The Reason Review — February 2017

January was all about Trump, and in an ideal world, February would be Trump-free. But of course that’s not how The Donald does things, and he’s dominated headlines once more. But in an effort to make this month’s Reason Review more palatable, we’ve reduced the Trump content by 50%, adding in tales of North Korean power plays, outbursts in the Commons, justice for the victims of Sir Phillip Green, and the proposed arrival of a new species in Britain. Small month, big stories.


Brother’s Blood

North Korea has been embroiled in an international scandal this month, as murky details emerge about the death of Kim Jong-nam — Kim Jong-un’s half brother. The two women at the centre of the case, Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, have been officially charged with murder; though both have protested their innocence, claiming they believed they were part of an elaborate TV prank.

Kim Jong-nam was attacked in Kuala Lumpur airport on the 13th of February as he was checking in for a flight to Macau. It’s reported that the a deadly toxic nerve agent named ‘VX’ — a substance listed as an internationally banned chemical weapon — was smeared over his face, and he died soon after. The use of this rare substance, which is not available commercially, is thought to be proof of the North Korean administration’s involvement
 
 The oldest son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was forced to live in exile for allegedly trying to use a false passport to enter Japan in 2001 to visit Disneyland. After being passed over for the leadership and expelled from his country, he became one of the most vocal critics of the North Korean regime.

Whispers of conspiracy are slowly increasing in volume, but Pyongyang continues to deny any involvement with the death; official North Korean news sources have labelled reports surrounding the use of the VX nerve agent as “absurd” and lacking in “scientific accuracy and logical coherence”. This is not the first relative that Kim Jong-un has assassinated; in 2013 he allegedly ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, to be stripped naked and eaten alive by dogs.


Betsy or Bust

You undoubtedly know the name of Betsy DeVos by now, but just in case you aren’t familiar here’s a quick recap: The American businesswoman, philanthropist, and billionaire was Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education and, despite overwhelming opposition, the senate committee approved her appointment to the position. In an historic vote of 50–50, DeVos was elected to office thanks to a tie-breaking vote cast by VP Mike Pence.

The backlash against her nomination largely stems from her incompatibility with the role for which she was nominated; she has never taught at, or even attended public school; she appears to favour charter schools which are accused of diverting funds away from public schools; and many claim that she lacks even a basic understanding of fundamental policy questions.

Her nomination even inspired defection among the Republican ranks, with senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski openly opposing her selection; ultimately to no avail. With DeVos’ nomination confirmed, she looks set to expand the controversial school vouchers programme which, though aimed at promoting greater school choice, threatens to damage the public school system.

The approval of Betsy DeVos has also drawn attention to the extremely generous (and consistent) donations given by her family to the GOP. Incumbent republican senators have received a total of $115,000 from DeVos herself, while the entire DeVos family have donated over $8m to Republican Party super PACs over the course of the last two elections. It’s safe to say the appointment of DeVos won’t do anything to challenge the appearance of cronyism in Washington.


The Returns of the King

Former ‘King of the High Street’ Sir Phillip Green — now a posterboy for irresponsible capitalism and in danger of losing the ‘Sir’ — has recently agreed to pay £363m into the eviscerated BHS pension fund. The cash injection will go some way to plugging the £571m deficit that came to light when BHS collapsed last April, leaving 11,000 people without a job and facing a dark financial future.

After reaching the deal with the Pensions Regulator, the billionaire expressed his apologies to “the BHS pensioners for this last year of uncertainty, which was clearly never the intention when the business was sold in March 2015.” The agreement means that legal action pursued by the Pensions Regulator against Green has now been dropped, though proceedings against Dominic Chappell — who bought BHS for £1 back in March — are set to continue.

The tycoon’s cash will be used to set up a new pension scheme for BHS workers and, because the Pension Protection Fund aren’t ‘rescuing’ the scheme — an act which usually results in a reduction of the pension — workers are set to receive the starting pensions they were originally promised. Members of the scheme who have a pensions pot of over £18,000 can also opt to take a lump sum if they choose, while those who want to remain in the existing scheme (which will enter the PPF) will see a 10% cut to existing benefits.

The chairman of the BHS Pensions Trustees, Chris Martin, said that the cash from Sir Philip has “put the new scheme on a stable footing,” but many are still angry about the whole affair — not least the 150,000 people that signed a petition calling for his knighthood to be stripped.


Two-State Solution Trumped

With a flurry of executive orders, a cabinet full of controversial appointments, and a long list of maniacal tweets, Trump is clearly not afraid to throw convention — as well as the work of previous governments — out of the pram. In a joint press conference held with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, he downplayed the historically-preferred ‘two-state solution’ to the Israel Palestine conflict.

When asked if he supported a two-state or a one-state solution, The President replied; “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state and I like the one that both parties like”. This seemingly diplomatic answer actually signified a movement away from the commitment to a two-state solution that has been pushed for decades by the administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama — or perhaps simply an ignorance of the policy discussed.

Both the organised Palestinian leadership, as well as most of the international community favour the two-state policy, which suggests creating an independent state of Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank to co-exist alongside Israel. The one-state solution, which is embraced by most of the Israeli right, envisions Israel as being the only state, and Palestinians will either become citizens of Israel or live under permanent occupation with few, if any, voting rights.

Historically, some Palestinian opponents of the one-state solution have argued that, unless they are given full citizenship, such a solution would lead to a modern version of apartheid. Likewise, some Jewish critics have suggested that giving Palestinians citizenship would lead to the deconstruction of the Jewish state and to the loss of a Jewish majority. Though research seems to point to the ‘two-state’ solution as being narrowly preferred by both Israeli and Palestinian parties, recently experts have suggested that thirty years of failed negotiation projects requires new ways of looking at the conflict. Indeed some have argued that, though he is quite unlikely to be the man to preside over lasting peace, Trump’s bucking of the trend might encourage fresh thinking around an old conflict.


Duma Decriminalises Domestic Abuse

Last month we mentioned briefly that the Russian Duma had drafted an amendment to a law that would effectively decriminalise some domestic violence, making it an administrative rather than criminal offence. In the days since, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed that amendment into law, meaning that “moderate” violence is now permissible within families.

In practical terms, the amendment means any beatings of children and spouses that result only in bruising and bleeding will be punishable by up to 15 days in prison, or a fine, so long as they happen no more than once a year. Critics warn that this new legislation is dangerous in a country in which it is estimated that one woman dies every 40 minutes from domestic abuse, and the mainstream media runs stories like the following from Komsomolskaya Pravda:

“Recent scientific studies show the wives of angry men have a reason to be proud of their bruises. Biologists say that beaten-up women have a valuable advantage: they more often give birth to boys!”

All of this comes in the wake of a recent campaign in which Russian and Ukrainian women sought to bring sexual harassment and domestic violence out into the open. In July 2016, journalist Nasty Melnychenko shared a Facebook post encouraging women to share their stories of sexual harassment, prompting hundreds of women to respond.

Simultaneously Ekaterina Romanovskaya, a 41-year old survivor of a sexually motivated attack launched and successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign for a panic button ring, Nimb, that alerts friends, family, and security services if its wearer is in danger.

Putin’s amendment looks set to reverse much of this positive work and sets a dangerous precedent for future legislation that could decriminalise domestic violence further.


Bercow’s Ban

Just as the House of Lords has become an unlikely defender of parliamentary democracy in the wake of Theresa May’s headlong sprint towards Brexit, Commons Speaker John Bercow has become an unlikely defender against Donald Trump this month, following Mrs. May’s invitation for the US President to make a state visit to the UK.

Speaking in the Commons, Speaker Bercow said; “After the imposition of the migrant ban by President Trump, I am even more strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall. I would not wish to issue an invitation to president Trump.

“I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”

Responses to Bercow’s outburst were divided along party lines, with Labour MP’s widely favouring his sentiment, while many Tory MP’s believed his intervention had been spoken out of turn, and was too overtly political for a someone occupying a position intended to be politically neutral. Tory MP Andrew Brigden said: “He’s completely overstepped the mark. It was a pre-emptive strike to torpedo the leader of the democratically free world and our greatest ally from speaking in parliament. Our relationship is now more important than at any time than the second world war.”

Some even called for his resignation over the matter, with Tory MP James Duddridge calling on MPs to sign a motion of no confidence in the speaker, backed by Brigden, John Whittingdale, Nadine Dorries, Karl McCartneyy, and Daniel Kawczynski. Currently no further action has been taken.


The Lynx Effect

Tentative measures to reintroduce the Lynx into the wilds of northern England have been stalled by public opposition and concerns raised by the farming community. An application scheduled for submission to Natural England and Scottish National Heritage proposes the import of six Lynxes from Sweden for reintroduction to Kielder Forest, a nature reserve in Northumberland. Campaigners say the move would revitalise Britain’s largest area of forest, control its herbivore population, and restore a species thought to have been wiped out across Britain in around 700AD.

The local farming community fears the six animals pose a threat to their livestock; potentially killing sheep and attacking deer. Local Conservative MP Guy Opperman has also raised concerns about the move, claiming that 90% of his constituents living closest to the reintroduction site oppose it. “There’s no doubt that my farmers, from the National Farmers Union to local representatives to the individual farmers, are robustly against this plan,” he said.

Conversely, the charity submitting the proposals, the Lynx UK Trust, has claimed that 90% of the people they have spoken to support the move. Dr Ian Convery, who works for the Lynx UK Trust says, “There are three main benefits to re-introducing lynx into the wild. They are restoring ecosystems, control of deer numbers, and providing economic benefits with the increase of tourism.”

Lynx usually prey on small mammals, and it is thought unlikely that they will attack livestock. Nevertheless, Phil Stocker of the National Sheep Association (NSA) has said “Lynx are opportunistic predators and if they need a meal they will find the nearest and easiest prey and usually that will be sheep.”


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