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 after 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.
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 such as "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. 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 D. Roosevelt's demand for courage in the face of the Depression, Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty, John F. 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 Sen. Barack Obama has been able to build a political movement on a simple promise to bring people together. Small wonder Sen. 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."
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.