Given New York City's reputation for conspicuous consumption, I'm often surprised by the impressive level of philanthropy that the city has generated over the years. From Carnegie Hall to the Public Library system to the Maine Memorial, New York is covered with the impressive legacies of generous rich people. Of course, a disturbingly large number of these projects date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but I am still overwhelmed by the ways that the city's richest segment used to feel such an obligation to do its part for the rest of us slobs.
This is particularly striking when one considers our current crop of obscenely wealthy people. After all, while Tilden and Astor's New York Public Library was the result of a series of bequests, Donald Trump's much-touted restoration of the Grand Central Facade had to be tacked on as a precondition for one of his real-estate deals. The next generation is even worse: from where I stand, it seems like the only things that the Lizzie Grubmans and Paris Hiltons have to offer are DWIs, clandestine sex tapes, and the occasional hit-and-run. There was a time when public service was considered the duty of the wealthy. It was a sort of Calvinistic quid-pro-quo; while rich people enjoyed the benefits of incredible amounts of money, they showed their thanks with considerable generosity toward others. Nowadays, it seems like something that you do to get a tax break or score brownie points in court.
In this context, I was particularly interested in Oprah Winfrey's latest television show, The Big Give. Essentially the anti-Apprentice, The Big Give encourages its ten contestants to spend money and time helping to make a difference in the lives of total strangers. Of course, like all reality shows, The Big Give features a basic Pavlovian impetus: the ultimate winner will take home a huge pile of cash. However, along the way, all of the contestants (not to mention the audience!) are learning about the importance of doing something nice for someone else. While I don't have much hope for Lizzie and Paris, and I'm a little saddened that karma needs to be illustrated in such an obvious cause-and-effect way, I'm impressed that Oprah's taken the time and effort to give her audience a lesson in basic humanity.