#8: Ode to the Passport
What does this document of identity say about, well... identity?
I’ve been trying for past few months to get to Vietnam. The pandemic has made the one place I most want to go truly off limits. It’s one of the few places in the world that requires a substantive visa from visiting Americans. But before even attempting to secure a visa, there was another problem. I’d run out of pages in my passport. I had to submit it for renewal.
A standard American passport is valid for ten years. That I had filled mine out before that period was up felt like a kind of graduation, a passing of the exam. When renewing this document, the US government offers two sizes: 28 or 51 pages. I ordered the passport with the extra pages. It’s silly. But in some ways, that document, with its 24 additional pages, feels like the most concrete symbol of my identity that I possess. It signifies a more emotionally-fulfilling accomplishment than any degree or diploma I will receive. It also signifies a kind of potential energy, a pledge to hit the road and see what’s out there. A declaration of intent that those pages will be needed.
The renewal of a passport is also the declaration of a new era. The person who was present for the photo in the previous document is gone. That is why a new one is needed. The details of the identity are the same, but a refreshed document is required to match these stable details up with the current manifestation of the individual.
For instance, getting assigned a new passport number felt like getting assigned a new birthdate. Sure, the original one had been assigned to me randomly. But I had a relationship with that previous number. There was a cadence to that arrangement of nine digits, a certain comfort I drew in reciting it whenever I arrived at, or planned to arrive at, a new place. But I have no relationship with this new number. There’s no cadence for me. No association with significant or meaningful events.
Yet while the passport number is personally meaningful, the more publicly observable of the changes is the photo. There’s something illicit about one’s passport photo. It’s not something you’d show to everyone, as if you’re revealing a naked aspect of yourself which is usually clothed. And in a way I think you are. The passport photo is a picture devoid of personality. It is your image as bureaucracy sees you, not as you want to be seen. It is the antithesis of Instagram. In his collection of essays on a “literary” approach to travel, Abroad, Paul Fussell included an entire piece on the nature of passport photos. In particular, he was fascinated by their ugliness. For him, writing in 1980, the point of comparison was not Instagram, but that prior to World War I the most common way of recording someone’s likeness was through portraiture. And it was up to the artist to portray the subject in a favorable light. For Fussell, the “modern question” evoked by the passport photo was: “Do I really look as awful as that?”
A recent tweet by the US State Department offered a complementary, though somewhat inadvertent, commentary on the same topic:
It’s easy to forget. But, as Fussell notes, there is something modern not only about the passport photo, but the passport itself. Wikipedia tells me that travel documents, in one form or another, were issued by the English government as early as the 1400s. The porousness of its border (and the borders of European states more generally) has fluctuated ever since. In the thirty years prior to WWI, the expansion of rail infrastructure expanded faster than bureaucracy could keep up with. Until the war, no passport war required to cross a border. Fussell reports that this era came to an end with a regulation passed by his majesty’s government on November 20, 1915: “A person coming from or intending to proceed to any place out of the United Kingdom as a passenger shall not, without the special permission of a Secretary of State, land of embark at any port in the United Kingdom unless he has in his possession a valid passport...”
European borders relaxed again with the signing of Schengen Treaty in 1985. For whatever reason, the name has always sounded vaguely Chinese to me, as if Schengen were a medium-sized city one might pass on the way from Guangzhou to Shanghai. More plausibly, if not quite as sensationally, it is named after a town in Luxembourg. The area of borderless travel it circumscribes has steadily grown since the treaty’s signing. The British, never having been party to the Schengen Treaty, have always been skeptical about letting Europeans into their country. It used to be easier to go between Britain and the Continent, for example with Europeans being able to study in the UK as part of the Erasmus program. But of course the denizens of this haughty island decided that even this slightly more relaxed arrangement was no longer to their satisfaction, and used the back end of a pencil to scrub themselves from the map of the European Union.
At any rate, there’s something about crossing a border, no matter how long the border has been in place, that promises mind-expansion. Under this assumption, a well-used passport is a kind of moral good. At least Matt Damon believes so. “I think many of our problems as a country would be solved if people had thick passports,” he said. “There’s just no substitute for actually going and seeing things.” I often wonder whether Mr Damon literally meant thick passports, as if we should all simply order the ones with the extra 24 pages to ensure another decade of stable democracy. In this case, maybe I’d need to factor my increased passport size into my position about my own status as a good person.
More likely, I think he meant it metaphorically: that one’s passport should, ideally, be filled to the brim with stamps and visas. And Matt Damon really ought to know. His character, Jason Bourne, maintained well-used passports issued from a handful of world governments. How cosmopolitan he was. And what is fascinating about those passports, beyond the plot-facilitating ease with which he was able to slip from country to country, is how on each of those passports, one seems to catch a glimpse of a different Bourne.
At any rate, as much as I’d love to believe Damon’s claim about thick passports, I’m skeptical. After combing through a lot of literature on the topic, I think we dramatically over-estimate the extent to which travel abroad has the power to change minds. In many cases, it’s just as likely to reinforce prejudices than to bust through them. Either way, it’s more complicated than we often make it out to be.
Yet, all of this considered, there is an aspect of the passport for which I feel greatest fondness. This is the way one flips idly through one’s passport when waiting in line at border control. It is one of my favorite rituals of modern life.
On first blush, it might seem like this is just what we do in the absence of more engaging activities. The passport is already in our hands. We mindlessly flip through it to pass the time. But I believe there’s more to it than that. There’s something about the content of the document that draws one in. The intrigue of the visa pages is how haphazardly their contents are organized. Each visa stamp is a unique shape and color. It receives a distinctive scribble of numbers or a date or signature from the border officer. Unless the only border officers you’ve encountered are Swiss, the stamps are arranged with a certain carelessness. It is as if the officer doesn’t realize that they’re inscribing a permanent mark directly onto your identity. And like the photo, these visa stamps are a catalogue of your experiences as bureaucracy views them, not as you would like to see them yourself. The result is not picturesque. It is not carefully curated.
The contents of these pages don’t change much. At least not very quickly. And there’s little pertinent information to be gleaned from scrutinizing their details. But there’s also something reassuring about the act. Like admiring one’s wedding ring, as a tangible symbol standing for the meaningful, but intangible, relationship itself. It’s government certified evidence that you’ve been out there and done something. This is where the beauty of the visa stamp comes from. The customs officer who made it is dispassionate. They have no personal stake in whether you get across the border. They have no vested interest in your further attainments of cosmopolitanism. They could really give a fuck whether you see Turkey, or the Philippines, or Mozambique. And it is the disinterestedness of this individual that lends objective credibility to your experience. You can’t overstate the magnificence of your journey in your passport, the way you can on Instagram. You can only get the guy to confirm: “Yup, he was here. I let him through.”
Underlying this impersonal account of your experiences abroad, of the places you’ve visited as a foreigner, is a treatise of sorts on the ideals of the place you’re from. In a way, the imagery and quotations on the pages of a United States passport give a summary of what modern America is, or at least how it views itself and what it purports to be. The Declaration of Independence was penned in 1776. It was a document of aspirations. How have those aspirations—those sentiments of what America ought to represent—changed in the meantime? I challenge you to find a more concise presentation of that vision than the the passport.
So what has changed? According to the passport, not much. Our aspirations today, if this document is to be believed, are identical to what they were back then. Every quote is a variation on the theme of boundless liberty and freedom. Every image is one of movement (a rail engine traversing a plain, a great masted ship leaving a harbor) or one of taming the land (a farmer at the plow, a cowhand commanding a herd). The other images are drawn from the iconology of freedom: the liberty bell, the statue of liberty.
Some of the quotes ring with inspiration. From Anna Julia Cooper (an African American author, born 1858), page 24-25: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a part of a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” Some of the greatest hits from the hymnal of freedom are less resounding. Sam Adams, the beer guy, page 30-31: “What a glorious morning for our country.” A fine sentiment, no doubt, but at least go for the Ray Charles version.
The most genuinely insightful quote comes from John Paul Jones (Wikipedia: “American Sailor”): “It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” This is a bit more down-to-earth depiction of the American ideal. At least he admits that the immediate goal isn’t “universal freedom for humanity” but plain old winning. This to me is a genuinely American sentiment. Everyone on earth can get behind the cause of “freedom” if we don’t define what exactly it entails. But in America, specifically, we want to see people earn their “freedom” by risking it all. By extension, we expect this competition to yield both winners and losers. We wouldn’t be happy if everyone ended up with the same outcome. This isn’t Canada or Denmark. Fuck your turtlenecks. This concept isn’t written explicitly into the Declaration of Independence, not in so many words at least. But it’s as much a part of who we are—if not more so—than the relentless pursuit of liberty.
Alas, for most Americans, the passport has not been a staple of life for the past couple years. Like the Declaration of Independence it lays dormant, somewhere safe and untouched by the public. Recent Pew data show that at the height of the pandemic, almost no Americans went abroad.
Beyond the pandemic, Pew reports that about three quarters of Americans have been abroad at some point or another. Eleven per cent have been to ten or more countries. They break these numbers down further by demographic. Rich people are more likely to have gone abroad than poor people; white Americans go abroad more often than black Americans. College education is also a significant predictor of more travel experience. These findings are not surprising.
What surprised me in these data was that political party affiliation didn’t predict travel abroad. There were no differences in the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who had gone abroad, or the number of countries they’ve visited. The reason this surprised me is that “openness to experience” is one of the systematic differences in temperament of personality between political parties, with liberals on average scoring higher than conservatives.
Research suggests that openness to experience is the single biggest personality predictor of conservative views. Similarly, the following map shows that openness to experience correlates with centers of high population density, and therefore tends to be associated with liberal ideology.
I had always considered travel and openness to experience to be intimately linked. Under this premise, it would make sense that liberals, being more inclined to experience something new, would go abroad more often. But I guess there’s many reasons to go abroad. There are many ways to be open to new experiences. So I’m not sure exactly how to square these data with my larger views.
Anyway, what I can tell you is that my new passport remains virgin. I am optimistic that this will change in the near future. I’d love to see a big ol’ page-sized extended-stay sticker for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the pole visa position. Hopefully soon. But in the meantime, let it be known that this isn’t to say I haven’t gone abroad. I got my passport renewed in England. I’ve been here the whole time. That counts as “abroad”—if not in an emotionally-satisfying sense, then at least a logistical one.
But I don’t know. Maybe I’m overdoing it with the “abroad” thing. Maybe I’ve been away from the US for too long. It’s coming up on two years now. It’s possible I’ve been keeping European, and European-adjacent, company slightly more often than is healthy for me. I can’t say that I miss the United States too much. But I have a particular reason to be suspicious. This is a secret. I wouldn’t tell this to just anyone. But in my latest passport photo?
I’m wearing a turtleneck.
P.S., My episode of Cognitive Revolution this week features Annie Murphy Paul. Her recent book is “The Extended Mind.” She lays out an argument for rethinking how we conceptualize the “mind” and what this changes about the way we structure our lives and our society.