I spent a lot of time this past summer studying the behavior of starlings, and trying to figure out what makes instantaneous communication among a large group possible. Hundreds of thousands birds can fly in massive, non-choreographed, but seemingly coordinated and breathtakingly beautiful patterns. When one bird turns, all turn in unison. Rarely if ever do the birds collide. Somehow, they know something about living in a group without the aid of speech. (For those of you not similarly smitten, check out the video of 300,000 birds flying in unison at Otmoor, England, on YouTube.)
Can starlings help us understand the behavior of juries, and the role of jury verdicts in our society? Do juries send a signal to the larger group about the direction in which the rest of should go? Are starlings 12 angry men in a box, setting a course, justice’s course, in courtrooms? I wrote a book about it, which is now being edited. With a firm hand, it should be published sometime next year.
Last night, I listened to a press report about the various Occupy protests sweeping the globe. Like starlings, these groups seem to appear, as if from nowhere. They are responding to some silent imperative. Individuals coalescing in forms now taking a predictable shape and form, attempting to act in unison. They are a group speaking in a common key even if we cannot yet discern the message.
Although I generally fear the power of a group, any group, I find the Occupiers a sign of something like hope. There is little question in my mind that the rhetoric of our lives fails to reflect the reality of lived experienced. Income stratification divides the world into haves and have nots. We preach equality and opportunity for all. But those consigned to despondent sidelines know better. Social justice is now a rallying cry. The flock demands it. Is Occupy the democratic face of globalization?
Good friends of mine are anxious about all this. I get nervous-sounding emails. Where is all this heading? What’s the point? What do these people want?
Felt necessity is not enough for some people. They want a plan, a program, a political platform. But perhaps we’ve planned ourselves into a corner. Perhaps ordinary politics fails now. In the United States, we’ve got two parties that pretend to offer choices among a competing alternatives: what happens when neither choice is acceptable? Voting is supposed to be something more than social ejaculation, a means of relieving pent-up tension. Saying "no" to the major parties is a start. Occupying common places and rejecting the norms of ordinary places is itself meaningful.
What comes next? I don’t know. But neither do the Republicans and Democrats, the joint custodians of doom who’ve managed to stand by as an economy crashed, bailing out bankers while ordinary folks lost homes, riddling the tax code with so many complicating variables that the rich can avoid taxation if they are crafty enough. Millions are without health-care, stable homes and employment. This flock ought not to sit on perches of despair waiting for answers. It is entitled to create its own answers.
Credit the Internet with sparking communication from one end of the country, one point on the globe, to another. What if globalization became something other than the dizzying pursuit of the economically optimal return for a privileged investors? What if it became a means of communication among those without a meaningful stake in the status quo? Perhaps the digital revolution has yet really to arrive.
Ah, but look at the violence in Rome, some say. This weekend’s protests turned violent. Bank windows were broken, cars were set afire, bottles were thrown. Somehow that strikes me as less apocalypse than a warning tap on the wrist. The group can become a dangerous mob. Violence has its role in the history of the world. States kill, and have killed from time immemorial. There have been popular uprisings that from time to time chastened the ruling class. Violence has a role in forcing social change. Yes, talk, demonstrate, remonstrate. These are good tactics, they give new and radical meaning to the term ‘progressive discipline." But words are sometimes not enough. The labor movement in this country didn’t levitate its way to concessions from management.
The flock can turn, pivoting in a new direction, almost without warning. Among startlings, the outliers rapidly change course to find their place in the larger pattern. We are less elegant, we thinking things. Voices raised in protest can be heard or ignored. Those with ears are wise to listen. History teaches that those refusing to listen can quite literally lose their heads.
Occupy? Yes. Where does it lead? I don’t know. But I do believe the status quo frustrates the hopes and aspirations of millions. It is their turn now to speak. Let the fusty power brokers and elites wring their hands now, and fuss about the "mob" and its unruly passions. Thus far things have been peaceful. New groups are forming, and the frustration of strangers is coalescing into recognizable forms. What comes this winter, I wonder? What will this new flock teach those sitting warily by?
A new election season is upon us. We’ve a few strutting peacocks promising miracles if only the flock will elect them president. We’ve heard those promises before. We’ve gone from the audacity of hope to true audacity – stepping out and finding a voice than simply rejects politics as usual because these politics do not work. Change will now be forced from below.
There will be lots of talk, hand-clapping and excitement in the weeks to come. But the leisure class is prepared to wait that out. The markets are doing fine just now because those with tokens in the game are still capable of ignoring those without the ability to play. The powerful await the killing frost. Come the first snow we will see whether Occupy is a mere prelude to greater despair or a means of mobilizing what it takes to force change. I say Rome’s violent streets are a sign of what is to come. Starlings, like all other animals, will fight to survive. So, I suspect will a populace angry enough to take to the streets.
But drawing analogies between humans and other species in the animal kingdom is risky business. Humans, unlike animals, commit suicide, for example. I suppose it is possible that this most recent wave of hopeful protest can give way to a form of mass suicide, a collective decision simply to befriend despair. I am hoping that is not the case.