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By Jack Cashill

Leonard Zeskind owes Kansas City an apology. A big, fat one. The mischievous Zeskind has bamboozled The Kansas City Star and The Jewish Chronicle into believing his prattle about the "abyss of mayhem and murder" America faces at the hands of its "white nationalists." And in the process, he has scared thousands of otherwise sane Kansas Citians half to death.

Zeskind is a so-called "watchdog," Kansas City’s most celebrated, the winner of a $295,000 McArthur "genius grant," the preferred source on racial issues for papers like The Star and The Jewish Chronicle and political organizations like the Mainstream Coalition. Over the last decade, in fact, no fewer than ten different Star writers have gotten Zeskind’s breathless take on everything from Pat Buchanan to the Ku Klux Klan. Star reporter Judy Thomas has herself gone to the well with Zeskind in at least eight articles. Even the otherwise savvy Bill Tammeus has praised Zeskind as an "expert on extremist groups."

Yet for all his expertise, the Amazing Zeskind has chosen to keep mum about certain hard-core extremist groups of his acquaintance. And with good reason. He himself has carried their banners.

Much of the information that follows comes from Laird Wilcox, a lifetime ACLU member and civil rights activist who judiciously monitors extremes both left and right. Indeed, the Wilcox Collection on Contemporary Political Movements at KU’s Spencer Research Library is among the foremost such collections in the country. The Star has quoted Wilcox numerous times but never on the subject of Leonard Zeskind. A good thing. Wilcox is not a fan.

According to Wilcox, Zeskind first came to attention in 1973 as the Kansas City front man for The Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). STO’s primary role, according to its own literature, was to motivate the working classes "to make a revolution." This was more than just bong-inspired bravado. The STO unabashedly quoted role model, Josef Stalin, on the need for "iron discipline." They played for keeps.

In 1978, Zeskind penned an article for the journal, Urgent Tasks, titled "Workplace Struggles in Kansas City." In the article, Zeskind talks about the value of a grass roots "school of communism," one conceived "to destroy the marketplace, not sell at it." The journal, by the way, took its title from a quote by Lenin. Not John. Vladimir Ilyich. In a 1980 article for the same journal, Zeskind denounced the American military "as a tool of U.S. Imperialism."

In 1981 Bruce Rodgers, the current editor of The KC Pitch, profiled Zeskind in a City Magazine article on radical activism. He describes Zeskind as elusive, paranoid, "near hysterical." As to Zeskind’s beloved STO, says Rodgers, "They surface on occasion to distract and intimidate non-violent groups working for social change."

How Zeskind would transform himself from a feckless neo-Stalinist into a lion of Kansas City society is one of those great, only-in-America kind of success stories. To understand it, however, we need to make a quick detour to Mother Russia.

The opening of the Soviet vaults and the release of the decrypted Venona files has revealed whole new bags of KGB dirty tricks. A favored Russki prank was to send racist threats to high profile groups and attribute those threats to the Jewish Defense League, the John Birch Society or other right wing organizations. As British author Mark Shields notes in his study of the Mitrohkin files, the Soviets hoped "to weaken the internal cohesion of the United States and undermine its international reputation by inciting race hatred."

Back home, our local Marxists were playing much the same game. In 1979 the game got out of hand when the Communist Worker’s Party (CWP) provoked a lethal shoot-out with the increasingly absurd Ku Klux Klan. In its aftermath many of these groups, and others more innocuous, united to form the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN). In 1982 the radical publication Workers Vanguard described the NAKN as a loose coaltion of Southern ministers and "the remnants of the pro-Peking Stalinists."

In 1986, as Laird Wilcox notes, "the NAKN changed its name to the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), perhaps in an attempt to blur its radical roots." At that time, Leonard Zeskind was listed as its "director of research." Despite his affection for totalitarian governments, Zeskind was now presenting himself to Kansas City’s Jewish community as a fearless champion of civil rights, "the target of a number of anti-Semitic racist groups." In 1989, The Jewish Chronicle naively praised him as "one of America’s leading Nazi hunters."

Apparently, Zeskind came to the task well armed. According to a 1991 issue of Details magazine, "Lenny" was the proud owner of a shotgun and a Mini .14, "the far right’s weapon of choice," and was hoping for a 9mm handgun for his next birthday.

In 1989, after tales of his past had begun to circulate, Zeskind went public with his own history. Sort of. He told The Jewish Chronicle that "I was never the kind of Marxist-Leninist that they think of" and argued that, in any case, socialism was no longer a "defining feature of my politics."

Curiously, the CDR and other Marxist-Leninist groups were busily redefining themselves along similar lines. "Rather than present socialism or Marxism-Leninism as their goal," Wilcox writes, "they piggy-back it onto anti-racism which is far more popular." In this light, Zeskind’s non-apology seems to represent not so much a change of heart as a change of tactics.

As a committed civil libertarian, Wilcox is appalled by the McCarthyite flavor of many of these tactics. The watchdogs have dealt with the objective decline of racism, he notes, "by expanding the definition of racism to meet their needs, to include more and more behaviors, and to require more and more invasive remedies."

One methodology of choice is that old Stalinist standby, "ritual defamation." Says Wilcox bluntly, "The primary purpose of Watchdog organizations seems to be to call people names in the hope of defaming, discrediting, stigmatizing or neutralizing them."

As to Zeskind, he has imagined an impending "white Christian nation" that somehow manages to accomodate both anti-statist Christians and pagan Nazi socialists. He and his acolytes have made this oxymoron work in the public mind by routinely linking what he calls "the God, guts and guns crowd" with racists and fascists.

This strategy has helped evoke an hysteria in Johnson County that would be laughable were it not so deeply felt. Indeed, when the Reverend Robert Meneilly made the outrageous claim that the harmless Christian conservatives of Johnson County were "a threat far greater than the old threat of communism," he was applauded widely for his wisdom and courage. Zeskind must have been heartened. He could not have said it better himself.

The hysteria still rages. It has driven a wedge between area Christians and Jews that never before existed, destroyed Vince Snowbarger’s political life, seriously damaged a few careers and even more reputations, and sparked the demonization of the Kansas School Board. No doubt about it: Leonard Zeskind has done his job well.




Posted: April 25, 2000
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Editor's note: For a more complete account of this phenomenon, read Jack Cashill's amazing book, "Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture.


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