Tom Sawyer Syndrome

Marx famously thought that religion was the opiate of the masses. If he were around today he could safely add sports and every other form of entertainment to the societal apothecary. We pay burly fellows like Albert Pujols more than $25 million a year to hit baseballs and petite ones like Tom Cruise about the same to look handsome while dangling from skyscrapers.

They deserve every penny, and maybe more. Our court jesters and fools don’t merely distract us from the gloom and anxiety of a fully examined life. They fill our spiritual emptiness with comforting narratives, gracefully lending what feels like meaning to the unsolvable mystery of existence – sort of like what religion does for the naïve and credulous among us. And for that we’re grateful.

The ancients had Talmudic scholars. We moderns have sports talk radio and TMZ. Since there’s always something to argue about — nothing about our visual opiates suggest settled law – the quality of our opinions about who is Most Valuable Player, Best Actor, or Pound-for-Pound the Greatest Fighter define who we are and where we belong in the hierarchy of enlightenment, the grand accounting of those who know and those who don’t.

If you’re not hip to what NFL team needs a replacement for their injured quarterback or what movie script has caught Brad Pitt’s attention, you need to get with it. Life is happening.

Fortunately for those making a transition from Church of Christ to Church of Twilight, the World Wide Web is rapidly evolving from a place to find your preferred brand of pornography into a place where you can find statistics, imagery, and credible-sounding stories about the special entertainers, athletic and otherwise, who serve as our cultural morphine. For those who require a kind of guided learning in which the key lessons are identified and explained by anointed mavens (Blake Griffin must work on his jump shot to take his game to “the next level”; Adam Sandler is looking for roles that will prove to the Academy that he’s his generation’s Anthony Hopkins), we have The Scrolls.

I’m referring to authoritative publications like Entertainment Weekly, People, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and Us.

These aren’t merely glossy land fillers. They’re talismans. They have the power to perform seemingly impossible tricks, the kind of alchemical transformations ascribed to wizards and witches. The greatest of these splendid, supernatural feats is convincing consumers to pay for advertising.

Not “purchase an ad.” I mean “pay the publishers to produce consumable advertising.”

Call it the Tom Sawyer method. You may remember a book by a fellow named Mark Twain in which a lovable rapscallion named Tom – friends with another slippery lad named Huckleberry Finn – gets a bunch of kids to paint a picket fence…and, hilariously, pay him for the privilege of doing the labor! How brilliant, how utterly ingenious to bamboozle tens of millions of Americans into buying subscriptions (or paying the retail cover price at the grocery check-out line) for magazines that are composed entirely of advertising masquerading as journalism.

The articles may look like “stories.” The interviews may look like “intimate portraits.” But, really, they’re promotional devices in disguise meant to encourage readers to consume more opiates. By giving us an uninterrupted flow of reasons why we should be interested in the lives and labors of Daniel Radcliffe, Chris Paul, Tina Fey, Ashton Kutcher, Kid Rock, Sandra Bullock, Peyton Manning, Katy Perry, and the reserve second baseman for the Houston Astros, we remain vaguely interested. And the intravenous drip keeps flowing.

That we willingly and gladly give money for the experience, like Tom Sawyer’s painting crew, underlines our desperation to be narcotized, to have our vast plain of solitude populated with glamorous billboards. We may be alone in the universe, but with the characters from our invented stories to keep us company we’ll never be lonely.

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3 Responses

  1. Preemy says:

    If only you could get someone to pay you for writing such a good essay!

  2. herve says:

    Greatness. Really. What a pleasure to read such smart writing. Bravo!

  3. Tam says:

    Well said, Konik! You nailed it.