"Unity is the great need of the hour. ... Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country. I'm not talking about a budget deficit. ... I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny."
So quoth Barack Obama in Atlanta on Jan. 20, but it might as well have been last week, so central is unity to his presidential campaign. And then there's Michelle Obama. "We have lost the understanding that, in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another," the would-be first lady said at a rally last month. "That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done."
What is fascinating here is not the sentiment, but what's missing from it. The P-word.
To invoke patriotism seriously is to brand yourself either an old fogy or a right-wing bully. If Barack Obama spoke about patriotism with the sort of passion he expends on unity, many would take him for some sort of demagogue.
But what on Earth could he mean by unity other than a kind of patriotic esprit de corps for the good of his country?
Indeed, patriotism is far preferable to mere unity. (Mafia syndicates and terrorist cells are unified, after all.) Patriotism is a species of unity that has some redeeming moral and philosophical substance to it. In America, patriotism - as opposed to, say, nationalism - is a love for a creed, a dedication to what is best about the "American way." Nationalism, a romantic sensibility, says, "My country is always right." Patriots hope that their nation will make the right choice.
If you read the speeches of leading Democrats before the Vietnam War, it's amazing how comfortable they were with patriotic rhetoric. "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" stands foursquare against so much of our entitlement culture.
Vietnam, of course, changed that. "The tragedy of the left," Todd Gitlin wrote in his 2006 book, "The Intellectuals and the Flag," "is that, having achieved an unprecedented victory in helping stop an appalling war, it then proceeded to commit suicide."