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 www.democracynow.org for some brave and honest journalism. Yes, you can handle the truth.