Passport Snobbery

Mike Bloomberg says we're electing people to Congress who "can't read" and "don't have passports."

Glenn Reynolds points to this quote from James Lileks in National Review captured by Michael Greenspan (presumably from the print edition, as it’s not currently showing in the search engines elsewhere):

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, leader of the Bloomberg faction of the Bloomberg party, was interviewed en route to China, where he was seeking to open diplomatic ties between Cathay and the colorful principality he governs. A quote: “If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate — they can’t read. I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports.”

Brace yourselves! We’re about to be governed by provincial illiterates. For folk like Mike, the Magic Passport possesses liberating qualities; running your fingers over its stiff blue cover makes you think of stepping off a plane, shorn of the thick sopping wool of America, ready for an experience that will add depthless wisdom to your perception of the world. They drive on the other side of the road! They have tiny cups of coffee! Salad comes after the main meal! These globe hoppers believe that someone who’s been to all 50 states is less informed than someone who lives on the Upper East Side all year except for a trip to Cannes. If a passport were required to go west of the Hudson, these people would be proud they didn’t have one.

I’ve had my own passport since graduating college and was on my mother’s passport from the time I was in diapers.  Because my dad was in the Army and I followed suit, I’ve lived abroad many times, for stretches of years at a time.  And I go overseas now and again on business and for pleasure.   So, I’m actually rather sympathetic to Bloomberg’s snide remark here.   I’m rather suspicious of people who have the means to travel, as most people who can get elected to national office do, who don’t avail themselves of the opportunity.

It’s not because there’s something magical about exposure to the quirks and customs of other cultures that transforms you into a better, wiser person.   It’s just that there’s a certain provincialism that surrounds populist politicians and those who are attracted to them.   And traveling widely — whether on the great continental landmass that Americans live on or across national borders and oceans — tends to not only break down said provincialism but demonstrates a curiosity about the world around you that is a vital characteristic for national leaders.

But Lileks’ snide retort to Bloomberg’s snide remark contains an important corollary:  Jetting between New York, Paris, London, Rome, and Barcelona and keeping company with people just like you can reinforce provincialism rather than breaking it down.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anon says:

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that we are governed by people who have had been exposed to a lot of different experiences. I think that should include things ranging from exposures to different cultures both within and without the US. I bet there are many who think that all politicians should have passed a basic marksmanship test before they can be govern.  🙂

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    He’s right.  Many can’t read the Constitution.  As for the passports I think it’s immaterial to intellect, the ability to govern, or the ability to understand other cultures.  How much of those foreign cultures did Bloomberg absorb at the Four Seasons?

  3. John Peabody says:

    Traveling with people just like you is sort of like reading blogs and entering comments from those that are presumably fairly close on the political scale.

  4. JKB says:

    Well, making a short tourist visit or perhaps a business trip, such as a campaign stop, doesn’t really let you learn about a place.  How the people live or think.  But sometimes the exposure does provide insight.
    Such as:

    “And by the way, Michelle, my wife, she was traveling up, I think, in eastern Iowa, she was driving through this nice, beautiful area, going through all this farmland and hills and rivers and she said ‘Boy, it’s really pretty up here,’ but she said, ‘But you know, I can see why if I was living out here, I’d want a gun.Because, you know, 911 is going to take some time before somebody responds. You know what I mean? You know, it’s like five miles between every house.’

    but sometimes visitors develops biases:

    In a rare slip, he told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”

    But it can be thrilling and adventurous to visit “this great unwashed middle of the country”.   You know to observe the natives and develop sympathy for their plight but be aghast at their clinging to guns and religion like ignorant savages.

    So to Bloomberg, let’s make a deal.  When he and his ilk visit America (no passport required) by ground vehicle (Note:  I’m sure Justice Thomas can provide pointers), then they can complain about Congressmen who have just never visited Paris in the spring.  I mean really, how gauche!

  5. reid says:

    Bloomberg may have said something partially silly off the cuff, but Reynolds produced a paragraph or more of idiocy after giving it some thought (I assume).  Bloomberg wins.

  6. Franklin says:

    If you look at his comment in seriousness, which you probably shouldn’t, the reading and passport thing go together.  If you can’t afford to travel abroad, you should at least try reading about other cultures (and no, I don’t mean from Palin’s Twitters).
    Because you can’t go around claiming American exceptionalism if you don’t actually have a clue what it’s supposed to be an exception to.  And I have little doubt that many of our elected officials have this problem.

  7. John Burgess says:

    For a five-year period, I drove from the east coast to the west coast and back–always by different routes and latitudes–for my vacations. (I did fly to Alaska, though.) That travel, and reading all the back issues of Time, Life, and Look, formed a very important part of my education. Being able to live and work in 20+ countries and visiting at least that many others helped, too.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve had a passport for about 40 years, lived in Germany for a while, speak a couple of languages.  The cliche is true:  travel is broadening.
    However, I think Steve Plunk’s observation is correct, too.  The Intercontinental is pretty much the same whereever you are. Also, I wonder.  Does Mayor Bloomberg speak a language other than English?

  9. MB says:

    @Dave – Bloomberg’s got functional Spanish.
    Travel is broadening, and if someone has the means, but chooses not to?  It’s usually because they lack the qualities I want in a leader.
    I tell my friends who’ve never been out of the country to go, and those that fly only for transoceanic vacations that they need to check out more of the US.  This world is an amazing place, and we’d all be better off if we saw more of it.

  10. LaurenceB says:

    I’m with Reid.

  11. Davebo says:

    Well, in recent years we elected a guy who, despite being from an extremely wealthy family and having all means necessary, had never been outside of the US with the exception of Mexico.
    How’d that work out?

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Yeah, visit Iowa, stay away from Paris.  I mean, who needs the Musee D’Orsay or Ducasse when they can see the giant butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair and eat a deep-fried Snickers bar?
    There is definitely some truth to the notion that travel within what we think of as “The Ritz-Carlton Zone” lacks a certain spice.  (Although the robes are always excellent.)  But it’s still so very much better than visiting Iowa.  I say this as a person with family roots in Iowa, who attended 10th grade in Iowa, and visited the Iowa State Fair.  Really, if you have the choice between the Des Moines Red Roof Inn and the Georges V in Paris, I think you gotta go with the non-Iowa choice.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds

    I think that’s true if you have spent time in rural America, as we both have.  If all of your time has been spent in the Ritz-Carlton Zone, though, the Iowa State Fair is likely to be more broadening than the amuse-bouche and cocktails at the Georges V.

    Although, man, I could go for a cocktail right about now.   Or, hell, a deep-fried Snickers bar.

  14. steve says:

    Do you think you can find a Congressman or Senator, Republican or Democrat, who has not visited the Midwest? I would be surprised. But, it is the reading part that is more worrisome in some ways.

  15. anjin-san says:

    > or the ability to understand other cultures.
    Yup. Why would you need to actually experience a culture to understand it?  We are Americans! Just read a few Sarah Palin tweets about American exceptionalism, and you are good to go.
    Sadly, the right’s worship of ignorance and mediocracy seem to be accelerating.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    There’s something chocolate calling to from the kitchen.  I’m attempting to drown the impulse in Scotch.

  17. Moneyrunner says:

    It’s now noted that Bloomberg isn’t the only passport snob.  And like snobs everywhere, Palin is the kind of American they can denigrate knowing that the other members of the Mean Girls club will titter at the put downs.

  18. Lou Minatti says:

    This crap is getting old.

    As a reminder, until just a few years ago, Americans didn’t need passports to travel to Mexico or Canada (and vice-versa). World-class Caribbean tropical resorts, stunning mountain vistas in the Canadian Rockies, top-of-the-line Disney theme parks, amazing 24/7 action in cities like New York and Las Vegas… Americans could visit them all, without a passport.

    As another reminder, until just a few years ago, Europeans needed passports to travel through Europe. Germans needed passports to visit Mediterranean resorts. Belgians needed passports to visit Italy.

    If a Texan needed a passport to visit Florida, you bet that Americans would have a proportional number of passports as Europeans. And now that Americans need passports to visit Mexico and Canada, any disparity that did exist has shrunk immensely.

  19. Ian S. says:

    I would submit that Bloomberg and his ilk are less interested in the actual details of European culture and more interested in this “monarchy” thing the Europeans used to have, in which guys like Bloomberg ran everything and the serfs knew their place.  (Or the EU, in which hundreds of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats live high off the hog while their countries go bankrupt like dominoes).

  20. Dean says:

    ” If a passport were required to go west of the Hudson, these people would be proud they didn’t have one.”
    Lileks nailed it.  As one who has traveled to 47 states and 6 foreign countries, I find it hard to believe that anyone cannot love this country.  Only rank provincialism seems to explain it.

  21. Wacky Hermit says:

    So what precisely is it about visiting other countries that’s supposed to broaden one’s mind?  If it’s seeing old painted pictures, well you can do that with a Google Images search.  What broadens about seeing the old paintings is learning about the history of them.  And while it’s invigorating to learn that history while immersed in the paintings’ environment, you can still get a lot of that nowadays via the internet without leaving your home.
    No, what’s broadening about travel is meeting the people and learning about their ways.  Culture is all about other people’s answers to questions like “what shall we eat?” and “what is beautiful?” and “how can we make a society that hangs together?”  If all you’re seeing is those people’s architecture and art, you’re not getting an adequate picture of what it’s like to be them.  You’re still inside your own culture, just hanging out in their buildings instead of in yours.  (And if all you do is sneer at the natives, then you really haven’t learned anything.)  So you’ll learn much more about how culture works from living in a different part of the U.S. than from a 3-day guided tour of Paris.

  22. Engineer says:

    <i>Jetting between New York, Paris, London, Rome, and Barcelona and keeping company with people just like you can reinforce provincialism rather than breaking it down.</i>
    This is really true.
    My work involves a lot of international travel, and people I work with often live in cities or even countries that are different from their employer.
    On the occasions that I’ve ended in places off the beaten path (like in the Caucausus or in a less cosmopolitan place in Japan) it’s become clear how much of a bubble I’m still living in.

  23. Bob Young says:

    There’s exposure to different cultures and then there’s exposure to different cultures.  Touristy jetting around to different places to see the sights and eat the food is one thing…which does little to help one’s understanding.  Knuckling down to live and work in a different culture for an extended period of time, facing many of the problems the natives face, is something totally different.  Individuals engaged in the latter usually return with a fresh appreciation for the good old USA. 
    A passport that reflects significant international work experience indicates something totally different than one that records overseas boondoggles and sight-seeing itineraries.  Unless a passport discussion makes that distinction, it’s just another exercise in credentialism and a waste of time.

  24. grichens says:

    “Jetting between New York, Paris, London, Rome, and Barcelona and keeping company with people just like you can reinforce provincialism rather than breaking it down.”
    The marker I use for provincialism is the level of disrespect a person harbors toward other people.

  25. jac says:

    One of the comments I heard this week during the storms in Europe was that most of the people in France who had real problems had “never seen snow before”. The mountains there are closer that Las Vegas is to LAX. One can see the same “group think” problem in the Wikileak info. Most people in the US who read RealClear sites or Instapundit knew that the Iranian president was an idiot and that Putin is still KGB, but the CIA types who are stitting in Embassy cubicals think that really is TOP SECRET info. The worm will turn. The China Bubble will burst and the Euro will be a thing of the past. I hope Americans can be as gracious as they were in Marshall Plan days and roll up their sleeves to fix it all again, without an “I told you so”. PAX Americana

  26. Could not concur more with this post.  I lived in South America for 3 years as a kid and France for 2 years as an adult.  I was accordingly fluent in Spanish and French, so it wasn’t a tourist experience. I also lived in New York City for 10 years, but grew up in the Midwest.  I have traveled extensively in the US and abroad for business.   Some observations:  Manhattanites are some of the most provincial people you will ever encounter and particularly ignorant about life abroad because they see it through the optic of the local Four Seasons.  A broad swath of New Yorkers live in the adult equivalent of Disneyland.  Bubblehead Bloomberg is Exhibit A for their disconnect from reality.  Finance, Publishing, Entertainment, Marketing — the industries that drive the Manhattan economy — are all admirable professions, but they are very insular realities.  To find elites with a clue, you have to go places like Kansas, where people like the Koch Brothers process natural resources or Tennessee where they actually make cars or San Jose, where they process semiconductors.  It is also notable that New Yorkers in the construction trades or simple things like building maintenance actually have their feet on the ground.   Bloomberg?  Faw Get About It !

  27. Willys says:

    “Passport Snobbery”… Recently posting a reply in a forum, to a lady seeking a life with diversity in Texas, I pointed her interests to the area near Fort Hood. Thousands of men and women live and/or pass through Fort Hood each year.  Professionals who have been half way around the world and points in between, who collectively represent probably the most diverse band of citizenry on the planet. Their only required passport being the same documentation required of U.S. citizens in 1945.

  28. George says:

    You want travel that broadens your mind?
    Don’t go to Paris/London/Rome and stay at a five star hotel if you are an American East Coast elite.
    Take a bus through to backwoods China.  Drive yourself around the wilds of Namibia.  Go poke through the industrial debris of a collapsed Eastern European provincial town.
    Go get a real sense for what life on the ground is like for people not fortunate enough to live in the Jet Set bubble.
    Then go to the backwoods of your own country.  Compare and contrast.  You’ll end up with a whole lot more respect for the common folk of America.

  29. M. Rad. says:

    Just as one can go to college and not learn anything of lasting value, one can travel abroad and not broden one’s horizon a whit.  If you visit a place just to confer with the like-minded, you aren’t going to learn much about the place.  Similarly, breezing through a place, staying in posh hotels insulated from the daily humdrum, is fine if you are trying to get some work done (at a global sales meeting for example), but don’t expect to learn anything about the place you are in.
    To broaden one’s hoizons, one needs exposure to how a community and culture solves the problems of civilization.  How to they get around, how do they pay for things, how do they inculcate desirable values in the upcoming generation, and so forth.  It helps to learn the local language, but that is not strictly necessary.  Taken to its extreme, some people after a while don’t just learn the local customs, but adopt them and “go native”.

  30. HeywoodFloyd says:

    In addition to the dangers of travelling to meet people like yourselves and assuming that all people are thus like yourself, there’s the danger of the traveler dwelling on superficialities, pointed out by G.K. Chesterton:

  31. MarkD says:

    Bloomberg has an attitude problem.  This would be the same guy who spent how much per vote to be re-elected mayor?  His contempt is obvious. 
    For the record, I’m one of those West-of-the-Hudson hicks.  I spent five years in Japan without a passport, courtesy of the Marine Corps.  Most of that time I lived off-base.  I taught English, was all but adopted by my class who took me all over Western Japan, and invited me into their homes. I’ve been to their weddings.  I learned the language passably well, and ended up marrying one of my former students.
    I’ll ignore the fact that I could have, and did,  walk to Canada while growing up in Niagara Falls.  That doesn’t really count in my mind.     
    Our daughter is a military spouse – she too lived off-base in a small German town for nearly two years, most of it while her husband was in Iraq.  Her German is functional.  Visiting Europe was interesting, but I prefer Japan, just because of the language issue.
    My cousin’s son is now married to an Australian girl, whom he met while studying there.  He went to visit her when she was doing an internship in Korea (without telling his mom!)  We won’t get into another cousin’s kids field trip to France, or my other daughter’s semesters abroad, or our day trip to Mexico…
    Bloomberg is simply imagining his exceptionalism.  He needs to get out more and meet some real people.  He might find out that they are capable of figuring out how much salt to put on their own food! 

  32. epobirs says:

    I’d trade a dozen politicians who’ve traveled the world for a single one who has never left the country but has worked professionally as a CPA. I have far less need of people who appreciate other cultures than I do of those with a recognition of the hard realities of accounting.

  33. Bill says:

    Visiting Europe was interesting, but I prefer Japan, just because of the language issue.

    Ah… but in Japan they do THIS on purpose!
    But yes, the well-traveled thing is a pathetic self-preening joke.  Being abroad gives you experience, yes.  But if you don’t combine that experience with understanding the breadth of your own country that travel is irrelevant.  Most anti-teapartiers have no clue about what’s between LA and NYC other than about 2470 elite qualifying miles.   And they have the nerve to take pride in it.

    Bill (who has a heavily stamped passport and travels abroad so much he is PreciousMetalDiamondSuperFantasticElite on all three airline alliances — and misses his family more often than he wants or they deserve).

  34. Steve Gregg says:

    I come from the middle class Midwest and most of the men in my family have lived overseas when they were young, courtesy of the US military.  They don’t have passports because they went there on orders.  In fact, you can go to any small town in middle America and find guys who have been all over the world via the military, some with astonishing stories to tell of their experiences there.
    I’ve navigated my own jet over the Pacific and Atlantic to fly in Asia and Europe, yet I didn’t get a passport until I turned tourist a few years back.  Staying in nice hotels with comfortable beds while seeing historical sites certainly has its charms and is educational, but so is camping out on a Korean hillside in a lost airman exercise.  I’ve learned more about foreign culture talking to Myrna, my maid in the Philippines, than from a Roman tour guide in the Colosseum. 
    I also went to the Iowa State Fair, just like you Michael Reynolds, and it was FABULOUS!  You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a bite of a deep fried Twinkie.  Admit it, Mike, it’s better than escargot.  If Myrna were to see the butter cow at the Fair, she’d probably marvel that America is so rich they can make sculptures out of food. 
    There is a lot of culture in Iowa, but it does not express itself in Versailles palaces.  The value of foreign travel is that it gives you the vision to see what’s in plain sight back home.  Can you claim that all those superbly educated French philosophers espousing Marxism have as good a handle on running a just society as an alderman in an Iowan town?  It’s hard to describe your home when your nose is placed up against it.  You need distance and perspective to view it and understand it.  All foreign travel helps you see home more clearly.
    I often go to Manhattan and I’m amused at how I’m treated like a curious foreigner.  They don’t really know the Midwest nor conservatives at all.  We are a novelty to them, perhaps something like the Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the Manhattan of the 1890s.
    It is amusing that they believe we are uneducated and untravelled, that they believe that their ten day trip to Paris gives them more insight to foreign cultures than a military man living in an undeveloped country for years, dealing with the locals every day.  I worked in a military that operated all over the world, a cosmopolitan entity that prized cooperation with numerous cultures.  It’s seems blinkered to me that Left doesn’t see something so obvious.

  35. Jason says:

    With respect to the original article, I would agree with epobirs and would choose a politician that has extensively traveled the US and understands the vast difference in cultures from one coast to the other but doesn’t have a passport, over a politician that has a passport but has only lived in urban enclaves all of their life.

  36. Tblakely says:

    Most of those who decry the ignorance and provincialism of Tea Party supporters prefer to view themselves as ‘Citizens of the World’ rather than US citizens. 

  37. Kevin M says:

    But don’t the greens want us all to shred our passports and stop all this travel?  Bloomberg should stay in Manhattan and only eat natural food grown in his borough.

  38. hitnrun says:

    I think there’s a fundamental misapprehension of “the qualities we want in a leader” here where “we” stands for both me myself and the voting public. The qualities I want in a leader is that he’s going to cut my taxes, get me a job, and balance the budget.
    Now my politics aren’t everyone’s, but if you’re going to fight that with “he’s terribly provincial and hasn’t exposed himself to the cultures of the world,” well, good luck. I’m pretty sure, however, that the point of examining those and other tangential life experiences was that they were a means to predicting the actions of our leaders, not an ends unto themselves. To wit: if you vote for someone because of his passport status, you deserve to.

  39. HeywoodFloyd says:

    @hitnrun Good point.  The passport thing seems to be a touchstone issue, deciding to vote for the candidate based more on “is he one of us” rather than “what will he do.”  (Voters on the right is certainly not immune to this.)
    Evolution is another such issue.  John Derbyshire commented on how in the televised debate, the moderators kept trying to make Christine O’Donnell make a statement on her beliefs in evolution.  Mr. Derbyshire wondered tongue-in-cheek why he didn’t ask her about her feelings on string theory, which is about as relevant to how one governs as one’s opinion on evolution.

  40. HeywoodFloyd says:

    Another example:  Many leftists will dismiss my arguments in the last post because I wrote “Voters on the right is…” instead of “Voters on the right are…”.

  41. michael reynolds says:

    Steve Gregg:
    My early foreign travel was in large part courtesy of the US Army, albeit as a dependent.  Including three years attending French schools, and not in Paris.
    You might not want to be quite so quick to leap to assumptions about liberals.  My father was an Army lifer and I love the US military, having been raised at Eglin, Eustis, Belvoir and assorted other posts and bases.

  42. The preening individuals early in the comment thread apparently did not learn to make an argument based on evidence and logic while traveling abroad.  They seem to have improved their sneering, though, so there’s that.
    Heywood, get a better Chesterton link, because the quote is indeed excellent.  Let me add that in addition to military experience abroad, Americans have business or missionary experience in other countries.  Or they have children adopted from other countries, as I do.  I think that knowledge stacks up pretty well compared to Junior Year Abroad.

  43. Taxpayer says:

    Not everyone has had the opportunity to travel, work or live abroad. When I was in college, studying abroad was financially impossible. I couldn’t even afford a class trip to a Shakespeare festival in Canada. But I made the best of my situation. I read literature from all over the world, studied art and took social studies classes whenever I could. I studied French for 7 years, beginning in middle school–and all my French teachers were French or European. Though I didn’t have the chance to use it in France, it taught me a lot about my own language; and I appreciate my own culture all the more. I didn’t get the chance to travel abroad until I was in my 40s. If that makes me a flyover country hick, then so be it.

  44. James Joyner says:


    If that makes me a flyover country hick, then so be it.

    You’ll note that I qualified my observation with “people who have the means to travel, as most people who can get elected to national office do.” Obviously, a whole lot of people can’t afford to travel abroad. Indeed, the only reason that I was able to do it in my youth was that Uncle Sam’s Army was sending us.

  45. I wouldn’t trust anyone to run the American economy who did not have a passport and who did not do business overseas. What we have right now is proof positive of the misguided notion that a Senator with no executive experience is qualified to be President. To that I say, hell no.

    There is no single aspect of business more important than being able to get on a plane, fly to another country, and fleece the hell out of their best and their brightest in the business world. Show me a man who can go to China, turn someone upside down, shake their loose change out of their pockets, and walk away with an illegible signature on a binding international business deal, and I’ll show you a man (or a lady) who should be our next President.