The long-running game show Jeopardy! has used "unreal estate" as a category ever since the bottom row was $50 and Don Pardo was the announcer. In this capacity, it refers to fictional places: castles in the air, mountains and valleys of folklore, ancient legendary cities. It occurs to me, though, that it could just as easily mean the philosophical underpinnings, or utter lack thereof, beneath many contemporary beliefs.

"I don't think nation-building missions are worthwhile," said Presidential candidate George W. Bush in a 2000 debate, singling out Somalia and Haiti as particular failures of this sort. Once in the actual office, however, Mr Bush found himself deeply enmeshed in nation-building, having at some point bought into the notion that poverty and hopelessness spawn terror, a favored theme among those who fancy themselves to be on the side of poor people. It does not occur to them that they're delivering a horrible insult to those they patronize. Poor people don't suddenly, or even gradually, become terrorists. They are exploited by terrorists, who use them for cover. Hopelessness merely provides a vector.

The environmental movement, which once upon a time was concerned with endangered species and water quality and other actual issues, is now increasingly obsessed with the idea of Man as Parasite: how much nicer this old world would be if only those pesky Homo sapiens types would just hurry up and die off already. Not that you'll see any of them actually volunteering to go themselves, of course. (Well, maybe a few.) It is perverse in the extreme to believe that some forgotten fish, some insignificant insect, is invaluable to the ecosystem as a whole, yet that the species at the very top of the food chain is perfectly expendable. If someone ever tells them that polar bears, precious creatures that they are, actually exhale wicked carbon dioxide, there'll be hell to pay.

Come to think of it, the federal government is counting on us croaking off before our time, and has been since long before Congress came up with something they'd prefer you didn't call a "death panel"; the longer we live, the farther in the hole Social Security and Medicare will be. (Don't even mention the words "trust fund"; you'll be met with either stony silence or derisive laughter.) This reflects the attitude of Washington to the rest of us: they value us to the extent that they can count on us for revenue or for votes, but that's as far as it goes.

And this being Christmas Eve, it seems like a good time to give a plug to our atheist friends, at least the ones who insist that their (non)beliefs are based on a rigorous examination of the facts. (Short version: "No there isn't.") Were there anything to the idea that something we can't find must therefore not exist, I would be forced into stating that I in fact have no house keys. Right this minute, anyway. And really, the lesson here can be found in any number of CBS-TV procedurals: evidence doesn't come looking for you.

The Vent

  24 December 2009

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