It was all a hoax, a fraud, a cynical and none too well concocted publicity stunt to bolster the Heene family’s reality TV cachet. But there was something beautiful about the lie too, for like all lies the balloon boy story provided us with a release from reality, an escape. I don’t mean to make light of viewers’ fears that six-year-old Falcon Heene’s life was in danger as his UFO-shaped vessel floated into the sky. But who can deny the element of wonder and envy evoked by that spectacle?
It seemed a myth from the beginning: the innocent child, guilty only of being too curious, transcending earth to join the heavens. He was too pure, too good for this world. Literature is full of such ascendant figures: Remedios the Beauty from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude who is too lovely for this world and so one day levitates away while folding laundry; Pascal, the French boy from The Red Balloon (1956), whose devotion to protecting his new friend from a gang of balloon-popping bullies is rewarded when all the balloons in Paris take him for a magical ride; and Jesus who, after his persecution and resurrection, ascends into heaven in front of his eleven disciples to sit at the right hand of God. Then there is the wife of Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who wrote a book about how her soul took a ride "on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus." According to Miyuki Hatoyama, "It was a very beautiful place, and it was really green."
Frankly, from where I’m standing, Venus sounds like a great place now. Here on Earth, it is increasingly looking like world leaders are going to blow the Copenhagen summit, a moment that Gordon Brown has called the last chance to save our planetary home. In the territorial United States, unemployment is at 10 percent, and while Wall Street makes record bonuses off taxpayer-funded bailouts, jobs are nowhere in sight. Obama may have won a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his talk on eliminating nuclear weapons, but the US Senate hasn’t even approved the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Ninety-nine red balloons go by. Afghanistan and Iraq–every day brings news of the horrors of occupation, and the only choices the US can make are hard ones.
When reality bites, who wouldn’t want to gawk at the sight of a child rising into clouds, urge on the dramatic rescue, feel delight at news of his safety (if also a little cheated out of a narrative climax). German philosopher Ernst Bloch considered escapism a necessary element of radical social change; for him the project of dreaming utopia was a political act. But Balloon Boy, I think, represents something else, what Marx called the opiate of the masses. And hence the public’s mounting anger at the Heene family for perpetrating this hoax. We were waken from our dream of escape, which itself turned out to be no dream at all, just an earthly machination.