New World, Old Tribalism and the Can-Do Americans

April 09, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. The day after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I started collecting a list of stories and editorials that included the phrase, ''If we can put a man on the moon, we can . . .''

The list grew to monstrous proportions, including everything from finding a cure for cancer to eliminating housework. My favorite was the all-time non sequitur, ''If we can put a man on the moon, we can make pantyhose that doesn't run.''

In the past month, I have started a new list, every bit as heartfelt and half-baked. ''If we can win a war in the Persian Gulf, we can . . . '' (1) find a cure for AIDS, (2) house the homeless, (3) resurrect the inner-city schools.

This list grows on, fertilized with the false notion that every problem is essentially technological. Not all human struggles, however, can be solved by the massive movement of men, women, money and machinery. A five-day assault on the schools won't bring a victory. The way to solve our domestic woes is not to make war on them. It doesn't work that way.

But the wish list also expresses a desire to see the can-do competence of Desert Storm applied at home. More than anything else, it expresses a wistful longing for the same unity of purpose, the same unity of people, that we brought to the Gulf.

It comes from a belief that patriotism, nation-ism, is the necessary and missing ingredient to solve the woes of the home front.

There is some truth on this list. Americans seem to know what patriotism looks like in war. But we don't know what it looks like in peace. Americans know who ''we'' are when we're up against ''them.'' It's harder to define ''us'' without an enemy.

If we don't feel like one people at home it is probably because nationalism everywhere is being torn in two directions. By both the new world economy and by old world tribalism.

In the '90s, borders are crossed as fast as a fax. Nations don't have the same importance they once did. Economist Robert Reich likes to talk about a neighbor who works on software that is financed in Tokyo, computer-coded in Bulgaria and used with hardware put together in Mexico. He's a worker of the world.

But at the same time nations have become part of an international economy, many are splintering politically. The Soviet Union is breaking up. The Serbs and Croats are at each other again. There is an immense chasm between a market that makes people interdependent and the hatreds of blood and belief that put them at each other's throats.

These trends both pull at our sense of being one in a United States. The people of Mr. Reich's neighborhood may have modems attaching them to foreign colleagues.

But within our borders, too, we worry about ''tribalism.'' Our melting pot no longer melts everyone. Many Americans find their strongest sense of identity not in citizenship but in race, religion, ethnicity.

''The unease over multi-culturalism reflects a question in the background. Who are 'we'?'' says Mr. Reich. When we're no longer one marketplace, do we connect less as people, have weaker ties to other zip codes, other classes? How do you keep and revive the sense of American-ness?

Americans may be more self-conscious about identity than other peoples because we have in fact created and keep recreating ourselves. We've been the home of the free and the brave, the frontier, the land of plenty. During the Cold War we knew who we were because we ''weren't communists.'' In the '80s we were ''Number One.''

In the Gulf War, Americans recognized each other. The uniform made it easy. But the role of ''World Cop'' isn't much of a patriotic identity either. It may look good on a passport; it holds little promise at home.

A great deal of harm has been done in the name of nationalism. But to avoid the equal troubles of tribalism we need to shore up our best sense of unity. Not through tanks or think tanks, but building at home.

In that sense we have come full circle. Yes, a country acts best when people feel a sense of unity. But we may only feel united when we act for and with each other.

Remember in his inaugural address when the president said we have more will than wallet? One thing we learned in the Gulf: If you have the will, you find the wallet, and the way.

What we need is a new list for a new homeland in the world order. If we can find the will to win in the Gulf, we can . . .

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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