“Fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it, fuck Tiger Woods too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? Being told who you ought to be lookin’ up to? I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much.”
These are the opening lines from George Carlin’s final HBO comedy special, “It’s Bad for Ya,” in March 2008. Carlin posthumously cemented his reputation as a modern-day prophet when Tiger Woods self-destructed in 2009, and Lance Armstrong’s slowly-evolving disgrace reached its fruition in just the past few weeks.
But from the moment we first heard them, those words resonated with people like me who have grown cynical over our popular media’s obsession with manufactured heroes. This is not to say that real heroes don’t exist. Far from it, and any of us, if pressed, would be able to name at least one personal hero. But the massive infotainment complex must constantly be fed a stream of faux celebrities and dubious accomplishments to breathlessly hype. And it happened again last month with the mass media coronation of Felix Baumgartner.
Baumgartner, as you no doubt know unless you spent the past several months in a sealed subterranean chamber, is a skydiver slash BASE jumper slash “daredevil” whose exploits have earned him the nickname “Fearless Felix.” Pretty impressive for a fellow whose only skill appears to be falling. I have to give him credit for achieving fame and glory via an activity that everyone else can do completely by accident.
As a young boy, I had a tendency to be clumsy and awkward. I fell a lot. Tripping over things, tumbling off bicycles, I spent a good deal of time in the prone position. The staff at the Holy Cross Hospital ER got to know me and my father on a first-name basis. Nobody thought to bestow the nickname “Fearless” on me. “Clueless” was more like it.
Anyway, on October 14, Baumgartner managed to surpass all his previous plummet-related achievements by riding a balloon-lofted capsule to the edge of space, and then falling out of it.
Baumgartner is not four inches tall and deceased today thanks to a sophisticated pressurized space suit, a team of controllers on the ground, and millions of dollars of Red Bull cash. The only thing he had to do himself was pull the chute at the right time, but he would have had to do that whether he fell from 39,000 feet or 390 feet. And I’m pretty sure, given the technology available to him, that the ground controllers could have activated the parachute remotely if he happened to be unconscious at that moment.
So thanks to Red Bull’s PR onslaught, and the media’s need to feed the beast, we were subjected to round-the-clock coverage of this great feat (even on The Weather Channel, for god’s sake). And reporters were tripping over themselves to interview Fearless Felix and get his valuable perspective on how it all felt and what it looked like up there.
Problem is, all the bright lights and shouting started to persuade Felix that he had actually accomplished something noteworthy. That’s the problem with the hype machine – pretty soon you start to believe your own bullshit.
So Baumgartner, presuming that someone actually gave a damn about what he had to say, started pontificating. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on October 26, he opined that the NASA Mars missions were a waste of money.
“So I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”
This from a man whose claim to relevance is a multi-million-dollar stunt that resulted in no new knowledge about Earth besides discovering how much more Red Bull could be consumed by its inhabitants.
Just to put it in perspective, here is a short list of objects that could have been used in place of Felix Baumgartner with no effective difference:
- large rock
- small rock
- medium-sized rock
- walrus carcass
- smart car
- 200-pound sack of crap
In fact, any of these would have been preferable to Baumgartner, if only because we wouldn’t have to listen to them being interviewed afterward. Except perhaps the last one.