In most parts of Europe, since the totalitarian governments of the inter-war period, pressure from governments to make their citizens legible has been hard to resist. Germany now has universal biometric ID cards for all adults, which police have a right to demand to see, irrespective of whether they have probable cause of your involvement in a crime; 24 of the 27 EU states have mandatory national ID cards.
Biometrics matter, because outside of science fiction, they can’t be changed. During refugee crises, deep anxieties – Who are these people? Why are they coming here? – induce governments to pin people down to an unchanging identity, like bugs in a biologist’s cabinet.
This is a fundamental difference between mainly-autochthonous and mainly-settler societies. Ideologically, the United States came to be out of westward conquest, by people eager to refashion themselves away from the religious and social strictures of more settled societies. At Ellis Island, you could change your name; on the frontier, a white man could be whoever he declared himself to be. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, / A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, / Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. / I resist any thing better than my own diversity, Breathe the air but leave plenty after me.” Settler societies are supposed to “leave plenty” of air to breathe for those who come to settle after them; they’re supposed to leave room to self-refashion. Anonymity, pseudonymity and the ability to erase your tracks bolster your power versus the state.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, and his calls for registration of suspiciously Muslim people; and which also brings us to efforts here in Massachusetts to increase our legibility by implementing the REAL ID Act.