CARBONDALE, Illinois – Because of me, two people in Illinois missed the total solar eclipse that was seen across the United States last week. A quarter of an hour before the moon began to hide the sun, above the town of Carbondale, in the state’s southwest, I ran into the car of the man I will call P. from behind. As a result, his battered Ford rammed into the new Buick belonging to A., which was standing at a red light, and the three of us had to pull over by the side of the road and wait for the police.
It was a minor chain-reaction accident, and in the initial minutes after it took place, I was sure we would just exchange details and insurance policy information and be able to continue on to the Southern Illinois University stadium, where a huge happening was taking place in honor of the eclipse, which would be traversing the entire North American continent for the first time in almost a century.
The town of Carbondale was situated exactly at the center of the route of the eclipse, which began on the morning of August 21 above the State of Oregon and concluded a little more than four hours later over South Carolina. Accordingly, the eclipse was visible for the longest period over Carbondale – for two minutes, 40 seconds and two-10ths of a second – and the town became a magnet for tens of thousands of enthusiastic spectators from around the world.
While we waited for the police at the scene of the accident, P., who appeared to be about 30, started complaining about back and neck pains. He pushed the driver’s seat so it would recline, shielded his eyes and asked whiningly for an ambulance to be called. A., too, who looked to be in her 40s, said that her shoulder hurt from the collision and that her right arm was barely functioning. She got out of the car distraught, sat at the roadside, poured a bottle of water over her head and from time to time slapped herself on the face, all the while sobbing with pain.
Even though I found their reactions a bit exaggerated, common courtesy dictated a display of empathy. Until the police arrived, I skittered back and forth between the two of them, feigning true concern for their wellbeing. Actually, the only thing I was interested in was the eclipse. That was why I’d flown to the United States from Israel and had driven thousands of kilometers across the whole Midwest. But I hoped that a positive attitude on my part would result in a quick resolution to the problem.
The policemen did not seem particularly concerned by the condition of the two, and the paramedics who showed up, ambulance siren wailing, also were calm after examining them. Beyond filling out forms for them to submit to their insurance companies, they didn’t give either of them any treatment at the site.
The patrol officers took testimony from each of us and wrote up their reports. Afterward they asked me to accompany them to the local station, because I couldn’t find the rental car’s insurance policy. They told me I would be fined for speeding and tailgating, and also for driving without a valid insurance policy, which would incur an even higher fine.
The whole way to the police station I cursed P. and A. both. It seemed obvious to me that they’d put on an act. Happily for me, the officers were of the same opinion: Immediately after consulting with the duty officer, they announced that they were forgoing all my fines and that I was free to go. But the eclipse was now imminent, so I decided to stay and watch it together with the policemen on the station’s well-kept lawn.
“Take it easy. That’s the way they are,” a police sergeant told me with a smile, as I quickly set up my tripod and camera on the grass. Together with everyone else on duty at the station, he too had come out to watch the eclipse and was apparently curious to meet “the foreigner” who’d looked worried about the wellbeing of the two fakers at the scene of the accident.
“It’s a classic case of an attempt to cheat the insurance company,” he added, and said again, “That’s the way they are.” Asked whether by “they” he was alluding to the fact that both P. and A. were African-Americans, the sergeant replied with a smile, “You said that.” Only then did I realize that even though I’d admitted to every charge and had taken full responsibility for all the damage caused by the accident, the skin color of the two others involved was apparently a key reason that my white ass had been saved.
No relation to facts
Perhaps because of the presence of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, with a population of about 26,000, is quite mixed and socially liberal. The town’s demographics represent the ethnic diversity of Illinois in general, whose slogan is “Land of Lincoln.” Barack Obama was a U.S. senator from this state and declared his candidacy for his first term in the state capital, Springfield, by Lincoln’s grave.
But racism, as we know, does not stop at the boundaries delineated on maps. The southern part of Illinois is wedged between Missouri to the west, and Kentucky to the east, two states with a conservative character and a distinctly Republican orientation. Donald Trump won a majority in both in last year’s presidential election. While neither of them officially joined the rebel forces during the Civil War, each is represented by a star on the Confederate flag.
Thus, in Anna, Illinois, a 15-minute drive south of Carbondale, in a front yard that sported a Confederate flag, I met two men who called themselves Jimmy Dean, 31, and Joe Tinston, 42. Both proclaimed themselves “neo-Nazis” and ardent supporters of the white supremacy doctrine.
Not much conversation was needed to show that these were not two especially sharp minds. In fact, they were so dumb that they plunged straight into an exposition of their racist and anti-Semitic ideas, even though I introduced myself as a journalist from Israel. The only association Dean had when he heard the word Israel was, “Uh you’re the guys that are fucking the Muslims.” That was enough for him to feel free to rattle off a fine list of epithets for blacks, Arabs, Jews, Hispanics and everything that’s not Christian and white.
The two espoused a racist worldview. Period. Without theological roots or a pseudo-scientific cloak of race theory – a worldview that makes no reference to historical facts or to the current political and social situation in the United States. Of course, they do not draw on any serious thinkers or writings. Tinston replied to most of my questions – which I asked in an effort to understand the ideology they cling to – with “1488.” That’s a well-known neo-Nazi meme, formulated in the 1970s by the anti-Semitic white supremacist David Lane, and based on Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” The 14 refers to the number of words in the sentence “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The 88 represents the letter H, the eighth letter in the alphabet, and stands for “Heil Hitler.”
The two told me that they revere Hitler, and in the same breath, President Trump. They voted for him in the election and, according to Dean, they are satisfied with his performance to date, “so long as the Jews and the communists don’t influence him.” They had a hard time presenting a coherent opinion with respect to the Jewish origins of Jared Kushner, who’s married to the president’s daughter. Instead, they suggested that I photograph them demonstrating various hand gestures they claimed are used by neo-Nazis. Tinston volunteered to model threatening poses using a baseball bat and a rusty sword.
These days, left-wing groups in the United States, and in Israel, too, tend to be contemptuous and condescending about individuals like Dean and Tinston. The truth is that they don’t look like a genuine threat to the Free World. But others warn that the Nazi movement in Germany was also dismissed in the beginning. It’s hard to know which approach will ultimately prove correct, but it is clear that if American society, and in particular the president who leads the country, do not condemn and suppress the phenomena such people represent – vigorously and unhesitatingly – it’s not a discussion that can remain purely theoretical. As the two men spouted their racist doctrine, their young children romped around them. This is the atmosphere they’re growing up in. These young people are force multipliers that must not be belittled.
Another neo-Nazi I met in Anna (population 4,300), was Tala Tanley, 22. He had recently completed nursing school and hoped to get a job in a local clinic. If not, he said he’d try his luck at a hospital in Carbondale. “I’d rather stay here and work in Anna,” he told me, “so I won’t have a problem with treating blacks. There aren’t any here.”
Tanley invited me to meet him that evening at the traveling fair that had set up on the edge of town in honor of the eclipse. He promised that I’d be able to find another few supporters of the white supremacy idea there. The fair sported a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, a merry-go-round as well as other attractions – tractors, hogs and bulls, for example – favored by “rednecks,” as he termed his friends, probably without self-irony.
Only whites came to the fair. “Niggers don’t have anything to do here,” Tanley said, to the cheers of his three buddies, all of them about the same age as him. They refused to identify themselves or to have their photographs taken. They explained that they were afraid of the law enforcement authorities and more than once voiced the suspicion that I, despite my ridiculous accent, was an FBI agent. They asked later to see the pictures I’d taken at the fair, to make sure they weren’t in them. I agreed. They also demanded that I delete photos from around the fair in which the Confederate flag appeared, but I refused. I’m not sure I would have been able to stick to my guns if we hadn’t been surrounded by dozens of people with families.
These young men also claimed to be enthusiastic Trump supporters. They’re positive that he’s the only leader who can cope with “the waves of illegal immigration from Mexico,” and with the Black Lives Matter movement, which they characterize as “fake news that was created by the left-wing media, egged on by Obama.” They also trust Trump to be able to deal with the Jews, “who control the big corporations and the banking system.” They said they had learned about these ideas mainly via the internet and far-right Facebook groups, whose activity had grown by leaps and bounds in the past few months, they claimed.
Despite certain similarities, this group would seem to represent a different phenomenon from Dean and Tinston. They’re younger, involved in social networks and more aware of the boundaries of discourse: Whenever they used the word “nigger,” for example, they chuckled and looked around in apparent embarrassment, explaining that they chose the word because they didn’t want to be hypocritical, and because they were against political correctness, which they view as one of the great disasters the Democrats inflicted on American society.
In contrast to Dean and Tinston, these men were unwilling to be categorized as “racists.” For them, white supremacy is simply a fact of life. As proof, they cited the percentage of black prison inmates in relation to their proportion in the population, the number of Hispanics and minorities on welfare and so on. They insisted that they have a serious ideology, even if it’s not always well reasoned or sufficiently based on facts. At least two of them were college graduates, and they said they aspire to move up in the economic and social hierarchy.
A few local residents I spoke to in Anna said they disapproved of the opinions expressed by the group, but extremely forgivingly. They spoke of their activities as youthful folly – or, as one resident put it, “a rebellion that will pass the minute they have to start buying diapers and paying the mortgage.”
Path of darkness
The “great American eclipse,” as the event was dubbed in the American media, crossed 14 states. About 12 million people live in the path of totality, in a corridor around 110 kilometers wide. They were joined by almost 10 million Americans who live within driving distance of a day or two. In the weeks leading up to the event, there wasn’t a hotel or motel room to be had near the locales where the total eclipse could be viewed.
On my way to Carbondale, outside Montgomery City, Missouri (approximate population 2,700), at Dad’s Junction Café, which boasts the biggest meat sandwich available on the interstate, I met Pastor Dale Monroe, 74, from adjacent Callaway County. He told me he was planning to watch the eclipse alone, in his forest cabin. He said he’d found a few signs in the New Testament suggesting that the event would not end well, so he was apprehensive. His apocalyptic forecast was also based in part from long-term observations he’d been making of the sun. “It’s very high in the sky. That’s not the angle it should be at,” he said.
Monroe said he was furious at “the scientists” and “the left-wing media” for keeping such potentially dangerous information from the public. He, however, was ready for every possible calamity and had stockpiled enough food and ammunition to last a few days. “After that, God is great. I don’t know if there’ll be anything still worth living for.”
The pastor related that he was tired of talking about this subject with the locals, and that he felt somewhat disappointed at their skepticism and indifference to the approaching end of days. But he’s used to it, he said. “People are also tired of listening to what I have to say about Jews and blacks. So I’ve stopped all my activity in the church completely.”
Monroe’s doctrine is grounded firmly in scripture. He’s never without a copy of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (and an old globe too, with whose aid he presents the deviations he found in the angle of the sun). The New Testament, he notes, for example, that “the Jews are children of the devil” – actually a reference to the Pharisees in John 8:44. He has nothing better to say about blacks. Based on his interpretation of the story of Creation in Genesis, he said, “Living creatures that can’t blush – like the blacks, the reds, the yellows and the Arabs – can’t be God’s children and so can’t be considered human beings.” I asked him if this didn’t make him a racist, and he replied, almost in anger, “No way! You’re just not listening! There’s only one race. All the others are creatures.”
Monroe, of course, is an advocate of white supremacy, admires Hitler and Trump, insists that Obama, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are Jews, denies the Holocaust, maintains that homosexuals are sick, and so on and so forth. In an orderly world, this man would get two resounding slaps on the cheek or be sent to a psychiatric ward, but at Dad’s Junction Café, he has a regular table and an audience.
In that audience were two men, one I’ll call R., age 47, also from nearby Montgomery City, and another I’ll call M., who is 53. They espoused less extreme views, but said they respect the pastor, and thus didn’t confront him. Both described themselves as essentially conservative, both politically and otherwise, and seemed to harbor the panoply of fears that would seem to assail conservatives like them everywhere. They said that “progress” is making the ground beneath their feet tremble, and they feel threatened by political correctness, identity discourse and the aspirations of minorities, LGBTs and women for equality. They are afraid that black men will carry off their prim daughters, that ISIS will take over the world and that Jewish socialists will deprive them of the little they have in order to give a lazy Mexican with a mustache a welfare allowance.
I sat with the three of them at their regular table for more than two hours. It was clear to me from the outset that I would not find a common language with Monroe, but R. and M. were very open and intelligent. For a moment I even believed that if I could spend another two hours with them, I would be able to allay their conservative fears a little and make this world a bit better. But I had to continue on my way. We parted with warm handshakes.
Before I left, M. gave me a Confederate flag as a present. I’m still not sure whether that’s a testimony to my success or my failure.
One of the issues at the center of current interracial tension in the United States is the abiding presence of such symbols of the past as the Confederate flag and the monuments and sculptures meant to commemorate Southern soldiers who died in the Civil War. For many left-wingers and African-American citizens, these are symbols of oppression and racism, reminders of the era of slavery. For many right-wing extremists, they are among the symbols of white supremacy, and their continuing presence definitely has a provocative significance. But in between are a great many Americans who view them only as a reference to historical memory, which has no contemporary context.
The struggle over the presence of Confederate symbols in the public space triggered the confrontations that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, a month ago, in which a demonstrator from the left was killed by a right-wing activist. The cries of the white demonstrators – “You will not replace us,” or “Jews will not replace us” – related directly to the symbols and monuments, but their significance was of course far broader.
At present in the United States, there are more than 1,500 monuments still standing in memory of soldiers and commanders of the army of the Confederacy. In addition, hundreds of parks, public structures and roads are named for them. The U.S. Army itself has about ten bases and camps that bear the names of Confederate generals. The state flags of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Mississippi incorporate motifs from the Confederate flag.
Standing in the main square of Paducah, Kentucky (population 24,000), which is situated in the heart of the route of the great solar eclipse, is a sculpture of Lloyd Tilghman, a Confederate general from Paducah who was killed in the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, in 1863. There’s another monument in the local cemetery, commemorating six soldiers from the Rebel army.
“If anyone tries to remove them, I’ll go and defend the monuments with my body,” declared Terry McClure, 32, from Paducah, who told me he had recently hoisted the Confederate flag above his house. “It’s my heritage, and I won’t allow it to be erased,” he asserted.
According to McClure, there’s nothing provocative about flying the controversial flag. He he said he only took the step in the wake of the recent disturbances. This is his democratic and legal way of taking a stand, he added.
He categorized himself as a right-winger and Trump supporter, but insisted that he can’t be labelled a racist. “My forefathers died for that flag and for what it stands for,” he said. “For them it was a war for the sake of freedom. Yes, also the freedom to have slaves, which of course I disapprove of today, but also cultural freedom to preserve their traditions and economic liberty.”
According to most weather forecasts and computer models, there was a 5 percent chance of clouds over Carbondale on the day of the eclipse – a significantly lower prediction compared to many other Midwest cities that lay on the route. And that was the main reason that, while I was driving, I chose Carbondale, like tens of thousands of others.
But about five minutes before the moon blacked out the sun completely, as I was getting my camera ready on the lawn of the police station, a huge gray cloud appeared in the west and started to creep slowly toward the center of the sky.
The direction it was traveling was clear, and there was nothing to be done other than to gawk in frustration and helplessness. The temperature began to fall, and when the eclipse reached totality, the gray cloud covered the sky completely. The cries of disappointment of the 15,000 spectators who’d gathered at the Southern Illinois University stadium could be heard on the neatly trimmed lawn of the police station. It must have been the most viewed cloud in history. In addition to the tens of thousands of disappointed eyes that stared upward from the yards, squares and streets of Carbondale, Illinois, the town’s fiasco was broadcast live by all the major television stations in the United States and on NASA’s website.
I don’t have words to describe the depth of the disappointment and anguish, just as I have no words adequate to describe the heights of the surprise and joy that arose when a narrow hole appeared in the gray cloud, which for the eclipse’s last five seconds, revealed its totality in all its glory.