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Shared References Getting Harder to Find

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum recently wrote about a scandal at Duke University in North Carolina, in which two members of that prestigious school's lacrosse team are accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer at an off-campus party.The alleged crime has been the talk of the nation, in part because the players are white and come from privileged backgrounds, and the stripper is a black woman of modest means.

The fact that just about everybody knows the details of this case, and has strong opinions about it, is exactly Ms. Applebaum's point. "Particularly now that there is no more I Love Lucy show -- and very little of anything that everyone watches at the same time and can discuss around the water cooler on the following day," she writes, "the O.J. Simpson trial and the Duke lacrosse case, truly horrible though they are, serve that function."

I Love Lucy was a beloved television comedy show that just about everyone watched in the 1950s, when there were few other shows on at the same time on television. The riveting O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 involved a superstar athlete who was ultimately acquitted of killing his beautiful ex-wife and her friend.

The point is that these days we are bombarded by information sources, including thousands of Internet sites, so shared American experiences are rare. It seems to take a sensational incident -- like the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States -- to give us something in common to talk about. "Lucy" is still on TV in reruns, on one of 200 or so cable channels. Joe at the water cooler watched "Lucy" last night, Joan caught a show about river otters, and Jose watched the baseball game. Not much in common there. But come the next scandal or catastrophe . . . .