Tuesday, April 30, 2013

At what price?

Free speech?      ”Will you book a group that night in the coliseum? Won’t cost you anything…”

Thanks to a conversation almost that short, I had agreed to bring a band to the Greensboro Coliseum. It wouldn’t cost me anything, I was told, even if no one attended. My reason for agreeing to the sham: if I hadn’t, the Nazi party would have been able to rent that space.

Interestingly enough, the reason I’d been contacted had to do with my Afro-American partner in a newspaper I’d created, The Danville News and Observer. Its intention, to promote civil rights by publishing stories about all citizens in our area rather than only about the white majority, also led to editorials that dealt with civil rights abuses.

As a result of the Skokie verdict [FindLaw | Cases and Codes u.s. supreme court national socialist party v. skokie, 432 u.s. 43 (1977) 432 u.s. 43 national socialist party of america et al. v. village of Skokie caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=...], the Coliseum had to have a viable reason to refuse the Nazi bigots. By saying yes, I had given them that.

When asked by the Coliseum executive, I didn’t hesitate. Although I had fought for Civil Rights and Human Rights most of my adult life, I cooperated when asked to help deny the Nazis a forum. Hate speech, in my humble opinion, didn’t deserve to be protected. In addition, I believed groups such as the Nazis shouldn’t have such easy access to that very public stage in Greensboro.

What has become more and more apparent to me is that our nation has yet to clearly define the responsibilities that must be wed to the cherished freedom of free speech. All freedoms, of necessity, must be coupled with responsibility.

When interviewed by NPR, [One Man's Case For Regulating Hate Speech : NPR
In his new book, Jeremy Waldron writes that the U.S. is the only liberal democracy in the world that doesn't restrict hate speech — and that needs to change.
www.npr.org/.../one-mans-case-for-regulating-hate-speech] Jeremy Waldren stated:

“…it's really, really important when we think about these issues to maintain this distinction between dignity and offense and to maintain the distinction between insulting and defaming the believers, and deriding or ridiculing or abusing the religion itself. The first is what hate speech legislation is aimed at, not the second."

Universally, freedom of speech is limited when such speech becomes hate speech. When the United Nations tackled that divide, this was the result [please see: Is There a Right to Hate Speech? - American University ... The Human Rights Brief is a publication of The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Washington College of Law, American University. www.wcl.american.edu/hrbrief/v3i2/lerner32.htm]:

…This interpretation of the provisions of the principal human rights treaties, which have similar counterparts in regional instruments, is the correct one. It is in this spirit that the Secretary- General of the United Nations, after analyzing legislation of 42 countries, drafted a Model Law Against Racial Discrimination which states that the freedoms of opinion, expression, and peaceful assembly should be subject to some restrictions, among them the following: (1) it shall be an offence to threaten, insult, ridicule or otherwise abuse a person or group of persons with words or behavior which may be interpreted as an attempt to cause racial discrimination or racial hatred; (2) it shall be an offence to defame an individual or group of individuals on racial grounds. Organizations which violate these restrictions should be declared illegal and prohibited.
What concerns me now is that there seems to be a challenge so difficult and so complex that free countries appear stymied to address or contain the harm being caused by an ideology that spreads its discrimination and hatred by disavowing those who use its tenets to cause harm. By claiming that those who commit such horrendous acts as the recent massacre in Boston have been radicalized appears to be an effective smokescreen. Attempts by the main stream media to get at the heart of their radicalization, at its source at the core of the ideology that, indeed, promotes radicalism among its truest believers, have been tantamount to chiseling at a vein of coal with a plastic spoon.

It is past time to examine those tenets of Islam that remain, to its erstwhile believers, as viable as they were when the Koran was first compiled. Without doing that, the freedom to express and manifest those dictates and ideas comes uncoupled from responsibility and from the consequences that should follow.

                                    B.Koplen 4/30/13

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Not the end of an era?

A different kind of history...      "I know that guy!" said a minister who was shopping at our store for the first time. Originally from Boston, he and his wife had moved to Lynchburg, VA; soon he would pastor a church in a small town near there. He was staring at a man in a picture on my wall, taken in Greensboro, NC.
"He and I met in Boston, where I used to live," the minister added. "He moved south to study a man he admired, Thurgood Marshall."
I was impressed. The minister had pointed to a photo I had purchased from the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC. titled "The Greensboro Four," the group who had defied the color barrier at the Woolworth's counter, a counter that had been restored and placed in a room of its own at the Civil Rights Museum. My photo, by Otis Hairston, Jr., taken in February of 1990, pictured the four at the counter where they had protested more than twenty years before Hairston had photgraped them.
"That's Jibreel. I'll call him!" The minister was jubilant.
I heard part of their conversation.
"Well, I'm at a clothing store in Danville and the owner has your picture. You have to meet this guy..."
Minutes later, the minister and I talked about the Civil Rights era, obviously before his time.
"You may like to read this," I said, as I handed him a copy of my book, No Gold Stars. I pointed to the remarks signed by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. on its back cover.
He brightened even more. That period of history mattered so much to him that I gave him my book. "Please e-mail me after you've read it."
"I will," he promised. "You know that Rev. Jackson went to A & T [in Greensboro]," he said.
I nodded.
"I help get people in that school," he told me. Obviously, he was proud of his work.
"That's great," I said, then added, "I've been trying to get to speak about my book at A & T. Can't seem to make the right connections..."
He offered to call Jibreel, assured me he could make it happen.
"Thanks," I said, hoping to hear from him soon.
Just the thought of that possibilty left me feeling bouyant; I sailed through the rest of the day without expecting anything to top that.
In a very real sense, I was wrong.
Having been unable to open my mail until late in the day, I was surprised to see an envelope, a letter from an old friend, Chuck, who I'd missed seeing for a very long time. Indeed, he'd looked so weak the last time we'd met that I didn't know whether I'd see him again. But I also knew that few men are as tough and durable as he.
Inside was a color copy of a certificate he'd received that announced his induction into the Grey Beret Hall of Fame for his work as a memeber of the Special Operations Weather Team. Attached also was a copy of the induction letter he'd received. It read:
"...you have been inducted into the newly established Grey Beret Association's Hall of Fame. Your selfless service, excellence and remarkable accomplishments are in keeping with the highest ideals of service to the defense of our nation. In your many years of active duty service, your unprecedened contributions led to the betterment and advancement of the Weather Commandos and Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWT).
"...Each nominee was subjected to the scrutiny of the Selection Board to ensure the most extraordinary contributions are acknowledged. The selection criterion is as unique as our Grey Beret history." 
I looked above the picture of the Greensboro Four. On display three feet higher was a picture of Chuck in uniform when he was in his prime, probably forty years ago. As I stared at his image, I recalled countless conversations we'd had about hotspots around the world, about places he'd been and places he had been called to return to when he would disappear for months at a time. Rarely was he able to provide more than sketchy details. He was that true to his word about maintaining secrecy, an oath he'd given his government and his commanders.
I'd learned when to stop asking. What amused me the most was that, like me, when I'd taught at Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.'s alma mater, Chuck was the only member of his race in an otherwise all white company of soldiers. We'd often laughed about that after he'd found I was the only white person at Sterling the first year I taught there.
I'll write to Chuck soon and I'll tell him about the minister who knows Jibreel. Maybe I'll suggest a reunion that only the four of us will really understand. We may even have to have a picture taken to mark the event.
                                                B.Koplen  4/27/13

Friday, April 26, 2013


About a poem I didn’t mean to write  “I didn’t get my roll of black and white prints,” I told the manager of CVS. Out of the twenty rolls of film I’d taken while in Israel and Crete, I’d only shot one roll of black and white. That roll was to be for competition grade photos, high contrast with vivid shades of gray. While in Crete, en route to Knossos, I loaded the 400 ASA film into my Nikon F-1 fitted with a Vivitar 28mm lens, fast at 1:2.5.

Morning light, on that overcast day, promised stunning pictures with sharply defined shadows that promised added dimensionality. While my daughter explained the history of the labyrinth and the mythical sacrifices there (I hoped they had been mythical), I’d climbed ancient rock walls for angular shots as I sought to capture the regal splendor and the vestiges of the imperial power the site revealed.

Evidence of majesty had survived in stout columns and brilliant remnants of murals; through my lens, I could imagine royalty seated on high, staring down at workers and artisans and performers. Overlooking the scenic setting was a mountainous skyline that featured a grove of ancient olive trees. Everywhere I looked were the trappings of genius, feats of engineering and design that thrilled me.

In an hour, I had taken my entire roll. To my surprise, as I was rewinding my film into its canister, I spotted a peacock, wondered whether its relatives had roosted in trees that surrounded the site. It seemed fitting that such a beautiful bird graced the area; its plumage prompted reflections of grandeur that once was.

With my exposed film tucked away securely in a zipper pocket, I left with Adam and my daughter en route to a beach on Crete’s southwest side. Although I’d promised them sunshine and calmer seas, a brooding sky and crashing waves greeted us. Cavorting in that rough ocean was impossible.

“Let’s eat!” they said, cheerfully.

Rather than join them for pizza, I hiked along the shore until I saw an ancient section of a fortress that had once guarded the harbor. Across the street from it was a local bar and restaurant.

“May I sit at that table?” I asked the owner, as I pointed to a table under an umbrella.

“Of course,” he said. Minutes later, he clamped down a waxed canvas cloth cover and told me what was left from his luncheon menu. I ordered and took pictures of waves that crashed into the thick harbor wall and sent a curtain of spray twelve feet high and across the street.

“Today we were expecting a powerful storm,” the owner told me, as he delivered my meal. “So far, it hasn’t come.”

Island weather is that way, I thought. Always fickle, likely to change in an instant. Contented with my home-cooked chicken and freshly cooked greens, I ate as I enjoyed the sea’s minor tempest.


I turned and saw my daughter and Adam; they had found me by following the general directions I’d given them. Seeing them, the owner greeted them. Introductions followed.

The owner, Jimmy the Greek, had moved to Crete from Canada. We conversed in English, joked about the weather and the economy. And the future. I paid him and we walked back to the beach. As if on cue, the sun followed us.

MB and Adam enjoyed the beach; I collected colorful stones and shells that beckoned to me like pieces of rainbows. In time, we drove back to Heraklion, saw other beaches that we didn’t want to leave until the storm we had avoided found us.

Back in the car, we drove through its rain and, to our surprise, its stones of blueberry-sized hail. As it pummeled our thin tin roof, we thought we were under attack.

Less than thirty minutes later, we were under clear and sunny skies again. Diagonally shaped clouds like I’d never seen vied with a rainbow for our attention. It was as if the King of Knossos had sent a greeting.

And I had pictures of everything we’d seen.

Or so I thought.

“You should have gotten them,” insisted the clerk at CVS. I assured her that they were missing; I’d only been given color pictures.

She did them again, “At no charge,” she said.

I opened the package. She was right; I had seen those images in another packet of pictures. But there was a problem. They hadn’t been developed as black and whites; they’d been processed in color film chemistry.

Now, as I look at them, I think of plans I’d had for them. Rather than focus on the images I might have raved about, I’ll think instead about writing a poem, my version of Ozymandias (Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley - PoemHunter.Com ...
Ozymandias - by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the ...
www.poemhunter.com/poem/ozymandias -  )…

                                          B.Koplen 4/26/13

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Back to Crete!

Unexpected reunion      With the help of Adam, my daughter’s boyfriend, I negotiated a parking space that was only blocks from the renovated Temple in Hania, Crete. Although we looked for signs telling us not to park there, we didn’t see even one we could read. Who could we ask? No one chased us away. No one seemed concerned.

So we walked to the harbor, an exciting mix of restaurants and shops in very old buildings; apartments appeared to be housed in their second and third stories. But for the walls of the ancient fortress and the adjacent empty mosque at the western point of the harbor’s half circle, nothing was higher than the buildings that, but for the few interrupting streets that emptied onto the harbor’s comfortable stone plaza, shared walls seamlessly.

My daughter, MB, and Adam said goodbye as they headed toward the old synagogue. Unlike the day before when I had spent hours finding it just before it closed, we had found the building before noon. They were excited to see the 500-year-old mikveh (still in use), hidden behind an ancient wooden door I had walked past.

Then I’d met Ida Mordoh, close friend of the man, Dr. Nicholas Stavroulakis, who had been responsible for saving and restoring the old synagogue. (One of his books, Etz Hayyim Synagogue Commemorative Album, ISBN: 978-960-7459-15-2, is an excellent history.)

“Let me show you this,” Ida had said. With what seemed to be an almost magical twist and turn, she opened the narrow door. We entered the dark room; it appeared to have been carved out of stone. Ida felt along the wall to the right of the door for a light switch. When she found it and flipped the switch, I understood why she had been cautious and, also, why the room wasn’t opened to the public.

It’s space seemed to be about 8’ X 10’; on the left, just past the entry was a sloping stone path that led to the entrance of the mikveh. In the dim light, I could see the clear water, fed by an underground spring. Ida had answered my next question before I could ask.

“It’s very cold,” she said. “But it’s still in use.” A week or so before someone had taken a ritual bath.

Although I wanted a picture, the room was too dark. We backed out with careful steps.

That had been the day before. Pointing to the door of the synagogue, I told Adam and MB to make sure that they got to see the mikveh. I said that to them because I didn’t see Ida.

We parted; I explored every narrow pathway I had missed the day before. Hotels and restaurants that had been built into the shells of the old buildings enchanted me. Art galleries proved irresistible; I had to force myself to leave three of them empty-handed.

“Try this,” came a voice of a man whose mostly finished shop in a tiny building near a gallery I had just left.

Dressed in coveralls, he had come down a narrow stairs from a second floor I didn’t get to see. “It’s orange flavored Raki,” he said as he poured a tiny cup full. “A friend made it,” he told me as he handed me the cup.

It was delicious, better than any I had tasted. I told him so. Eagerly, I bought a small bottle for about $3.50. The clear glass bottle had no label. That didn’t concern me. The Raki was that good.

Although I didn’t want to leave, it was almost time for me to reunite with MB and Adam at the harbor. I forced myself to walk the last street I had not walked; it would wind back to our meeting place.

By that time, I only had one or two shots left on my roll of film. Knowing that made it a little easier. I walked more briskly, slightly uphill.

That’s when I spotted Ida. We chatted briefly; I urged her to hurry to meet Adam and my daughter. She said she would.

I didn’t ask her to open the mikveh door for them; I knew the delight she would take in doing that.

As I snapped a picture of Ida, I thought of the charming old city of Hania as being near the top of my list of places I didn’t want to leave.

                                    B.Koplen 4/24/13

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Had to be done...

A necessary pause       Although I wanted to write about my second visit to the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Crete, I couldn’t. Looming over me were images from the Boston massacre, the face, in particular, of the eight year old pushing on the restraining rope while cheering for his Dad. That seemed a lifetime ago, a compacted span of pain and brutality born of a hate filled ideology I’d spent years studying and teaching about. Clearing my mind of its ugliness was essential as dressing an open wound.

Who or what could I turn to? I thought of the parents of the little boy. Trying to think of something I might say to them, an appropriate condolence, brought me to tears. What if it had been my child? Or yours?

Unbearable. There were no words, no “I’m so sorry” that I could say without trembling so badly I wouldn’t get past the first word. Almost automatically, I turned my key in the ignition, willed my car to find a place to go.

It seemed to respond. I headed down Highway 29 toward Greensboro, NC but turned off when I saw the Business 29 sign. Close to there was a ramshackle auction house I’d gone to once. Was it a year or two ago? I didn’t know; it didn’t matter. No one knew me there; no one seemed to know about much of anything there other than the plastic gimmicks that seldom sold for more than eleven or twelve bucks.

I didn’t have a map, couldn’t have told anyone where it was or what road it was on. But I thought I knew. Instinct guided me. After following the road’s path for miles alongside the railroad tracks to Greenville, SC, I came to a traffic light and turned right.

Less than two miles later, I saw it. Characters I recognized by their old jeans, worn t-shirts, and mostly smoked cigarettes leaned against the rails of a treated-lumber ramp. They spoke in a language I understand but can’t mimic. One of them talked about batteries for the hearing aids he’d left at home.

I walked past them and went inside. As I remembered, ceilings and walls were unpainted, patched together pieces of drywall and plywood, a stage with a perch for the auctioneer in the corner at one end of the room. A hole in the veneer at the other end served as the snack bar, its counter there.

Chairs were orderly. And old. They may have been throwaways from various doctor’s offices. Children stood on them; they were durable that way. They might last forever; they were the same chairs I’d seen the last time.

Mine was stiff, but comfortable. Although I couldn’t rock back due to its steel frame, I didn’t feel squeezed.  Two old ladies next to me were admiring the box of green queen-sized bed sheets they’d just won for nine dollars. They weren’t interested in the pair of knives in a nice gold covered cardboard box for ten.
“How much for this eight piece king-sized comforter set? Will you give me twenty?” the auctioneer began. No one wanted the zebra striped combo; there were no bids until he dropped to eight.

In that room, I saw the same people I had seen the first time I stumbled into that place. I saw the same cardboard boxes filled with police caliber flashlights that plug into your car’s cigarette lighter and plastic horses that go up and down on a two-foot pole. I saw the same gray-haired man with hair to his shoulders and most of his teeth who I’d seen the last time. He was still selling things at “just enough to pay for them” prices. He may have been the owner.

After twenty minutes, my head had cleared. That place had worked its magic. Nothing there held or distracted me. It was what it was; there were no pretenses, no antiques to marvel at, no dealers to bid against, no windows to the world outside.

No one cared that I came or went, but I wanted to thank all of them for being there. It had been my stop along the way to processing the horror that had blocked me from writing about my return trip to the synagogue in Crete.

It had felt like touching home plate on a baseball diamond when no one was watching.

Although it was dark, I knew my way home.

                                                            B.Koplen  4/21/13