He is just six weeks old. The limits of his world extend to just a few feet beyond his crib. He still lives in a universe where objects you cannot see do not exist, where hands are not attached to your body, where purple elephants compete with blue monkeys for your attention. So what possibly meaning can borders or patriotism or politics have here? It would be meaningless right now to say my son is American or British. He’s a baby. Culture comes later.
But bureaucracy waits for no baby. So today we took his first set of passport photos, to file alongside his social security card and the birth certificate that mark his official identity. For in The System, my son is already a number. As I watch him squirming across a white canvas board, two Walgreens employees trying to persuade him to look at least vaguely in the direction of the camera, this collision of babies and paperwork seems especially absurd. Because how can a baby need a passport? Or a better question still: how can a baby have a passport, when 12 million other human beings have no state at all?
Modern living. I’m reminded of a line in Auden’s Refugee Blues – ‘if you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’. But in fact, my son will not just have one passport. He’ll have three. Two – British and Canadian – are inherited. The third a happy – but accidental – consequence of his American birthplace. British. Canadian. American. An embarrassment of riches.
When we tell people that our baby is a triple-national, they are impressed. “Wow! He’ll be able to work anywhere.” (A British passport, note well, mostly mattering because it’s an EU one) “That’s so lucky!” And they’re right. It is luck. For these privileges, these entitlements certainly weren’t earned.
For despite being lost in the fog of new motherhood, having a baby illuminates some truths with surprising force. First: equality. Never has it been so obvious that “all men are created equal” as when I hold my baby in my arms. Because he is – right now – the same as every other baby: he is just a beginning. And like that, in a heartbeat, believing in some fundamental human equality moves from being something rational, something intellectual, to a tenet of faith.
But cutting through all that new-parent sentiment, a second obvious and contradictory truth: inequality. Because inequality is writ large in the world-class medical care we received at the delivery; in the presents and cards arriving in the post, wrapping him in organic cotton. In those three passports. Here is a new member of the 1%. I know that your citizenship alone accounts for over half of your lifetime income, the consequence of the arbitrary inequality of borders. So what does it mean when you have three citizenships – permanently opening the doors of some of the richest countries in the world to you, while migrants less fortunate at birth regularly die trying to climb their fences?
One thing’s for certain: such multiple passport holding makes a mockery of the idea that nationhood is anything other than political construction. That’s not to say culture doesn’t matter. Friends ask us how we’ll respond if – when he learns to talk – he says “mom”, and not “mummy”, if when he learns to run he plays soccer and not football. But in middle class San Francisco, no one is foolish enough to think that identity has got anything much to do with paper citizenships. Passports are just things you have to give you options. All the babies are collecting them nowadays.
We talk a lot about inequality nowadays. The widening chasm between rich and poor. The decline of social mobility, so the children of poor parents are more likely to remain poor than in previous decades. But we rarely talk about inequality and citizenship. However if citizenship is ‘the right to have rights’, this accumulation of multiple passports by the super-mobile must be balanced against the increasing determination of states to make it more difficult for poor migrants to move at all, let alone become members. Yet giving up any one of his passports wouldn’t mean it went to someone else with greater need. That’s not to mention the continuing plight of the Bedoun, the Rohingya, the Sahrawi and the other stateless populations, excluded altogether from the system of citizenship. Another inequality of our own making.
Still, he is just six weeks old. And like most new mothers, I think he’s perfect. But I also know that those three passports – and the freedoms they offer – are not deserved: they were not earned. Spin fortune’s wheel: in some other universe he could as easily be without a passport at all. It was luck. And of this much I am certain: no baby should have to depend on luck for their life chances.