Monday, March 22, 2010


Back in the ’90s, while I was still living in Australia, I read an article by Carl Bernstein (pictured) entitled “The Idiot Culture.”
Bernstein, you might recall, was one half of the Woodward and Bernstein journalism team that broke the whole Watergate thing in The Washington Post in the 1970s – the political event that is perpetually trotted out as a luminous paragon of the American checks and balances system.
Bernstein’s article made a big impression on me – despite the fact that it didn’t go nearly far enough in its analysis or criticism. (Bernstein, now 66, still talks on the subject at various venues.)
The thrust of the piece, as the title suggests, was that the Western World is hooked on garbage entertainment. Throwaway icons and shallow creativity. TV shows that woo the voyeur in us. Paparazzi snapshots of “stars” who just don’t matter. Mind-numbing pseudo news that weighs us down rather than lifting us up.
The whole “idiot culture” thing could be a thesis or a book, not merely an article. Actually it has been: Take for example Neil Postman’s deeply analytical book “Amusing Ourselves To Death.” Postman and his ilk – including lauded socio-political commentator Professor Noam Chomsky – posit, correctly, that public discourse – the things we talk about and think about – have moved from the somewhat meaningful to the painfully absurd in the past half century or so.
The net result is that we have become junk-info addicts who are almost completely distracted from the important issues that affect us, those we love, and our fellow human beings around the globe. More to the point, to a large degree we are no longer even aware of what is important. We have been fed sugar-coated rat poison and dragged out beyond the margins of true culture to whither and die, spiritually and mentally.
The simple point is this: If we don’t focus our thoughts and energies on learning about the real and profound problems our planet is facing, and on taking actions to remedy them, then we’re closing the door on hope. Like anything worthwhile in life or history, saving the world (literally) will only be achieved through true understanding followed by concerted effort.
There are some vital things we need to do if we are to survive. We need to change the way the world is governed; we need to see that poverty is put to the sword; we need to end the suicidal environmental degradation of our planet; we need to assign anything with the word “nuclear” attached to it to the archives. And much more.
That’s a lot of thinking and a lot of work. We really need to dig for the truth and see that that truth is served. And we are not going to find truth on reality shows or in tabloid magazines; in the pitiful tirades of TV’s political talk show ego turds or the endless mire of nonsense that clutters much of the Internet. And no, we can’t even turn to traditional news sources or the likes of Carl Bernstein. We have to go to more pure information sources. More courageous ones. And we must find similarly concerned citizens. But first we must want to apply ourselves and not seek addiction-escapism by sinking into the couch and praying to the tube.
While Bernstein was right to rail against our toxic non-culture almost two decades ago, he has certainly been a beneficiary of it. His work on Watergate and subsequent lecturing on “serious journalism” have given him (and Woodward) a kind of demigod status. In a sense, they have accrued credibility in large part because of the contrast between themselves and the lower reaches of the idiot culture. But that contrast creates a false credibility: They are merely at the "high end" of that culture.
The fact is, they – and The Washington Post – are still part of the timid/privatized media industry and are hardly daring in what they do. Nixon was just a twisted creep who made for a good story. He was relatively easy to axe. But where are these pillars of pious journalism when it comes to things such as COINTELPRO, Gitmo, U.S. imperialism, the exploitation of Third World economies, the rape of the world ecosystem, the real and present danger posed by nuclear weapons and energy, the severe lack of democracy in America, or profoundly dissecting their own industry? It’s easy to make a bit of noise about Jerry Springer and Paris Hilton. Taking on Rupert Murdoch or transnational corporations in any serious way is another matter. And that takes a courage far greater.
Do we live in an idiot culture? Turn on your TV and flip through 20 or 30 channels and you tell me. Are we idiots? No, we are not. But the people with their hands on the levers want us to act like idiots. Passive consumers of their faux information and unnecessary products. So far, we've been pretty much playing into their hands.
But we can stop any time we decide we're ready to.
Thanks for reading and check back soon. In the meantime, check out for some brave and honest journalism. Yes, you can handle the truth.
Adrian Zupp


  1. I have thought this for quite some time now and find it absurd that a majority of the population is enthralled by all this junk. What's even more ridiculous is when people do finally tune in to what is really important, they are shocked that these things have been going on. Get a clue and get more people involved. Stop rotting your brain and expand your knowledge of the "real world" around you.

  2. You raise a very good point. Are we really this idiotic (sometimes I believe absolutely and other times I'm not so certain) or are we being fed junk food by the media because it is far more difficult and less profitable to promote meaningful discourse?

    I began tuning out mainstream media about two years ago. It has led to some "dead air" during conversation at times, but I'm finding it very refreshing to try and keep my focus on good writing. When I want to be entertained, I'll flip on a movie and completely suspend belief. It seems that mainstream media wants to sell the fiction of movies as believable news.

  3. "it is far more difficult and less profitable to promote meaningful discourse"

    It's also far more difficult to find people who are capable of providing more. The landscape would be far less populated if we canceled out all of the mediocre talent, and it is not just the Western world which suffers from this vacuum of true talent.

    Consumers don't care. Their short attention spans require more of everything, and their lack of intelligence or culture (or both) dictates that the quality of that "more" is inconsequential.

    In the end, the idiots are the consumers, and by the very laws of supply and demand, they will be catered to. A scan of any public discourse on the internet reveals that this is not an elitist viewpoint: the level of idiocy displayed by a large number of people is self evident. A lot of people have simply foregone the process of actually thinking, and now use the opinions of someone they admire or trust as facts. It's probably always been this way (just look at religion, for example), it's just that now idiots are a voting bloc, a consumer bloc, etc., and as such they will be catered to.

  4. When we started turning off the boob tube at our house, life became (can you believe it?) more interesting and productive!

  5. I believe it. I haven't had TV for about 5 years and I feel like my brain is less polluted. :-) Thanks for commenting and I invite you to sign up for my blog. Adrian

  6. Sad but true....these days it's all about image. Substance doesn't seem to matter and the really sad thing is that image can't last forever...we go broke, we age, and the image is gone.

    Substance on the other hand, comes with the reassurance that no matter how broke, how old, how lonely you might be, you will always still have substance.

    I think the rise of the middle classes has a lot to do with it. It seems these days that everyone is a consumer.

    At first it's nice. A good refrigerator, a decent car perhaps, things worth working for.

    But it never stops there. Working to afford better necessities soon gives way to working (or using credit) to buy the latest thing.

    "I have the latest IPAD so I must be a worthwhile person" or so it goes.

    Buying things we don't need so we can have more things than the people next door. Buying more "things" so we can impress a member of the opposite sex who likewise values "things"

    Worse still, I think we have moved beyond that and now buy "things" simply because we can, whether we need them or not.

    A cashed up middle class looking to buy trinkets to amuse themselves. Thoughts of a fat, bloated and broadly useless victorian English upper class spring to mind. Parlour games and idle chit chat.

    And with this mindless consumerism comes the dumbing down. People who think too much won't buy "things" they don't need.

    In any case, there's little time to think of the real issues when you're lining up at the Apple store waiting for it to open.

    This state of course, works tremendously for corporations who wish to sell us "things" we don't need. Likewise, politicians can do what they like and no one ever notices.

    Everyone's happy, or everyone that counts on Planet Consumer anyway.

    All the power vested in the hands of those who stand to gain the most from the idiot culture. No wonder it gets worse by the day.

  7. BTW a very interesting alternative reason for the way of the world and the idiot culture. I found it a tremendously interesting way of looking at the problem (on ABC Radio National)

    "Eminent psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist offers an ambitious, provocative thesis about how the brain's two hemispheres came to be, and construct the world. Today there's a power struggle being played out between the left and right brain that he argues is reshaping Western civilisation in disturbing ways."

  8. Ade, You have put into words and I have been thinking for a long time.

    The plethora of reality shows that have cropped up are like a cancer that is spreading without anyone looking towards a cure. With endless subject matter and individuals to exploit, manipulate and consume, I raises the question what does it amount to? The elevation of clueless individuals to demy god status, taking up too much time in the media!

    When Lindsay Lohan and her various drug busts warrant "Live coverage" of her court appearance and the over zealous "betting" on the outcome, is delporable. When it takes priority over something like the devastating floods in Pakistan, which gets a one minute breeze over in the middle of a news bulletin, pretty much paints a picture of what the media's priorities are!

    And how about the glossy women's magazines! Gone are the days of dealing womans issues and hello trashy scandal rags! A fortnightly rotation of Leyton and Bec Hewitts relationship woes with Princess Mary's attacks from insiders on the Danish Royal family make for bland reading! Toss in a side serving Brad/Jolina and Jenifer Aniston and their ilk, it makes the term "A waste of space" very applicable here!

    I agree with your assessment of the "timid/privatised" media industry. Commercial journalism has been weakened so much, it's laughable. A case in point, at the begining of the so called "Iraq War" and the confirmation that the then prime minister John Howard was to commit Australia to the "possie". He was interviewed by Ray Martin on A Current Affair, in what was billed to be a "no holes barred interview".It ended up a staged managed piece of limp lettuce. I'm sure they rehearsed it before going on camera. A bit like a sword fight in an Errol Flynn movie. Cheesy and unbelievable.

    Thankfully it's not all bad news! We still have our old auntie (The ABC) and SBS to turn to. When I tell my friends that I listen to or watch the ABC or SBS, they think I'm an old fart or that I'm pervert into watching foreign skin flicks! They at least attempt to bring balance and treat journalism seriously! And they are continuously criticised from both sides of the fence, so they must be doing something right!

    I know the conga line of crap will keep flowing, be we are not obliged to swim in it! Thankfully!