This summer was, by all accounts, not great.
As a country, we faced danger both man-made (North Korean bomb threats, terrorist attacks in Barcelona) and natural (Hurricane Harvey). As a nation, we found we couldn’t agree on anything, not even the fact that Nazis are awful. The health of thousands of Americans hung in the balance before the Senate decided not to strip them of their health care without a replacement plan–for now. Congresspeople dealt intimately with violence, as victims and as the perpetrators. And throughout it all, culture as a whole was affected.
Now more than ever, the news is a constant topic of conversation. Plays like the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park have been staged to comment on the current politics. TV shows, like The Handmaid’s Tale, are viewed as direct responses to the news of the day despite having been developed some time ago. It can feel as though every culture article concludes with a paragraph connecting the media in question to politics, news or something else controversial. No aspect of the arts or popular culture remains unexamined through a current events lens. Nothing is deemed too sacred or too stupid for this kind of critique, not even The Bachelorette or comedy movies about female friend groups (see: Girls Trip and Rough Night). What made this all the more difficult is that the entire country seems at times to be living in two parallel universes.
Depending on which news channel you turn on, you might hear a completely different version of the news of the day, or analysis of said news. There are very few pieces of media or events that attract everyone’s attention, and if they do, somewhat depressingly, it’s almost always surrounding death. Increasingly, people are experiencing media and culture in tightly closed bubbles, only seeing what they want to see and ignoring something that doesn’t fit with their worldview or that they don’t want to have to understand. To quote, there seems to be fault, “on many sides, on many sides”.
Overall, while the summer may have been busy, it was neither fun nor relaxing. For many, it was quite far from it. Which is why the solar eclipse on August 21st was so wonderful and so very different from anything else we experienced over the summer.
For roughly two hours on a Monday afternoon, nearly everyone in America was talking about the same thing. No matter what news channel you were watching, they were covering the same topic. Across the nation, from near and far, people gathered and just stood and watched. It was a mass communal experience, and it is awful to have to say this, but it was one that for once did not involve death or violence. Jokes were made, dorky glasses were worn, the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was played, the NASA Moon Twitter account blocked the NASA Sun Twitter account, a few retinas were burned, and, for two hours, the world was a wonderful place.
After a summer plagued with hate and marked by violence, the eclipse during the waning weeks of the summer was like a hug at the end of a long day, telling you that everything is going to be okay. When every topic seems fraught with controversy, the eclipse put the country back on the same page and in the same discussion. The solar eclipse helped remind us that there’s more that unites us than divides us. We can all stand in awe of nature’s glory. We can all gather around and look stupid in the same paper glasses. We can find things we all agree on and we can all get excited about the same thing.
The last solar eclipse in the United States occurred in 1918. Woodrow Wilson was the President, and the World War (for at that point, it had been the only one) was drawing to a close. The Red Sox managed to beat the Chicago Cubs. News was becoming national, with the start of nationally published daily newspapers. The country was abstaining from alcohol or drinking surreptitiously. On June 18th, when the solar eclipse passed overhead, covering Washington State to Florida, then as now, Americans gathered for this uniquely communal event. And yes, then as now, they wore what were probably unattractive protection glasses.
But 1918 can also be seen as a time of great division in the United States. German-Americans were shunned throughout World War I because of wartime fear of spies. The Great Depression, which helped enlarge the wage-gap throughout the U.S., was on the horizon. The United States became literally more divided when the country was split into distinct time-zones in March of that year. And when news articles mentioned that the next solar eclipse in the US would be in 2017, Americans probably could not fathom the country we have turned ourselves into today.
The next solar eclipse in the U.S. isn’t as far off–it will take place in 2024, a few weeks before Passover. However, even though the gap is 7 years instead of 99 years, it still seems worlds away. What will our country be like in 7 years? Will we continue down this path of divisiveness, of partisanship, of hatred? Will we again view the two minutes when darkness covers the nation as a rare moment of brightness? Or will we be able to appreciate things in life, even moments of nature’s wonders, without connecting them to politics? I certainly hope so.