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End of year musings

The end of a year prompts us to stop and think about our own lives and the rest of the world. This can be emotional – sometimes nostalgia and sadness at farewelling one of those stellar years, and sometimes we can’t wait to see the back of the year gone by.

Leaving aside our personal lives, 2016 has been a big year. We’ve had plenty of global events to attempt to get our heads around. Some events still defy a rational explanation.

But what is unnerving for me is that this year seems to be leaving us resting precariously on a cliff, waiting to see what 2017 – and the years beyond – will bring. With so much change and uncertainty afoot, there is a huge unknown out there – which presents to me as a real sense of foreboding.

Brexit, Trump, Syria, global refugee crises, climate change progress and stagnation, populist nationalism, and lest we forget Bowie, Cohen and Prince. Added to the mix, Sweden is reportedly preparing for a possible military attack by Russia. The same Russia that is allegedly responsible for hacking Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee emails. Meanwhile China seized an American drone in the new hot spot, the South China Sea. Tensions are mounting in places and ways we haven’t seen before – not at least in my lifetime.

Closer to home, and somewhat coincidentally, our book club recently read the historical fiction novel ‘Villa America’. Set largely in the 1920s and early 1930s in the South of France, the book is based on the lives of a group of hedonistic and creative Americans, including FitzGerald, Hemingway and Dos Passos, who exist in a delight-filled bubble near Antibes until tragedy strikes one family.

Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

Life was peachy for this idealistic group, part of the ‘Lost Generation’ who congregated in France to pursue their creative passions. France was their escape from the wounds and destruction of World War I and provincial post-war attitudes of America. The end of the novel saw the Great Depression begin to take its toll, but it appeared that the developments in Germany and rise of Hitler in the late 1920s and early 1930s had little impact on the main characters, with little mention in the book. By the time political changes in Germany became too visible to ignore, these creatives were living back in America.

Reading about this hedonistic and idealistic lifestyle in Europe, book-ended between two World Wars, I began to compare the way we live in and see our world today. Our generation has lived a privileged existence in these parts of the world and, let’s be honest, we have generally been living the life of Reilly. No real conflict in our Australasian back yard and relative economic and political stability for decades.

Throughout the novel, the characters of Villa America seemed to be protected from, or oblivious to, any significant exposure to the rising discontent leading up to World War II. Perhaps it was due to the privileged bubble they lived in, but communication of information was slow back then, except for the limited, one-size-fits-all radio news channels. Snail mail was par for the course with personal accounts of overseas happenings delivered by letter, not FaceTime, Instagram or WhatsApp. Living in that slow news era and part of that Lost Generation, maybe you could feel ambushed by the apparent suddenness of World War II.

What about today? We have a rolling 24 hour news cycle and live in a state of perpetual and instantaneous communication. We are constantly bombarded with news and information through multiple news sources. For me, the latest astounding examples of this are the video tweets by a 7 year old straight from Aleppo. Social media news reports by citizens from front lines of war.

Yet despite living in this high speed, mass information age, are we really any different to the characters in Villa America? Just because we are bombarded by information constantly, it doesn’t equate to deep knowledge or understanding of the world, and it doesn’t mean that we too couldn’t be ambushed by a significant global event.

Take Brexit and Trump, so many of us were in shock – a sense of ambush almost. But in hindsight, once we all debriefed and read the analysis of just what was going on in the minds of those Brexit and Trump supporters it did make more sense. Why did we not see it coming?

We all see, read and listen to what we want to. Just as Trump supporters determined what they read, listened to and believed, we also determine what we take from the world media. Today, there is no one-size-fits-all television channel or radio programme listened to by everyone. It’s like a giant pick and mix, and in that sense you never ever have to take a bite of those yucky lollies that you don’t like.

Our daily media consumption is self-directed media coverage. We can consciously, or subconsciously, turn a blind eye, and remain oblivious to parts of the world and to particular commentary on political, social and economic issues. There has never been more connectedness, never been more saturation by media channels and information, and we have never had so much choice as to with what we saturate our minds.

And therein lies the problem of not consuming a balanced media diet – most of us take the good and the same, but fewer of us delve deep into the bad or different. We take our side, and read commentary aligned to our interests. So just like those hedonists in Villa America, we too could coast along in our bubble and not be confronted with a major conflict or political uprising until it explodes in our backyard.

So while Christmas is a time of taking stock, we can remind ourselves to search out the real issues – social, political or economic - facing society across the world, understand them and be informed. For me, in these last few weeks it was Aleppo and re-acquainting myself with the barbaric situation there. The thing is, my carefully curated Facebook feed didn’t give me a huge deal on Aleppo until things recently peaked – maybe I have been ‘liking’ too many ‘Merry Christmas’ family photos or oversharing Trump updates. Nor did my local newspaper appear to give too much detail on the crisis – or maybe it was the fact I had to scroll down a bit, click a few more times than normal and read beyond the local stories of the day.

So I read more to better understand the current situation and history. I found a good article in the New York Times about the role of social media in the context of Aleppo, and war and suffering more generally. The article talks about how significant social or political causes used to generate such solid, long-lasting movements that grew over time and effected change. But in this instantaneous communication age and in an era where people read the news they like, often these sorts of movements can end just as quickly as they start.

People share petitions on Facebook, click the ‘shock’ button responding to a photo of a dead child, forward actions others can do to help (I think I forwarded an article on ‘5 ways you help save Aleppo’) and change profile pictures according to the flavour of the month. The tri-colour flag after the Paris bombings looked good, didn’t it? Feel good stuff indeed, but does it translate into action?

Mainstream and social media then quickly ushers us on to the next issue or atrocity, which is often given only a cursory account of the facts and we start the process of digesting this news piece all over again.

Take time to understand the moving parts of our world, least of all so we don’t suddenly wake up and express horror at a confronting war image turning up on our Facebook feed. Sadly, there are too many people I suspect in Great Britain and America that did not dig deep into the facts – and look at where that left them. Perhaps, the more you know the more you might be compelled to help in whichever way you can.

Before you leave, I want to say thank you for reading. This blog has ebbed and flowed a bit in the last few months thanks to the arrival of baby #3. My ability to investigate and write about meaningful issues has stalled somewhat, but we are starting to see the light now. So thank you for sticking by me. Happy Christmas!

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