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No Commons Without Community; No Community Without Commons

The “Kopkind Room”

by PETER LINEBAUGH

Usually called ‘the Big Room’ I preferred to think of it as ‘the Kopkind Room’ because JoAnn came in once and explained that the two glass-enclosed book-cases on either side of the window on the north wall, filled with Andy’s books, belong to the living memorial named for him; in fact they were the only things in the house that were.  Nothing surprising here. Tree Frog Farm, home of the Kopkind Colony, is not a mausoleum.  Yet the room will be the site of my historical/political projections and ruminations.

Andrew Kopkind died twenty years earlier in 1994, the most brilliant radical journalist of the era, one I admired immensely.  In accepting JoAnn Wypijewki’s invitation to be one of the two “mentors,” the other was Scot Nakagawa, for a week at the “summer camp with attitude” with eight young radical activists and writers, I had an emerging agenda of my own.

The eight “campers,” in their twenties or early thirties as I understood, were active, experienced, exciting people.  One an absolute rock in Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street, another a labor organizer among Guatemalan farmers and Tennessee tobacco workers; one just back from years in South Africa doing HIV work, another a Chicago journalist and housing advocate; someone else had just returned from an amazing re-union of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi; an Ahmadi Muslim skilled in poetry and queer support politics; a Barcelona squatter and climate justice fighter building a boat made out of paper to sail down the Hudson River; an effective abolitionist who worked against the death penalty only to have to deal with the apologias of empire as a grad student.

The themes for the week were The Commons and Alienation.  I didn’t feel I could teach much to these people apart from some nomenclature and a handful of dates and facts.  I accepted JoAnn’s invitation so readily because it gave me a chance to explore the sources of my admiration for Andrew Kopkind, “Andy” as they called him.  I prepared for my visit by reading him and I ended it by reading him aloud.

We went around the patio table introducing ourselves. After each autobio moment JoAnn read aloud a passage from Kopkind.

“Somewhere in the existential depths of that brawl of screaming transvestites were all the freedom rides, the anti-war marches, the sit-ins, the smoke-ins, the be-ins, the consciousness-raising, the bra-burning, the levitation of the Pentagon, the endless meetings and broken hearts.”  Thus Kopkind summed up the radical energies of the Stonewall Riot of July 1969:  civil rights, anti-war, counter-culture, feminism, gay liberation, drugs, of the previous decade. He jams them together in writing where the shades of Hegel, Freud, Sartre, Marcuse hover near by.  As both analyst and witness, Kopkind was there. 

JoAnn edited his prose in The Thirty Years’ War: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-1994 (Verso, 1995).  It contains one hundred and eleven essays arranged in an epic arc with three chronological arches.  Alexander Cockburn supplies a loving introduction describing the wars of the title, hot and cold wars, sex wars, class wars, culture wars, and race wars.  Kopkind was a veteran.  Alexander Cockburn lived here too for a time, in the summers of the early 1980s.  They had the sharpest tongues of the epoch.

Up there in the clean air of the Vermont hills they talk about “sniffing the zeitgeist”.  Andy once wrote about Sixties radicals as “aphrodisiacs in the air-conditioning system, hallucinogens in the water-supply.” I was hoping to find the zeitgeist in this room.  There were a couple of electric fans in it in case the nights got hot but no air-conditioning.  The water supply was fine too, no problem.  (Oh Detroit! Oh Toledo!)

The room was separated in two by a folding wooden screen.  I found this aristocratic somehow. Although it was an old farm house, this room was for sleeping, for writing, and for conversation.  What a happy combination! On one side of the screen the bed with its tumble of pillows, morass of bed clothing, and ancient quilt against an unlikely night chill.  A night-stand, chair, and oval throw rug completed the furnishings on that side. On the other side of the screen was a cozy, powerful space.

Two huge oil paintings hung on the west side wall.  One painting was massive, dark, and ominous.  It depicted a close-up of the back of a person wearing a dark leather jacket, a huge area of black, facing a concrete urban wall with condom written on it, and a horizontal silhouette of the city in the background.  The other painting hung in a gold frame.  This frame was luminous, halo-like.  It absolutely lit up the room.  All bright colors, blue sky, white birches, brown skin, green grass.  It showed Andy on a green coming from a clump of birches carrying a basket of vegetables with an Afro-American woman dancing behind him with her arms rhythmically above her head.  God and Goddess, created we them.

In front of these pictures there was a couch with an Afghan blanket folded on the back (again, those cool nights).  Next to it was an upholstered lounge chair with a matching ottoman or leg rest.  Catty corner to it was another comfy looking chair where I used to throw my clothes. The chairs oozed comfort, ‘Sit on me’ they purred.  If there was beauty in them it came entirely from this function.

Cushions were everywhere. One was embroidered with a palm tree.  My mind began to drift to the beach, yes, but also to lonely November afternoons passed in embroidery work.  Brumaire, I thought, French for “fog” and the name given to November when the French revolutionaries changed the calendar.  People here knew about and loved the French Revolution; some of the house, so I was told, dated back to the 1790s. But brumaire, what of it?  Napoleon came to power on 18th Brumaire, or 9 November 1799, it was a turning point politically, economically, imperialistically, even geologically as they now consider it the beginning of the anthropocene.  Marx wrote The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, about the nephew.  Should we speak of the 18th Brumaire of Barack Obama’?  He’s not a coal, oil, and gas man himself, but as their cat’s paw, he seems to lead the system.

But I lose myself in stream-of-consciousness, all from a cushion’s spell!  Oh, where are Andy and Alex when we need them?  I abruptly cease my reveries.  Why they are here of course!  Among us.

Opposite the couch and oil paintings was an old school table or desk.  Maybe it was oak.  This was my favorite part of the room.

Here I put my notebooks, my pens, and reading glasses.  Here I sat in the morning before going downstairs for coffee or breakfast.  Here I sat last thing at night.  Four windows opened up to the east above the desk.  Besides sunlight the Vermont forest closed in pretty fast.  It was a couple miles or more down the dirt roads that would take us to a variety of swimming holes.  Had Alexander sat here and jotted down some thoughts?  Is this where Andy Kopkind made sense of his day?  Those are the kind of questions I did not ask.  That’s not what I was looking for.  Again, this was not a mausoleum; we had work to do.

The Kopkind Room had wide floor boards painted the same reddish color as barns. The wallpaper was old, the wainscoating bright.  There was something neat, modest, simple, and second-hand about the whole room.  I looked up “frumpy” and I looked up “bricolage”, words that first came to mind but the definitions didn’t apply exactly. There was an abundance of hand-knitted, quilted, or embroidered textiles throughout.  From a strictly materials viewpoint the furnishings were pre-petroleum, almost pre-iron.  Wood and textiles reign supreme, apart from the window panes, a small mirror over the chest of drawers, and the door was without knob, lock, or deadbolt but latched to with a simple bit of handmade iron-mongery. You don’t go around picking things up to see where they were made; instead you imagine that everything has a story whether it’s a picture, pillow, or chair.

It all felt to me kind of English.  Was I back in north Wales at the cottage of Edward and Dorothy Thompson?  Was I in the Lake District with new friends book-binders and lovers?  Was I on the Sussex Downs in old Bloomsbury haunts?  No, this was a working set-up.  And it came from garage-sales, second-hand stores, thrift shops.  It wasn’t England but New England.  True, the folks around here are mainly white and privileged, but strictly speaking they’re not English anglos.  The furnishings were accretions from the communes started by the refugees of the New Left in the early 70s  after the mills shut and the farmers had left the land.

Nevertheless, there was a definite Bloomsbury vibe to the room, faint though it was.  Two notable literary texts of the Bloombury group – the upper middle-class coterie of painters and writers of the 20th century named after a central London neighborhood – launched the “room” as a major metaphor as the site of the bourgeois bohemian.  E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) dealt partly with sexual repression and Victorianism and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) dealt with gender oppression and literary patriarchy.  Their’s was a new and gay sensibility, and Tree Frog Farm was full of the best of it!

In ‘Kopkind’s Room’ I could pause alone for a moment to collect myself from the mild ribaldry of the kitchen and what they called “the breezeway” or from the performances one might be called upon to make down below, in the barn, on the patio, in the kitchen, or the lawn.  Here I might jot down a few notes in my notebook.  Here I wondered what made Andy a writer I so much admired.  He did the work, the research, he used his intelligence, his sentences were beautiful, what else?

We worked from nine thirty to one thirty, and then played in the afternoons.  I kicked things off on Monday, Scott on Tuesday, campers were divided in two sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, then it was back to me and Scott for the concluding two days.

How lucky was I to initiate a discussion on the subject of the commons on the 14 July 2014?  Bastille Day!  1789.  The Day of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!  The most horrid prison of the era, the very epitome of enclosure, the true and exact antithesis of the commons, was brought down by le peuple, the sans-culottes, the sovereign people of Paris – artisans, immigrant peasants, housewives.   Even if there were only seven prisoners to be liberated at the time, the weapons and ammunition contained stopthieftherein provided the people with defense against the King, his aristocrats, and the profiteers from the people’s hunger and thirst.  Actually, the peasantry that summer, as you can read in George Lefebvre or Peter Kropotkin, revolted to preserve access to commons of pasture and woods. “War to the château, peace to the cottages.”  Our discussion of the commons was on the right tract, because you can’t get very far on the subject unless you bring in social class and prison right away.

I’d been reading about the prisoners in Newgate prison in London during the 1790s, much more numerous than those of the Bastille, and revolutionary precisely because the fall of the Bastille had preceded their incarceration. What a surprise, then, within minutes of my plane touching down at Bradley International Airport from Detroit to be tramping around the oldest prison in Connecticut called Newgate too!  It had been a copper mine and a prison.  The first prisoner entered in 1773 and soon escaped.  Now a museum, but closed on the day of our visit.  This did not prevent the agile among us from quickly scaling its ancient walls for the view and a lark.

Which side are you on, my people?  Which side are you on?

The Freedomside!

That was our beginning.  The next day Scott gave us quite a different grounding of the commons.  He spoke of the maka’aina or the common people of Hawaii.  The term is formed from two words, those meaning “eyes” and “land.”  The social basis of the commons was the taro plant.  This is a tuber that flourishes in wet, even flooded land, and is cultivated in pondfields.  It is the native Hawaiian staple food and has important meanings to social identity (the word for family, the name of the first born to the parents who begat the human race, &c.).  The conquerors drained the land and introduced their germs and religion.  The land lost its communal aspects and the maka’aina were turned into small holders until they either starved or became proletarians.

JoAnn mentioned Freud.  Perhaps his ideas helped Kopkind with the Zeitgeist. He could write about it with elegant assurance.  He had been close to Power.  Editor of the college newspaper at Cornell, he became a guest of the Shah of Iran.  Later he left Ike’s USA for school (LSE) and two or three years in London.  Later he was never afraid of using his intelligence even if it showed.

In the 1950s Salinger or Mailer had nothing on Kopkind when it came to the nuances of subjectivity, though they occupy the text books not he.  What he had, and they did not, was politics in the old sense, the citizen in the polis, and the polis was a-changing.  The thing is that he changed with it.  The big American male writerly ego was not his subject.  He didn’t write down to you, if anything you had to read up to him.  The challenge was not that he was a smarty-pants; the challenge was could you accompany him down South to the Delta, in ‘Nam to Hanoi? As a journalist he was a part of, rather than, apart from.  He got the talk by walking.  And he didn’t brag about it, at least not that I could see.  He sought authenticity and gained it easily because he was political.

Our evenings were spent playing charades (“butt charades” necessary in jail when handcuffed), watching After Stonewall (an exhilarating documentary by John Scagliotti, Andy’s partner) hearing about living down-stream and getting ready for the September march for climate justice, or listening to Bob Pollin, a neighboring professor, expound his plan of a 1.2% levy on the GNP to green the economy .  One evening we did Mountain, Downward-facing Dog, Triangle, and Warrior poses, followed by a circle back-massage on one another (all ten of us!), then dinner and afterwards, hilarious, giggling, star-gazing.  Then there was the hot-tub, but by that time I was back in the Kopkind Room at the desk, not writing, but staring out the window into the darkness, dreaming again.

Andy left America for England.  This interested me, as I had done something similar, though not at the same time but ten years later in 1969.  I can explain why by referring to Andy’s piece on SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society and it’s convention in Chicago in the summer of 1969, and the antics, screaming matches, splits, break-ups, and break-downs. SDS was shattering to bits, the Weathermen, the Progressive Labor Party, the Revolutionary Youth Movement.  Could it ally with the Black Panthers?  Could it make sense to the working-class?  Could the working class make sense to it?  What is the working-class?  Meanwhile war was waging and death in the jungle awaited the students. Andy reported that the crucial theme of the week was “the attempt to begin work on a New Left revolutionary socialist ideology and program.  SDS’s main problems have grown up in the failure to do that job.” This was the one I aspired to contribute to.  It is why I left America.

I too was looking for a kind of historical writing available in England – the radical Marxist historians – who bore affinities with the political writing that Andy was soaking up a decade earlier.  It was, in a word, class.  But what a word!  It could be classy, as in stylish, Carnaby Street, or the NLR covers.  Or it could mean the working-class as in grotty pubs, the Morning Star, and endless roll-ups.  But in the America of Ike and JFK alike class was one of those words, like death or fuck, that couldn’t be said in public or printed.  Once that door was opened, class analysis provided a tool, and the world could never be the same.  For me by that time the revolutionary class had been given substance by the interntional auto sector and shaped by the concepts of Italian Marxism.

But elegance, always elegance with Alex and Andy; they were classy and class conscious.  I think that there are two roots to the style of the political essay and these correspond, we might say, to the two meanings of class that I mentioned.  One root of the style goes back to the Augustans in the 18th century, Addison and Steele.  It respectfully whispers into the ear of power, or takes it by the elbow.  Op-ed writers, spin doctors, policy wonks have grown from this root.  The Tory, Whig, and liberal stance arises from it.  It is patrician; it is the elegant style.  The other root of the style of the political essay goes back to the 17th century and the Leveller pamphlets on the commons, to Milton’s pamphlets advocating regicide and divorce, to the Seekers and Friends and Ranters who said that the time is NOW! And the Family of Love.  These were the “clowns” (in the 17th century it meant rednecks) who would turn the world upside down.  Here was the radical root.  Power may be supplanted.  The classy style explains things as they are; the class conscious style describes things as they may be. Kopkind and Cockburn combined them.

Andy left Time magazine and luckily The New Yorker did not find him.  It might surely have offered elegance but with élite class consciousness.

My favorite moments:  when we first got there that first night just before dinner, John Scagliotti and JoAnn Wypijewski began dancing.  They had the rhythm, they moved gracefully, lusciously.  They have worked together for a long time, I thought to myself.  We are watching them move to tunes gone by.  But they do it so easily.  A day or two later at a river JoAnn swam across the pool at the foot of the cataract to the waterfall itself, and under the thundering cascade revealed to us a cave.  Here we huddled excitedly as the falling waters poured down in sheets in front of us.  Did we swear to be forever true?

But my most favorite moment, scholarly nerd that I am, came as Scott told how his grandmother showed him how to collect watercress from a ditch. I almost jumped out of my seat in excitement.  “Hold it, hold it, I’ve just got to interrupt,” I blurted out like a car stuttering to start and back-firing as it goes!  “Do you know Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village”?  I managed.  “It has everything, absolutely everything we’re talking about – expropriation, immigration, the gallows, the hunger, the loss of play, Puritanism, crass riches, the end of community, the end of happiness.  It is the classic poem about Enclosure Acts of England and the loss of commons.”

All life has fled the village

All but yon widowed, solitary thing

That feebly bends beside the plashy spring;

She, wretched matron, forced, in age, for bread,

To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,

To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,

To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn;

She only left of all the harmless train,

The sad historian of the pensive plain.

In actuality Oliver Goldsmith was Irish and the “sad historian” was a real person by the name of Catherine Geraghty. This is the sort of thing that gets me going!  Now Scott telling us about Hawaii, his grandmother, and watercress.  Unbelievable!  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. You look into these stories and you find Empire and Enclosure.

What is it about watercress?  A few times in life I’ve made watercress sandwiches, some with cress and cucumbers mixed, and a few of those with stilton cheese.  and the crusts cut off from the white bread in imitation of High Tea.  Now I google it and find it’s antiscorbutic properties have been realized since the 18th century and that it’s been commercially produced since 1808.  It’s good for iron, calcium, iodine, folic acid, and vitamins A and C, and its supposed to inhibit lung cancer!  It was sold at Farringdon market from hampers to mechanics for breakfast in Victorian London or perhaps to servants from those Bloomsbury households.   But I’m wandering again.

I don’t mean to compare Scott’s grandmother to Catherine Geraghty.  I mean to show that this plant indigenous to Europe and Asia alike has been the basis of the commons even when the commons was lost!  From the Atlantic to the Pacific elderly women have preserved its memory and practices and nurtured others in that knowledge.  Sad historians of the pensive plain indeed.  We need to wait for two centuries of human struggle to pass, before Zora Neale Hurston, for example, can report what prophetic denunciations elderly women can make against the enclosers:  Eternal Damnation to them and their Works!

JoAnn visited me in my room and showed me the scrap book kept on Andy’s birthday parties.  Alexander did much of the cooking apparently.  The scrap book was filled with his handwritten menus, all in French.  These radicals strove to live well:  to eat well:  to love long:  to fight hard.  They loved le mot juste.  There was nothing archival or musty about the room.   The spirit was alive and unperfumed.  Be as radical as reality. They wrote aware of “the unbelievable harshness of the now,” in JoAnn Wypijewski’s great phrase.  That gave them courage to take from the whole human past whatever they needed.

A bowl and pitcher on the desk had the feeling that it had been put there for effect, handsome but useless.  I didn’t touch them, and didn’t need to since the desk top was more than five feet long and almost a yard deep.  But if my chair pushed accidentally up against the desk the ceramic bowl and pitcher rattled. So, I sat still, and I sat up straight.

I believe we are never far from the commons. The “commons” was not Andy’s  thing at least not with that exact word, though he was certainly a man of community – radical and gay, and there is no commons without community.  As a journalist he listened very, very closely to those who were making history while they were making it.

After we finished dinner but before getting up and clearing our plates an angel of silence passed over as digestion began to set in, both from the meal and the week’s intense work.  JoAnn broke the silence, “Doesn’t anyone have any words?”  Here’s Andy on the Vietnam war.

The lessons of liberation certainly came the long way around; they could have been found much closer to home if I had been prepared to look.  But I wasn’t prepared.  With the example of Vietnam slowly sinking in, I could experience the black movement, class struggle – even what is sometimes called ‘existential’ or personal liberation – in a different way.  Vietnam is often credited with ‘turning on’ people to a wide variety of issues.  But what that means, I think, is that the radical implications of the Vietnamese resistance gave people a consciousness that made sense of all those other issues.  In particular, the war and the resistance have helped me to make sense of privilege and power: what it means to be white, American, bourgeois, a man, technologically competent; how the power that flows from those privileges is used to oppress others; and what it feels like to be on the short end of the stick, as well as the long one.  The quantity of oppression (if measures can be made) differs hugely from case to case.  But there is a common quality of anger, fear, intimidation, threat, selflessness that a Vietnamese in American-occupied territory shares with a black person in an urban ghetto, a woman typist in a male-dominated office, a Native American in this Europeanized land … the list is long, but true for its length…. [He says he was lucky]:  “I learned enough to make myself permanently and constitutionally unable to accept America, and its external and internal empires.”

What I treasure in this passage is how experience must “sink in”.  I also treasure that ever so crucial “I think” right in the turning point of the passage, not as a mark of modesty but a reminder of thought.  You have to admire his metaphor for class because it is both perfectly apt and colloquial; it is the “stick” of the hierarchy.  Do you hold the short or the long end, or something in between?  Finally, considering the “long list” at the end, what else is on it? What lies on the other end of it?  Is there a “social class” of some kind?  Does a great transformation lie ahead? How shall we break the stick?  What sort of revolutionary struggle will it take to make ourselves permanently and constitutionally fair, equal, human?

Finally, one more scene from the past:  Andy’s in Lowndes county, Alabama, in 1966 with the Black Panthers.  He’s standing on the ground in front of a share-cropper’s simple house while John Hulett is on the steps going up to the porch putting the case for registering to vote despite the dangers, the dogs, the insecurity, the racism.  Andy’s standing there, and he hears the conversation, “You know it, we need good schools and running water for our houses.”

Almost fifty years ago, black folk came north to the auto plants, looking for good schools and running water, and now the auto companies have moved out, abandoning a city, and taking with them the common wealth of three generations of toil. They close down the schools and shut off the water. I’m not saying that Andy could foretell the future.  He listened to those who make it. Kopkind could write as though the earth and its waters belonged to the people!  This is what I was looking for.  Earlier I wrote that he did not condescend, he did not write down to us.  But he wrote down to them, the one percent.  It is in his style, I think, in his experiences of coming out as a gay man and refusing that silence that equals death, that enables us to sense in his writing the inevitable, historic collapse of capitalism, the breaking of the stick.  It shall pass, though not without a snap.

No commons without community, I said.  But it’s truer the other way around, no community without commons.  There is nothing more dangerous to the ruling class than when we get together.  That explains why they’re turning off the taps in Detroit.  The water is ours!

Peter Linebaugh taught history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com