Sniffing the Zeitgeist, Winter 2021

21 12 2021

Again, Kopkind is bringing its annual end-of-year newsletter to you digitally.

Jasmine, Toronto (photo: Asam Ahmad, Kopkind 2014)

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Let’s start with Forward. As 2021 comes to a close, Kopkind is looking ahead to resume our signature summer seminar/retreats at Tree Frog Farm. We’re not under illusions that we’ll wake up one day and the coronavirus will have disappeared; having put the summer project on pause for the past two years of the pandemic, we’re simply determined to deal with new realities. Like the incongruous flowering in Asam Ahmad’s garden, above, we’re pushing up jasmine; like the rocky soil or soft woodlands of southern Vermont, we’re pushing up forsythia and forget-me-not, pushing up morels, anything but metaphorical daisies. Nature is real for Kopkind, part of why the project is not Zoomable. Kopkind is a social and sensory experience as much as an intellectual, political and creative one. Embedded in life, embedded in history and a feeling for freedom. So, to regeneration! That is our wish, for Kopkind, for you our friends and supporters, for our collective radical energies and our world. Come July and August of 2022 we expect to welcome back our ‘camps’ of political journalists, activists and documentary filmmakers, as we have done for twenty years. Please help us make that happen. There’s a Donate button at the bar up top on this site; we welcome every gift with open arms.

As to looking back, Kopkind wasn’t idle this year, and the hundreds of people who have been participants in or guests of the project since 1999, along with our network of members and advisers, are rocking in the world. Some of them contributed to “Scenes From a Pandemic,” the weekly series of short essays that Kopkind commissioned and edited, a collaboration with The Nation that was manifest on the magazine’s website and this blog from 2020 into ’21. Some of them released films, including one that was workshopped ten years ago at Film Camp and had its Vermont premier at an outdoor public screening at Tree Frog Farm in August. One alumna made national headlines.

India Walton (Kopkind 2019)

In June, India Walton and her campaign stunned a four-term incumbent and the broader political establishment by winning the Democratic Party primary for mayor of Buffalo. A lot of people said she came out of nowhere, but they hadn’t been paying attention. When she came to Kopkind in 2019, she had recently started a community land trust aiming to secure permanent affordability in a black neighborhood threatened by gentrification. Long before that, a social movement infrastructure had been growing in Buffalo that helped her find her people and add to the struggle for a more equitable city. Our theme in 2019 was Democratizing the Economy. The experience, she says, made her feel like a “wild woman,” which is another way of saying a free woman: it helped build political and personal confidence. This year she put together a new kind of rainbow coalition to contest electorally. The subsequent general election campaign was long and ugly, and India didn’t prevail. (For more on the background and aftermath, see here and here, respectively.) Her campaign did succeed, though, in putting inequality at the center of the table in a city whose media and dominant political class have been too busy touting ‘Renaissance’ to bother much about the people left out. (Now the mayor is talking about them.) The campaign cross-pollinated with the young workers in Buffalo who in December won the first union drive in the country at Starbucks. It provided a real-world testing ground for Our City Action Buffalo, a new multiracial organization that aims to build power through electoral change. It created a sense of possibility, and drew in new people, breaking longstanding barriers. Those are themes close to Kopkind’s hearthow the left engages in every area of struggle, and how it expands the realm of participation, thought and action.

* * *

Some primary voters in Buffalo said it was the pandemic that convinced them there needed to be a change in priorities at the top. As the crisis hit, the city’s social movement infrastructure had organized to meet people’s needs when little else would. That was a familiar story around the country.

Two years in, the pandemic continues to structure the spirit of the time. Somehow it seems darker now, the uncertainties of last year compounded by the normalization of distance and the gulf between social solidarity and bloody-mindedness. (Let alone the latest variant.) “Scenes From a Pandemic” continued with songs of experience, but the tone seemed different. Endurance formed the base line, the improvisations of the period conveying hopes for regeneration refracted in multiple ways across time.

Asam: On the cusp of another surreal spring, I have never felt simultaneously more at home and more afraid of being unmoored.

At the start of the pandemic, Asam and his boyfriend had been evicted. They’d found a place far from the center of prohibitive Toronto and planted a garden, whose bounty Asam catalogued lavishly, the flower and vegetable names cascading one on top of another like poetry, the garden revealed as, at once, a balm, a distraction, a point of connection with neighbors, an anchor and warning amidst precarious life. The day his story appeared on The Nation’s site, Asam learned that the landlord was selling the house, and they were being evicted again.

At the start of the pandemic, Angela Ards, who was a Kopkind camper in 2000, a mentor in 2015 and has been an ongoing adviser, made a local dog park a respite from isolation together with other dog owners in Newton, Massachusetts. Diversion became something deeper, both nourishing and more complicated in 2021.

Angela: It’s been almost a year. Wildlife is back in hiding; smog in New Delhi and Los Angeles has returned; yet, we still gather … The Vizsla’s dad, who was laid off and then rehired at a much lower salary, says the pandemic has changed his mind about a lot. Perhaps “building wealth” sounded more like a scam after losing his job. Following the January 6 insurrection, he asked if I thought Trump supporters would have a change of heart having seen the violence. I doubt it. I think it’s more like the Shih Tzus’ dad. He does work harder now to make small talk, to connect, but he persists in showing up without a mask despite a statewide mandate. Standing on the hill by the oak trees, he wishes “Good morning” to the rest of us, masked, standing below. He seems to want to show us that he’s not like those people who stormed the Capitol.

Sticker, New York City (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Globally, a year with Covid coincided with the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. From Kyoto, Lisa Torio (Kopkind 2016) began with the image of a spring market, lush, luscious; and the hushed manner in which some continued to speak of calamity.

Lisa: Coming of age in the years following the nuclear disaster, I learned from the way adults spoke in measured tones, from their pauses and awkward glances, that talking about tragedies has an expiration date. On March 11, at 2:46 pm, people across the country prayed in silence, remembering those who lost their lives in the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami and those still missing … The government’s promise of recovery in the wake of that disaster meant erasure. It meant covering up the full extent of radiation and lifting evacuation orders without proper evaluation and evidence. It meant cutting subsidized housing for tens of thousands of people who were simply dropped from the “official count” of evacuees. Two years after the disaster, the Japanese prime minister declared, “Japan is back.” With that, mourning became something reserved for official days only. We traded reflection for a version of recovery that requires a finite past. Fukushima became a tragic thing that once happened but that we overcame, a testament to our resilience as a nation. Such recovery requires us to reconstruct our lives around the official narrative, to draw a line between those who bore the brunt of the disaster and the rest of us, their world and ours. It requires our silence—we repress the dismay, fear, rage and sorrow we feel to go on as if everything is back to the way things were, the way things always are. It becomes harder and harder to remember—what is happening, what it feels like, what is being erased. The current of all the unsaid things running beneath the silence

Another spring with Covid coincided with more agony in Gaza. Writing from Lahore, Hira Nabi (Kopkind 2011): “There is nothing else to talk about but Palestine. There is nowhere else to look but Palestine. There is everything in the world but hope. There is nothing in the world without hope.”

Another September with Covid, another hurricane season, another year since an uncle of Joël Díaz (Kopkind 2015) had gone missing after trying to escape devastation in Dominican Republic by sea.

Joël: No one is certain about what actually unfolded. The tale goes that, either begrudged or wary of his companions, my uncle split from the group once he reached shore. Unfamiliar with that part of the island, he went into the forest to make his way toward the closest inhabited town. During one of the police searches, a pair of shorts were found. They are believed to be his. When I asked for updates, all details amounted to nothing, some wispy trace, deteriorating in an instant … One rumor was that he’d been taken by Haitian kidnapés, who would soon request ransom, said to be stalled because of police searches. It is uncertain if those claims are rooted in anti-blackness or in the realities of the kidnappings plaguing Haiti and neighboring towns in Dominican Republic. Legend will say that there is a man who roams the town in his underwear, searching for his family. And there he stays, neither fully clothed nor whole. Just a memory. A rumor. A hope.

Murk, between Dominican Republic and the world (photo: Joël Díaz)

* * *

To paraphrase Andrew Kopkind, then writing of the war in Vietnam, what the pandemic has done to the societyquite apart from the cost in lives and healthis only beginning to be understood. Its presence as background rather than subject in so many stories speaks less to the ways that Covid is becoming endemic than to a pattern of crises in the neoliberal order that made that inevitable. How the roots of this reality are perceived and what anyone does with the knowledge is a point of politics. That in the US some see a cabal of Satanic pedophiles and others see systems of exploitation, that the elite are split between advancing versions of the welfare state and hoarding the goodies while they can, indicate the volatility of the situation. On one level, the nonchalance toward mass death (1 out of 100 elders cut down) is stunning, though we’ve been throwing granny away for some time now, not to mention soldiers and foreign populations. Yet the shock of Covid remains so profound on an individual and systems level that however much one might want to turn away from the numbers, and however normalized some pandemic routines may have become (working from home, alone, wearing pajamas all day), the now-ordinary incapacitations (of bodies, hospitals, supply chains) call into question so much else that’s been taken as normal. Disposability is hardly new, just harder to ignore.

Worker revolts (including the wave of resignations), uprisings against police violence, electoral campaigns like Walton’s, all represent a rejection of devalued life. In different ways, Malkia Devitch-Cyril (Kopkind 2002) and Bri M. (Kopkind 2018) wrote about this.

Malkia: It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death. In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it.

Bri: I have never been normal. As a black, disabled trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to? … I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work … tell[ing] the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never alone. Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward.

Work, Bri, Los Angeles (photo: Prerna Sampat, Kopkind 2009)

Malkia’s and Bri’s stories were ultimately about culture as a necessitypersonally, politically, reflecting and shaping the Zeitgeist.

* * *

As noted, a couple films that were workshopped in Kopkind’s Film Camp, a collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, premiered this year. WBCN and the American Revolution, by Bill Lichtenstein (Kopkind/CID, 2014), aired on PBS in the fall, documenting the relationship between left media and left movements through the story of a radio station that grew out of the sixties-era counterculture in Boston. (John Scagliotti and Andy Kopkind, who both appear in the film, worked in the news department at BCN in the 1970s and also created the first gay and lesbian commercial radio show there, “The Lavender Hour.”) The Faithful, by Annie Berman (Kopkind/CID 2010), was released in March, taking an innovative approach to open streaming sponsored by Grant for the Web, which aims to seed a digital ecosystem that is equitable, inclusive, attentive to privacy and creative control. (It’s notable that Malkia, as the founding executive director and now senior fellow of MediaJustice in Oakland, has spent more than twenty years fighting for digital rights, conscious of the Internet’s “troubled terrain” but also of its connective power, using it in the pandemic to create a weekly meeting place called Pandemic Joy, among other online groups.) We screened Annie’s film, a meditation on cultural icons and popular devotions, along with a sneak peak of Chuck Light and Daniel Keller’s Far Out: Life On & After the Commune, under a late summer sky, in an open tent, after a repast of marvelous dishes brought by community members whose delight at gathering again in person was palpable.

The Bonuses or main posts on this site from across the year contain many samples of the cultural work of some of Kopkind’s alums and friends: Daniela Broitman’s doc on the great Brazilian composer Dorival Cayymi. Jon Crawford’s archive of lgbtq experience, Tell Me a Memory. Tracy Heather Strain’s PBS film on The Wizard of Oz. Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s doc on two Cuban-born virtuosos, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, now up for Oscar consideration. Suchi Branfman’s account of making Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic and, as a bonus to the same post, Katja Esson and Ann Bennett’s film-in-progress on the struggle over Miami’s historic Liberty City. Divad Durant’s account of transnational collaboration in making his short film Goodnight Sun. David Ferry’s haunting translations and observations on the “lamenting pleasure” of writing and reading poetry in relation to grief.

Alex Halkin (Kopkind/CID 2014), whose wonderful collaborative work with Cuban artists we featured as a Bonus to Nos. 5 and 19 of “Scenes From a Pandemic,” in May and August of 2020, respectively, has sent along a new collaborative video. Like the earlier works, this one is part of the Americas Media Initiative (AMI), which Halkin directs and which is focused on community-based media in the hemisphere. We gladly share it here:

As Alex writes: “To this date there are still no means for Cubans living in the US to send money to their loved ones on the island. AMI Is sending royalty payments to Cuban filmmakers with two friends who are traveling there.” Behind the lighthearted form of superhero animation is serious business: the obligation of US citizens to object to our government’s proclivity to wield suffering as a weapon.

* * *

“What kinds of coalitions, of we‘s, are possible in this protracted, still expanding historical moment of catastrophe?” Asam asked in closing his dispatch from Toronto. “What kinds of routes are available to make one another’s lives less vulnerable? Like Gramsci, I keep reminding myself that it is painful to be alive at the time of a new birth; that it is painful to witness newness being born.”

India Walton called her experience at Kopkind “transformational.” We’ve heard that a lot over twenty years from people who work every day to change conditions, to change consciousness, and we think it has to do with the combination of people, political discussion, setting, history, culture, pleasure. Finding pleasure in ideas, in human company, in nature and attention. It has to do with everyone who believes in this project and has contributed to it in any waywith appreciation for all that it means to love life, as our chef Mary Lewis suggested in her post to “Scenes From a Pandemic.”

Mary: I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects. Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks that Andy and John had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

Andy, Tree Frog Farm (photo: John Scagliotti)

“We love life whenever we can,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Every word captures the truth of the thing: there’s nothing fainthearted about love.

“Scenes From a Pandemic” has been a series of love offerings, written under trying circumstances, with intention. For a holiday treat, you can find Mary’s salmon recipe here, and can scroll down for all sixty-one essays from the pandemic series (including Scot Nakagawa’s 2020 kimchee recipe here, for another treat) plus Bonuses. We are so grateful to everyone who put in the effort. We are grateful to The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Don Guttenplan, our friends, who made it possible for people to earn a little money while opening windows onto experience. (And to everyone at the magazine who worked to put it up every week, especially Robert Best, Ricky D’Ambrose, Anna Hiatt and Sandy McCroskey.) We are grateful to our readers, to you right now, and we really need your help. The Donate button is a click away.

The political moment presents challenge and opportunity, and we’re going forward, baby.

Here’s to you, with every warm wish. Here’s to a new year. Here’s to solidarity.

JoAnn Wypijewski, for everyone at Kopkind

PS: anyone who would prefer to write a check may surely do so. Please make it out to Kopkind and mail to John Scagliotti, 158 Kopkind Road, Guilford, VT 05301. John is having the mail forwarded to his winter HQ, so it may take a bit longer to receive an acknowledgment. Gifts to Kopkind are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Thank you!



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