Tomorrow, the Moon will cast its shadow across the entire United States of America, hoving from northwest to southeast, shrouding much of the nation in temporary, recreational darkness in the middle of the day.
Unlike most space and sky events, the 2017 Eclipse has captivated the whole country. Viewing glasses are sold out. Americans are hitting the road in large numbers to get a clear view. A stressed and weary nation is taking an arbitrary day off. We are craving an external phenomenon, something bigger than ourselves and our tumult. This total solar eclipse could hardly be better timed or more symbolically loaded to reflect and challenge our national mind at a pivotal moment.
At a prosaic level, I’m heartened that if nothing else, lots of people are going to learn about the turning wheels of the solar system with a kind of visceral observational truth that’s hard to convey in a book or video. We’ll stop and ponder what is really happening in 3D space as the Sun, the Earth and the Moon line up on one of their countless cycles. Vectors and lines and curves and shadows will conspire to deliver an eclipse to the USA. It’s utterly ordinary in the long game of the cosmos but dazzling and beguiling to us.
Far more remarkably, the eclipse is a noncontroversial event. It has not been politicized, and we all know in our guts that there’s no position to take about it. Nobody as far as I can tell is denying that the scientists are right that the eclipse will happen as predicted many decades ago. The eclipse brings with it a refreshing wave of undeniable, objective fact, presenting an opportunity to ask ourselves what else scientists are predicting about the trajectory of the Earth.
We could fairly ask whether what we need as a nation right now is more darkness. A big, implacable shadow hovers over us all, and unlike our Moon, it’s not going to get out of the way on a predictable path or schedule. The nation is famously polarized and growing more so. Hostilities are breaking out as ancient wounds are opened by a demagogue president who knows and values nothing about observed reality, the beauty of the cosmos, or the wherewithal to unite the country by pointing us toward the light.
The word benighted is a sad and beautiful way to describe a culture that’s turned backward and grown ignorant and intolerant. It’s the very opposite of enlightenment, the great intellectual accomplishment of human kind that gave us the ability to conceive or write a constitution like ours and set up the world’s most robust and successful democracy — those very values that are right now being eclipsed.
Obviously, there are dark chapters in the American story, from 400 years ago right up to today. We are the ultimate work in progress. But I’ve taken it as a given, even from the tumultuous turning on of my consciousness during the unmaking of the Nixon administration, that we are a nation that mostly strives toward enlightenment. Only in the last few years has my faith in that trajectory been diminished.
I want to believe this nation is light. And it is. We saw it yesterday in a boisterous, beautiful and peaceful anti-fascist march in Boston. Spiritually, intellectually, artistically, this country’s best people burn and swirl with energy currents that resemble the sun’s flowing plasma. I didn’t like much about Ronald Reagan, but I do want believe in America as that shining city on a hill. Most of us do.
But we also have too many who are too quick to see darkness in others, and we have a president who’s found that fear can be industrialized to his benefit. Our culture persists in its toxic and irrational tendency to assign darker toned people to lesser, lower places and opportunities. Too many of us are tolerating the imminent dimming of Liberty’s torch. Too many are advancing their agenda by attacking and smearing the light-bringers among us — the teachers and scholars and researchers and journalists — whose business is to illuminate dark places.
We have some bold, bright-line choices to make, and we’d better make them in tune with the grounded, evidence-based clarity of those astronomers who told us, absolutely accurately, that the day will dim on August 21, 2017 between 9:05 am PDT and 4:09 pm EDT.
Every day the sun appears. Tomorrow it will appear twice, and we will all look up at the light together. Let’s not let that feeling fade.