ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: I was struck by the pictures of college kids on spring break, not the ones doing the time-honored bacchanalian thing on the beaches of Florida, but rather the kids who had forsaken that rite and gone instead to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to help rebuild that battered region.
Swinging hammers, cleaning out moldy shacks, they seemed to me a bright spot in a complicated world, an indication, perhaps, that narcissism was finally giving way to a little activism.
I've got '60s kid nostalgia, no question, a hearkening back to when my peers and I were lit up with help-change-the-world fervor, a sense that we could and should matter, protesting war, advocating women's rights or civil rights.
Then, it ebbed. There were kids, and mortgages, and a generally robust economy. We've been on a long detour through a flush, entitled time, a time for acquisitions and mergers, for McMansions and McVehicles, everything getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
Now it feels as if there is at least a fledgling return to some kind of activism. It didn't start with Katrina: The tsunami generated a huge outpouring. And before that, of course, there was September 11, 2001, when an angry world came crashing into ours.
Young people seemed to get the message. Some flocked to downtown Manhattan to help. Some stayed home and helped raise money for the 9/11 families. And some enlisted.
GROUP OF SOLDIERS: ... the Marines of Company B...
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Bottom line: I do matter; my help matters; my country matters.
Increasingly, the whole community-service hustle -- high-schoolers putting in their requisite do-goody time tutoring poor kids or working in a soup kitchen so it would look good on a college application -- seems to be morphing into something more real.
A recent New York Times article about so-called "realistic idealists" detailed the efforts, for example, of a college kid who started a Web initiative to collect thousands of pairs of eyeglasses to be passed on to people in poor countries.
No doubt celebrities like Angelina Jolie, and Sharon Stone, and Bono have helped make activism and philanthropy seem sexy.
Do I make too much of this? Maybe. The new activism often has a notable, almost post-ideologic complexion. Young people are not marching against the war in Iraq, for example; nor are they in the streets with the immigrant tide, unless it directly affects them.
Their efforts are humanitarian, global, almost determinedly -- some might say squeamishly -- nonpartisan, an unarticulated rebuke, in effect, to all the partisan wrangling in Washington. They are cynical about politics and politicians, laughing nightly at the jaunty, skewering cynicism of Jon Stewart.
But at least there's a stirring, a sense of wanting to contribute, an outer-directedness as opposed, say, to the young people of France who have taken to the streets with a self-interested agenda.
And for me, right now, those pictures from the Gulf Coast are at least a modest cause for hope.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.