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The heirs apparent

When does the next generation realize our fractured world is theirs?

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A man covers his face from tear gas during clashes at the Taksim Square in Istanbul.

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A man covers his face from tear gas during clashes at the Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Seven years old when the tanks in Tiananmen Square rolled, I saw it on our new big black TV, fuzzy and grainy but there were tanks rolling on towards men.

What is this, we've never seen, and what does it mean, and then --

"Think this is really appropriate for her?" A voice. My sister? It could have been my sister. Heads are shaking, and I shove my lip out in silent protest. I am certain that I am not a little girl. I am wrong, of course, but something was passed to me and to so many children of my generation: This is the moment where we realized the world.

Twenty-four years and four days later, I am lying in bed scrolling through Twitter while tear gas and nightsticks bloom in Taksim Square. This is streaming onto my iPhone screen, no bigger than my palm but giving off a sharpness that shows the mists caught from spewing water cannons, and thrown dancing into restless air. Something in Istanbul is burning, some young protesters and a policeman in Turkey are dead. So Twitter said.

And Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, is missing in Hong Kong. Maybe the CIA got to him already, maybe this was his plan all along.

I press "favourite" on a tweet comparing cats to dictators, put down my phone, and go to sleep.

-- -- --

My father has this story he always tells the same, and every time I pace it waiting for the punchline. It is about a 10-year-old boy growing up in a cosy little college town in Michigan, playing out a Norman Rockwell life with a dog and a treehouse and the dog can climb the ladder into the treehouse. It is about when the Korean War broke out, and American troops were sent to defend the south, and that 10-year-old boy watches the grown-ups around him react.

"But nobody knew where Korea was!" he says, in marvel and with a self-deprecating laugh, he knows this ignorance is a relic of the past. People still invested in encyclopedias then; they were a sign of modest wealth, a new one coming each month. And if you hadn't gotten as far as "K," tough luck.

So what now, then, is our excuse?

The world is both smaller and bigger than ever -- there are more of us each day, the cities have grown denser, the tensions of dwindling resources and distorted weather bubble across all the media we consume. Gasps about Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien's alleged weight collide online with active shooters in the news, and riots, and wars.

But what are we absorbing this all for?

In the early 1990s, the iconic, incisive and unfortunately now dead comic Bill Hicks had a bit, called simply "the news." He opened by asking if the crowd ever watched CNN for an hour: "The most depressing thing," he said. "War, famine, death, AIDS, homeless, recession, depression," he intoned, in a voice somewhere between a warning and a groan. "Then you look at the window" -- here, he made the sound of crickets chirping -- "where's all this s happening?"

Hicks was cutting to the heart of how the media sells fear, this bit always seems to hit its mark at the expense of sailing past a more high-value target.

He was right on this: Headlines blaring about death stalking school cafeteria trays, or bridges that may (or may not) collapse and carry dozens of motorists with them to a watery death. Those things make trade on our base instinct to be afraid. It's an adaptation that served us very well when the species was just learning to survive, but now traps us in endless loops of anxiety with no more safety in sight.

But when it comes to the wars, the famine, the depressions, and most of all the climate, maybe we are not afraid enough.

In the crush of a media-led life, in the endless rushing weight of the trivial or just obscene tangled in and around and through the news that pushes our human worlds just a little farther from their axis, do we become inured to the stuff that matters? Do we cast Edward Snowden as the punchline in a tweet that cross-references the Edmonton Oilers, knowing it flows through a Twittersphere that absorbs them at once and yet sometimes, too much, the same?

And for our children, if we have them, what will be their moment now where they realize they are heirs to the world we have made?

All the knowledge in the world is at our fingertips. There is no excuse to look away.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 0

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