The smallest act of human kindness can change the world

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George Floyd and a butterfly

One otherwise insignificant event is changing the world

I was thinking about George Floyd and butterflies today. I was considering how something as small and light as a $20 bill, by moving from Floyd to the store clerk, and thence to a phone call to the police, reflected a startling close similarity to the butterfly subject of Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder.

In the Bradbury tale, the death of one butterfly 66 million years ago — a crushing death caused by a careless time traveler — changed the course of the time traveler’s 2055 future…and not in a good way. If you have not read the story, this might be a good time to do it, while we are overcoming the inertia of covid quarantining.

And the butterfly effect in a chaos theory way, as considered by meteorologists, suggests that the mere fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world could contribute to stormy weather 10,000 miles away. One small event — a seemingly minor micro perturbation of air in a meadow, witnessed by no one — leads to a macro disruption affecting millions of humans in the path of a hurricane.

It’s not about the money

A $20 bill changes hands in a small store no one outside Minneapolis has ever heard of, and in barely the blink of an eye (or the flutter of a butterfly’s wings), billions of people around the world witness the terrible outcome of that otherwise insignificant motion. The universe shifted, and not so slightly.

It seems, in a bittersweet switch on Bradbury’s story and the butterfly effect, that George Floyd’s death began a chain of changes that one hopes will influence the arc of the nation’s future…bending it closer to justice.

Taking the dystopic view should not be an option now — even though I have publicly bemoaned the state of national affairs in this forum and others across social media — because we have an opportunity to seize this dearly-paid-for teachable moment and do something right while we still have time.

Attention must be paid

If the scenes of protests across the country and around the world have not caused you to reconsider whatever doubts you may harbor about America’s future, then you need to look closer still…to see beyond the random acts of violence and focus on the countless acts of peaceful civil protest.

It was at this point that I intended to launch into a cautionary lesson about the fragility of democracy, and how, much like anything beautiful but fragile in nature — butterflies and human life come to mind — care and responsibility must be exercised in the maintenance of democracy and its environment.

My thanks to my son 10,000 miles away

But before I got past the opening paragraph of this article, I received a Twitter notice from my son, Carter Moore, from his home in Australia. As I read his multi-part tweet, it became clear his thoughts were far more worthy of sharing than mine, if for no other reasons than: a) he is more politically astute than I am; b) he is smack dab in the middle of the demographic that is beginning to shape the world’s future just as my demographic is ending its long run; and, c) if anyone has the ear of his generation, it’s Carter.

So I will turn the balance of this feature over to Carter, and will return with some closing thoughts. [Note: I’ve not edited any of Carter’s text]

The Fragility of Democracy

I want to talk a bit about the nature of democracy, its fragility, and why y’all should be on your game right now.

We’ve fallen into a trap of thinking that democracy is the natural progression of a country, no different than how our predecessors believed that monarchy was the natural state of affairs.

Or, to borrow from Churchill, that democracy, being the worst form of government except for all others, is the only one left for us.

Very little available for comparison

Here’s the catch: While we have thousands of years of the rises and falls of monarchies and empires to examine and learn from, humanity’s track record of democracy is very thin.

If we’re generous, the principles of representative government have been consistently “applied” theory — though hardly normal — for 400 years. If we’re generous.

It has only been in the last 100-odd years that nations really began to embrace (by reform or revolt) representative principles.

And it has only been since the end of the Cold War — 30 years! — that the MAJORITY of the world’s population has lived under democratic governments. That’s counting some squint-your-eyes-and-tilt-your-head-”democratic” governments.

Thirty years out of the thousands of recorded history. Think about that.

So we know a lot about the traps nations encounter as they transition INTO democracy.

However, there is comparatively SCANT evidence how an established democracy REVERTS, because we haven’t seen it.

We cannot describe a color we’ve never seen

Let me repeat that: We don’t know what happens when an established democracy fails, because we haven’t seen it. Too many people have taken that to mean that it CAN’T happen, when all we really know is that it HASN’T.

“Germany 1933!” I know some of you are yelling.

1) Germany was hardly an “established” democracy by 1933. It was easily classifiable as a transitional democracy — again, the pitfalls of which are well known (and into which it fell).

2) Fine. Give me another example.

Maybe in response to #2, some of you are saying Poland or Hungary or Romania. But there again: Their democratic attainment on the other end of the Cold War was 1) brief, 2) tenuous, and 3) recent.

Even setting all of that aside the argument remains: not a lot of data points.

Again: We know that it is hard for nations to transition INTO democracy. We DON’T know that democratic attainment is a permanent state.

It is entirely possible — Entirely. Possible. — that democracy has a shelf life, or that it has natural ebbs and flow, but we just don’t have the long-term evidence to know where we are in that cycle.

It is entirely possible — Entirely. Possible. — that democracy has a shelf life, or that it has natural ebbs and flow, but we just don’t have the long-term evidence to know where we are in that cycle.

Because here’s the stat: According to Varieties of Democracy, almost no liberal democracies — certainly none you could easily name — were at their peak in 2019.

Repeat: Almost no liberal democracies were at their peak in 2019, and almost all the peaks were in the last decade or the one before.

Excuse me, but your slippage is showing

Granted, many of the declines were marginal, and very few of those democracies fell totally. But the slippage is global and has persisted for years. It’s not just a little under-performance from one year to the next.

The only other nations which both attained similar levels of democratic security and then slipped as much as the U.S. are Poland and the Czech Republic, with Hungary and Brazil not far behind.

And when it comes to the U.S., we have not ever seen this kind of steep erosion in a long-established democracy.

To the point: The U.S. is fast headed towards an observable precipice in the security of its democratic institutions beyond which history suggests things snowball. Badly.

When political scientists say, “We’ve never seen this before,” you shouldn’t take that as a quaint, academic curiosity. They’re throwing up a red flag: “We don’t know enough about the erosion of democracy to say if it’s a blip or a trend, and when or if it will stop.”

“We don’t know enough about the erosion of democracy to say if it’s a blip or a trend, and when or if it will stop.”

And here’s the lesson we can pull from those nations that aimed for democracy and failed: It is a long, painful process for them to get back on track (that can also fail again).

Our union is far from perfect, and that’s okay

Democracy will always be a work in progress, because the moment a nation thinks it’s finished the work, it slides.

Liberty is not a switch you can flip on or off. Trust in democratic institutions is not earned overnight. They are fragile things which must be constantly protected.

To borrow from Lincoln’s 1838 Young Men’s Lyceum speech in Springfield, Illinois, in which he praised the passions and sacrifices of the Revolution generation “…just gone to rest…”:

“They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence [sic].”

The temple of liberty will fall unless we supply new pillars where others have been worn away by time.

The temple of liberty will fall unless we supply new pillars where others have been worn away by time.

Or, if you prefer, abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s 1852 speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty…Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

I’m gonna end this with the opening paragraphs of Benjamin Franklin’s remarks at the end of the Constitutional Convention; and I implore my fellow Americans to think very deeply on them.

“…I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Wrapping Up

We can step back from the precipice

Carter’s take on where we are in this moment of history is both sobering and filled with hope. Yes, we are a mess in many corners of the country; but in the main we have so much to work with. We just have to get to the doing of it.

Americans do not need or deserve a despotic government, but we are slouching closer to the precipice below which despotism waits with all its entanglements and existential threats.

George Floyd’s murder under the weighted knee of a police officer shows us what happens — what is happening and has been happening — to black Americans who are pushed over that precipice by too many people in a self-blindered and willfully ignorant white society.

Any one person’s reluctance to act to rein in the hubris and hatred spilling out of the White House only widens the chasm for all of us and presses us closer to the edge. Let me put it bluntly: If you’re not participating, you’re not helping.

If you’re not participating, you’re not helping

Just as it may take the wingbeat of one butterfly in my yard here in Virginia to tip the atmosphere toward chaos over India, it may also take just one more thoughtless moment of inhumanity in any of our hometowns to strangle the fragile breath of democracy.

Fragile but not weak

But let’s not mistake fragile for weak, or assume that the current internal and external assaults on American democracy are leading us inexorably over the cliff. We are not weak; we have it within us, as an overwhelming community-empowered force for human progress — for humanitarian progress that is all inclusive — to change course.

George Floyd’s death must not be the last wingbeat of a trampled butterfly; rather, let it be what his death has revealed — a nation ready to embrace the hard work of change and redirection, a nation ready to bend the arc of the moral universe away from racism, hate, and mistrust and toward the justice too long denied our fellow Americans of color.

If it is true that the beat of a single butterfly’s wings may contribute to a distant whirlwind, it may also be true that its next wing beat will contribute to the calm after the storm.

As true as it may be for the beat of a butterfly’s wings, I believe it is true for the beat of the truly human heart.

In our hearts, we have the power. Feel the beat.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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