A theme emerged from the week’s coverage of the eclipse: that on the morning of August 21, as darkness swept across a 3,000-mile swath of the United States, we Americans – for a moment – put aside our political differences and shared our common humanity (for a few examples, read this, this, and this).
These reports appeared just as my family and others received death threats associating us with “antifa [antifascist] terrorists.” Our phone-in assailant, who no doubt imagines himself a patriot, found our names in a list “leaked” from an online petition that urges Homeland Security to monitor white supremacist groups. At the end of one rant, he growled that “we are gonna slap you back into submission.”
Forgive me, then, if I am only modestly impressed by the fact that thousands of us stood together for a few hours, awed by the silent choreography of moon, earth and sun. I do not see in this event a transcendent American moment, much less a transformative one. From the Left, French philosopher and militant Guy Debord would have dismissed this “national moment” as symptomatic of a society of the spectacle, a country whose attention thoughtlessly flits from one event to another. From a more conservative perspective, historian Daniel Boorstin would have called this a pseudo-event. The event itself was true, of course, but its meaning was manufactured.
The eclipse masqueraded, for a few hours at least, as a particular kind of spectacular pseudo-event: the turning point. Things have been bad, we think, but now, maybe, they’ll get better. Some people have taken to thinking of Charlottesville as a turning point. If you search online for turning point and Charlottesville, Google will reward your effort with some 1,350,000 hits. The first, from The Week, reads: “Why Charlottesville is a turning point.” The article suggests that we’re closing ranks against white supremacy. However, the second, from PBS, reads: “White nationalists see violent Charlottesville rally as a turning point.”
As night descended over the Western Front on Christmas Eve, the guns fell silent and carols drifted across no man’s land. The Germans opened up first, singing hymns learnt in their native Rhineland and Bavaria, before the British responded, belting out Good King Wenceslas.
At first light on Christmas Day, the soldiers emerged unarmed from the trenches and met halfway across the muddy killing fields, shaking hands, exchanging buttons, sausage and tins of bully beef. There was even a raucous football match, 50-a-side. That night fairy lights and braziers were hauled over the parapets for the singing to continue.
In those hours of silence, the Christmas Truce had given soldiers on both sides some opportunity for reflection, consolation, reprieve and hope. Naturally, a year later, British and German governments tried to suppress a repeat performance, believing it would sap the will-to-fight. They needn’t have bothered: two days after it started, the truce ended and the killing resumed.
We are at a very dark place in our recent history, as dark as I’ve ever seen. Something is eclipsed, but it is not the sun.