Scenes From a Pandemic: 24

15 09 2020

by Nathan Schneider

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

University of Colorado urges students to “Be a Buff” and be safe, as mascot welcomes students back to school. (photo: CU Boulder Today)

Something’s Happening Here

Boulder, Colorado

The call to action my generation received, during our first moment of inflection, was to get back to business. I was in my last year of high school on September 11, 2001, when an airliner slammed into the Pentagon a few miles away. Later that month, while visiting O’Hare International Airport, President George W. Bush implored the American people to “do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.”

Don’t soul-search or undertake shared sacrifice. Don’t learn Arabic or better under-stand the wider world. Take a picture with Mickey Mouse, where Jeb Bush was governor. To someone young and looking to find a calling and a purpose, such leadership was crushing. It was an invitation to waste the best energy of youth.

In 2006, as President Bush’s delusional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on, he told us much the same thing: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Back to shopping, back to school—we are there once again.


As after 9/11, another generation of youth at a moment of inflection is being encouraged to get back to business. We ought to be teaching a different lesson, one that addresses students as “moral beings rather than desiring consumers.”


I teach at the University of Colorado now, and my students are coming of age in another moment of inflection. They are entering adulthood during a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a historic uprising for justice. What calls to action have they received?

The virus, their president told them, is no cause for change: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” That was in February. He said everything would be back to normal by April. Trump’s delusions exceed those of his predecessor. But I don’t want to focus on presidents any more than they deserve, for they are not the only ones teaching the young.

I have had delusions of my own. Until the very last minute, I thought I could still make it to long-planned engagements in Europe in late February. I let myself believe the assurances that, somehow, our kids would be impervious to the virus at school. I keep imagining I can go back to business as usual.

Now my university is opening again, behind plastic shields and face masks. Students are repopulating the dorms and roving around town in partially masked flocks. Since we receive only an infinitesimal part of our budget from the state, we’re told, institutional survival requires business as usual. I am refreshing an old syllabus. Vast bureaucratic expertise has gone into establishing the fiction that such a thing is reasonable, that we can continue to provide the experience that students and their families are paying so much for. Perhaps, if we taught a different lesson, we could.

Earlier in the summer, a group of my colleagues published an open letter arguing that the return to campus would be not only a medical danger but also poor pedagogy. “It is the responsibility of the leadership to tell them,” these professors wrote, “to put public health first, and not to make false promises about a meaningful on-campus experience, when health and lives are on the line.” I didn’t sign. I was still waiting and seeing.

NYU anthropologist Angela Zito has diagnosed higher education’s failure of imagination especially pointedly:

Colleges missed the chance to directly address our students as moral beings rather than desiring consumers, and invite them to join us in a time of grieving perseverance in order to save ourselves together. Will never get over that. Intend to teach that way myself.

She reminds me of two lines from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. At some old colleges, these lines are carved into monuments to students killed in the Great War (and, surely, the concurrent influenza pandemic):

’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.

As a student at Brown University, I walked by those words almost daily, hearing their call to sacrifice in grating opposition to what President Bush was asking of us at the time. The words themselves invert Angela Zito’s lament: “man” rather than all of us together; an adventure of death as opposed to the struggle for collective safety. Yet Zito and Emerson are united in their embrace of a morality that embraces non-normal times, that invites the young to take history upon themselves and act in it—not merely for the sake of approximating their earlier expectations but in order to raise their expectations and live lives that mean something.

Can we teachers “address our students as moral beings” behind the institutional pretense (and masks and screens) of normal education delivery? As Zito says, we need to grieve. Then we can get down to the non-normal work of reshaping our world out of this cataclysm.

I hope my students will hear the call to put their best selves into this moment. It’s their time. Those who most want to rush back to normal are probably those who most fear the opportunity for change that the young now have before them.

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and assistant professor in media studies. He is the author, most recently of Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy. His current project is an exploration of models for democratic ownership and governance for online platforms and protocols. He is founder of the Media Enterprise Design Lab. In 2012 he helped organize Kopkind’s camp focused on the aftermath of Occupy.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on September 9, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Grief in Philadelphia

(photo: Aja Beech)

Before writing her dispatch for “Scenes From a Pandemic,” Aja Beech walked her neighborhood of Philadelphia, taking pictures. This one was among the many she sent our way. Her piece will appear at The Nation on Wednesday and here next week.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 23

7 09 2020

by Laura Flanders

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

The author interviews a local farmer using a social distancing selfie stick. (photo: Sabrina Artel)

Something’s Happening Here

Sullivan County, New York

It’s a myth that people in small-town America know one another. I’ve had a cabin in this place for 30 years and never knew that a foie gras factory sits high above Ferndale, a hamlet I’ve driven through hundreds of times. I found out one sunny Sunday this spring, when 40 flag-festooned cars filed up to La Belle Farm past blooming forsythia and a white-picket-fenced farmhouse, part of an appreciation drive for farm and factory workers.

The drive kicked off at Murray’s Chickens, a packing plant 15 minutes away in South Fallsburg, and weaved through a housing project where workers and their kids smiled and waved, sprawling out onto concrete stoops in the spring warmth as we honked our horns.

No one waved in Ferndale. Not a soul could be seen. Only row after row of workers’ trailers, exposed on a hilltop, perpendicular to an enormous, low, windowless barn. When New York City banned the sale of foie gras, a few years ago, no one stopped this place or nearby Hudson Valley Foie Gras from force-feeding and slaughtering enough ducks, ducklings, and geese to make these the nation’s premier producers of the sickening pâté. Who knew?

* * *

We left Manhattan and drove up here in March. A pocket of hanging-on farms, scrubby woods, and defunct hotels, Sullivan Valley is neither Hudson Valley rich nor Delaware Valley airy. From its heyday as the Catskills’ famous Borscht Belt in the 1950s, it is home now to 75,000 souls in winter. Social distance comes with the territory. As the snow fell late and wet, and lines at the supermarket got better organized, it was possible to imagine that nothing new was coming, not spring or Covid-19.

The novel coronavirus came quietly to the country, prowling the backroads of poor health, poor health care, lack of attention and clout. Facts took time to come into focus, as inconspicuous places with tucked-away poultry plants started showing up in county statistics, followed by obscure villages fronting off-road meat packers and down-by-the river dairy processors.

By late April, people were realizing that, just like the city, their patch of country was powered by a pool of poorly paid, poorly documented, mostly latinx and black workers. Some were dead, and more were falling sick.

Thirty-eight-year-old Luz (not her real name) worked in a cold, crowded factory wrapping luncheon meat around cheese sticks for sale at deli counters around the country. Twenty-five workers toiled bunched up at three tables, and ate together at mealtimes. She learned about the virus through the Internet, then on Facebook, and didn’t believe it posed a threat here. All spring, Luz kept working. Still, she’d undress as soon as she returned home and shower before greeting her children.

“She went nowhere, just from her job to home; home to Walmart or ShopRite to get what we needed; then home again,” explained teenage Marisol, speaking on Zoom from the home her mother forbade her to leave.

Then a co-worker died. Luz left work that day and hasn’t been back: “How could they do such a thing, to not tell us what’s happening?”

* * *

Two months into the lockdown in Manhattan, Sullivan County had the highest positive test rate, and the most new cases per capita, in New York State.

Ad from Sullivan County’s Silver Age (1890-1915) of therapeutic tourism. (image: John Conway/The River Reporter)

The county’s public health director, Nancy McGraw, raised concerns about farm and factory workers at her weekly briefings, which were face-timed on a press officer’s cell phone. Local media picked up the story, and with bad broadband and little elbow room, activists got busy.

By early May, Rotary clubs were delivering food to essential workers, piling station wagons full of Monticello’s famous bagels in the morning and cooked meals from grateful restaurants at night. At the entrance to the senior care center in Liberty, nurses put on superhero costumes to greet a rain-drenched solidarity drive-by. Nurses thanking drivers, drivers thanking nurses, everyone getting wet.

Meanwhile, Juanita Sarmiento and members of the Rural and Migrant Ministry set up signs at the entrance to Murray’s Chickens: FREE MASKS. Across from the bank and the kosher butchers, they handed out boxloads of protective masks to blue-apron-clad workers at shift change.

“We could have seen it coming. I saw it coming,” says Sarmiento, a former biology student.

“What’s coming into its own is new leadership,” purrs Sandy Oxford through a red chili-pepper face mask. Director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, Oxford joined Sarmiento at Murray’s one Friday to support workers and berate the bosses: “If the workers have all the masks they need, why are they rushing over here to get more?”

* * *

Crowds rallied for black lives in June: half a dozen on the bridge in Narrowsburg; several hundred in Monticello, demanding release of prisoners from the town’s ancient jail.

Notice for June 21 Black Lives Matter rally in Roscoe.

In Roscoe, at the foot of Catskill State Park, the Black Lives Matter rally took place on Railway Avenue, a broad, empty block, home of the Trout Town Inn.

Organizer Ashlee Perez straddled a wooden ranch fence to be seen. “Yes, we have racism here in Roscoe,” she told the mostly white, mostly young group of protesters. Along with half a dozen other African Americans, she told her neighbors about their town—about school bullies, bureaucratic bigots, absurd arrests, and too-many-to-count traffic stops, about silence and threats.

The group clustered around two vintage train carriages, a perky red caboose, and a long, sea green “trout car,” reminders of the railway platform that once occupied this block. One hundred years ago, people in long dresses and high hats, mostly white, mostly Christian, spilled off the trains of the O & W line, drawn by Roscoe’s fish and fresh air. Only the train cars and the trout remain.

The future will look different, says Perez. Demographics demand it. “But right now, people like me aren’t going to want to stay here.” Waving her arms for balance, Perez seemed to gesture down the invisible tracks. “This place is going to have to change.”

* * *

I have seen every day of spring and summer here for the first time. I’ve discovered that those trout, millions of them, were city transplants, shipped from Long Island hatcheries in the 1880s and ’90s. They rode the rails as people did. From the crowded city, many people came with tuberculosis, seeking fresh air, a cure, relief.

For 30 years, Sullivan County boomed. That was its Silver Age. It ended in the 1920s, when people began to understand that human contact could spread disease.

One red hot Saturday in July, strolling down a long former track, now a wheelchair-accessible walkway, with county historian John Conway, I learned more. TB killed the passenger trains, an entire network of spidery rail lines that had brought generations of city-dwellers north. But TB also brought a Jewish immigrant and his family here, seeking escape from city smog and anti-Semitism. The Grossingers bought a failing farm at a bargain price and helped usher in Sullivan County’s next big boom, its Golden Age. Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel had 35 buildings, its own airport, and a post office until it closed, in 1986.

Ruins of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

What’s coming next? Connection or contagion? Coming together or coming apart? History surprises, but it doesn’t predict.

Laura Flanders was a Kopkind mentor in 2018 and 2019. She is the host of The Laura Flanders Show, a TV and radio program which for years has covered the people and places other media miss. As of September 6, The Laura Flanders Show is broadcast every Sunday at 11:30 AM ET on the World Channel and on more than 90 PBS stations across the week. Check local listings. If your station isn’t airing The Laura Flanders Show, contact them! For information: lauraflanders.org.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on September 2, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembrance of Summer Past

Behind the waterfall at Green River in Guilford, Taté Walker (Kopkind 2015) and JoAnn Wypijewski. Taté, a writer, photographer and activist, contributed ‘Scenes From a Pandemic: 6’ in May. (photo: Taté Walker)

We look forward to the return of Kopkind summer in 2021.