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Importance of Being Earnest

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Friday, January 16, 2009; 12:00 AM

Tears all dry now, I'm worried about the pending deaths of Cynicism and Snark. In fact, I've just returned from my first meeting of CASA -- Cynics and Snarks Anonymous. It was crowded.

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And boring.

But such will be life during the next four to eight years. With the election of Barack Obama, Cynicism and Snark are officially passe.

Translation: Humor and irreverence are out; earnestness and sincerity are in.

David Denby, The New Yorker film critic, has written a book decrying our old bad habits: "Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation." I couldn't agree more. Snark is cheap and bad for you. But then, so are hot dogs. I still want one now and then.

Cynicism isn't just unfashionable; it's downright unpatriotic.

Heretical. With the planet melting (when it isn't freezing), two wars and a tanking economy, we need spirited optimism, not defeatist cynicism.

Under the Obama Order of Hope and Change, the new patriotism is helpfulness. The new anthem is: "Howdy Neighbor!" Soon we'll be like Thailand's highway police, wearing smiley-face masks to help reduce stress.

As the Thai commander said: "When we're tired, it's hard to keep smiling."

As of Monday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday will be put to its intended use as a National Day of Service. (Congress designated it as such in 1994, but it didn't quite take off.) In a special video delivered to e-mail boxes recently, rising first lady Michelle Obama earnestly implores Americans to volunteer "with a spirit of unity and shared commitment."

The outgoing president asked us to shop; this one wants us to give it up. Gai ge kai fang! as the Chinese put it. Reform and open the door! Not that I'm making any comparisons.

The incoming first lady reminds us that King lived his life in service to others and we should, too. And we should! Earnestly! Still, National Service Day has that Homeland Security feel to it. Will we soon be wearing armbands that say: "I volunteered"?

I've got a stash of virtue labels: I voted. I gave blood. Most Americans seem to own a wristband or two indicating solidarity with some victim group. Here's an idea: Why not wear a wedding band that says, "I married the parent of my child"? By helping the largest victim group in the country -- our marginalized kids -- we might not need so many third-party do-gooders.

Meanwhile, the Obamas plan to spend Monday volunteering in their new community. What about you? Not sure where to go? No worries. At USAService.org, the Renew America Together Web site, you can type in your ZIP code and find (or host) an event nearby.

Eager to be a Good American, I typed in my code and found a plethora of opportunities -- from Social Action Boot Camp to litter cleanup, to keeping vigil at the Chinese Embassy "to protest the killing, rape, torture, and displacement of civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan." Fun!

If you're beginning to itch around the collar, this is a perfectly normal reaction for those accustomed to voluntary volunteerism. Even the snark-averse might pause at "Oath of All of US," another volunteer event in which people of all ages and from all walks of life, LED BY YOUTH (their emphasis, not mine), will gather to share their pledges for social good with a personal Oath of Office.

Videos of these individual declarations of public virtue will be uploaded to the Web as part of a national campaign.

Remember last February when Michelle Obama promised during a UCLA speech that her husband would "require" us to work? That he was going to "demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone. That you push yourself to be better. And that you engage"?

"Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed," averred America's aspiring first lady.

Apparently, she wasn't just whistling Chicago. It's all volunteer.

Until it isn't. When you dare not volunteer lest you be viewed as unpatriotic -- not with us, not committed to unity -- it's not so voluntary for very long.

If you find yourself in isolation, without a comfort zone, drop by CASA where I'll be volunteering. We have stickers, too: Let's Not Hug.

kparker@kparker.com


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