The Steampunk Party Balloon


Last updated 2/7/2023 at Noon

Here’s hoping you enjoyed the sudden appearance of the Steampunk Party Balloon over the United States as much as I did. There’s something delightfully throwback, something Jules Verney, or perhaps League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, about this mysterious apparatus that has so beguiled and bewitched the public imagination. Nothing triggers a Sean Hannity meltdown, or constricts the reptilian pupils of foreign policy experts in Arlington think-tanks, faster than a Chinese wedding lantern drifting over Malmstrom Air Force Base.

To be certain, somebody should have shot it down somewhere over Havre, Montana, but they didn’t, naturally, what with so much fear floating around the Situation Room that it’s peeling off the walnut veneer. But the truth is, and we should know this without being reminded, that the Chinese don’t need a spy balloon to suck up your data because they already have TikTok. This is how our world works.

Domestically, the Bezos-Zuckerberg cabal already know more about your embarrassing little habits and secret preferences than your diary. A lot of what you think is private has long ago been vacuumed up and preserved in a data warehouse, maybe even as close to home as Prineville, because like it or not, your data is a commodity. Which means you are a commodity. This is surveillance capitalism, and surveillance capitalism is the operating force behind your computer screen—and the ghost in your iPhone. You may not like it, but as the saying goes: If you run, you’ll only die tired.

Which is one reason the desperate appeals to sovereignty, and international law, and so much official pearl-clutching over this thing seems a little disingenuous, particularly after never-ending revelations about the inappropriate handling of classified documents by American presidents.

Which is to say nothing of the recent arrest of Charles McGonigal, a former FBI counterterrorism chief, on his way home from party drinks and dead drops in Sri Lanka.

Charles got popped because he was lobbying for a Russian oligarch, collaborating with Russian spies, and so on and so forth.

It is possible to hyperventilate over such things, and many do, but that kind of reaction would require belief in important facts not in evidence: that the FBI is still a credible agency, that anyone in American government ever gets held accountable for anything, and finally, that the people exposed to such information deserve your trust in the first place.

They aren’t, they almost never do, and they don’t.

Still, if you must worry, it seems unlikely the big party balloon can scan hard documents from sixty-thousand feet, which might have been troubling given the volumes—we now know—of classified material left on kitchen tables or stuffed between sofa cushions from Delaware to Denver. That’s where the Fang Fangs of the world have real value, though it’s notable that Representative Eric Swalwell’s former paramour has gone back to turnip farming, or maybe just torturing Uighurs in Xinjiang. We may learn more about that epic courtship in Swalwell’s forthcoming autobiography: “Hopscotching the Honey Traps; My Life in Congress.”

But if you really need to get worked up about the big balloon, I recommend journaling. No one left a written account of the last great Ice Age, which is disappointing because it would be interesting to have something a little less vague than ocher handprints on a cave-wall, or the tusks of a mammuthus columbi dug up in the Nevada desert. We all had relatives who were there and not one of them bothered to forward us a postcard.


I only mention this because an EMP attack has been proposed as one function of our balloon visitation, or at least a trial run for one, and an EMP event over the eastern seaboard would be, both literally and figuratively, a lights-out event. It would make survival in the Ice Age look positively appealing, given the subsequent proliferation of the world’s most successful predator — though it would probably put a damper on Senator Corey Booker’s presidential aspirations.

The point is, if you started, today, pouring all of your accumulated fears into a daily journal your great, great, great grandchildren would get some sense of what life was like in the waning years of the United States and, more importantly, they would inherit a day-to-day account of survival under the mystery balloon.

No one is suggesting you run out and build a Faraday Cage in your backyard, unless you really want to, but if “The Iliad” taught us anything, it’s that letting huge wooden horses, or in our contemporary illustration, steampunk balloons, through the city gates without a thorough vetting is probably a bad idea.

History is full of such pithy reminders, like Kerouac’s more recent admonition to never get drunk outside of your own house, or Loren Eiseley’s reminder that homo duplex must eventually learn that greatness of spirit isn’t enough. We should remember that stupid games win stupid prizes, that if we insist on playing them, someday all that may remain of us will be rubbled cities and charcoaled bones.


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