Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conspiracy Theory

I grabbed the picture from Flickr and then clicked "blog it" because it's the easiest way to get the attribution right. The funny thing is that people coming to the blog will see just the photo with the title: "Where's the Birth Certificate?"

I've never seriously doubted that Barack Obama was born in the USA. I'm not sure why he seems so foreign to so many Americans, but it's precisely that sort of belief I've been ruminating about for the last week or so.

Election seasons here in the USA are long and with elections in November the political ads are everywhere. The way that some Americans conceive of the world, well they believe in conspiracy theories! There's quite a bit of distance between what I think and some of these theories, but I don't feel smug about that. When I try to put a narrative together about what's really going on, I fall into my own versions of conspiracy theories.

Ruminating along these lines I remembered a point that Phil Jones made in his writing about Netocracy that conspiracy theory might "play the role for NetoCracy that religion did under feudalism?"

I went searching for "netocracy" and saw a bunch of links of which quite a few turned out to be me pointing to Phil Jones. I blushed as there seemed something sycophanitc about them. Sycophancy is surely relevant to the whole idea of NetoCracy. The Wikipedia article on syncophancy helpfully provides 15 alternative phrases: toady, lickspittle, bootlicker, etc., none of the descriptions I'd like to think of myself in re Mr. Jones, whom I hold in high esteem.

It is odd that not many others than Jones say much about Netocracy. I suspect that one reason for that has to do with the question Phil asks about conspiracy theories playing an epistemological role. I think that's a question that comes to mind even if nobody hears Jones explicitly ask it. Conspiracy theories are discredited, something only "they" believe in, so that makes a high hurdle to talking in terms of netocracy. Anyhow, Jones posted a link to a paper on Netocracy he delivered at the Wittgenstein Symposium which is a short primer on the construct.

Jones writes:
Central to their [Bard and Söderqvist] thinking is that the ruling class will arise through their aptitude for managing, trading and filtering information streams, while the underclass have little control over the streams to which they are connected, and are effectively bamboozled into subservience.
I added the link to Amazon's page for Bard and Söderqvist book. Oh, in this election cycle I'm feeling bamboozled and think too many of my fellow Americans are too.

My family name is Powers, which is a common name in the USA. I was rather angry about the recent news that a shadowy privately held organization was given a contract by Pennsylvania to collect information on citizen groups and their information forwarded to corporations, corporation lobbyists and law enforcement officials. The person who made the contract is named James F. Powers the head of Pennsylvania Homeland Security. There's no relation so far as I know, but his family name probably did preclude my screaming for his head on a platter.

The cost of this contract makes it small potatoes really, but the contract raises all sorts of issues, so I'm happy there's be some sustained attention to it. Powers made himself very scarce after the controversy erupted but he testified before a panel of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee looking into the matter yesterday.

The link to the story online doesn't include a picture of Powers, but the print edition did. He looks like he could be related to me ;-) One reason the whole affair made me so angry is that the exploitation of natural gas at depths of a mile or more is a very important issue facing Pennsylvanians now. ITRR the organization doing these reports is a shadowy group. The Governor released their product publicly. Working from those reporters were able to fill redacted parts of documents ITRR had released on their Web site. ITRR said that they redacted portions "to protect client privacy." Extrapolating from that Massey Energy and Koch Industries are probably clients of ITRR.

After testifying before the Senate panel Powers talked to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters and told them:
"As a private citizen, I'm actually against drilling, but my responsibility as a public official is to support the rights of people legitimately doing business. I have to protect them," he said. "As long as they're legally conducting business with permits to drill, my responsibility is to protect them."
There are 872 wells in reporting data given to the state so far. I don't imagine there are too many Pennsylvanians who think they can to anything to stop further drilling. But there are plenty who wish that the drilling goes on nowhere near them. So when Powers says he "against drilling" he probably means "not in my backyard" which I totally relate to. Anyhow the political decisions are much more to do with "how" and under what restrictions drilling proceeds than it is a pro and con issue. Matters of policy entail quite a lot of nuance and detail and that's why citizen meetings are so necessary.

For example as the drilling goes down a mile or so vertically to the ground surface the wells are then exploited by fracturing horizontal seams. So there's an issue depending on your point of view of "fair pooling" or "forced pooling" where if a sufficient number of your neighbors have sold their mineral rights and you retain them companies can still drill beneath your property. People in communities want to talk about things like this. And it's not surprising that companies would want to know who said what at such meetings, on the other hand it hardly seems the role of government to pay the tab for such surveillance and report production.

James F. Powers holds the rank of colonel. Powers's boss Robert French, director of Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency holds the rank of general. Both men in their civilian capacity were dressed in business suits when they testified. The point is that Powers has a great deal of experience, so his notion that his job is to protect drilling interests isn't a mistake.

Smedley Butler was a Major General in the US Marine Corps and one of the most revered officers ever. Butler went before a congressional committee (national) in 1934 and testified that a group of business leaders had contacted him to lead a military coup d'etat against then president Franklin Roosevelt. In 1935 he toured the country giving a speech War Is a Racket. A pamphlet of the same was also published and got wide circulation. Butler wrote:
"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes."
Here are a couple of links from Phil Jones's wiki, the first NetoCracy and the second Conspiracy Theories The general outlines of conspiracy may not have changed that much since the 1930's but what has changed is the billions being created through commons based peer production. Military theorist John Robb wrote a piece recently entitled Cognitive Slaves. I chuckled when I read Robb say about himself: "an optimist (believe it or not)." The funny part is I do believe him. Whether or not Phil Jones would call himself an optimist, I don't know; I can't say I've seen him write that. Nonetheless, Phil is a very constructive fellow, I know that. And he sees some potential good in Netocracy.

Networks aren't all bad nor all good. To steer into the good and avoid the bad, it matters quite a lot the conspiracy theories one subscribes to. Despite his own personal views about gas drilling in Pennsylvania James Powers considered it his duty to report to lobbyist of energy companies; his duty is conceived as protecting their interests. Therefore the conspiracies he's concerned about are meetings like parents trying to get to the bottom of school administrators plans to open up drilling on school grounds. Two quite different conspiracy theories are operative in situations like that, but only one is named "conspiracy" by the state. Powers seems completely blind to the other one.

Things are going to hell in a hand basket here in the USA. I'm not alone in feeling a sense of doom about the up coming elections. But I don't think it altogether helpful to think in polarized left/right dichotomy when it comes to conspiracy theories simply because it seems to messy to try to cut them up that way. I sniff around at the Web site of The Smedley Butler Society and it's hard for me tell if it smells right or left. It seems to me that smelling a racket isn't something completely dependent on political persuasion. Left and right people are sensing conspiracies and there's more agreement about these theories that most of us seem to think.


The 27th Comrade said...

Yes, I just saw the image in my feed reader, but I got the idea immediately; testament to the sheer success—honestly, credit where credit is due—of their “alien-president” campaign.
But, seriously, so what if he was not born there? Schwarzenegger is blond and blue-eyed Germanic, so it does not matter as much, but still.

John Powers said...

The issue has to do with a Constitutional requirement that the president be native-citizen. The same requirement isn't for Governors and Senators. The ironic part is Obama was born in Hawaii but McCain was born in Panama, but because his parents were citizens he qualified.

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