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Nothing is new under the sun: the solar eclipse is the latest shiny object in the culture wars

This week was a reminder that our capacity for rational thinking hasn’t evolved all that much. People still look for celestial signs on how to vote

Herodotus – writing in the 5th century BC – contended more than once that a solar eclipse changed the entire course of history. First, the Medes and the Lydians were encouraged to broker a peace treaty under an inauspiciously darkened sky; and again, the Persian general Xerxes took an eclipse as a good omen for his planned invasion of Athens. The New Testament says the sky turned dark as Jesus was crucified. The Aztecs believed eclipses were a warning shot from the jaguar god; the Incas, meanwhile, were terribly concerned about the wrath of their own sun god.

If we think we have progressed past such primitive attempts to rationalise and understand the stars, we are very wrong. Monday’s eclipse displayed no more intellectual sophistication than our Persian forebears, no more cool-headed rationality. In fact, there was perhaps no greater reminder of human atavism than Americans gathering outside to stare at the sky. The eclipse is as compelling to us now as it always has been and so, naturally, it quickly became a point of politics, a vehicle for the culture wars, a contemporary example of our base instinct for mythology.

The last “total” solar eclipse before Monday’s happened on August 21st, 2017. Donald Trump and his wife Melania stood outside the White House to watch. Against the advice of all medical experts Trump looked up, pointed his finger, and stared directly into the sun. It was a humanising moment for those of us who know they couldn’t resist the threat of a burned retina out of primal curiosity. But, more than that, it was a political statement.

Meanwhile, this week Joe Biden took a different approach. In a clip shared on social media, Biden is standing in the same spot where Trump and Melania stood seven years ago, but he is wearing protective eclipse goggles. “An eclipse is worth marvelling at. But don’t be silly, folks – play it safe and wear protective eyewear,” the post read. It immediately and purposefully conjures 2017 Trump.


In the middle of the pandemic Hillary Clinton used the same image of a squinting Trump. “Please do not take medical advice from a man who looked directly at a solar eclipse,” she said. And so the eclipse (both in 2017 and now) became no mere celestial event but a symbol of moral fortitude, a lesson on how to vote, a display of values, an augury for Covid-19. Xerxes looking to the sun for advice on when to attack Athens made him no fool. Humans haven’t changed.

Trump foolishly peering at the sun strikes a rather different figure to Biden’s dorky public safety announcement. It is perfect shorthand for the Trump voter: one man’s virility versus another’s frailty. For the Democrat, it is a clear display of the wanton recklessness of Trump versus the cautious sense of Biden. It doesn’t really matter which interpretation is closer to the truth. The contrasting images are just a simple metaphor, ready to be warped into the shape of long-held prejudice, ready to be adopted as a symbol for something that extends far beyond the realm of astronomy. Which politician can be trusted? When should we invade Athens?

I used to think – mistakenly – that these kinds of culture wars were a distraction from the substance of real politics; that serious minded people did not get caught up in the frivolities of things like the colour of a passport, the alleged race politics of Harry Potter, Joe Rogan and Russell Brand. I thought these things were deliberate ploys to divert attention from important matters of trade policy and infrastructure spending. I thought things could somehow “fall victim” to the culture wars. Mea culpa.

I have since come to realise – via a rather robust correction afforded to me by the historian Dominic Sandbrook – that this was wrong. Culture wars are no distraction from the substance of politics – “they are the substance of politics”, he argues. The eclipse was neat evidence of this fact as it became a metaphor far more powerful and captivating than any taxation manifesto could ever aspire to be, as it revealed our culture-war instincts are as ancient as the Persians.

If anything should have disabused us of the idea that there is no meaningful distinction between culture and politics, perhaps it is the pandemic. “Follow the science” was an adage as much about political allegiance as any statement of policy. Mask-wearing in the US is still a dividing force between certain coastal liberal elites and the rest of the country. Lockdown policy was as much a reflection of a country’s values as anything else – Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand versus Boris Johnson’s Britain a stark example of this fact.

Grand narratives of history too often focus on all the ways humanity has progressed but just as interesting is all the ways we do not change. The lure of mythology is a perfect example: astrology, organised religion, Republicanism, belief in national foundation stories, the flag, the monarchy. And the eclipse now is no different, not just in its ancient appeal but in its lessons: how to vote in November 2024; whether to wear a mask indoors; whether to broker a peace deal with the Medes.