The Middle of the Journey 2.0

A brother-writer has been pumping iron and taking boxing lessons ever since Trump won. He’s Jewish (with a Latin tinge). I’m not. And that’s probably on point. The threat posed by those who chant “Jews Will Not Replace Us” may be more visceral for him than it is for me. When I watched the Vice documentary about mad dogs who want to Make America White Again with my mixed race son, I figured he too might be feeling the hate a little more than me. My tough Jewish friend who’s prepping to punch out fascists was torn-up over Charlottesville but he wasn’t wordy about it. He kept his response brief, signing off with “Venceremos and ABRAZOS.” I’ll allow I felt more at ease with his hugs than his will to win.

Maybe that’s because I’ve begun to suspect I’m not all in with the vanguard of our struggle against extreme rightists. I was ambivalent, for instance, about the online drive to expose those who marched in the torchlight parade at the University of Virginia—a campaign that would prove increasingly potent last week. Talking Points Memo reported on Wednesday two neo-Nazis had been fired from their jobs at fast food restaurants. Part of me wasn’t thrilled with the strategy of tracking and trashing those (soon to be) poor schmucks. It seemed against the American grain even if their extremism was antithetical to the American creed. Is it possible leftists should focus on making sure employees in fast food chains get a living wage rather than policing the politics of workers in such establishments? One of the racist fools who got fired has a young son (whom he brought to Charlottesville).  Hard to imagine Nazi-daddy and son are more likely to join the party of hope now that pop’s another lumpen.

When Ben Kessler tweeted a passage–see below–from Leslie Fiedler’s classic essay, “Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs,” on the day after the battles of Charlottesville, Fiedler’s call for compassion when dealing with traitorous dimwits seemed pertinent.


(Though I was also flummoxed for a minute, since this graph was something of an afterthought to an essay that’s best remembered for Fiedler’s dissection of the banality of Stalinists.)

Thanks in part to Kessler’s Fiedler tweet, I began to wonder if I was in the middle of The Middle of the Journey 2.0. Not that Lionel Trilling’s 1947 novel about a liberal tweener (John Lasker) confronted by sprightly dogmatists on the Left and a brilliant, ex-communist hard man on the Right (Gifford Maxim) is a perfect fit for the farcical side of the present age.  In this brown-red decade, after all, the Right has taken in Russian authoritarianism that once seemed to be a phenomenon of the Left.  Still, I found myself flashing back to the scene in Journey where maximalist Maxim (a character based on Whittaker Chambers–the witness who exposed Communist spy Alger Hiss) mocked the stand-in for Trilling. Flexible liberal imaginations, Maxim argued, are out of time in a state of emergency. Tweener Lasker bowed to Maxim’s clarity about the uselessness of votaries of variousness in a street fight, but he insisted he’d act up in defense of what Maxim dismissed as “humanistic critical intelligence”: “…you are wrong on one point—I do not acquiesce.”

Yet, in the exchange that followed, Lasker left himself open to the anti-liberal, anti-Communist’s counterpunch:

“Yes,” said Maxim… “Of course I was wrong. You cannot possibly acquiesce. But it does not matter, John,” he said kindly, “whether you do or not.”

“It matters,” Lasker said, “Oh it matter very much. It is the only thing that matters. The world is full of open secrets, Maxim, and one of them is the ferocity—“

“If you had said ‘tenacity,’ the tenacity of your kind of mind, that might have made sense. But if you defend yourself with ferocity, John, we have won…”

Maxim’s distinction spoke to me last week, though The Middle of the Journey’s warning against ferocity wasn’t bracing.  I found it daunting to admit how close I am in some ways to Trilling’s liberal alter ego (who was never likely to lose himself despite his hot second of intellection). It makes me feel farther away in my head from that Jewish writer/boxer I invoked at the start of this trip. (And I love that guy.) On the real side, though, nobody on the extreme right has to fret much about my biceps (or my core–unless they come after my family).  Which makes me fear I’m not worthy of hugging my Jewish brother or imagining I’m truly in solidarity with Heather Heyer and comrades who would’ve acted preemptively to save her.

Have I gone wobbly on white supremacists?  My self-doubt on that score got amped up last Tuesday after a shaming movement of mind that jumped off when I read an email sent by a D.C. cardiologist, Dr. Oskoui, to a list who read and sometimes comment on William Greider’s Nation articles.  Dr. Oskoui limned himself as a “former Trump supporter” and he offered up advice in the wake of Charlottesville that seemed plausible: “not all Trump supporters (and I am a recovering one) support these people. By not equating them with these freaks, you can bring them to your side. You get more flies with honey than vinegar.”

It was almost enough to make me forget I’d been appalled in the past by Dr. Oskoui’s apologies for Trumpery. When another email from him came in later that day, I got a little beamish, anticipating more in the way of political (and self-) validation. Only to find out I’d been a sap to assume Dr. Oskoui would be spreading sweetness and light.

Around the hour Trump was asserting some “very fine people” had marched with the fasc in Charlottesville, Dr. Oskoui tried out his own exculpatory story of Unite the Right rallies.  The “freaks” he’d cited in that earlier note had faded away. Claiming to have inside dope from a participant—“…son of my neighbor. Just a conservative kid.”—he insisted genteel innocents had been set upon by ruthless antifa and BLM roughnecks out to quash Alt Rightists’ anodyne efforts to “support European identity and culture.” That phrase was a tell.  And the agitprop nature of this Doctor’s plot was made plain when he adduced what he seemed to regard as an authoritative live feed from…RT! His B.S. perspective featured a slippery angle on Heather Heyer’s killer: “I have seen footage of the driver’s car being attacked with a flagpole before the crash.” Without explicitly taking on accounts in what he dissed as “the legacy media,” the bad Doctor implied “the crash” was an accident not a deliberate act of terror.  FWIW, the following account published in Politico rings truer; it’s by an eyewitness–a Charlottesville resident who spent a lot of time in America’s foreign service (which no doubt makes him a pariah to Dr. Oskoui):

The turmoil began in the morning, when I joined a group protesting the white supremacists who were ostensibly demonstrating against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But after hours of protests had produced multiple rounds of fights between the two sides, pepper spray attacks by the Nazis and eventually a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Terry McAuliffe, the crowds dispersed and I walked with two friends down a narrow side street, thinking the worst was over. A group of anti-racist protesters, in a celebratory mood following what we hoped would be the expulsion of violent hate groups from our town, made their way up the street in the opposite direction, arms touching arms, carrying banners and chanting slogans. As I filmed them walk marching up the street, I suddenly heard the squeal of tires and an engine revving. Whipping around, I saw a car barreling toward the crowd, their faces stricken in terror. That’s when I had the heart-stopping realization that the day was about to get much worse.

I quoted that passage in the email I sent back to Dr. Strangelove and that Club for Greider. And I asked Greider himself to disavow the propagandist. (While Greider isn’t the Doctor’s keeper, the guy is lying up a storm under Mr. G.’s aegis.)  This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested Greider should call his fan out. Last fall, I was struck by Oskoui’s spew on behalf of the Don…

They [Mexicans] brought their third-world ** **hole here and while it’s a little bit better than what they had in the process of doing it they dragged us into the gutter with them.

I proposed that Greider distance himself from Oskoui’s gutter talk but my motion didn’t get any traction with him then. Greider’s sense of urgency on this front, though, might be stoked now by a glance at the opening gambit in Oskoui’s defense of the Alt Right’s stance in Charlottesville. Before he reached his new low with that flagging excuse for vehicular terrorism, Oskoui came on from above last week: “Most self-professed Nazis I’ve met are idiots.” [Ah Doc…how many Nazis do you know and how did you come to know them?] It’s a line that reminded me of the notorious Q&A between Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger:

‘”How do you think a man as coarse as Hitler can govern Germany?’ asked Jaspers.

Heidegger replied, eyes shining with glee, ‘culture is of no importance. Look at his marvelous hands!’”[1]

Oskoui is no Heidegger of course. (Though, he aped the philosopher last summer in claiming to be put off by the Don’s crudities even as he cried up our monstrous native handyman–“Donald Trump is calling both liberals and conservatives to their American standards and their American values…Action hero and heroine stuff, truly, but the real thing.”) Oskoui’s scenarios won’t make it into any museum of Nazi marvels. OTOH, when I think back on his doozies during the last election season—“Obama hates America, whites, Christians, cops, Israel”—he seems crazier than Ezra Pound.

But the Doctor isn’t likely to end up in a sanatorium for fascists down the line. He’s a man of respect who was named “Doctor of the Year” in 2015 by his professional colleagues at Sibley Hospital. When I think about losers like that pizza daddy-Nazi who are looking at a jobless future, the idea that Oskoui is set for life seems like more proof of the class-bound nature of justice in our cleft society. Though I’m not tempted to fantasize about Oskoui’s employers cutting him loose. I guess I lack a certain ferocity, per Maxim, but my tenacity kicks in when it comes to Oskoui’s hobby.

I’m not out to spark any un-civil or censorious response to his amateur polemics. As long as he sticks to writing not fighting, he has a right to a quiet life. But Oskoui’s extremist riffs shouldn’t be met with a silence that implies acquiescence. So, once again, I’m looking to you William Greider. I know you had your own fling with Trump whom you hoped might serve as a tribune of a small d democratic uprising of “plain people” against elites. But, unlike Oskoui, you never got irreal about racism in America or cozied up to Alt Rightists. You’ve got the moral standing to tell this reader on your shoulder where to get off.



1 I first came across this anecdote in Jonathan Glover’s Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.