Roused from the blissful limbo between sleep and wakefulness, I was unsure whether the chorus of wolf song was real or dreamy. But it was loud, and in a moment I was alert. A glance at the clock: 11:39 p.m.
The cabin was battened down against the subzero cold of a February night, yet the howling was clear and resonant. They had to be close. After half a minute the pack quavered into silence. I smiled.
Five hours later I was stirred by howling again, just as forceful, and from the same direction. I lingered beneath the snug quilt for a while, but such a wakeup call cannot be ignored, and I soon arose to kindle the woodstoves.
At midmorning I hiked down to Secret Lake and clicked into skis. From the edge of the muskeg I saw a wide disturbance on the snowfield at the far end of the ice. The afternoon before, it was pristine. I poled out to an area of an acre or so that was trampled by many hundreds of pawprints. The stage for the chorus? Probably. It was about 1,100 feet from the bedroom window. I tried to decipher how many wolves had been there, but a morning breeze had smudged the tracks, and there was only a single pile of scat. I decided the number was a minimum of three, maybe as many as six.
The pack behavior of wolves is well-known, so much so that its social antithesis, a “lone wolf,” has become idiomatic, standing opposite the “leader of the pack.” In his seminal book, “The Wolf,” biologist L. David Mech wrote: “One day I watched a long line of wolves heading along the frozen shoreline of Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Suddenly they stopped and faced upwind toward a large moose. After a few seconds the wolves assembled closely, wagged their tails, and touched noses. Then they started upwind single file toward the moose.”
The resemblance to a football huddle is striking. Such group action requires a system of communication and order, a structure to shape the cooperation of pack hunting. Like humans, wolves can get more done by working together; they form organizations.
Any human organization is an abstraction. At root it’s a logo, a letterhead, a canon of bylaws. An organization doesn’t do anything; an organization doesn’t make decisions. Only individuals do things; only individuals make decisions; only individuals create and interpret documents.
But the logo or other symbol provides a sturdy shield. If a general makes a mistake, it can be debited to the army. If a CEO fails to act, it can be laid at the door of the corporation. Responsibility and accountability can be readily washed into the churning wake of the establishment.
To cry “the government must be held accountable!” or “Google must be held accountable!” is to issue an essentially meaningless demand. Neither institution does or doesn’t do anything. Challenging an organization to change is like trying to construct a railway bridge out of vanilla pudding.
Organizations are useful and inevitable, but they aren’t real — not in the sense of action and accomplishment. They are a subset of language. For example, when some spokesperson announces, “Institution X did this,” that’s a device or shorthand for saying: “Mr. or Ms. so-and-so did or did not do such-and-such while being employed/sponsored under the insubstantial auspices of Institution X.” Since we must get along with people most of the time if we expect society to function, such shorthand is convenient, one of our many social lubricants — the touching of noses, if you will.
When criticism or correction is warranted, it’s easier to deflect the unpleasantness onto an organization rather than an individual. Directing frustration or protest to an abstraction is less traumatic for all. Eventually, the filtered and softened message may be received by an individual who may act without taking personal offense.
The chief hazard and problem lies in loyalty to organizations. To aver that you are loyal to Microsoft or to the state of Minnesota or to Target Corp. or to the United States of America is to grant concrete existence to ephemera.
It makes little sense to be loyal to a logo, a letterhead, or a flag. It only makes sense to be loyal (or disloyal) toward individuals within those collectives. That’s why solicited pledges of organizational loyalty are so often nefarious — they discount human beings in favor of symbols and pretend that the emperor is indeed clothed.
During the civil strife over the Vietnam War, a popular bumper sticker read: “My Country Right or Wrong.” It was meant as a rebuke to antiwar protestors, but when combat veterans of any conflict are asked what they actually fought for, the most common reply is not “for my country” or “for the preservation of freedom.” The usual answer is rather that they fought “for my friends” — their immediate comrades beside them on the battlefield.
Apparently, it seems silly in the heat of battle to bleed or die for an abstraction. When lives are at risk, the vacuous nature of institutions becomes apparent.
The current reputation of the U.S. Congress, one of our pre-eminent organizations, is abysmal. Inaction and gridlock are par. One may argue that this legislative futility merely reflects the general will of the voters who dispatched the members to Washington, but that’s only part of the problem, and perhaps even a red herring. Political scientist Yascha Mounk recently noted in the Atlantic that if the majority opinion in the U.S. were translated into public policy, then “marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.”
Loyalty to political parties — to disembodied intentions and imaginary “planks” — is the foundation of legislative dysfunction and electoral disconnect. For example, if, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Democrats had focused on the individual as opposed to the party, they would have nominated Bernie Sanders, and given the mood of the voters I believe he would have won.
By contrast, the Republicans in 2016 opted for an individual in defiance of party norms. Donald Trump, in fact, seemed something of a usurper, with many in GOP ranks seriously questioning the authenticity of his political affiliation.
Parties, as this has demonstrated, don’t spur change; only individuals do. Whether the change they spur is positive or negative is a separate matter.
America’s founding fathers, most notably George Washington, feared the advent of political parties. Washington called them “baneful,” while acknowledging that organized factions were likely unavoidable. He hoped they wouldn’t be fatal to the republic. But here, too, the level of political toxicity, and whether or not partisan passions ultimately undermine democracy, will depend upon individuals.
In “The Jungle Book,” Rudyard Kipling invented a famous mantra: “For the strength of the Pack is in the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is in the Pack.” There’s truth in that poetry — the celebration of cooperation between allied individuals — but the deeper veracity is that a wolf can exist without a pack but a pack cannot exist without a wolf.
The pack is an idea, the wolf is flesh and blood. Each wolf sings its own song. The “pack” is a useful fiction, a kind of political/economic literature that may instruct, but in the end is not what matters most.
“An institution,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” The rest is smoke and mirrors.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.