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Obscenities, Congress, and the White House

So, the first #Palestinian ever to enter the #USCongress announces on her 2nd day in office her intention to impeach #Trump, publicly uses the most vulgar term in the history of Congress & stands by her obscenity. Me: Americans now get to enjoy a version of what #Israelis face.

–Daniel Pipes January 6, 2019

Conservative commentator Daniel Pipes is piping mad. However, the true source of his outrage is not the use of a ubiquitous American obscenity but the Palestinian roots of its utterer, Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim American woman elected to Congress, and the threat he believes her seat poses to Israelis who, according to Pipes, have had to endure the uppity insistence of Palestinians that they are fellow human beings (although the anti-BDS movement is trying to insure that their voice does not reach Americans) and who now provide a teachable moment for Americans tired of having to endure their own noisy minorities.

In a subsequent tweet posted after mounting online criticism of his tweet following publication of Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times January 7 column in which she called Pipes out for explicitly linking Tlaib’s Palestinian heritage to her use of the term, Pipes portrays himself as a naïve victim whose words he did not apparently expect to matter, writing, “In my innocence, I thought condemning @RashidaTlaib‘s vulgarity about #Trump & pointing to her radical #Palestinian identity was self-evidently true. Well, no. Thousands of attacks on @Twitter culminated with this @MichelleInBklyn in @NYTimes article.” In Pipes’ cataractic mind’s eye, obscenities matter more – at least when uttered by a Palestinian American woman – than ethnic character assassination.

Pipes takes the debatable point of whether it is acceptable for a sitting member of congress to describe a president with an obscenity (a disingenuous objection giventhat the president in question has boastfully referred to himself an inveterate pussygrabber) and drags in the completely irrelevant non-issue of Tlaib’s ancestry in order to erect a strawman as flimsy as Trump’s proposed concrete/steel/whatever Wall. Pipes is an old hand at this game, having in 2008 falsely accused Obama of being a practicing Muslim, which even if it were true, is unobjectionable and certainly less dangerous to the republic than a president who is an offensive, unrepentant liar, cad, and all-round unpleasant person, qualities that fittingly describe the type of person to toward whom the obscenity typically hurled.

Naturally, when it comes to Trump’s obscenities, his conservative supporters have proven far more forgiving. Trump used the same word to describe the Chinese when he addressed cheering supporters in Las Vegas in 2011. Ever the showman, Trump peppering his speech with a blitzkrieg of f-bombs to the raucous delight of crowd.  What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – or did until the advent of YouTube.

Trump himself claims to be outraged that Tlaib would such a word, or perhaps, more accurately, that she would use it to describe him. After all, he seemed perfectly fine with it when Kanye West recently dropped it in the Oval Office. As for Pipes, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was not aware of Trump’s use of the word in Sin City (a stretch given that footage of the event has been posted on YouTube since 2011), he most certainly is aware of it now, but he has yet to tweet his outrage or posit any connection between Trump’s use of the term and his Teutonic-Scottish heritage or to suggest that his behavior is something Israelis can now savor in their new capital of Jerusalem.

Pipes’ Islamophobic attack on Tlaib that insinuates her use of the term is somehow instinctually linked to her ancestry is deliciously ironic, for of the long list of things the west received from Islam – algebra, alchemy, cameras, chess, clocks, coffee, trigonometry, and the zero – “motherfucker” was not among of them. For that honor, we may have to turn to Europe and possibly a branch or two of Trump’s family tree. One theory holds that one component of the word,  “fuck,” has Germanic roots, which may also have a Scottish or Scandinavian origin, perhaps derived from the Norwegian “fukka” (to copulate) or the Swedish “focka” (copulate) and “fock” (penis), linguistic roots from removed from Palestinians and closer to those of the Teutonic-Scot Trump, Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen and the poor, huddled masses of democratic socialist Norway yearning to breathe free that Trump is all so eager to let into the country in order to make America great again. Still others, with more certainty, have pointed out that the earliest use of the term in America can be traced to an 1889 Texas Court of Appeals trial, Levy vs. State, whose defendant was reportedly called a “Goddamn motherfucking bastardly son-of-a-bitch.” The first recorded use of the term “motherfucker” proper (if there is such a thing) was in 1898 during another court case in which a man charged with murder argued that the charge be dismissed because he was called the term. (Hmm. Has Tlaib inadvertently provided Trump with a potential defense strategy should he face criminal prosecution?)

As it is with most things America finds troublesome, the term has become associated with black people in general (who popularized it in literature and song from the 1930s onward providing it with a more positive connotation along the lines of “badass”) and, well, Samuel L. Jackson in particular. In fact, the BBC claims Africans originated the term to refer to white slave owners who raped the mothers of their slaves, though this derivation is doubtful. Nonetheless, its first recorded use and that of its cognates was by whites, who have carried the practice into the White House, whose current occupant, judging by his evangelical support and unequaled familiarity with the Bible, particularly “Two Corinthians,” is a practicing Christian, no doubt, to Pipes’ great relief.

Still, all this having been said, it is worth pointing out that despite Pipe’s contention, “motherfucker” is not the most vulgar word uttered by a national representative. I would argue that questionable honor belongs to the word “nigger.” As with many of his rightwing colleagues, Pipe’s underestimates the degree to which white America has held black people in contempt. Consider the case of “Niggers in the White House” (a.k.a. “Koons in the Kapital”), a poem published in American newspapers during at the turn of the century in response to Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to the White House. According to Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, an outraged Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina predicted, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”The poem was later reprinted in 1929 after Herbert Hoover’s wife invited the wife of the only black member of the House of Representatives to a White House tea. The poem, which repeats the word “nigger” 24 times, was subsequently inserted in a senate resolution demanding that the president respect the White House and was read aloud on the senate floor. Lest it be argued that the term is more epithet than obscenity, a contemporary witness to the event, Hiram Bingham, a Republican Senator from Connecticut, described the poem as an “indecent, obscene doggerel.”

In fact, there is a long history of senators using “nigger” both on and off the floor of the Senate,

Writes Kennedy in Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002):

During an early debate in the United States House of Representatives over a proposed federal antilynching bill, black people sitting in the galleries cheered when a representative from Wisconsin rebuked a colleague from Mississippi for blaming lynching on Negro criminality. In response, according to James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), white southern politicians shouted from the floor of the House, “Sit down, niggers.” In 1938, when the majority leader of the United States Senate, Allen Barkley, placed antilynching legislation on the agenda, Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina (who would later become vice president and secretary of state) faulted the black NAACP official Walter White. Barkley, Byrnes declared, “can’t do anything without talking to that nigger first.”

Despite rumors of the existence of an “Apprentice” tape in which Trump uses the term, it remains to be seen whether Trump has actually used the epithet in either his private or public dealings. Still, given his track record of using obscenities, to suggest that he hasn’t, one would have to assume that Trump possesses a level of propriety, restraint, and simple human decency he has yet to display. Not that the issue would matter much to his base and the 83% of Republicans who continue to support him and who have remained, like Pipes, conspicuously silent on his use of that other term and its cognates, suggesting that a Republican Congress of deplorables is an eminently appropriate target toward whom to brandish the term.

 

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