American Identity

Perhaps you’re familiar with Two-Face, the Batman villain, played both by Aaron Eckhart and by Tommy Lee Jones doing an impersonation of a malfunctioning black-light. Regardless of which version you cling to as the definitive one, Harvey Dent is a super-villain who uses his trademark coin to make all his decisions. One flip to decide which bank he will rob, which city official he will shoot, and which pair of sewed together suits he will wear for the day. -His tailor fees must be outrageous- Yet, in a lot of ways Two-Face may be a good metaphor for our American identity, because it feels as if we are split between two parties, two points-of-view, and as if every decision we make is made by the flip of a coin.

The Face You Choose
Harvey Dent had acid thrown in his face, leading to his identity complex, but America’s split-personality disorder traces its origins back to something much more sinister and corrosive, politics. Since 1852 either a Republican or a Democrat have come in first or second for the Presidential race, except for one. Theodore Roosevelt lost as a third-party candidate to Woodrow Wilson, but that was after he had already been President as a Republican. In the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats have become the only two parties to hold power -aside from a very few exceptions- for the better part of a century and a half. In fact, since World Way II no more than two seats in Congress have gone to third-party candidates. We have to face facts, people, we have a Two-Face problem with our American identity, and its not something that Batman can simply solve by punching.

Our election process uses First Past the Post Voting. Basically it a system where the person to win the majority wins the election. It seems like the most simple form of democracy -mostly because it is- but there are serious drawbacks. The biggest being that even electoral systems that feature multiple parties will, over time, eventually be whittled down to a two-party system. It is something that very often happens in Britain, Australia, or other countries that have several political parties. Two tend to emerge as more dominant. That is because with FPTP voting, there is a lot of potential for wasted voting.

Think about the 2016 election. -We know it hurts, but try anyway- Anyone who wanted to vote for Jill Stein or that other guy… we want to call him… Jerry… It doesn’t matter… Either way, you knew with a fair amount of certainty that there was not a Mr. Freeze’s chance in Hell that either candidate was going to win the election. So, even if you agreed 100% with their platforms, you still realized that you were throwing your vote away, and by doing so you might be accidentally helping the candidate you dislike most. Thus, most rational voters tend to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” Basically, you’d rather choose to vote for the mafia over the Joker, because at least your fairly certain you understand the mafia’s motives. In FPTP voting most people tend to vote against candidates rather than for candidates. Now there are other systems, but that’s for another article. As for right now, all we need to understand is that for 150 years America has been stuck in an entrenched two-party system, and that has very much affected our American identity.

Heads or Tails
In much the same way that Harvey Dent’s injuries are superficial, so are the labels of Republican and Democrat. They are two valid philosophies on how to approach the governing of our country, at least that was how they started. Two-Face’s injuries may be superficial but they have become the basis for his mental disorder, in much the same way that our political parties have become the basis for our American identity crisis. This has become especially true over the past decade. Each party has always had their extremes, but they always seemed to be able to find compromise, yet that has changed. Gridlock, in-fighting, and extremism have become the common practice of Washington, and it has come to affect the rest of the country.

A new survey from the Associated Press’ NORC Center for Public Affairs Research has found that we can no longer even agree what it means to be American. Unsurprisingly, the results are split down party affiliation lines. Roughly 65% of Democrats cited a mix of cultural groups and ethnicities as being either very or extremely important to the American identity. Only 35% of Republicans agree. However, 57% of Republicans believe that strong Christian values are very or extremely important to the American identity. Only 29% of Democrats agree. Republicans are far more likely to cite European values and Christian practices as our biggest strengths, while Democrats are far more likely to cite our country’s traditions of immigration and diversity as our biggest strengths. Regardless of party affiliation, 7 in 10 people agree that America is losing its identity.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is surprising is that: despite the fact that the amount of Independent voters -or voters unregistered with any party- is up, strong political leanings of voters -especially over the past few years- have sharply divided down demographic lines. Depending on whether you are old, white, Hispanic, religious, college-educated, or live in Gotham city, it is more likely that your political leanings have become sharpened over the recent years in very predictable ways. Overall, 48% of registered voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with 44% who identify as Republican or lean toward Republicanism. That only leaves about 8% of American who are truly undecided and independent, and this hyper-partisanship is tearing at our American identity.

Everything is becoming political. The advent of social media, cable news, and the constant echo-chamber-interaction of modern politics has ensured that almost every issue -from religion to Broadway– exists inside a political spectrum. That means when people begin to strongly identify with conservative or liberal leanings, they also tend to mindlessly begin to judge the world through those lens. In many ways, it has stopped being about what do you think of an issue and become more about what does the party think about an issue. In a sense, we have lost a bit of our own thoughtfulness and replaced it with blinded adherence to political doctrines handed down from self-serving political super-villains. We are no longer content to be “fiscally conservative” or “socially liberal” or some other piece-meal-political view. We have begun to pitch our tents under one flag or the other, and that does not lead to a healthy American identity.

The Bicameral America
A phenomenon happened in America over the past two decades where politics became something more than external labels. We equate it to how people feel about sports teams. Of course, we’re nerds so we cling to labels such as Trekkie or Whovian, but the principal tends to be the same. As humans we don’t like complexity, it muddles our minds and takes brain power away from things we enjoy, so we condense ideologies and slap labels on them, like a can of soup. We also do this when it comes to ourselves, and thus we get people who live and die by the New York Giants, or the LA Lakers, or your local high school sports team. We all want to feel as if we are a part of something bigger and then we take that thing and integrate it into our own sense of identity. In one form or another we all do it. Yet, before the 1980’s, people rarely did it with politics. Sure, there were always the exceptions, but back then knowing how someone voted did not always correlate with their self-identity.

Something started during the Reagan years, where people’s party affiliations and labels of progressive and conservative became ingrained with their sense of self. That’s not a good thing, because… well just log onto Facebook. When your political affiliation starts to become essential to the core understanding of who you are as a person, than your liberal aunt isn’t just attacking Donald Trump, they are attacking you. When your conservative cousin badmouths Obama they are -in essence- badmouthing you. The vitriol and hard-line division is not because we are really defending one policy or politician over another. It is because we defending ourselves against each other. This is why people cry at baseball games. -Despite what Tom Hanks believes- When your team loses, you lose. When someone tells to you that the “Yankees suck,” all you hear is that “you suck.”

America has become Two-Face because much like Harvey Dent we have internalized our superficial disorder. The American identity has become a split personality because we have become homogeneous in our beliefs. Among engaged voters -those who always vote- 99% of engaged Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, and 98% of engaged Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican. That’s up from 88% and 84%, respectively, in 2004. We have compromised our American identity for party politics and it is driving us farther apart. We have stopped looking for the common ground and started fighting over the higher ground. We want to protect our sense of self so we argue that we are on the winning side in a battle that was never really meant to have winners or losers. In a way, we have internalized politics and that is a dangerous chemical to be fooling around with, unless of course you are fine with becoming a super-villain.

If you think Donald Trump is a megalomaniac with grandiose ambitions for Presidential power, than you would be right. However, he is not the first man in American history to start a political frenzy over the Presidency. You may only know the name Aaron Burr from an old “Got Milk” Commercial, or simply as the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton, but there was so much more to this complicated, brilliant, and ambitious Founding Father. Unlike Donald Trump who is usually content to write his name across whatever building he happens to own, Burr proved that he would not be satisfied till his name was written across the face of an entire country.

An Origin Story
Aaron Burr was born in the great metropolis of Newark, New Jersey in 1756. His father, Aaron Burr, Sr. was the second president of the College of New Jersey, or as you might know it these days Princeton University. His mother was the daughter of John Edwards, -no not the John Edwards that talks with ghosts- the famous theologian who was a key player in the First Great Awakening. Like most comic book protagonists, Burr found himself orphaned at the age of 2 after both his parents passed away. However, that did not stop him from getting admitted to the College of New Jersey at the age of 13 and graduating with a Bachelors of the Arts at 17. He moved to Connecticut to study law, but put that aside when fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord.

Aaron Burr tried to receive an officer’s commission in Washington’s Army, but in a trend that would continue for the rest of his life, George Washington turned him down. So instead, the 19 year old Burr enlisted with General Benedict Arnold, and his Canadian Campaign. He distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec, and General Richard Montgomery promoted Burr to the rank of Captain. Eventually, he made his way to Manhattan where he earned a place in Washington’s Staff. During the retreat from Lower Manhattan to Harlem, it was Burr’s vigilance that saved an entire brigade of troops, including an officer named Alexander Hamilton. Despite everything though, Washington notably never put in a commendation for his bravery. By some accounts, Washington never trusted Burr. Maybe he saw the budding villainy of the man or maybe he just wasn’t very fond of Aaron Burr’s ferret-like face.

Despite the public slight by Washington he did eventually make Lieutenant Colonel and served with distinction until 1779 when declining health forced him to retire from the Continental Army. He returned to his studies of the law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1782. From there he married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow of a British officer who was 10 years his senior, and moved to New York City after the British evacuated it. He had one daughter who survived into adulthood, also named Theodosia. Burr’s wife died in 1794 from stomach cancer. In his private practice the war hero was an accomplished lawyer that commanded substantial fees for his services. By all accounts he was very generous with spending that money on lavish clothing, fine furniture, and other symbols of status and wealth. So naturally, he entered politics.

An Arch Nemesis is Born
Alexander Hamilton was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804, presumably after a long winded monologue about how, “With Hamilton out of the way, the world will finally kneel before Burr.” [citation needed] Yet, as famous as the duel itself has become it is only the end of the story. Burr first served in the New York Assembly before unseating General Philip Schuyler as the Senator from New York. Incidentally, Schuyler was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law, and there are some accounts that it was that election which drove the first wedge driven between the friendship of Hamilton and his would be assassin.

Yes, because like any good villain, Burr and his arch rival were first friends, or at least acquaintances. They were both from the New York area, and even though they were in opposing political parties they still had a lot in common. So it was only natural that Burr and Hamilton would have been friends, at least until Burr started making some shady deals. In 1799, Burr went to Hamilton and other New York Federalists to get their support for a badly needed water company for Manhattan, but after it was approved Burr changed the charter for the water company to a bank. The more astute of you may notice that a bank has nothing to do with supplying water to a city. Burr founded the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which was later absorbed by Chase Banking which is now part of JPMorgan Chase… you know, career super-villains. Worst of all the false water company scheme delayed the construction of an actual water company for Manhattan which was suffering from a Malaria epidemic at the time… New York problems, right?

Aaron Burr ran for President twice, first in 1796 and then again in 1800. Back then the Electoral College -the group of men that vote for the President- were hand picked by the State Assemblies. After he lost in 1796, Burr quit the Senate and went back to the New York Assembly. While back in Albany, he began to make himself a key player in New York politics, even converting the infamous Tammy Society from a social club into a political machine. So when it came time for the 1800 elections, Burr had already positioned himself as a political power-broker by not only having a hand in selecting New York’s electoral delegates, but also by controlling the political aspirations of New York politicians. One of the largest of the northern states, New York, was a key State to any one’s Presidential candidacy. It was basically what Florida or Texas are today, except with less malaria.

The Plot Thickens
Because of his political influence and his successful opposition to Hamilton and the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson knew that he needed the support of Aaron Burr to win the 1800 election. So the two men struck a deal that they would run together on the same “ticket.” The idea was that their new political party, the Democratic-Republicans, would make Jefferson President and Aaron Burr Vice-President, at least that was what Jefferson believed.

In 1800, the electoral delegates were tasked with casting two votes -instead of one as they do today- because the candidates with the most votes became President and the runner-up became Vice President. However, that leaves a lot of room for confusion. You see, there was no President vote and seperate Vice-President vote. All the votes were for the Presidency, and though it cannot be substantiated by historians, it seemed pretty obvious that Burr tried double-crossing old Tommy boy. With the power of the New York electorate and with political influence in many Northern states, Aaron Burr drummed enough support so that the election became a tie between himself and Jefferson. Each man got 73 votes. Even though most people understood that Jefferson was meant to be President and Burr Vice-President the tie still had to be decided by the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Most Federalists hated Jefferson. So the assumption was that the House would swing the vote toward Burr, and that is exactly what almost happened.

You need to understand that Hamilton and Jefferson were famously bitter rivals dating back to the Articles of Confederation. it was like Tom and Jerry, but Hamilton still threw his political influence behind Jefferson over Burr, convincing others to vote for Jefferson. Meanwhile Burr and William Van Ness tried vehemently to turn the election in their favor. It took 36 ballots but finally the tie was broken and Jefferson was elected President and Burr was made Vice President. After that fiasco, Jefferson -understandably- never fully trusted Burr again and kept him his as far away from the Presidential office as possible, presumably because he feared Burr might one day tie him to the railroad tracks -which didn’t exist yet. It was painfully clear that Jefferson would drop Burr as his Vice President during the 1804 election, so instead Aaron Burr tried running for the Governorship of New York. There he was embarrassingly defeated again because of Hamilton. This was the what l;ed to the duel.

‘Kneel Before Burr’
There are varying accounts of the duel and much like Han and Greedo, no one can seem to agree who shot first, or if Hamilton missed on purpose or was just a lousy shot. What is clear is that after Burr became the only sitting Vice President of the United States to kill a man -that we know of- he became wanted in New York and New Jersey. The duel was fought in Weehawken, NJ because laws were less stringent about shooting people in the Garden State. Once accused Burr fled to South Carolina, because back then murder charges did not follow you across state lines, but this was not the end of Burr’s villainy.

The accounts differ, but it seems clear that Burr went full super-villain by that time and tried to carve out a little empire for himself in the American midwest/Mexico. He enlisted the help of several prominent conspirators, including General James Wilkinson, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Army, and Andrew “freaking” Jackson. Jackson even allegedly congratulated Burr on “removing Hamilton from the political arena.” The future President and $20 bill mascot, along with the Army’s Commander-in-Chief pledged support and troops for a “military expedition” that Aaron Burr was planning. The particulars get a little fuzzy, buthe basically believed that war with Spain was inevitable and that the US Federal Government could not enforce its jurisdiction past the Appalachian Mountains. Thus, from all accounts it seemed as if the former Vice President had every intention of marching an Army into Spanish America and carving out a slice for himself.

Most notably, he expressed a belief that the Mexican people were not suited for democracy, and that it would be best if they were ruled by a king. After saying that he probably winked while pointing toward himself vigorously. Emperor Burr sent then envoys into Mexico to get a feeling for the people’s acceptance of Spanish rule and to whisper “Hail Hydra” to one another as they did it. Basically, Aaron Burr was trying to do exactly what Texas did thirty years later, except with more overtones of “King Aaron” thrown into the mix. There was even talk about taking Baton Rouge and New Orleans away from the United States.

‘Curse You, Jefferson’
Eventually, word of this got back to Thomas Jefferson who understandably issued a warrant for Burr’s arrest. James Wilkinson then got cold feet and would up turning on Burr. Jackson was similarly no where to be seen when the tides started turning, and Burr was easily arrested in March of 1807. He was brought to trial in front of Chief Justice John Marshall on charges of treason, but despite extreme pressure from the White House, Marshall ruled in favor of Burr, claiming that were was not sufficient enough evidence to convict him.

After being acquitted and flat broke Burr fled to Europe where he continued to try and drum up intentional support and backing for his American Empire idea. He even tried to get a meeting with Napoleon, but the French Emperor would not see him. His only legitimate daughter, Theodosia, then died in the winter 1812-1813 aboard the schooner Patriot. She was either shipwrecked or killed by pirates, which admittedly are pretty bad-ass ways to go, but Burr was devastated by the loss. He returned to the United States -having been acquitted of that pesky murder charge- and resumed practicing law. He married a rich widow, she divorced him for blowing her money on land speculation, and he died due to complications of a stroke in 1836.

And, that is the story of one of America’s most notorious Founding Father. So, just remember, whatever you think of this year’s election at least Donald Trump hasn’t tried invading Mexico… yet…

Geekdom knows the face of evil. We see it everyday, whenever we pick up a comic book or turn on a video game. There is always some megalomaniac trying to conquer the world, blow up the city, or even just steal the princess and take her back to his castle for purposes we feel it best not to question. However, unlike the villains in our books, movies, and games, most people in prison have never donned a mask to lead a band of ninjas, dabbled in the dark magical arts, or have built even one weather controlling doomsday device. No, the criminals in our prisons are not Saturday morning cartoon characters. They are nothing but ordinary, run of the mill people, no matter how much we sometimes try to pretend they aren’t.

B-Man and the Masters of the Congressverse
Last week, President Barrack Obama commuted the sentence of nearly 90 non violent offenders, most of them jailed due to drug charges. The people who received the commutations were well behaved inmates who served at least 10 years of their prison sentence, and who would have received less severe punishments for their offenses under today’s laws.

The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but almost a quarter of its incarcerated population, but then again maybe we just produce more Cobra Commanders than Uruguay? Somehow we at The NYRD doubt that is the case. According to a 2011 Boston University study the USA jails 716 people per 100,000. That is the highest rate of inmates per capita in the world, beating out St. Kitts & Nevis, Seychelles, Rwanda and Cuba. The only statistics we should be beating Rwanda and Cuba in, are: “hot dogs sold” and “Star Trek conventions held,” not prison population. In fact, the closest developed country to the US is Russia at 487 inmates per 100,000 citizens, and no offense to our Russian friends, but we cannot believe that America is producing more villains than the former Soviet Union, especially considering their current leadership.

That sad part is that the argument can be made that our current corrections system does work, as long as you ignore its rapidly growing population. So it is not usually a pressing issue on the lips of many leaders, both animated or otherwise. The amount of inmates in the US began a sharp increase in 1979. The year before Empire Strikes Back was released saw only about 314,000 people behind bars. As of last year, the year before The Force Awakens is to be released, the numbers stood at about 3.2 million people behind bars, with African Americans making up the slight majority of the incarcerated population. A little less than half of that total inmates are people charged with non violent offenses, majorly drug charges, but also burglary, larceny, fraud, and public disorder.

Coincidentally, with the exception of a few fluctuations in the 80’s crime has been on the decrease ever since. This could be attributed to a number of factors, economic, social, even technological. Video games and the Internet do a lot more to distract potential criminal behavior than most people give them credit for, but that is for another article. According to the US Disaster Center, there were only about 9.8 million crimes committed in 2013 for a US population of over 316 million. The US is safer than it has ever been, but is that due to mass incarceration? Realistically, it probably has to do with a lot of factors, but if incarceration is our answer than we have to be prepared to build more prison, and that is going to get expensive.

Estimates tend to vary, but even conservative numbers say that it costs anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 dollars per year to house an inmate, depending on the level of security needed. According to a bill proposed by Congressmen Scott and Sensenbrenner, since 1980 Congress has added an estimated 2,000 new crimes to the books and imprisonment rates has grown 518 percent. Federal spending on the prison system has increased from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation. Their SAFE Bill is trying to curtail over criminalization and reduces recidivism. A similar bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act is also going through the Senate. They are worth checking out, because even if you believe that all criminals deserve to be behind bars, imagine what the US could do with even a fraction of that money returned. Some estimates even say it currently costs every American household roughly $500 a year. Those dollar amounts only stand to increase in coming years, because for all its benefits, it is starting to look like our system is very good at taking low level offenders and making them hardened criminals.

Teenage Addicted Repeat Offenders
President Obama’s act is a great first step, but more needs to be done to reform a failing prison system. First and foremost, Obama has been pushing that drug crimes should be treated more like a public health risk than a crime, and according to a Pew Research Study, 67% of Americans, on both sides of the isle, agree with him. In fact, more than 25 states, in both the north and south, have eased their laws on drug crimes over the past five years, but the Federal government is still trying to catch up.

Much like the war with Cobra, the “War on Drugs” has became a self perpetuating machine. Harsh penalties and long prison sentences often affect lower income families dramatically more than those in upper income brackets, even if drug use itself is fairly proportional across economic lines. Unfair incarceration has the potential to exacerbate problems in the home, often taking away bread winning husbands or wives needed to support the family, and leaving children without one or both parental influences to keep them clear of gangs and the very drugs that the government was trying to fight in the first place. Thankfully, this has lessened with the amending of some of the “three strikes” laws for many states, most notably California where more than 3,000 previously life-sentenced, non violent inmates became eligible to apply for parole. Unfortunately, prison itself has a way of institutionalizing even the nicest of non violent offenders.

In many ways our prison system is a lot like a Saturday morning cartoon. It is fairly predictable, poorly animated, and for certain people it repeats like clockwork. In fact the US prison system has become like Arkham Asylum, a revolving door where criminals are often released only to be delivered back into captivity by a man who may or may not be dressed as a bat. Recidivism has declined in recent years, because of improvements in state laws, but current studies still show that about 40% of people released from prison will be arrested again within three years of release. Though many federal and some state facilities currently offer job training and societal reintegration preparation, the push is not universal, as many of these expanded programs cost money and poorer state systems, or privately funded corporate prisons are less inclined to invest.

G.I. Jobless
Prisons have another aspect in common with our beloved cartoons, many of them were created to make money. There are now 130 private prisons who rake in a combined 3.3 billion dollars a years. For them, a decrease in the prison population means a decrease in their profit margins. That means they have a lot less incentive to not properly prepare criminals for retuning to society, and they have a slew of lobbyist in Washington to make sure their voices are heard. In 2010, the private prison firm, GEO, and its affiliates donated more than $33,500 to political action committees. the whole thing is like some plot cooked up by Skeletor in his spare time, a convoluted system of harsh punishment that more often than not fails to achieve its end goal. More to the point, much like the plots of cartoon villains, we just seem to accept it as fact. We buy into the system and just take it for what it is and never really think to look deeper.

No one is saying that these offenders should not be punished for their crime. Everyone needs a time out once in a while, but the problem with the current system is that for non violent and other first time inmates incarceration often leans too far to the side of punishment and not enough to the side of rehabilitation. The only thing the Department of Corrections is actually correcting is how to make those low level offenders into better criminals. Currently, going into prison is a lot like joining Cobra. Even if you don’t know anything about how to hold a gun that shoots blue lasers, they will teach you that and a multitude of other criminal skills. Many first time offenders pick up new criminal traits, new violent tendencies, and gang affiliations as a simple way of surviving while inside the system, and in some cases those are the only job skills they can turn to after their release.

The fault does not lie entirely with the prison system alone, but also our own perceptions of criminals in society. Many federal and private companies ask job applicants for their criminal history, even if the job is low-level and for non sensitive work. Checking off a box that says you have been in jail is often a death sentence to any ex-convict’s job prospects. So with no where to go, even if they have the job skills, many former inmates are forced to return to crime to survive. Even worse, inmates who are exonerated are often just kicked out of prison with no money and no access to the same transitional programs that guilty criminals receive upon their release. There comes a point where if you tell Bebop and Rocksteady that they cannot work in the mail room, you should not be surprised if they go back to henching for Shredder. The pay may not be great, but at least they don’t feel as if they are being judged all the time by the other members of the Foot Clan.

More than Meets the Eye
Maybe part of our problem is our fascination with villains. After all, without a great villain the heroes we know and love seem somehow diminished. Our interest in the evil and the twisted happens for many reasons. Fictional villains represent power and freedom. They act as a vessel for us to contain and face our fears. In a way they help us to confront the unknown and even give us a mechanism of release for our own anger and devilish impulses. We rarely cheer for Megatron, but in a way we encourage his evil. We want to see a real villain do evil things, if only because it challenges our heroes to be that much better.

Thus, maybe in a way we have transferred some of that psychological need to the real-life criminals in our society. We want to believe in the existence of good, so therefore we must also have to believe in the existence of evil. You do not get He-Man without Skeletor. There is no Lion-O without Mumm-ra, no Ninja Turtles without Shredder and we would argue also Krang, but that is a debate for another day. Unfortunately, real humans are never so black and white. In a way we are all a little good and a little bad.

If we treat all offenders as if they criminals, than we cannot be surprised if they one day try to kidnap a world leader and demand a ridiculous ransom, because after all, we were the ones that expected them to be villains all along.