Uniting for Something

ONLY a computer could keep count of how many times the word ``united'' has been used since the Gulf war began. On every possible occasion, President Bush has repeated that the world stands ``united'' against Saddam Hussein, while pollsters have been reporting almost weekly on the high percentage of Americans who stand ``united'' behind President Bush in standing against Saddam. Equally significant, alas, is the word that seems to go with ``united'' these days: ``against.'' This suggests that only a common enemy can bring together a strong, committed constituency - a misconception also being applied on the home front.

The sad irony that ``united'' generally describes one group organized to oppose another has produced its own phrase: the new tribalism. Two observers, Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind of the Free Congress Foundation, accuse the new tribalism of uniting ``whites versus blacks, blacks versus Asians, homosexuals against heterosexuals, women against men.'' In addition to tribalism by ethnic and sexual identity, there is even tribalism according to age, with those over 65 constituting one of the most powe rful self-concerned groups.

Will the nation that began as a centripetal force - the United States - spin out as a centrifugal force, flying apart into hundreds of tribes quarreling over their special interests?

To find haven and definition within a tribe is natural - as long as one does not use tribal identity divisively to deny one's membership in larger communities, including the human race.

Deploring the new tribalism, so proudly confrontational, New York University sociologist Richard Sennett argues that the common goal should be to ``create a culture in which strangers can live together and profit from their differences,'' learning how to ``touch rather than withdraw.''

A brief year ago, when the Berlin Wall came down and ``united'' was a word applied to Germany and, indeed, the European Community, the prevailing ideal was of uniting for rather than uniting against. That ideal ought not to be abandoned, even in the middle of a war - especially in the middle of a war.

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