Monday, December 11, 2006

For us, the living

» NPR: Wreaths Donated to Arlington National Cemetery

I heard a story on NPR about a guy who is spending thousands of dollars on 5,000 Christmas wreaths for Arlington National Cemetery. Not the cemetery as a whole, mind you, but for the Civil War and World War I sections. The sections that, as the story noted, wouldn't get many visitors to adorn the graves or enjoy the decorations. While rather pointless in my view, what interested me about the story is that this act was described as philanthropy.

Philanthropy literally means "loving humans," and I suppose technically the mostly-decomposed remains of soldiers are human, but who exactly is to benefit from this donation? It is generally understood that philanthropy helps someone. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds health care and poverty-reduction programs. Andrew Carnegie built 2,500 libraries around the world.

Decorating graves is not philanthropy. Maybe — maybe! — if he were donating wreaths to the oft-visited graves of the recently deceased one could stretch the bounds of philanthropy to include making people smile. But even if we grant that some holiday decorations are as worthy of the moniker as curing plagues and perpetuating world knowledge, these decorations are unlikely to even be seen by more than a handful of actual mourners. Is philanthropy really the word for it?

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this man is wasting money that could be used for actual philanthropy that helps actual living people.

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