Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New passport

The photo in my passport is 10 years old. When I showed it to the guard at the U.S. consulate, he commented to his colleague, “So old!” And they laughed. Time for a new one.

After waiting a mere week (!), I went back to pick up my new passport. The format has changed quite a bit since I was 16. First of all, they’ve added Spanish to the English and French. Second of all, they’ve added patriotic illustrations and quotations about how amazing America is. In the background of each page of my old passport are the seals of each state. In the background of each page of my new passport are pictures of cowboys, cacti, buffalo, and American landmarks such as the liberty bell and Mount Rushmore. At the top of each page is a quotation: the words of Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson, and FDR grace the pages, as well as quite a few non-Presidents. I’m surprised by one or two of them: one is a Mohawk quote about how nice it is to have animals around. I must sign my name over an American flag and an eagle. On the last page is a rather random picture of outer space, with some planets and a satellite: the next frontier.

I’ve always been fascinated by passports. They are the most solid physical embodiment of the international system, an official symbol of our national identity, sanctioned by the state, that you can hold in your hand and that other governments acknowledge. The message inside from the secretary of state, requesting that all foreigners give the bearer all lawful aid and protection, is an affirmation of national belonging. What such a document includes and what it leaves out must surely mean something.

Why the changes? It’s hard to say. Maybe the people in charge these days simply like that kind of thing. Or maybe, while travelers used to be fewer and more cosmopolitan, the greater number of Americans who need passports (you need one for Canada now after all) has also increased the demand for patriotism while traveling, as people do like to remember their own country when they are out of it. Or perhaps, along with the changes in the way Americans feel about their country over the past few years – unease over decreasing world power, the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks, the failing war in Iraq, the realities of a world now starkly different from a simple Communist/non-Communist demarcation – the passport’s format fits into a larger trend of anxiety over where the country is going. At such times patriotism is always emphasized, in an effort to make up for national uncertainty (a phenomenon that is crystal clear in China), and in American culture you can see the phenomenon everywhere (just look at the popularity of some alarming recent films, such as “300,” which glorifies Western “reason” over the barbarity of the Persians, all in excessive, bloody violence.) At any rate, when I show my new passport, with all its patriotic trimmings, to border agents, I’m not sure if I’ll feel a surge of pride or a tinge of embarrassment.

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