Our strange obsession with driver's license photos.

Our strange obsession with driver's license photos.

Our strange obsession with driver's license photos.

A wartime lexicon.
June 2 2003 3:29 PM

The Cult of ID

Our strange obsession with driver's license photos.

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."

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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.  Anyway, I can't wait to see this Florida lady facially disrobed.

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Who gets to decide about acronyms? There's been a qualitative decline lately. The most recent instance is that of SARS, or "severe acute respiratory syndrome." Severe and acute? The redundancy cries aloud. Was someone trying to avoid ARS? For a long time AIDS had no name, but then it was an immune deficiency syndrome. Not only that, but an immune deficiency syndrome that was "acquired." Well, obviously it had been acquired. Was someone trying to avoid IDS, with its Freudian sexual-pathology overtones? Perhaps on second thought this clumsiness isn't so recent. I have been campaigning for years against the evident redundancies in the term WASP for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Essentially a term of class rather than ethnicity (George Wallace somehow wasn't a WASP, though somehow William F. Buckley is one), it obviously doesn't require the initial W. There are, clearly, no BASPs or JASPs. That would leave us with ASP, which is OK except for that stray Buckley thought. He's Irish Catholic. But what are you left with if you circumcise the P as well? These are deep waters, and they deserve to be plumbed further.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.