wives and families.” And he went.
I spent much of the past week coughing when I should have been sleeping, the only boon of which is that I managed to read Jordan Ellenberg’s lively and instructive How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. I came across an alarming politics-related anecdote about Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who famously demonstrated that in any formal axiomatic system of arithmetic, there will be some true theorems that can’t be proved to be true.
Apparently, when Gödel was studying for the U.S. citizenship test in 1948, he found what seemed to him a fatal flaw. “The document,” Ellenberg writes, “contained a contradiction that could allow a Fascist dictatorship to take over the country in a perfectly constitutional manner.” For better or worse, the exact nature of this flaw has been lost to posterity, but Gödel was apparently so upset that he couldn’t help but talk about his concern with the judge who examined him on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, despite the advice of colleagues Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, who thought he should keep his worry to himself. Years later, in 1971, Morgenstern wrote down his memory of the exchange:
The examiner turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.
Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.
The examiner, Morgenstern remembered, “was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”
Ellenberg’s source is a webpage at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a page that unfortunately no longer exists, but there’s an account of Gödel’s immigration exam on page 7 of the spring 2006 issue of the institute’s newsletter, and the writer Jeffrey Kegler has put together a synopsis of the documentary evidence and has shared a scan of Morgenstern’s memorandum.
Last week I asked, “Is democracy trying to say something?” Here’s my attempt to say what the something might be.
A peaceful transfer of power is a column of the republic, & it’s appropriate for political leaders to cooperate graciously with Trump now. But there’s no comparable duty for writers and intellectuals. To the contrary, by temperament and profession, we’re the canaries in the coal mine. Our calling is to say what we see happening, as soon as we see it, as forcefully as we can express it.