My Dad and I were talking about this upcoming event the other day. “You know,” he said, “you meet a lot of really interesting people in your life, some who even really impress you, but you’re lucky if you meet even one Lenny.” I thought that was a pretty good way to put it.
I am not an unbiased reporter on this topic; Lenny Zeskind is a very good friend and someone who has been an inspiration and support and comfort to me during some of my lowest moments. But I am confident that others will find his book, his stories, and his example as completely jaw-dropping as I do.
I first read a draft of Lenny’s book back in 2003, when it was still on 8.5×11 sheets of paper (lots of them–it’s not short!). At first, I really thought that it must be a kind of pseudo-fiction, embellished with some rich detail to make it more readable. And then he told me one day that it was with the publisher’s attorneys, so that they could do fact-checking and be sure that the company would not be vulnerable in court against the almost inevitable lawsuits to come from organizations, both those viewed today as extremists and those whose tenuous hold on the mainstream will be seriously jeopardized by the revelations in the book. I think that’s when it dawned on me that when he talked about what a specific white nationalist leader had on his wall, it was because he had really been there and really seen it.
Lenny is really, really smart, and he has an almost maniacal obsession with ending organized racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism in the world. He challenges people, including me, to question what I think I know about hatred. He is willing to confront anyone with allegations of racism, and he has a moral authority that makes it almost impossible to object. At this point in his life, I think Lenny is kind of impatient, because we really haven’t made as much progress against these forces as we might like to claim, and also a little tired, because chasing Holocaust deniers and anti-immigrant zealots masquerading as environmentalists and neo-Nazi music promoters around the country would tend to wear down one’s spirit. He’s also generous and funny and a little mischevious and very kind.
I’m excited that his book is finally ready, and I can’t wait to read the finished version. At least a few of my family members will be receiving it as Christmas gifts this year (Merry Christmas, Daddy!). But it would be a disappointment and a dishonor to Lenny’s life work–as an organizer in the steel industry, as a campaigner against the Ku Klux Klan, as a McArthur fellow recognized for his tireless and creative and often successful work against racist extremism in all its forms–to view this as simply cause for celebration.
One of Lenny’s core messages is that we are always at risk, and that we need to be vigilant about the racism in our own lives and our own institutions, but also smart about the real dangers posed by the organization of bigotry into a movement that has resonance with a not insignificant minority in our nation. It’s not about ‘teaching tolerance’; it’s about exposing hatred, calling it by name, and attacking the conditions–funding, media legitimacy, political support–that allow it to flourish.
Lenny will be signing copies of his book and answering questions on Wednesday, May 27th, at the Plaza Library at 6:30. The flyers said that you had to rsvp, but I bet if you call the library they can still find room for you. Or you can buy the book from Amazon here (available May 12th). I know that I am looking forward to asking him about his article from the Huffington Post, particularly about his analysis that the argument that the economic crisis is to blame for the spike in racist violence just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. We know, though, that public opinion about immigrants, in particular, tends to dip in recessions; is it just that the more hard-core anti-immigrant activity, which sparks the violence, is more impervious to these economic effects? What can we expect to see, in terms of white nationalist recruiting, in the wake of an Obama presidency? And what does he think about organizations of people of color who are touting 2050 as the tipping point–the year when white Americans will become the minority. I’ve never liked those ‘demographic imperative’ arguments, but I wonder what his advice would be.
Mainly, I’m grateful, especially on behalf of my kids, that there’s someone brave enough, and even a little crazy enough, to care and to do what Lenny has dedicated his life to doing. And it makes me want to be a little braver, a little smarter, and a little crazier (for justice) myself.