Motherfuckers and Shit

David Iscoe weekly update #15

When my dad was growing up in Texas, one of his teachers admonished a classmate with the old canard that cursing was a sign of low intelligence. His friend Bob, a precocious kid who loved literature, piped up and said something like "Craig's dad cusses more than anyone, and he's a college professor and the smartest person I know!"

Craig's dad was my grandpa Ira, and I can confirm his ability to cuss up a storm, and that he was smarter than, if not everybody, most of the humorless martinets who looked down on his way of speaking. More important than that, Grandpa Iscoe was good at being good, with tremendous empathy for anyone who was trying to get through life and needed to be seen, and no tolerance for the inhumane bullshit and the assholes who perpetuated it.

I went to Ira Iscoe's funeral at the University of Texas a few years ago, and his affinity for profanity did not seem to have diminished in any way the respect people had for his presence in their community, or his suitability for a top faculty role at a respected university. The room was packed from from front to back, floor to balcony. I wasn't around when he was coming up, of course, but I suspect he got away with cursing both because he did good work and people trusted him, and because he fit the profile of someone who had license to do so – a man, a white person (though a Jew), a poor boy who grew up fighting in schoolyards, a WWII infantry veteran with Bronze Stars, a Texan, an eccentric professor, the type of person who could tell it like it was.

Some people aren’t trying to afford Rashida Tlaib, a newly-elected Palestinian-American Muslim Congresswoman from Detroit, the same sort of leeway when she calls Donald Trump a motherfucker, and obviously there’s some bullshit afoot, and we all know John McCain would have gotten away with it more than Kirsten Gillibrand who would have gotten away with it more than Tlaib, and we all know why or are pretending not to.

People who know better than I have have already written plenty of defenses of her comments, or I assume they have. The only thing I read was this thread, and the attached articles, by Mona Elthaway. The case for Tlaib being able to say whatever the fuck she wants when the president is flouting the law, the truth, and any respect for humanity, is pretty obvious, and the case for her words being any sort of problem is asinine. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, the world will little note, nor long remember, who called who a motherfucker here, but they’ll never forget whether we did anything about this shit here.

These times call for bluntness, fearlessness, kindness towards humanity and aggression towards evil. We speak a lot of different languages in this country, and a lot of different forms of English, but what’s key is that we call things what they are. “Motherfucker” makes more sense as a descriptor for Trump than “president” does, because he has all the behavior we associate with motherfuckers and none of the behaviors the civility brigade attributes to presidents. The press, for example, would be better advised to treat his speech tomorrow night as the act of a motherfucker trying to fuck with us than as the act of a president trying to address the nation, but their heads are still up their asses, and we can’t be bothered waiting for them. If you don’t say “motherfucker,” it’s fine, say whatever words you have to put things plainly. But to me, cursing sometimes showed an understanding for how inadequate our language and assumptions were for really describing the state of things, how big the gaps were in how things were and how they should be, and now seems like a time for such words if there ever was one (in my opinion, there never wasn’t one).

And to be honest, I don’t really know why I’m reiterating those points. Everyone who knows me already knows what I’d think, and like I said, the main points have been made. It’s almost midnight, and I thought I’d have a better shape of this by now.

But I’ve been thinking of my grandpa, and that story about my dad’s classroom, a lot today, and one thing I thought about was how we think these sort of legacies belong to our families, but history doesn’t always repeat itself these ways. My grandpa went through a lot of shit – taking care of a dysfunctional family as a child, dealing with anti-Semitic persecution in Canada, fighting in a goddamn bloody war - that I didn’t. Muslim women like Rashida Tlaib and Mona Elthaway are going through more shit than just about any, and have also been long engaged in meaningful struggle. They feel like some of the real successors to what he stood for. I think it’s important to trace stories that we’re told about not just through direct lineage, but see them in people with different names and faces taking on the same roles.


One thing that I like about the word “motherfucker” is that, although it’s insulting, I never associate it with demeaning a less powerful person. A motherfucker, in the spirit of the word, is someone with at least equal power to you, someone capable of (and engaging in) fucking your shit up. There’s a lot of words you could call someone to dehumanize them, and I’m not with that. But I don’t think there’s ever been an oppression of motherfuckers. Anti-motherfucker sentiment is anti-authoritarian, upwards against the contours of power, or competitive with respected/resented rivals at worst.

I wonder if some of the people upset with Rashida Tlaib calling Trump a motherfucker secretly suspect that they are motherfuckers too. Which again, isn’t something you are by virtue of your status in society, it’s something you are by virtue of how you motherfuck people. Fuck All the Motherfuckers 2019.


A bunch of people on Twitter were talking about this essay by Anne Helen Petersen*, which I think had some good things in it, though this critique by Tressie McMillan Cottom and this one by Tiana Clark were pretty solid.

The basic theory of Petersen’s piece was that “we” are suffering from burnout, and that this gets misdiagnosed as other things. I’m not really sure I agree with her formulation of the problem. But what I really liked was the attempt to find some shape in some of the strange patterns of life in a meaningful way, which we’re not often asked to do because compartmentalization and weird kinds of optimization are encouraged instead. I found this blog post by Petersen really interesting, more enlightening to me than the article published by Buzzfeed.

I think there’s a lot, lot more to be said about burnout, mental health, alienation, and the shape of meaninglessness, both through nonfiction and art. But two brief notes on the thing:

  • First, I’m really fascinated by the process of trying to process your reality, name it, and give it shape, and it’s something I try to do, but very clumsily. I have a lot of obstacles: lack of training, lack of perspective inherent from my status, “burnout,” but the one that really hit me, reading the piece, is how much confidence and drive it takes to work on one thing for a while. I’ve devoted large amounts of my time to writing long, annoying, meandering, messy pieces trying to figure out my environment, and more often than not I’ve been ashamed of the results if I’ve exposed them at all, or felt guilty for doing that instead of other projects. This newsletter is a way for me to frame that drive and create space for it. But I still have to just “fire and forget” to do it. Please never speak to me about any of this again, I mean, unless you actually connect to it or whatever.

  • Second, I still saw some debate trying to determine if the article, or its author, were “good” or “bad,” and I think it’s just really clear that some work was done – starting to call something by its name, starting to shape it – and that a lot more is left to be done. Anne Helen Petersen did some work, Tressie McMillan Cottom did some work, Tiana Clark did some work, and through each step something was seen more clearly. I don’t need a bunch of perfect people out here, but processing the chaotic world into different strains of truth is real work that helps and I thank people who do make incremental contributions to it, because we do know bullshit and noise is sometimes more economically viable.

*WASPy triple name, I know, but I’m trying to be more forgiving of such choices by realizing that it’s a publishing necessity if you have a really common name, which I don’t because only one or two families decided on my particular Americanization of Iscovich.