October 25, 2007

What's Up At TNR? Passport Design Criticism

I thought I'd take a quick look at The New Republic before dinner, just to catch up on their latest effort to respond to the Scott Beauchamp developments this week. Once again, TNR has managed to get through another day of stonewalling, obviously addressing more serious issues than its own credibility. One item at the top of today's priority list -- passport graphics:

The federal government's recent efforts in the field of passport regulations have been somewhat less than wildly popular. First, new travel rules for travelers flying to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean prompted a run on the passport office: With the bureaucracy overwhelmed, furious would-be travelers saw their vacation dates come and go with no document in sight. Then, no sooner had the feds made a dent in the backlog than the next passport-change appeared on the horizon: As of January, Americans will have to show their passports at land crossings, too. Borderland backups caused by a dress-rehearsal for the new rules made the front page of the New York Times last week.

So, complaining about something so superficial as the way the passport looks might seem a little like kicking the poor schlubs in the consular service when they're down. Unfortunately, the newly redesigned U.S. passport--that document so many folks have waited in Soviet-length lines to acquire, and which they'll no doubt thumb through as they wait in even longer queues at our borders next year--is tacky enough to make you want to do just that. Apparently, someone forgot that passports are mainly meant to be read by, you know, foreigners. Plastered like a NASCAR vehicle with cheeseball patriotic clip-art that might have been swiped from the Colbert Report's opening credits, the new books spill jingoism the way traveling Americans once spilled hard currency.

Fair enough, given the administration that introduced the new passports. Unfortunately, where the Bushies once excelled at logos and backdrops, the redesign is also hideously, hideously ugly. Don't take my word for it--flip through the new book at the state department's website.

The fiasco of the passport regulations has been discussed here, and for good reason. Congress had little idea what would happen when it passed its mandates for passport redesign and expanded requirements for use, and the administration didn't do very well in untangling the problems. I pointed out the laughable White House assertion that they could handle 12-20 million applicants for worker visas when they couldn't even prepare for the passport applications the new rules generated, although the White House did write a response to my post on the subject.

However, the graphics on the new passport hardly qualifies for a 1,000-word treatise on imagery. The description of Mt. Rushmore, the Constitution, Fort McHenry, and a depiction of a satellite in space as "weirdly red state" jingoism concedes a lot of territory to conservatives, which I'm certain we'd be glad to claim, but it's nonsense. It does look a little busy, but it's no more distracting than my 2001 passport, which features a dull, endless rendition of state seals in multi-colored hues. (And guess what -- some of them are red states!) The new passport graphics represent American heritage, which doesn't seem all that objectionable for American passports.

Michael Currie Schaffer does his best to distract from TNR's own odd sense of values. If I were Schaffer, I'd find something a wee bit more important to criticize -- like his own editors and their allergic reaction to accountability.


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