The Praise of Motherfuckers

Another thoughtful article by guest contributor Jeffrey Wengrofsky, “The Praise of Motherfuckers” looks at intergenerational warfare and the use of the word “motherfucker” in counterculture. NYC readers, take note: Jeff’s latest film (with the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers), “The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen,” is an Official Selection of DOC NYC 2011, the documentary film festival of the Independent Film Channel. It is scheduled to make its premiere on November 6 at New York University’s Kimmel Center at 7:30 and on November 7th at the Independent Film Center at 3:45. The film depicts the romantic beauty and squalid dereliction of the bohemian life as embodied by Beat poet and Warhol Superstar Taylor Mead. It’s being shown with “Girl with the Black Balloons.” Grab your tickets here. Congrats, Jeff! – Ed

“WALL ST. is WAR ST.” Photo by Larry Fink. More photos here.

There is a … sort of madness… which the furies bring from hell; those that are herewith possessed are hurried on to wars and contentions… inflamed to some infamous and unlawful lust, enraged to act the parricide, seduced to become guilty of incest, sacrilege, or some other of those crimson-dyed crimes…  ~  Erasmus

Not long ago I attended a lecture on youth rebellion in the 1960s.  The presenter noted with disdain that the word “motherfucker” was used by some of the speakers at the notorious demonstration against the 1968 Democratic National Convention.   Use of this term, so the argument went, was emblematic of a movement that was politically inept if not inherently self-destructive.  And the most immediate casualty of the unholy coupling of “mother” and “fucker,” it was alleged, was the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon.  For those outside the Convention, however, Humphrey’s nomination – pre-ordained by party insiders – offered a continuation of the Vietnam War and seemed to make a farce of our democracy.

The Motor City Five get it on (and duck stray bullets)

Well, it got me to thinking, and I soon made the personal discovery that Motherfuckery was all over America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  No, not literally, of course.  The phrase was, however, in conspicuous currency among New Leftists in a way it had not been before or has been since.

On that fated afternoon in 1968, Rob Tyner of the MC5 had, indeed, shouted his shibboleth – “It’s time to kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” – to ignite his band’s performance, as he did for nearly every show.  After hours of peaceable, if raucous, assembly and rock’n’roll (the MC5 were the only band with the gumption to perform), Chicago mayor Richard Daley dispatched 23,000 police and National Guardsmen to beat and gas the protestors.  And when Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff noted, on the floor of the Convention, that Daley was using “Gestapo tactics,” Daley himself fired the epithet of the era right back at the rostrum: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch! You lousy motherfucker!”

Just a year earlier, Everett LeRoi Jones decorated a poem celebrating the race riots that would permanently cripple Newark: “All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!” Magic words indeed, but the “joosh stores” did not “open,” they closed and remain shuttered to this day or marked only by empty spaces in their footprint.

The phrase “motherfucker” had already been in circulation in hip, African-American lingo long before Jones tapped it, referring to someone who may be evil, a passionate musician, or simply a force to be reckoned with.  It is important to note here that mainstream African-American society, ever-struggling for respect, was possibly even more hostile to the use of the term in polite company than America as a whole.

In New York City, Ben Morea, a ballsy street urchin whose totalizing, uncompromising politics was wedded to a phrase befitting his society of self-proclaimed “suicidal sidewalk psychopaths” known as “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker,” “The Motherfuckers,” or, most simply, as UAW/MF – though they referred to themselves collectively as “The Family.”  Perhaps significantly, Morea “did not know his father [and] did not want to tell his mother he was a Motherfucker because he did not want to disappoint her.”  Osha Neumann, another Motherfucker, also had a twist in his family romance: his father’s best friend, a man who had lived in his house like an uncle (Herbert Marcuse), married his widowed mother.

The Motherfuckers declared war on “the totality of reality as shaped by” the financial, military, and cultural elites by disrupting the suburban commute at Grand Central Station and high mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  In the middle of the garbage strike of 1968, Motherfuckers dumped bags of rotting garbage from the scummy streets of the Lower East Side onto the pristine promenade of the newly-minted Lincoln Center.  They “ran free stores and crash pads…organized community feasts…[and] propagandized against the merchandizing of hip culture…” And, in the middle of the attempted “exorcism of the Pentagon,” only the Motherfuckers actually got inside the five-sided hole of power.   Puritanical Roundheads on the frontline of America’s “cultural revolution,” they fought the police and sometimes against other radicals, criticized both the war and the naive embrace of the Vietcong by the left, shot blanks at poet Kenneth Koch (who may have fainted or told them to “grow up”), printed and distributed fliers in solidarity with fellow traveler Valerie Solanas after she shot Andy Warhol, and forced Bill Graham into letting them use the Fillmore East for free once a week.

When Detroit’s MC5 came to play New York’s Fillmore on one such night, free tickets had not been distributed to the Motherfuckers and their ilk, unbeknownst to the band.  The sight of the MC5 pulling up in a limo provided by Electra Records the Motherfuckers then took to be a sign of bourgeois bedfellowship, so they trashed the Fillmore and sent that otherwise courageous band into rapid retreat under threat of grievous body harm.   The Motherfuckers were so feared that they once closed the mighty Museum of Modern Art by simply revealing their plans for it.  Their slogan was put to music by David Peel and Harold C. Black, lo-fi renegades calling themselves “The Lower East Side,” in a feisty ditty on an album whose cover demurred from disclosing the word “motherfucker” although it was otherwise brash enough to be titled Have a Marijuana. More than a regional phenomenon, the Motherfuckers were the only non-student branch of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), were admitted to and then purged from the largely French Situationist International, and had their slogans scooped up by San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane for their song, “We Can be Together.” (Jefferson Airplane would actually voice a parricidal fantasy in a different song: “Hey Frederick.”)

Up Against the Wall Motherfucker: The Game. 

Motherfucking was in the air.  It was in the fist-shaking conclusion to an open letter by Mark Rudd, chairman of Columbia University’s SDS, announcing a student action that would shut down the school for a week, hold a dean hostage, burn the papers of history professor Orest Ranum, and even smoke the cigar stash of the university president.  The action was against the plan to build a private gym on a public park, and, more broadly, opposed an institution whose ROTC program and Defense Department contracts were seen as endorsements of the Vietnam War and the military-industrial complex.

In one of the many ironies of identity politics, the Motherfuckers (all save one), along with all other “white” radicals, were forced to leave Hamilton Hall by race-conscious “black” students who wanted a segregated protest.  Even Motherfuckers, it seems, can be outflanked at times.  After 712 students were violently arrested, the establishment arrived to find “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker” scrawled across a wall of a classroom in Columbia University’s Mathematics Hall.  The incident inspired a boardgame.   By 1974, Patty Hearst, the ultimate hippie militant wannabe, would enter a bank armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a word with which to gore the ear of the straight world: “On the floor, motherfuckers!”

“I’m Tania. On the floor, motherfuckers!” Image from the FBI archives.

Even when the actual word “motherfucker” was absent, the theme of incest penetrated the zeitgeist.  In Hollywood film and popular music, the fantasy of inter-generational sexual relations was at the core of Oscar-nominated film “The Graduate,” and its cheerful theme, “Mrs. Robinson,” was a number one hit and Grammy nominee.   Incest also lay at the mind-bending climax of “The End,” a song by The Doors that ruminated on limits and what lay beyond them.  Frank Zappa, another artistic luminary of that era, christened his backing band “The Mothers of Invention,” though they were generally referred to as “The Mothers,” with a sly embrace of its connotation.  Bob Dylan’s album “Bringing It All Back Home,” also of that age, clearly drew parallels between the frontlines of the Vietnam War and what was happening on the homefront even as his lyrics eschewed agitprop for free association.   Likewise, Malcolm X referred to the assassination of J.F.K. with the phrase “chickens have come home to roost” before he was shot by members of his own quasi-family: the Nation of Islam.  Jack Weinberg’s offhand remark during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement – “Don’t trust anyone over 30” – was an article of faith for New Leftists, but it had said nothing about fucking them.  So why not? After all, you don’t need to trust someone in order to fuck them.  Why mind a gap when you can fuck it?

Eventually even social scientists took note, resuscitating the phrase “generation gap” – originally coined by advertising psychologists studying increased lipstick consumption among women after their encounter with the feminism of the 1920s – to describe evident tensions between a cohort for whom the Vietnam War was akin to the Nazi invasion of Poland and another who thought it smelled more like the Battle of the Somme.   No two generations could seem more differently disposed.

“The Silent Generation,” haunted by their Depression childhood, embraced the grand compromises between American capital and labor that afforded them middle-class status, seeing the government as their deliverer and the status quo something worth protecting – even from their own children.  In contrast, the “Baby Boom” generation took postwar prosperity as a given and focused on its limitations, specifically: foreign policy, personal actualization, ecology, and the rights of women, youth, and minorities.  In 1960 C. Wright Mills predicted that “The New Left” would emerge from “the young intelligentsia” and, like many prophets, he died before seeing his prophecy come to pass. Why would this rift between generations be expressed in this word?

Freud – Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Since what we have here is evidently a classic case of the Oedipus complex – played out across much of the United States and other industrialized societies – let’s consult with Sigmund Freud.   In psychoanalysis, the “horror of incest” is the primordial “taboo” at the root of socio-political identity, punishable by death “in the most energetic fashion by the whole clan.”  Thus referencing it is an example of what Marshall McLuhan referred to as “the medium is the message,” but with language as a form of social technology: the word motherfucker was so “hot” that it burned a hole in the newsprint.  As Abby Hoffman, himself not a Motherfucker per se, came to note, the word generated interest in the organization that used it because its “unprintable name” communicated the limitations of civil discourse (if not civilization) and the brazen willingness to skirt those limits.

On another level, the anti-war movement was very much a struggle between males.   One generation of men was being sent to fight and kill and die and be maimed (physically and psychologically) by another generation of men.  Please bear in mind that these young men did not even have the right to vote or drink alcohol (both of which were to soon change as part of a policy of appeasement).  For Freud, heterosexual boys ripen into men by asserting their sexual identity, which is a direct challenge to their elders because, at some level, their first objects of love and lust are the most local: their mothers and sisters.  Furthermore, Oedipal individuation involves displacing the father through murder, thus denouncing the taint of the older generation in a Munchausen-esque fantasy of becoming one’s own father.  For these reasons and many more it must be resolved through “castration” of the urges that would otherwise detonate the nuclear family.

Taken together, the word “motherfucker” transmitted this psycho-sexual struggle unto death more immediately than any other phrase.  Perhaps this is why it was so effective in making the straights lose their cool over something as seemingly trivial as a bad word.   And its efficacy was well known to those who wielded it.  As recalled by Mark Rudd: “Perhaps nothing upset our enemies more than this slogan.  To them it seemed to show the extent to which we had broken with their norms….Liberal solutions, ‘restructuring,’ partial understandings, compromise are not allowed anymore.  The essence of the matter is that we are out for social and political revolution.”  As abundantly used as it was among white-identified male heterosexual radicals, it should be recalled that the phrase and equivalents like “fatherfucker” were not in use among the women’s and gay rights movements because the psycho-sexual terrain those movements traversed was different.   In other words, in a patriarchal society, the inverse of the Oedipal complex – the  Electra complex – is not the mirrored opposite of the former.

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx

And while the anti-war movement was led by men who were identified by America as “white,” their use of the term declared their cross identification as the “white negroes” called into being by Norman Mailer a generation earlier.  By using the word “motherfucker,” these otherwise “white” guys declared their defection from mainstream society and some, like those in the “White Panther Party,” actually sided with African-American militants in pitched street battles in places like Detroit.

White Panthers in Detroit. Photo (and story) by Dave Marsh.

Ah, but judging a different moment in time may be even dodgier than judging one’s own.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that we live at a conjuncture in which the postwar consensus between workers and bosses – a robust welfare state, low cost and high quality public educational institutions, and the recognition of collective bargaining – is being dismantled by niggardly overseers who refuse to pay their share for a society which benefits them the most.   None other than John Rawls, that pillar of Brahmin liberalism, gave philosophical rigor to this consensus amid the tumult of 1971: democracies allow inequality as an engine of growth and to provide opportunity for those least advantaged.  Incidentally, this war on the poor comes as Americans are largely compliant, not as punishment for speaking out of turn or for having radical demands.

And so, the relentless destruction of public goods will eventually undermine the preconditions for civil discourse in America as it has in other societies so stratified.   If viewed another way, this vertical scrum between classes is revealed to have a horizontal dimension: it’s basically an inter-generational hatefuck.  Today’s most pressing issues – the willful ignorance of the effects of our reliance on oil and natural gas, Republican-created debt and ecological crises, the outsourcing of jobs when they can’t be liquidated by technology, a war in Iraq fought under false pretense, the removal of mandatory retirement, and the evisceration of the postwar consensus described previously – are like a Swiftian “modest proposal” under which the young are not eaten, per se.  Let’s just say that they are getting fucked and it’s not erotic.

Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1887)   p. 83.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 2000)  p.127.
Ben Morea and Ron Hahne, Black Mask & Up Against the Wall Motherfucker (NY: Seven Stories, 2008) p. 104.
Osha Neumann, Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker (N.Y. Seven Stories Press, 2008) p. 222.

Neumann, ibid, 41.
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me (NY: Grove Press, 2006), pp. 59-61.
Jessica Paddington, Lipstick, (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 66.
C.Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review, No. 5, September-October 1960.
Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (N.Y.: Norton, , 1950), p. 5.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (N.Y.: Signet, 1964), p. 5.
Abbie Hoffman, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture (N.Y.: Putnam, 1980) p. 123.
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (NY: The Modern Library, 1938) pp. 303-311.
Rudd op.cit. in Gitlin, The Sixties (N.Y.: Bantam, 1993), p. 79.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1971).

21 Responses to “The Praise of Motherfuckers”

  1. Tertiary Says:

    An excellent piece.

    I have only one complaint, and that is on a throwaway line…
    we should never fool ourselves into thinking there is only “Republican-created debt and ecological crises”.

  2. mizzcorrie Says:

    fricken AMAZING!!! ! ! ! ! i thank you for this historic epic article!!!

  3. St Pisces Says:

    Tertiary: Agreed. What we have is a two-headed, one-party system.

    The generation that this article admires turned out to be a spoiled group of old people who suck at my generation like a pack of vampires. On the right side of the aisle, they’re sending us to die (or just get dismembered) in another endless war just like the one they opposed.

    On the left side of the aisle, they’re sucking us dry with their endless “retirement” programs. Really, does anyone under 40 expect to ever see a dime of the thousands of dollars they pay into Social Security and Medicare? We all know that it’s broke, and that this is an intergenerational ass-rape of the first degree.

    In the end, the real legacy of the Boomers is, “We’ve got ours, so fuck the next generation.” Better to call them childrenfuckers than motherfuckers.

  4. nan Says:

    Provocative piece, and the conclusion is as concise as it is clever.

  5. AdRock1 Says:

    Nice social/cultural explication of the ultimate swear–and very timely!

  6. Jon W. Says:

    This is one motherfucking good article! I love the identification of John Rawls as a “pillar of Brahmin liberalism.”

  7. Brian the SinEmoTographer Says:

    Great article. I particularly appreciate your noting that the offensive on the poor comes at a time of compliance, “not as punishment for speaking out of turn or for having radical demands,” although I would debate that it’s not incidental.

    One might extend this analysis to the 21st century’s motherfuckers, the interests behind the Tea Party, which have effectively (and disingenuously) harnessed anger and given rise to its own expressions of incendiary and attention-seeking language and imagery, except of course in service of the goals of the wealthy. When I lensed the Sept 12th 2009 Tea Party in D.C. it seemed pretty clear that the radical Right was aping the style of the radical Left (see link below for the episode I shot for German TV, sorry you can’t easily hear the English under the dubbing, but the pictures tell the story).

    Not to distract from the motherfucking heart of this most entertaining and well written article.

  8. soso Says:

    beatifulily written, thoughtful and broad in scope. Playful and creative in its connecting of the dots.
    I enjoy the new awareness of how the word and idea behind “mother fucker”… I have know “mother fucker” and I think then “sister fucker” but only assigned more or less random assumptions to both..

  9. Sindee Says:

    I’ve been checking this site for a while and all I can say is



  10. Brad Rappaport Says:

    Orest Ranum taught me history in such a way that I ended up being very amenable to the Communist Manifesto. I hardly see how he would be the kind of guy whose papers would be burned by students at Columbia.

  11. Grgry Says:

    Now does seem like THE time to “kick out the jams” i.e. everything that is jamming the system and our enviroment.

  12. D. Says:

    Headed to OWS this Saturday…can’t wait!

  13. Ma Bla Says:

    “Mothafucka this / muthafucka that / hittin’ mothafuckas with a baseball bat”
    -Kool G Rap

    love that Patty Hearst image!

  14. Katelan Foisy Says:

    This article is genius.

  15. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Agreed. Hilarious, timely genius.

  16. Bob Davis Says:

    Wengrofsky has the notable ability to stitch together an academically and culturally magic carpet of patterned observations and to take readers on an elevated ride through intellectual time and space. This article lets us observe mountains of reality brought forth from the molehill of one word. Who knew how socially and psychologically deep and broad “motherfucker” actually is? Wengrofsky did, and I thank him for this engaging, insightful journey offering so much to see and think about.

  17. Andrew Says:

    Nice article.

  18. Lanny J Says:

    By 1968 the Viet-Nam War was the obscenity animating American life. As I understand and experienced it, 1968 was the most tumultuous time in the history of NYC since the anti-draft riots of the early 1860s. “Motherfucker” went to the heart of the divide which continues: America is divided between those who are offended by “bad words” and abortion, but have no problem with anything military or punitive, and those who think the purpose of language is to communicate, prefer “choice” for women, and sooner or later reject America’s never-ending wars. Those offended by that word during 1968 would have found some other supposedly compelling basis to be righteously offended if “MF” had not reverberated at concerts, rallies, and in the streets. And let’s not forget the obscenities which were the assassinations of the then embodiments of hope, MLK Jr. and RFK.

    Before the country divided in 1861, one of the terms contemptuously used by Southern Congress members to reference anti-slavery Congressmen, because ladies were in the galleries of Congress, was “puppies”. Translation: sons of bitches.

    Lanny J

  19. Liz Byrne Says:

    This article is a mofo! It blasts through past and present social-economic, psychological and political upheaval. Basic physics…too much pressure and at some point there will be an explosion. Looking forward to Jeff Wengrofsky’s next thought provoking article in COILHOUSE and anxiously anticipating the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers, “The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen” documentary.

  20. Hiawatha Bailey Says:

    This is one mighty digest of a word that is thrown around quite a bit and it’s about time someone took a closer look. As a member of The White Panther Party after The MC5 were signed and out on tour, I found myself repeatedly being called to defend the use of such a profane term by a “revolutionary ” ensemble. If this writer had been around back then it would have made that part of the struggle a lot easier! Anyway keep up the good work and always remember to

    Kick out the Jams, Motherfuckers!

    Hiawatha lead singer of The Cult Heroes
    General cadre of The White Panther Party
    and oh by the way,
    All Power to the People

  21. L. Conley Says:

    This article motherfuckin’ rocked!! Sums up “Wild in the Streets” and a movement that would have to die as the participants aged into the role of “the man” and joined the establishment and worried about retirement. The shock value of any phrase that questions sons and mothers – the article deftly explores the roots and pscho-social connections. keep them coming Jeff W.!!!