Every generation has its unique vocabularies, its slang and jargon (and its vulgarisms) to keep out the adults. But now hip idioms expand so quickly across generations that they become instant anachronisms. "Gay Paree" has no meaning now unless you're homosexual. Has any word changed meaning so conclusively in such a short time? The language of love once required felicitous feelings. Consider the soft murmur of a "liaison" with the harsh consonants of a "hookup."
For Americans, 9/11 was a turning point in many ways. Before that date that shares infamy with Dec. 7, we felt secure in the old ways of thinking that sustained us in Western traditions, even if sometimes honored in their breach. Once terrorism struck home with terror and violence, robbing us of our snug (and smug) confidence of invincibility, we lost a sense of collective affection, despite our protestations to the contrary.
From the books and movies about London in the Blitz, the moral certainties of World War II, we feel an envy of those who lived life intensified; there was no argument over whether the Nazis were evil. The Islamists are an enemy that does not unite us in the same way. We watch a revolution splinter into factions in Egypt, with the dead and wounded displayed on the television screen, and we aren't even sure which side we're rooting for (if we root at all). The president insists that "we don't take sides," an ominous and ironic footnote to his Cairo speech of only four years ago, which he called "A New Beginning."
Western idealism is no longer a lens for interpreting the world, and it's a questionable lens for looking at ourselves. We can reach anyone and everyone in an instant with the new media of the Internet, but we don't have a message that unites us. We feel individual control over little beyond the machinery of the media.
"We are all outsiders," says Henry Allen, "with no inside to be outside of." One cellphone rings in a crowd, and we all think it's for us.