It’s not often that someone like me is told to smile less.
Today, I got a new New Jersey Driver’s License, proving that I have officially spent too long in this state. I remember actually looking at the September 2013 expiration date four years ago with a bit of a smirk thinking the license would be invalid and replaced by another long before that far-flung month came to pass. So it goes. And lest any RUDUers freak out about what this means, rest assured that only this job and my love of it could keep me here for so long. There are an increasing number of things I like about this state, though being asked not to smile was not among them.
I was wondering for a while, as I was when my girlfriend renewed her license a few months back and got the same instructions, what could possibly motivate them to ask you not to smile when posing for your license photograph. But since I could do a little comparison of the two photos, having received my old license back and three-hole-punched, it quickly became evident to me what at least one of the motivations might be…
I guess it’s worth stating for the record that the media reports the reason as being that smiles interfere with their official facial recognition software. Which, if you were the kind of person who was surprised by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, might send you into a bit of a tizzy about cross-referencing of government agencies and robots deciding our fate and similar Orwellian scenarios. But I actually think the software excuse is cloaking a couple variations on a more interesting theme that might be the true motivation.
So the less sinister version of this idea is that people aren’t usually smiling when they’re arrested or about to be arrested. Basically, the situations in which someone is about to be handcuffed feature natural appearances that are anything but a smile and, in these instances, such people aren’t likely to even begin to be able to be coaxed into smiling. Thus big-smile photos on DLs might be misleading or actually defy identification in some cases, which is their ostensible purpose. Indeed, even for routine traffic stops, which must be the primary concern of Driver’s License distributors, people are unlikely to be wearing their most fabulous grin to match whatever would normally be on their picture. So, fair enough. You want to make it easier to ensure a correct ID on the… ID.
But I think there may be something additional, though similar going on here, after seeing all brouhaha over… gulp… Trayvon Martin’s photographs in the media (I really do promise that there will be posts at some point that don’t reference this man or his killer). A great deal was made over his precise age and demeanor in the photograph promulgated by the media, as well as the one of his killer. Why was it selected? Did it accurately reflect how he looked that night? And so on.
Now imagine, say, an Edward Snowden. Or an Anwar al-Awlaki. Someone never arrested by the United States and its authorities, thus denying the government and its media wing access to one of those begrudging, early-AM mugshots that would make your grandmother look guilty of high treason before even being charged. What is a society to do when hoping to put out a legally binding identification photo that portrays this person as a proper villain? How do we ensure we have such standoffish, dislikable file footage of every potential suspect so we can cast the proper aspersions when it comes to light that they need to be rendered into parts unknown? Couldn’t hurt to have a mandated scowl in the database, right?
Now if this all sounds too tinfoily for your liking, you should probably go read last week’s post for the context of the mood I still seem to be in about this country. I think we can all be forgiven for looking at what the media chooses to report and how our society chooses to behave and envisioning that CNN will soon be showing Guy Montag and his evasive run from the fearsome mechanical hound, or perhaps O’Brien revealing himself to a beleaguered Winston. (Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, respectively, for the uninitiated.) Just the way the media talks about Snowden makes me physically shiver in the noonday humidity of a Jersey summer. And meanwhile Manning is about to be sentenced and the drone strikes continue to fall in lands we don’t care to even see and all anyone can talk about is an unmentionable anatomical feature of the front-running candidate for mayor of New York City.
We are not too far from a time when lowly Representatives will contemplate the realistic odds of their future career trajectories and make the cold, empowering decision to embroil themselves in a sex scandal (either contrived or undertaken solely for fame) in order to resign horribly but notably, only so they can make a ribald comeback some few years hence and have a shot at real, legitimate national office. All so we can continue to think more about this than we can about something that actually impacts the country with more than eye-rolling moral despair.
Maybe I’m just holding out for a stormy refuge in the Falklands, windswept and lonely and writing-friendly. Or maybe I’ll find a reasonable facsimile in France a few days hence.