Category: L’America

L’America: How Could Trump Be Elected?

I know, I know… I’ve heard this from all my friends and readers: How is it possible that Donald Trump would get elected President of the Greatest Nation in the World? (OK, the part about the Greatest Nation in the World is my addition.)

There is a technical reason: despite getting more than two million votes more than Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton didn’t have her votes distributed in a geographically diverse enough way. America is a federation, and as such the constituent states have a say in government. In theory, the winner of the presidential election would need a majority of both states and people, but that could easily lead to a situation where (like in this year’s case) the majority of the states doesn’t want the same as the majority of the people.

To make elections easier and faster, the Constitution settled on a numerical formula that is a brilliant compromise: each state gets as many votes in the election of the president as it has Senators and Members of the House. The Senate is composed of two Senators per state (so that part translates to one vote per state), while each state has a number of Members of the House proportional to its population (so theoretically, that should translate to a majority of the people).

The Constitution settled on another odd compromise: each state would send voters (called electors) to Washington, and these electors decide who’s going to be president and who vice-president. Over time, the electors were specifically selected for allegiance to one particular candidate, and some states even punish those electors that don’t vote for the presidential candidate for whom they were sent.

So, it could happen that a narrow win in three states sent Donald Trump into the White House, while he didn’t have a majority of the vote. The formula chosen favors Republicans in general, because central states were drawn to be of manageable size, and so a lot of the rural states in the middle of the country have small to tiny populations. Wyoming, for instance (a gorgeous place!) has only 1.5% of the population of the most populous state, California. In fact, the USA has 31 cities that have more inhabitants than all of Wyoming, but have none of the electors (3) that Wyoming has.

After this civics lesson, the political angle. Hillary Clinton was reviled. Part of it was that the media wanted to make the contest more interesting by tearing down the front runner. Part of it was blatant misogyny. Part of it seems to have been manipulation by foreign powers, especially Russia, which seems to have fed information to WikiLeaks. it didn’t help that the founder of WikiLeaks had an ax to grind with Ms Clinton – maybe a remnant of the days he had to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.


L’America: This Presidential Election, Though…

I’ve been making you wait forever, and yet I’ve been fielding questions and listening to comments for an entire year. Now, two weeks or so before the election, it’s time to weigh in.

What’s the deal with the Presidential election? From an alien’s perspective, it’s a really odd deal: on one side, there is a mix of Berlusconi, Netanyahu, and Putin; on the other, a combination of Merkel, Thatcher, and Nicola Sturgeon. How could Americans possibly have a hard time choosing?

Well, first of all, you smug aliens, Berlusconi, Netanyahu, and Putin ran their countries for longer than you’d like to admit. Also, while Hillary Clinton is sort of a blend of the three women rulers above, she has some of the good and some of the bad qualities of each. For instance, she is not inspiring as The Iron Lady and isn’t as fresh-faced as Sturgeon.

Regardless, America seems to have come to its senses again and Hillary Clinton is on its way to becoming the next President of the United States. I congratulate her in advance and believe she is the right choice. Most of my friends and readers think so, too. So, why was the contest so tight for such a long time?

America, you need to know, is a very odd place in this respect. The media are not held accountable for the things they say in the name of freedom of speech. That same freedom of speech applies in other countries, too, but in America, it is used by media corporations to mean they can “spin” anything the way that is most convenient to them.

“Hillary Clinton has no real competition, because the Obama years were largely successful economically and scandal-free. She is a continuation of those years, so she should be sailing to an easy victory” is absolutely not what glues viewers to TV screens and doesn’t lure advertisers. So news media corporations need a story that makes it more suspenseful, like when you watch a TV show and it all builds up to a great reveal – right after the commercials.


L’America: What Really Happened to Theresa Halbach?

Netflix is trying something new. This time, a documentary spanning ten hour-long episodes about a murder case. Seems like an incredibly long time for a single case, considering that other shows present the “same” content in a few minutes and then move on to the next. I thought for sure it would end up being boring. Instead, I found it gripping, a true blueprint for a new brand of show, not unlike when Truman Capote jump-started the true crime fiction genre with his In Cold Blood.

Before you read on, you must watch the documentary. This is not a review, this is not a presentation of facts, this is simply a reflection on the show. If you haven’t watched, you will not be able to follow. Also, spoilers abound. Finally, once I realized search engines presented the content here to a wider audience than my usual, I tried to clean up the text and will continue to do so.

First, on the issue of murder. Watching the show I had a very strong instant reaction that no one seemed to follow, namely that Theresa Halbach may have committed suicide. If any of the actors in the unfolding drama had found the body and decided to dispose of it as it was disposed of, this would make a whole lot more sense than either the prosecution’s or the defense’s theories.

My reaction was prompted by three independent facts. First, Theresa Halbach is introduced with a video in which she tells us that, no matter what happened to her, she wanted everyone to know she had been happy. I know this type of video too well. In Catholicism, suicide is considered a mortal sin, a variant of murder. The consequence of suicide is the same as that of murder: the victim (in Catholic thinking, the perpetrator) cannot be buried in consacrated soil, forcing the family to bury their loved one outside the cemetery. To avoid that, a person would leave evidence behind that indicates suicide was not an option. Catholics sometimes do that without thinking about suicide, but many suicidal Catholics with strong family ties are very keen on evidencing their happiness and lack of suicidal thought.

The second item that is reported but unexplained is that voicemail messages had been deleted from her phone answering system after she disappeared. Nobody admitted to doing it, but friends reported that logging onto her voicemail was easy for anyone that knew her well enough, since she used her birthday as password. This would allow anyone from the family to delete any voicemail messages that would indicate she was suicidal, or that provided content that would upset her enough to send her over the edge.

Third, and most surprising to me, was her brother’s first reaction on TV. Before anyone knew what happened to her he said something to the effect that the family just wanted to find her effects so they could start to move on. In other words, his first reaction was that she was dead (since all there was to find were her effects) and that it didn’t really matter who had done it (since all there was to do was move on). At that point, for all he knew, she might have decided to drive off to California to become a beach bum. Even if he suspected that nothing like that was in character, he still might have expressed the desire to find out what happened.


L’America: What Do I Do When My Green Card Expires

I mentioned how (slightly) disappointed I was when my green card finally arrived. It simply came in the mail in an unmarked envelope. I wasn’t expecting a ticker tape parade, and it was certainly convenient. After so many years of tribulation, though, it seemed a little unspectacular.

Wait ten years, and the thing expired. I had set a reminder in Google Calendar, but somehow it disappeared. Then, one horrifying morning, I woke up and checked. I was expecting another year of validity, but it wasn’t so. The card was about to expire.

It’s not like I needed to travel right away. I mean, I had been thinking of visiting family for my father’s birthday in October, but it wasn’t likely to happen. But the expiration was close enough that I knew I wasn’t going to get a new one in time for the existing one to lose its validity.

Panic befell me. What if my green card expired before I got a new one? Before I could even apply for a new one? Would I be woken up at midnight on the day of expiration, USCIS officers dragging me to the airport to put me on a plane to Germany?

Silly me didn’t even realize there are no planes to Germany at midnight. And maybe the Italian side of me got a little carried away in the drama of it all. But it turns out things are much simpler and more straightforward than I imagined.


L’America: The Republican Primary

Stop hounding me, already! Yes, I will explain the Republican primary to you. And get that smirk off your face: after all, for every Trump there has been a Berlusconi, and for every Huckabee you had a Harper or an Abbott.

Primaries. When voters elect a person, instead of a party, it makes no sense to have a random set of characters show up. It’s smarter to pick a single candidate and pool all the votes of a group together. Otherwise you need runoff elections and the like. You could argue that a runoff election is no worse than a primary vote, and you would be right. But that’s just not the way things work here, in America.

There are several parties, but all but two are inconsequential. The Democratic party, and the Republican. They are centuries old each and are fierce rivals. Which you wouldn’t be able to tell by the names, since they both stand for qualities of America that are uncontested. Not many Democrats would want America not to be a republic, nor do many Republicans stand united against democracy.

When it comes to presidential elections, though, the two parties trot out their best and elect a single candidate that will run against the single candidate of the other party. Unlike in Europe, where this wrangling is internal to the party and usually quite disgusting, in America the wrangling is public. The public also has the final say in the matter. Imagine being able to choose the candidates in an election, instead of being told by party wonks who it’s going to be!


L’America: Obergefell v. Hodges

Just in time for Gay Pride parades in much of the world, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that marriage was a universal right that couldn’t be withheld from same-sex couples. The world turned rainbow for a day, much happiness and sadness ensued, and a few readers asked me to explain what happened. Here is my account for the America-challenged.

First, the ruling was not unexpected. In fact, the big suspense in June was whether it was going to be big majority or small majority ruling. It had been long clear that there was a small majority (5 of 9) that was going to rule in favor of gay marriage. It had also long been clear that three judges (Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) would vote against gay marriage no matter what. The big question was whether the youngish Chief Justice, Roberts, would vote with the majority or the minority.

I am not saying this was a foregone conclusion in hindsight. Things had been clear for about a year: ever since the related ruling in United States v. Windsor, Federal Appeals Courts all over the country had been ruling that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, when asked to overturn those rulings, refused to do so. It took up the case only when one Federal Appeals Court, the one for the Sixth Circuit, ruled the other way.

What this means is that for a year, gay marriage had been legal in much of the United States because the Supreme Court didn’t see anything wrong with it. To come now at the proverbial eleventh hour and reverse those rulings would have meant major chaos throughout the legal system. What would happen with the marriages contracted in places, like Utah, where gay marriage had been forced by a Federal Court? 


L’America: Please, Read My Christmas Letter!

Christmas Letter templateIt’s that time of the year again! I get more nostalgic of Old World charm, missing out on Christmas Markets, panettone, Lebkuchen, and wildly flashing trees in the countryside. Time to acquaint you with the quaintest of American traditions, especially since it’s slowly dying out!

The first time I saw a Christmas letter I had no idea what it was. It had all the appearance of a letter: it was a piece of paper with writing on it; the writing was of personal nature; we knew the people that had sent it to us.

At the same time, it wasn’t a letter: it was photocopied; it was impersonal; it was boastful to the point of bursting with pride. Nobody I knew would ever talk like that!

I didn’t know that I had encountered an American tradition such as is only possible in America. You see, what happened here is the convergence of three peculiarities of this culture:


L’America: Are Canadians Too Nice?

When you live in America, there are two national stereotypes that pop up frequently and are as pervasive as they are puzzling: Brits have bad teeth, and Canadians are too nice.

The stereotypes are not only pervasive, they are thought of perfectly harmless and worthy of making fun. If you have watched American comedies, you will have seen the buck-toothed, yellow-stained Brit smile. Also common, the Canadian brute that turns all polite.

In fact, sometimes the Canadian stereotype is geared towards the brute that is too polite. The best example I can come up with is Robin Scherbatsky, the beautiful tomboy that is the central character of How I Met Your Mother. She is depicted as someone that was trained to be a man by her domineering father, who lives up to the expectation, but who also is unfailingly hyperpolite.

Oddly, in both cases, the stereotype says more about the people holding it than about the people stereotyped. You see, Brits and Canadians are close enough to Americans to be able to routinely pass as such. They are of the same genetic makeup, they dress largely similarly (although I am pretty sure my British friends would object to that), and they have largely compatible social interaction structure.


L’America: Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and Police Racism

A number of you have asked how it is possible that a police officer shoot an unarmed person and is not just not punished for it, but not even investigated. Such was the case of Darren Wilson, a police office in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old.

I’ll go to say in general that I agree that police has a greater latitude on the use of force than an average person. Clearly, the people that have a sworn duty to protect others deserve the deference of respect from those they protect – which includes me.

Deference and respect, though, don’t mean a free pass. So why wasn’t there a court case against Darren Wilson? Wouldn’t that be necessary not only to establish the truth, but also to clear the conscience and future of the man that is now going to be free to move but forever confined by his history?

Technically, the reason is that the jurisdiction in which the tragedy occurred uses Grand Juries to determine whether someone should be tried. The local prosecutor, the District Attorney, convenes a Grand Jury to determine whether there is enough evidence to prosecute. The Grand Jury either confirms there is or denies the prosecutor’s request. In practice, though, the Grand Jury does what the prosecutor wants.


L’America: The Supreme Court on Gay Marriage

A few have asked me to explain the meaning of the refusal of the Supreme Court to review gay marriage again.

Let’s start with the technicalities: The Supreme Court of the United States, unlike many Constitutional Courts around the world, is the overall ultimate instance and doesn’t just decide matters of constitutionality, it has broad sweep of the legal landscape and its rulings are binding on everyone in this country. It is also free to choose the matters it wants to tackle. Technically, it is limited to reviewing lower court opinions, but since anyone with a chance to appeal, does, it gets to see pretty much everything that goes on in the legal landscape.

The Supreme Court (of the United States, short SCOTUS) heard a case last year. It was about a woman who had married another woman in a state where it was legal. The woman’s wife died, leaving behind a considerable estate. Since the couple were not legally married in the eyes of the Federal Government, the tax office wanted to collect estate tax as if the two were completely unrelated strangers, instead of the much lower tax rate for married couples.

This case, styled United States v. Windsor, was a particularly good case for the cause of gay marriage. Here we had a couple who had been married in the state they lived in for years, who was denied a substantial Federal benefit because the government chose not to recognize their marriage. This had all sorts of ominous undertones for conservatives and liberals alike: what was the Federal government’s business picking what marriages it liked?

SCOTUS decided the law on which this discrimination was based had to go. With the slimmest of possible majorities (5-4) it declared the law unconstitutional. Dissenting opinions (from three judges) focused on the legalistic argle-bargle, the confusing nature of the Court’s finding. In that, they were absolutely right: just as was the case in the Prop 8 case, the Court refused to be clear about its intent. Which is precisely what they wanted, the thing you would expect from a bunch of Catholics trying to do the right thing and not run afoul of church teaching.

After the ruling in United States v. Windsor, lower courts knew what SCOTUS meant. One after another, court cases on invalidation of same-sex marriage bans were decided, and virtually all of them were in favor of allowing gay marriage. More than that, every single appellate court decided in favor of same-sex marriage.