Christopher Hitchens on the mystification of identity

"Several times a week, to enter a TV studio say, or to board a plane,
I have to produce a tiny picture of my face."

One for my .sig file, certainly, but, wait, there's, um, more...



fighting words 
The Cult of ID 
Our strange obsession with driver's license photos. 
By Christopher Hitchens 
Posted Monday, June 2, 2003, at 12:29 PM PT 

At Oxford, where two rivers meet, there is a private stretch of the
bank (or there used to be) called "Parson's Pleasure." Since Victorian
times, this shaded resort was reserved for male dons who wished to
swim and sunbathe in the nude. A barrier prevented any stray punts or
boats from interrupting this idyll, and women and girls understood
that this retreat was off-limits. One day, however, while the river
was higher and faster than usual, a ladies' boating party was swept
through the barrier and into the all-male backwater. Shrieks and
giggles from the boat, and a sudden, protective downward reaching of
the hands on the part of all bathers on the bank. All but one. The
late Sir Maurice Bowra, Hellenist and epigrammist, raised his hands to
shield his craggy visage. There they all stood or sat until the fair
intruders had sailed past, whereupon a general outbreak of
sheepishness occurred, punctuated by Bowra saying: "I don't know about
you chaps, but I'm known by my face around here." 

All this came back to me when I read of the Muslim lady in Florida who
wants to remain veiled when she goes to the DMV to be photographed for
her license. In one way, I am full of sympathy. The exposure of the
female face is such a standing provocation that its concealment except
on special private occasions seems positively desirable, if not
actually necessary. I can only imagine what it must be like for a
strict Muslim visitor to these shores. Never mind that disappearing
thong or that cantilevered cleavage: What in the name of all that's
holy is Julia Roberts doing flashing that mouth of hers? There ought
to be a law. If there were a law, then just picture the scene. About
half way into the movie, and for reasons of artistic integrity that
are absolutely necessary for the plot, Julia Roberts slowly reaches up
and begins to loosen the left-hand corner of her veil. ... Imagine the
revelation. The sensation.

Meanwhile, down at the DMV, all applicants are taken into a booth and
ordered to expose their pudenda to the camera. The resulting
photograph has to be produced at all security checkpoints and even to
enter many buildings. It also must be checked as being an authentic
likeness. This would slow things down a bit, admittedly, and place an
extra burden-sometimes a heavy one-on the already overstretched
security staff. But if it saves even one life ...

Compare the present situation. Several times a week, to enter a TV
studio say, or to board a plane, I have to produce a tiny picture of
my face. It's not enough that I show up in person: I have to bring an
image of myself along. (This is especially useful when one's about to
appear on Hardball , where they clearly want it to be me rather than
someone else but would probably manage quite well with whoever showed
up in my place.) I do not remember the last time that the guys at the
security desk looked at the picture and then at me and then at the
picture again before handing the license back. But if it was a pudenda
shot that we all carried, and I was to open my fly for confirmation,
they'd know me next time all right.

Until that day arrives, however, either there should be an end to the
basically absurd cult of "ID," probably the most fakeable artifact in
our society, or it should apply to everyone. The ground of objection
that should apply the least is an appeal for exemption on grounds of
religious belief. In some Muslim societies, the driver's license is an
irrelevance to members of the female gender, because they are not
permitted to take the wheel of a car. In a society where any such
discrimination would be flat-out illegal, the price of equal
protection is a certain uniformity and standardization. Making
faith-based exceptions to this would involve the authorities in
fooling around with the establishment clause of the First Amendment,
and varying the rules to judge certain religions
discrepantly. Correspondingly, no serious Muslim, alert to the
possibility of informal if not de jure discrimination, should be
demanding that the law take any special note of his or her confession.
Any way, I can't wait to see this Florida lady facially disrobed. 

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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