By now, Register reader, you have no doubt been well saturated with news and views on the balloon-boy incident, a hoax perpetrated by a father who pretended that his 6-year-old son was perilously floating aloft in a silver balloon. The father, Richard Heene of Fort Collins, Colo., wanted desperately to appear on a TV “reality show” — and was willing to do nearly anything to get his 15 minutes of fame.
I will not rehash the hash already dealt out on this balloon buffoonery by the mainstream media — especially after they realized they’d been duped. As far as I am concerned (and it is not very far), they deserve what they got. The balloon-boy hoax is merely the consummation of the media’s own tendencies to focus on titillation rather than substance. Television news and “reality” shows share one and the same fault, and that is why they have become barely distinguishable: They aim at aimless adventure, pointless peril, danger without destination. In short, they cater to our social boredom in much the same way, and for the same reason, that the emperors catered to the restless boredom of Roman citizens by feeding them with gladiatorial shows filled with senseless slaughter.
The difference between the situation in ancient Rome and ours today is that, in Rome, vulgarity and violence were used as a kind of narcotic to calm a restive populace. It cost the government a lot of money, but the leaders considered it money well spent, or at least necessarily spent. In our time, the media understand that there is big money to be made in catering to boredom, and the more vulgar and violent the circus, the bigger the money. Greed ensures that the balloon-boy incident will be repeated in some fashion, and one likely variation will be putting a small child in real danger rather than hiding him away in an attic while the show goes on.
And so here, I believe, is the real news. We are dying from boredom, so much so that we are willing to have someone die to alleviate it. I am happy to report that we have not had a television in my family for over a quarter of a century. Sometimes when I travel, I glimpse at the free offerings on the hotel TV. During my last stay, I came upon a program featuring a man who wanted to see how close he could get to a lion sleeping in the dark. For all I know, there were, behind the cameras recording this idiocy, seven men with guns ready to mow down the lion if it pounced. From the viewer’s view, I was to believe that, at any moment, the man might be torn limb from limb for my entertainment.
But the strangest, most perverse thing of all is that there was no point to the danger apart from the danger itself, and, therefore, no interest on the part of tuned-in voyeurs except that the fool could have been mauled in front of their eyes. He was ready to die for our boredom. What could be more horrifying news?
What is the source of this boredom, this great yawning cultural ennui? It is simply this: We live in a post-Christian culture. There is no adventure because there is no goal; there is no goal because there is no God. Life has become a kind of aimless walk. Human beings, alone in the cosmos, are all dressed up with no place to go.
And so we seek aimless adventure. Because we are born human, we are born with the spirit of adventure, but we have taken ourselves to be purely material beings without a spirit. We therefore have nothing to fight for but our physical comfort. The spirit of adventure, unsatisfied and aimless, turns to courting danger for its own sake, that is, to pointless peril.
I am reminded of a quip from G.K. Chesterton. “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad,” he said. “The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
They are isolated and wandering madly because they had their unity in God. When that unity was removed, they unraveled and became wild and destructive. The pointless peril of “reality” shows is a perfect example of the virtue of courage gone mad, daring merely for the sake of daring.
By contrast, as an “old Christian virtue,” courage was directed to our struggles to live a good and holy life, to fulfill the perilous adventure that ends in either heaven or hell, to love as God loved us even unto death on the cross. There could be no boredom in this adventure because, at every moment, we are balanced between the two, heading either for eternal bliss beyond imagining or the darkest, most abysmal misery. This is a greater adventure than any knight could ever have — much less any father of a balloon boy. Day by day, disciples of Christ live out our knighthood as we quest for sainthood. Neither of which is bored or boring.
Benjamin Wiker’s most recent book is 10 Books That Screwed Up the World (Regnery, 2008).
He is online at BenWiker.com.