Starlings, Order and Legitimacy
I have a homework assignment for you. Find a computer. Click onto YouTube, and then search for videos of the Otmoor starlings. When you’ve had a chance to watch the birds in flight, return to this column.
“How’d they do that?” you are wondering. So am I.
For those of you who didn’t do the homework assignment, let me provide a cheat sheet.
Otmoor is a marsh in England, not far from Oxford. It is a small swatch of land; we’d call it wetlands in the United States. It is also the site of massive gatherings of hundreds of thousands of starlings during winter months.
The birds gather into a tight flock and merge into a massive body of individual birds, all flying in unison, never colliding, in a beautiful mass, forming gigantic, flowing pirouettes and patterns as beautiful and seemingly well-choreographed as any ballet.
The sight of these birds in flight astonishes. It illustrates a capacity for social and collective action among a far lesser species than humankind. It is all done without speech, without law and the paraphernalia on which we humans depend for organized society.
The behavior of these birds raises the question of whether there is an instinct for collective behavior far deeper than the ideas we use to explain and justify the things we do in common. Put another way, it raises the question about whether political ideas and ideals are merely ways of trying to explain the inexplicable — how it is that we live together in groups.
I am intrigued by the behavior of these birds because of what I perceive to be a crisis of legitimacy in our society. Our rhetoric, the words we use to justify our political institutions and practices, simply does not match the reality of our lives. All around us the world is changing, and rapidly so, while we cling to notions now centuries old. The world, I suggest, is forcing change, but we prefer the view that comes of putting our heads into the sands of history.
The brute stuff of history is simple: Individual members of species are born, they struggle for survival, they exert such mastery over their environment as they can, and then, inevitably they die, leaving behind their progeny, who repeat the mad dance of existence.
Each generation recreates the world in forms that they have inherited, adjusting to a changing world while striving for continuity. We say institutions and practices are legitimate when people accept them as authoritative, as accepted ways of doing things.
But legitimacy isn’t simply blessing the status quo. Consider how different your reaction would be if a stranger approached you at gunpoint asking to see your wallet. If the man is dressed in a police officer’s uniform, you might yield, even with reservation, but, for most folks most of the time, the officer’s show of force is legitimate; it is somehow right because it is done in the name of public authority.
Now imagine an unkempt man in plainclothes pointing the same gun: you might give your wallet, but not because you think it is right to do so. In this latter case, you act out of fear.
In a healthy society, public authority is accepted as right.
Individuals comply with shows of public force because they feel it is right to do so. When social bonds fray, the sense of legitimacy decreases; people may still comply with commands, but only out of a sense of fear. I say we are a fear driven society; hence our love of guns.
How do institutions lose their sense of legitimacy? By no longer responding to the needs and felt necessities of their time.
We struggle to exist in a world that we must learn to master, both as individuals and as members of a group. History reflects that people have learned to live together in different ways at different times.
My hunch is that our world is changing in such a way as to challenge the sense of legitimacy, or accepted order, common a century ago. Yet we cling to old ideas to try to explain a new world.
Consider these facts: We’ve the first pope in millennia from the Americas, now sitting at the center of a vast empire of faith rooted in Europe. The Arab spring and its aftermath suggests new and instantaneous forms of communication across communities and borders, making possible collective eruptions of discontent that states cannot quash.
In the United States, demographics forces a new image of what it is to be an American — the era of the white male, the Mitt Romney vision of a world of nuclear families cast in a 1950s mold — is ending. . And, finally, the growing division in our society between rich and poor strains any sense that we live in a community of people united by common dreams.
Is it any wonder that there is an angry backlash among traditionalists? A world is dying all around us. I loved the rhetoric and challenge the Occupy movement posed to what it called the 1 percent. I can think of no principled reason why the vast majority of Americans should rest content as a tiny fraction reap the benefits of living together.
A century ago, anarchists and labor organizers took to the streets in protest. They sometimes resorted to violence. The result was progressive legislation to extend to more the benefits of life in a group. Where has that energy gone today? Where is the spirit of popular creative destruction that can yield the change necessary to create a world in which all can better enjoy society’s fruits?
The pillars of an old world are crumbling. Change can be frightening. But change is inevitable. Like starlings, we create a pattern of behaviors necessary for survival. New forms, new forces, are forcing strains and even breaks in old institutions. Call these new forces anarchy, if you will. I simply call them new patterns we’ve yet to learn to identify. We’re simply a more sophisticated version of the Otmoor starlings.