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The Miami Herald

A Hunger for National Purpose

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Let's talk about us.

Not as in you and me but, rather, as in common cause.

I've been thinking about ''us'' for a few days, ever since I happened upon a message board for sports fans following the NBA playoffs. The conversation was what you'd expect -- fans of underdog teams arguing that, while other people may not believe in ''us,'' all ''we'' need to do is box out, get back on defense, and ''we'' can prove ''our'' doubters wrong.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but none of the people throwing around those variations of the first person plural pronoun is competing in these playoffs. Not a rebound will they snatch, not a bounce pass will they catch. They are accountants, doctors, cabbies, cops, bellmen, barkeeps and others whose closest brush with athletic glory comes in weekend wars waged at the park followed by liberal applications of Bengay.

I came away struck, as I often am, by this singular ability of sports to make people say ''we.'' It happens much less often in other areas of civic life. No one says ''we'' when they talk about homelessness or hunger, no ''our'' enters the discussion of fatherless families or abortion rights, ''us'' is a stranger to the debate over failing schools and crime. Those conversations are framed by words like ''them'' and ``they.''

I have no bone to pick with sports. Still, I find myself thinking a healthier society would find common cause beyond the ball field and the basketball court, would regard working toward great and ambitious goals as a civic obligation. Am I the only one who remembers a time when rallying the people together was considered the very embodiment of leadership?

That's not to suggest earlier generations were all marble men of selfless good. HBO's John Adams miniseries and Eric Burns' 2006 book, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, provide fresh reminders -- as if any are needed -- that pettiness, backbiting and smallness of vision are hardly new to American politics.

Yet, when you remember Abraham Lincoln calling for men to save the union, Franklin Roosevelt's demand for courage in the face of Depression, Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty, John Kennedy's audacious challenge to go to the moon, and then try to remember the last time any modern-day leader asked us to pull together, sacrifice together, in the name of some vital cause greater than any one of us, well . . . you come up empty.

Instead, we've had George H.W. Bush denigrating the ''vision thing,'' and Bill Clinton building that bridge to the 21st century. Sept. 11 seemed to promise such a moment, except that when people asked how they could pitch in, they were told to go shopping.

This is not sacrificing for ''us.'' It is not pulling together for ''we.'' But again, we don't say those words so much anymore. We say ''them'' and ''they'' and ''red'' and ''blue'' and if that has been politically useful for some of us, it has come at a cost for all of us: fragmentation, polarization, balkanization . . . disconnection.

Small wonder Barack Obama has been able to build a political movement on a simple promise to bring people together. Small wonder John McCain has lately been calling people to ''sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself.'' They sense it, too, I think: a hunger for national purpose.

To meet that hunger is not to magically erase disagreements and fault lines. But it just might allow us to be grounded again in the understanding that true nationhood requires there be something that surmounts those differences. Our founders knew this, which is why the first person plural pronoun one finds on sports message boards is also the first word in the first sentence of the U.S. Constitution.

You remember. It begins with, ``We the people.''

Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.

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