The Reason Review—November 2016

President elect Donald Trump has dominated headlines in November, and you won’t be surprised to hear that he dominates this month’s Reason Review too. While it’s tough to write his name and the word ‘president’ in the same sentence without grimacing, there’s been plenty more hard news to swallow in November.

From the enshrining of unprecedented investigatory powers into UK law, to a 100-day blaze raging in northern Iraq, the penultimate month of the year has been big on news. But you’re used to that by now — it’s 2016, after all.


Trump Triumphant

It was the result that (almost) no-one saw coming. Despite widespread predictions to the contrary, on Tuesday 9th November Donald J Trump was elected President of the United States of America. And no, we still can’t believe it either.

While the result was marked by several nights of public protest across the country — not to mention howls of anguish from across the internet — liberal resistance to the result has largely simmered down to a state of quiet shellshock. For many, the revelation that Hillary Clinton actually secured the majority of the popular vote — and by more than 2.5 million votes — has only made Trump’s victory a more bitter pill to swallow. Even so, the fact remains that Trump did win a clear majority of votes from the Electoral College, and in the United States, that’s ultimately what counts.

For those still holding out against the prospect of President Trump, Green candidate Jill Stein is leading the last bastion of hope. Having raised over $6.9 million in funds, Stein is campaigning for full recounts of the vote in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, suggesting that there’s a logical possibility that foreign (read: Russian) hackers may have interfered with absentee ballots. At present, Stein has successfully secured recounts in the first two states and is planning a federal lawsuit to force Pennsylvania to follow suit.

Even if recounts do go ahead in all three states, a significant counter-swing would be required in each case for the overall result to favour Clinton. The main motive for Stein’s campaign is to prove that foreign interference did take place — a fairly hair-raising idea in its own right.

As for Trump himself, the president elect initially made a show of wishing to unite the country, going so far as to praise the people protesting his win. Since then, however, his tone has been less than reconciliatory, with Twitter-based swipes in the direction of the New York Times, CNN, Saturday Night Live, Jill Stein (perhaps understandable, that one) and anyone who might want to burn the American flag. He’s a big fan of Nigel Farage, though.

While Trump has claimed that he will halt all his business operations when he becomes President, entrusting them to his family to take care of them in his stead, he’s also indicated a desire to retain his personal Twitter account, so hopefully we can look forward to more of these outbursts throughout his presidency.

Finally, a quick look at a few of the people that Trump has appointed to his cabinet: his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is vehemently pro-life and has faced allegations of making racist comments; his Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, is staunchly opposed to Obamacare; and his National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, wants to build closer ties to Russia… although this is likely to be opposed by General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the incoming Defense Secretary. The next four years are going to be interesting (read: insane).


The Kids Are Alt-Right

As the Trump presidency beckons, now is probably a good time to get comfortable with the concept of the alt-right, a comparatively small and ill-defined movement that nonetheless played a significant role in the US election.

Though lacking much in the way of an exact definition or identity, the term “alt-right” refers to a far-right fringe movement that has become highly active online in recent years. Its members are generally proponents of white nationalism and are staunchly opposed to multiculturalism, feminism, and political correctness in general — though given the lack of formal structure, the word “members” shouldn’t be leaned on too heavily.

The alt-right is probably best thought of as a loose affiliation of individuals and collectives who share the same sort of extreme values. Despite the fluidity of the term, some US pundits and sites have eagerly rushed to embrace the label and become rallying points for the movement. Of particular note is Breitbart News, a provocative site whose greatests hits include a feature called, ‘Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy’ and ‘Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism Or Cancer?’.

Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of Breitbart News, was the CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, and Breitbart itself went to great lengths to secure the alt-right’s support of their favoured candidate. When Trump won, Bannon was rewarded with the post of Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor; the alt-right are therefore celebrating the fact that one of their own will soon be in the White House.

For more on the alt-right, check out Matt Lees’ excellent feature about how the Gamergate controversy of 2011 foreshadowed our current predicament.


Fakebook

Speaking of Breitbart, one of many great controversies to emerge from the US Presidential Election was an influx of fake news reports appearing across social media. In the last few days, this phenomenon has reached fever pitch in the USA, but we’ll look back at that in next month’s Review. In November it was Facebook’s Mark Zukerberg who found himself the spotlight, criticised heavily for failing to take a stance on, or mitigate the large number of spurious news articles appearing across Facebook.

In mid November Zuckerberg released a statement that sought to alleviate that concern: “Of all the content on Facebook,” he said, “more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

“That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”

This post, and several others written by Zuckerberg throughout November, failed to adequately address users’ concerns. In addition to fake news, Facebook also failed to deal properly with the large amount of hate speech appearing across the platform, often with reference to the Black Lives Matter Movement — which may explain why Zuckerberg’s fortunes faltered by $3.7 billion since November 8.


Snooper Duper

The so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ — or ‘The Investigatory Powers Act’, to give its true, but less emotive, name — was enshrined in UK law at the end of November, having finally been granted royal assent.

Under the terms of the new law, phone companies and internet service providers will be obligated to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months. Beyond that, they’ll also have to make this information available to the police, security services, and a long list of agencies that includes the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs, and the Department of Health.

In most cases, a warrant will be required before authorities can access your information. A secretary of state can issue the warrant, which is then sent to senior ministers to be approved. Depending on the circumstances and the kind of approval, the applicant may be allowed to intercept specific communications, or given access to ‘bulk personal datasets’ and/or web history records, referred to as ‘internet connection records’.

“The Investigatory Powers Act is world-leading legislation, that provides unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection,” enthused Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

“The government is clear that, at a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement and security and intelligence services have the power they need to keep people safe. The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge. But it is also right that these powers are subject to strict safeguards and rigorous oversight.”

Among the possible reasons for Rudd’s celebratory tone is the fact that she herself is largely shielded from the Investigatory Powers Act. MPs and legislators have an additional layer of legal protection, meaning that only the Prime Minister can sign-off on anyone rummaging through their data. One rule for us…


Rebels Without a Pause

One month on from the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire, the battle for the city of Aleppo may be approaching its bitter end. Major advances by pro-Assad forces, supported by extensive Russian airstrikes, have lead to the recapturing of up to 60 per cent of the territory previously held by opposition groups. A military source cited by Reuters has stated that they expect the city to be fully reclaimed in the next few weeks.

While many rebels still insist they will fight to their last breath, a withdrawal from the city seems increasingly likely. In recent weeks Turkey has mediated secret talks between the rebels and Russian officials, but these have yet to make a discernible impact on the siege. Discussions have included a halting of hostilities and the creation of four “humanitarian corridors” to allow aid into the city, but as Al Jazeera reports, a mutual lack of trust is proving to be a major obstacle.

Meanwhile, the U.N. estimates that up to 30,000 civilians have fled their homes in Aleppo’s eastern districts in the wake of recent fighting. Many citizens fear that Assad’s allies will punish them for having lived in rebel-held territory.


Hazing Iraq

Oil fires lit in northern Iraq that have been blazing for over 100 days have started to severely impact the surrounding area, its inhabitants, and wildlife. The fires were lit by ISIS fighters back in August as they fled the area following heavy military defeat in Qayyara, but the government has been powerless to contain them — it has been suggested it will take several further months for them to be extinguished, causing millions of dollars of revenue losses in the interim.

Fumes from the fires have particularly impacted local livestock, with sheep unable to produce sufficient milk to feed their young, let alone for human consumption. If the situation fails to improve, the only solution facing farmers is to slaughter and bury their sheep, and look for new sources of income. Local residents have also suffered deteriorated health from exposure to toxic fumes.

While ISIS held the region the oil fields provided their main source of income, and while the loss of the region has certainly dealt a blow to their fortunes, the black cloud now looming over Qarayya serves as a permanent reminder of the devastation they have wrought.


Circle of Poison

In previous months we’ve mentioned the potential merger of mega corporations Bayer and Monsanto, and the resulting monopoly over global food supply and maintenance. Central to our concerns have been both companies’ continued involvement in the production and distribution of harmful pesticides and their continued ill effects on human health.

In November Al Jazeera released Circle of Poison, an excellent short film that details the history of the pesticide industry, its continued transgressions, and the attempts of small farmers in the developing world to fight back. No surprises that Bayer and Monsanto’s names crop up pretty regularly.


Weapons of Reason issue #3: The New Old, is available to order now.