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Rashida Tlaib, the expletive, and respectability politics

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I would not say motherfucker aloud, even if I were to think it.  It’s just not a term I use. And I almost wish Rashida Tlaib hadn’t, not because I don’t share the sentiment, not because it is “counterproductive,” but because she doesn’t need the additional hostility, above and beyond what she already faces.  

Tlaib technically represents Detroit, Michigan, rather than the Palestinian or Muslim American communities, but victory set into motion a national wave of Diaspora Palestinian pride, as she announced that she would wear her thobe to the swearing-in ceremony. I am no nationalist, I do not own a thobe, just a shawl I bought for those infrequent occasions, mostly Palestinian fundraisers, when I absolutely have to dress up “Palestinian-style.” And yet I tweeted my embroidered shawl, the closest I have to a thobe. As I posted on Facebook: “#TweetYourThobe was so much more than fancy clothes, femininity, national pride.  It was a defiant collective fist bump, a joyful hopeful moment, the social media assertion that we teach life, you motherfucker sir!”  

Like no other politician, Rashida Tlaib made me want to be part of that national moment, when women of color, immigrant, refugees, who grew up poor claim their seat at a table that had too long been the prerogative of old white men from privileged backgrounds, men whose crimes and scandals—rape, assault, drunkenness, corruption—seem to slide off like rain on a slick coat of greasy slime.  

Our members of Congress may not all use profanity in public, but we have a thoroughly corrupt, amoral cabinet, made up of politicians who have routinely approved illegal wars, funding for illegal occupations, the thwarting of revolutionary movements around the globe.  Domestically, they have allowed environmental devastation, the worst healthcare system in the Global North, the stifling of free speech, rampant racist law enforcement violence, and the rise of white supremacists.   Even without comparing Tlaib’s expletive to Trump’s seemingly endless stream of vulgarity and offensive utterances, the crimes of our politicians, progressive and conservative, are much greater than the use of a profanity.  Even when they are extremely civil, at public events.

So, I am thankful for Tlaib for challenging the pressure to be civil, especially when you have a target on your back.  I am thankful for her for breaking taboos, and having the courage to say what many think.  Let us remember what else she has spoken, which would be considered a “profanity” by her peers.  She said the hitherto unspeakable, about Palestine: one country, because separate but equal doesn’t work anywhere.  She supports the Right of Return, and BDS.  I would hope that, just as people came forward saying they share her opinion about Trump, some will also say they agree with her on Palestine.  

Our national focus on civility and respectability politics is so warped that Professor Steven Salaita was fired for tweeting about Israel’s crimes and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminality, then Netanyahu, the war criminal, received a record number of standing ovations from our embarrassingly corrupt Congress.  I am confident Tlaib would not stand up for and applaud Netanyahu, and I am grateful to her for that. I would hope that if he were to address Congress again, she will boo him, loud and clear, before leaving the room.  If that’s a package, that comes with profanities, and missteps, I embrace it, expletives and all. Because she ran for Congress, and I wouldn’t, and she won, and because Congress is also where change happens.

Many organizers argue that the best way to  dismantle the status quo is by creating an alternative so attractive that people will flock to it.  Tlaib has announced she will organize and lead the alternative to the AIPAC junket that even “progressive” members of Congress such as Pramila Jayapal say they go on because it’s their one (expenses-covered) opportunity to travel to the country.  For that, I am beyond thankful: I commit to helping Tlaib make the alternative a reality, and hope many of us who appreciate the value of what she suggested will do the same. We know she will face tremendous opposition, and will need all the support she can get.

In 2018, many analysts have noted that popular opinion in the US has changed.  Poll after poll indicate that a growing number of youths are joining anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist organizations. So, despite the many setbacks, from the appointment of Kenneth Marcus to that of Brett Kavanaugh, there is a strong sense of anticipation in the air, a feeling we are at the cusp of major change. 2019 should be the year we break multiple taboos that have censored us, stifled progress, from the grassroots to Congress.  And Rashida Tlaib, who rose from the most polluted zip code in the country to the locus of national power, will certainly do her part.

Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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28 Responses

  1. JWalters on January 7, 2019, 3:31 pm

    A little locker room talk? More faux Fox outrage?

  2. wondering jew on January 7, 2019, 9:36 pm

    The women of color contingent (Tlaib, AOC and Omar) is the vanguard of the Democratic party: pushing on BDS, Palestine, higher taxes on the rich and Trump. The stirring of the grass roots is in the hands of the vanguard. Are they enough to defeat Trump in 2020? Maybe. Maybe not. It is difficult to measure how close the 2020 election is going to be and if it is close, who will be the key voters. I see the base rallies to the sound of and “wrong country” and BDS. I don’t know if the base will be enough.

    Currently the strength of the democratic party is in their numbers in solidly democratic states. I’ve seen writers selling “the democrats got the largest percentage of votes in november since 1974.” (house of representative voters, I assume). but those percentages are not enough. trump won with less votes and the senate is controlled by republicans from small population (white) states rather than the big population diverse democratic states.

    irony: the wealth of the country is created in the cities with diverse populations and those vote democratic. the power of the electoral college and the senate tilts the power towards areas that are not producing wealth, and they vote republican.

    (I fear for the unity of the United States. The only thing saving us from the civil war or secession to come is apathy. Once the diverse cities get the political power that their wealth and numbers already demand, the rural conservative white part of the country will wish to secede. Because they are in fact poorer and depend on government like the rest of us, this secessionist urge will be undermined by the need for the federal government which gets most of its taxes from the big cities, so this is the contradiction that the desire to secede will have to face. It would take real resolve to secede and it will take real resolve to suppress a secession. The election of Trump has given me license to imagine the worst.)

    • Mooser on January 8, 2019, 2:50 pm

      “I fear for the unity of the United States.” “WJ”

      And since Zionism and its political machinations had absolutely nothing to do with that disunity, it’s only right that we Jews can stand above the situation, and calmly offer disinterested analysis and advice.

    • Maghlawatan on January 9, 2019, 2:21 pm

      There are more Muslims and brown pro Justice people in the US than Jewish headbangers.
      Israel is no longer bipartisan because Zionism is nowhere near the Overton window.

      Zionism’s problem is that it does not have a motherfuckin’ conscience.

  3. Misterioso on January 8, 2019, 8:49 am

    “Rashida Tlaib Is a Breath of Fresh Air” By Michael Moore, 05 January 19

    “We, the people of the United States, were forced to wait 230 years — until yesterday — before we finally got a Muslim woman in Congress (and we got two) who could finally say the plain truth that no one had dared yet uttered: ‘We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!’

    “Oh, what a breath of fresh air when Rashida Tlaib, the oldest of 14 children and the newly elected member of Congress from Detroit, took to the stage at the MoveOn party in DC last night and spoke the unspeakable. Watch this:

    “Rep. Tlaib said out loud what tens of millions of us were already thinking — ‘We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!’ Yes I realize that to some moderate wimpy Dems that’s a dirty word which should not be spoken. But, after two years of Trump, if we can’t say a forbidden, nasty word like ‘impeachment,’ then we are never going to be able to remove this autocratic, malignant narcissist who has no intention of leaving.”

  4. eljay on January 8, 2019, 10:30 am

    IMO, D. Trump and H. Clinton are two sides of the same useless political coin. If it’s not OK for fellow politicians to refer publicly to her as a stupid c*nt (and I don’t think it is), it’s not OK for them to refer publicly to him as a motherf*cker. But that’s just my humble opinion.

  5. Elizabeth Block on January 8, 2019, 11:03 am

    I too kind of wish she hadn’t used that word. For one thing, it drew attention away from everything else she said. For another, why should we follow Trump’s example of incivility?
    I didn’t know those wonderful embroidered gowns were called thobes. I’ve seen them. I’m a needlewoman myself and I know what I’m looking at.

  6. [email protected] on January 8, 2019, 11:04 am

    Go Rashida. Now I have a new slogan for my marching sign.

  7. Vera Gottlieb on January 8, 2019, 12:27 pm

    I think she committed a terrible ‘faux pas’…She should not be surprised if lout Trump crucifies her at every chance. I most certainly agree with her sentiments but…being the ‘new kid’ on the block, she needs to step with care and mind her mouth…for a while.

    • Mooser on January 9, 2019, 11:28 am

      Well, it was a swearing-in ceremony. Something of the sort was bound to happen.

  8. brent on January 8, 2019, 12:53 pm

    A sad and tragic turn of events that will undermine the Palestinian people and all who seek justice for them. This mindset is the one that led Abbas and Erekat to unnecessarily belittle the POTUS and reinforce the image Netanyahu and friends have so craftily created for all Palestinians, an irrational people who cannot be respected until they figure out how to take what is rightfully theirs.

    • Misterioso on January 8, 2019, 4:00 pm

      @brent, et al

      Rashida Tlaib’s comment will not “undermine the Palestinian people and all who seek justice for them.” Despite pathetic attempts by raving Zionists like Daniel Pipes (see below) to tar and feather Ms. Tlaib, they will continue to support her and stand shoulder to shoulder with the long suffering Palestinians.

      “Rashida Tlaib said nothing wrong on impeachment” by Michelle Goldberg The New York Times, Jan. 8/19

      “Last Thursday, newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., spoke at the People’s Swearing-In, a party celebrating the progressive women who make the 2019 congressional class so distinctive.

      “Tlaib praised her fellow freshman Sharice Davids, the Native American lesbian and former mixed-martial-arts fighter from Kansas.

      “’When people like us do run for office and don’t change anything about us, we win,’ she said to cheers.

      “Then she spoke about what her victory meant to her son, who told her it showed that bullies — like Donald Trump — don’t win. ‘And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ ’Tlaib recalled. ‘Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the mother.

      “Though of course, as you surely know by now, ‘mother’ wasn’t the whole of what she said.

      “To judge by the media freak out that followed, you’d have thought Tlaib had threatened to grab the president by his genitals and deport him to a country full of excrement.

      “It was astonishing, both the straight-faced audacity of Republicans feigning outrage over profanity, and the gormless clucking of pundits comparing Tlaib’s swearword to Trump’s violent misogyny and racist demagogy.

      “The whole tempest was so monumentally stupid that I was tempted to ignore it, particularly since it’s starting to blow over.

      “But it’s worth trying to figure out what the uproar was really about, since it could be a sign of the kind of media coverage this brash new group of representatives, particularly female representatives, might be in for.

      “It certainly wasn’t about the profanity itself. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney delighted conservatives by effectively telling Sen. Patrick Leahy, on the Senate floor, to go copulate with himself. (‘It’s sort of the best thing I ever did,’ Cheney later boasted to right-wing comedian Dennis Miller.)

      “In October, Kanye West used the same term as Tlaib in the Oval Office, and few pretended to be scandalized.

      “Some commentators accused Tlaib of adopting a Trumpian mode of discourse, but this misunderstands why Trump’s words are offensive.

      “When Trump called athletes who knelt to protest police brutality ‘sons of bitches,’ the problem was bigotry, not salty language.

      “When he was caught boasting about sexually assaulting women, the issue wasn’t that he used a slang term for female anatomy. It’s Trump’s foul actions and ideas, not his swearing, that make him a walking obscenity.

      “A few opiners insisted that the real affront lay in Tlaib’s threat of impeachment. But it’s not a secret that a lot of Democrats want to see Trump removed from office; on Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., reintroduced an impeachment resolution in the new Congress.

      “So why the fainting fit over a bad word? I suspect it has something to do with the very phenomenon Tlaib was celebrating. The new Congress looks very different from any that’s come before.

      “Forty-two of the new members are women, while 24 are people of color. Two of them, Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., are Congress’ first Muslim women. This new face of American political power makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

      “Conservative scholar Daniel Pipes explicitly connected Tlaib’s Palestinian heritage to her use of what he called ‘the most vulgar term in the history of Congress,’ tweeting that ‘Americans now get to enjoy a version of what #Israelis face.’

      “But even people who aren’t overtly bigoted can be triggered by foul-mouthed women.

      “My friend Rebecca Traister has a section about female politicians and dirty words in her recent book, ‘Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.’

      “’Like anger itself, cursing has been discouraged in women, as it is considered unladylike and masculinizing,’ she wrote. ‘But in fact it’s useful precisely because it is an outlet for all that pent-up anger.’

      “Tlaib, of course, is far from alone in her fury. It’s felt by many of the women who powered the resistance; Tlaib’s words to her son reminded me of all the mothers who’ve told me how agonizing it was to explain the triumph of Trump, the ultimate bully, to their children.

      “Anger seems to help propel some of the women contemplating presidential runs, and a few of them, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, have been known to drop the occasional profanity themselves.

      “The hysteria over Tlaib’s four-syllable word is like a warning to them, and to all the women just starting their careers on the national stage, not to show how livid they really are, to stay in line.

      “In June 2016, Time magazine ran a column headlined, ‘Why Donald Trump Is Smart to Swear.’

      “It described Trump’s curses as a ‘canny rhetorical strategy,’ noting that studies ‘have shown that people who swear are more likely to be believed.’

      “As the piece acknowledged, such a strategy was not available to Hillary Clinton, who is known to swear in private, but rarely in public.

      “’The rules about what constitutes appropriate language are stricter for women than they are for men,’ it said.

      “For her reticence, Clinton was derided as phony, controlled and inauthentic. When it comes to balancing poise and indignation, women politicians can’t win.

      “The rest of us, however, can tell the finger-waggers to go Cheney themselves.”

      • brent on January 8, 2019, 9:29 pm

        Misterioso, a lot of good points. My take on why this is a sad event is not only about how inappropriate it is to use vulgarity in public discourse or the loss of esteem that results. The high road would be more constructive for Palestinian public figures who seek justice for their people..

        It’s more than its an indication Tlaib doesn’t seem to appreciate that America has a system of competing interests where anyone can win or lose, depending on how the political game is engaged. Vulgarity, or violence for that matter, is not an effective tool for empowering political supporters and taking from America’s political system.

        I fear anger from the victimization has resulted in a clouded view forward for Palestinians like Abbas and Erekat. America doesn’t “give’ to Israel. Israel “takes”. Palestinians have been stymied by buying into that America “gives”. When they figure how to take what is rightfully theirs, it will come.

      • amigo on January 9, 2019, 2:58 pm

        “It was astonishing, both the straight-faced audacity of Republicans feigning outrage over profanity, and the gormless clucking of pundits comparing Tlaib’s swearword to Trump’s violent misogyny and racist demagogy.” misterioso

        Yup the same Republicans who were closed mouthed when news of Trump,s theft from his so called Trump Charitable Org hit the headlines.

        Apparently using an expletive to describe Trump is worse than misappropriating (stealing) funds from a charity to pay your legal bills or fund parties at Mara Lago or pay for stump speeches to re up his base.

        Or this!!.

        Lock them up.

      • Maghlawatan on January 9, 2019, 3:16 pm

        Brent, with all due respect you are full of shit.
        Every minute of US support for Israel is bought by Zionist donors. Israel uses the ugliest tactics 24/7 against anyone it sees as a threat and you bring up the issue of ´vulgarity’. Jesus H Christ.
        Judge Goldstone ´s treatment – was that kosher? How about Chas Freeman? Zionism is uglier than sin. And Trump is a wild motherfucker.

  9. tidings on January 8, 2019, 2:00 pm

    I never use that word because it is an insult to mothers–me, mine, all the others.

    It’s not about foul language but about this particular one, in the same hideous class as c***, both extremely hostile to women.

  10. Arby on January 8, 2019, 2:46 pm

    The idea that you can’t be civil unless you’re foul is one that ruined people might entertain. The world is a toilet and I don’t want to be part of it.

  11. Mooser on January 8, 2019, 3:42 pm

    The world is a toilet…

    All too true, unfortunately.

  12. scott9854958 on January 8, 2019, 7:45 pm

    I can’t believe there’s no mention in this post of Tlaib’s absolutely monumental Tweet accusing certain congresscritters of dual loyalty. Wow, what a hornet’s nest she’s stirred up.! Forget the obscenity, that’s small beer. She’s aiming right at the heart of AIPAC and the Zionists who run things in Washington. Why don’t you talk about it?

  13. Maghlawatan on January 9, 2019, 2:23 pm

    Tlaib should have called Trump a wild motherfucker. Because that’s what he is

  14. amigo on January 9, 2019, 2:35 pm

    Let,s assume that Rashida Tlaib still has relatives still living in the OCCUPIED West Bank or worse still , in the open air prison that is Gaza, under the Zionist Jackboot and lets assume they are the subjects of the daily cruelty–second thoughts–crimes of the so called “Most Moral Army ” and that, for decades. And lets assume Rashida is fully against Trump,s illegal decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem and his unwavering support for the rogue nation that is Israel I think in her place I just might be prone to such an outburst.Her response was a very minor event compared to his support for the crimes of the zionist entity.

    As to Trump being an MF ,I would have a some stronger adjectives to describe Mr Trump.

    This is a storm in a tea cup that is being used by zionists who cannot stand the fact that The Palestinians finally have a voice where it counts and that every word she says will be out front on US MSM as the zionists Schmucks. just don,t know when to stfu—God Love them.

    Keep whinging and whining girls and boys. You are doing a great service to the Palestinian cause.

  15. Mooser on January 10, 2019, 5:26 pm

    Where was Ms. Tlaib when she uttered the awful word? Was she profaning the House of Representative? Cursing in a Church or Mosque?

    I think she was at a bar, actually.

  16. gamal on January 10, 2019, 9:01 pm

    “I think she was at a bar, actually”

    And I believe Lowkey and Immortal Technique were on the Jukebox

    voice of the voiceless

    • annie on January 10, 2019, 10:44 pm

      i love this song.

      • gamal on January 11, 2019, 9:24 am

        yeah, what man ever beat Khutulun, Rashid ad Din met her and thought “Damn!”, more power to Rashida, feeling irie

  17. Stephen Shenfield on January 10, 2019, 10:44 pm

    Consider the advantages if instead of calling Trump a MF she had called him by substantive names to draw attention to his real iniquities, e.g. ‘thug and rapist’ or ‘liar and swindler’. Even though she would have been criticized for calling him those things too, in response she could have given extra publicity to the facts underlying those substantive labels and put Trump on the defensive.

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