A Murmuration of Starlings

On January 6th as Congress was preparing to certify the victory of Biden and Harris in the recent election, Donald Trump held a rally and sent the most radical members of his base on the promised storming of the capitol. It is clear their goal was to stop certification, possibly take prisoners, and possibly perform public executions. It was an organized attempt to overthrow Democracy. The Capitol was poorly protected and the amount of collusion in the event is now starting to come out. You will see a lot of coverage and analysis in the coming weeks. The press and social media companies are finally willing to call lies lies and insurrection insurrection, after years of being complicit in normalizing Trump’s behavior. 

But, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about. In the initial hours of disbelief by most moderate white Americans there was a demand to know how this was organized and who exactly organized it? It was hard for many people to get their minds around the idea that this happened in plain sight and that most of those responsible (not all, but most) failed to see the predictable end result of years of actions that undermined a belief in responsible government and the value of democratic elections.

In complexity terms what we are seeing is an example of emergence. My friend Lauren recently told me that her favorite example of complexity was a murmuration of starlings. A murmuration is a ballet like dance that happens as the starlings rise and form and get ready to migrate. The patterns are mesmerizing, beautiful. The event itself is predictable. The reasons behind it are clear. As each individual bird rises it reacts to air currents and the flight paths of the surrounding birds, at the same time disturbing those very air currents. As these multiple actions and reactions take place in tandem it creates these incredible, large, ballet like, moving formations—the murmuration.

We are watching and participating in two powerful, competing events. No, not what you think. This is not a question of right versus left or conventional versus fringe politics. The neoliberal project which can be traced back variously to Nixon or to Reagan or to the New Deal has outlived its usefulness, even to the financial ruling classes who benefitted from it. The inevitable outcome of a polity and economics that consistently transfers wealth and income upward is the hollowing out of the middle class, the loss of class mobility, and increased impoverishment for many Americans particularly those already marginalized. The solution that has been sold to white America is that marginalized Americans particularly Black Americans are somehow responsible and must pay. That the rules of neoliberalism do work, that a rising tide does raise all boats and that the rule breakers must be punished. They have also been fed a narrative that government and by implication democracy itself is complicit and needs to be “drowned in a bathtub” or eliminated altogether. When Reagan said that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” he opened the door for the grifter governing class that has become today’s Republican Party and for Wednesday’s attempted insurrection (which is certainly not over).

The thing is you don’t need a majority of Americans to believe in the most radical pieces of this narrative, you just need upwards of 70 million to believe enough of it rings true, 70 million to be caught in the middle of the murmuration and be moved by it, 70 million to believe that no competing narrative adequately explains the world as they experience it. 

In 2001 in the New York Review of Science Fiction writer Samuel R. Delany had the following to say about reactive feedback to cultural change:  

Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve frequently said to people who asked that question: As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.

That number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent although not precise is critical. Culminating in the Black Lives Matter protests last summer we have seen the steady growth of a national movement demanding the justice that was denied when reconstruction failed with the compromise of 1877.  We are witnessing the dying out of the steady state of neoliberalism. The number of white Americans—as evidenced by press and corporate response—that are now ready to believe what BIPOC have been reporting about injustice in America has hit a critical mass. Support for Black Lives Matter has remained above 50% since this summer. At the same time more Americans are demanding that the American Democratic experiment live up to its promise, that the American Dream becomes a reality for all Americans. 

The death of neo-liberalism also contains a regressive backlash. The counterpoint to the racial and economic justice movements is evidenced by the confederate flags carried into the capitol on Wednesday, the fights over statues and military base names and the desire among members of the radical right that we refight the civil war. Their preferred steady state is sometime in a mythical past. As they say in science fiction, the golden age was when we were ten.

In complexity theory when a steady state begins to die out new pathways are created and new states emerge. The creation of a new steady state is influenced by feedback loops both positive and negative. In scientific terms this period between steady states is referred to as the edge of chaos.  Change happens at the edge of chaos. What will emerge is unknown and greatly contested, but the conflict is between the steady state that is dying and the new one which will emerge. The greatest danger to the emergence of a better, more just America is those who desperately cling to the steady state of neo-liberalism, who believe that we can move backward to a time that only existed for white baby boomers, a time where we thought the American dream meant each generation doing better than the last through individual hard work. 

The thing about emergence is that everyone caught up in it doesn’t have to be directing the movement. People follow. People adapt. We are all subject to the currents, whether we can see them or not. But we can play a part. If racial and economic justice is to prevail that must be the narrative that we amplify, that must be the positive feedback loop that we create. We must rise like a murmuration of starlings. 

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