UPI originally reported that "U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia startled reporters in Boston just minutes after attending a mass, by flipping a middle finger to his critics." It then revised the story to say that "U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia startled reporters in Boston just minutes after attending a mass, by making a hand gesture some consider obscene." Other media outlets may have done the same; UPI is just the first that I had found. I had originally heard the "flipping a middle finger" story myself.
To the Editor:
It has come to my attention that your newspaper published a story on Monday stating that I made an obscene gesture — inside Holy Cross Cathedral, no less. The story is false, and I ask that you publish this letter in full to set the record straight.
Your reporter, an up-and-coming "gotcha" star named Laurel J. Sweet, asked me (o-so-sweetly) what I said to those people who objected to my taking part in such public religious ceremonies as the Red Mass I had just attended. I responded, jocularly, with a gesture that consisted of fanning the fingers of my right hand under my chin. Seeing that she did not understand, I said "That's Sicilian," and explained its meaning — which was that I could not care less.
That this is in fact the import of the gesture was nicely explained and exemplified in a book that was very popular some years ago, Luigi Barzini's The Italians:
"The extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin means: 'I couldn't care less. It's no business of mine. Count me out.' This is the gesture made in 1860 by the grandfather of Signor O.O. of Messina as an answer to Garibaldi. The general, who had conquered Sicily with his volunteers and was moving on to the mainland, had seen him, a robust youth at the time, dozing on a little stone wall, in the shadow of a carob tree, along a country lane. He reined in his horse and asked him: 'Young man, will you not join us in our fight to free our brothers in Southern Italy from the bloody tyranny of the Bourbon kings? How can you sleep when your country needs you? Awake and to arms!' The young man silently made the gesture. Garibaldi spurred his horse on." (Page 63.)
How could your reporter leap to the conclusion (contrary to my explanation) that the gesture was obscene? Alas, the explanation is evident in the following line from her article: "'That's Sicilian,' the Italian jurist said, interpreting for the 'Sopranos' challenged." From watching too many episodes of the Sopranos, your staff seems to have acquired the belief that any Sicilian gesture is obscene — especially when made by an "Italian jurist." (I am, by the way, an American jurist.)
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