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Justice Scalia on Gestures:

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.

Here's Justice Scalia's reply, which I think is a fun read as well as an important correction (thanks to How Appealing for the pointer):

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.)

Sincerely,

Antonin Scalia

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The AP on the Boston Herald and Gesturegate:

The AP writes about Justice Scalia's response to the Boston Herald story:

Scalia said in the letter, written to Executive Editor Kenneth Chandler, that the reporter leapt to conclusions that it was offensive because he initially explained his gesture by saying, 'That's Sicilian.'"

"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.)," he wrote.

The Herald had referred to him as an "Italian-American jurist."

Funny that Justice Scalia would have misquoted the Herald story that he was criticizing that way, no? Except that here's a quote of the Herald story from the Boston Herald Web site:

"That's Sicilian," the Italian jurist said, interpreting for the "Sopranos" challenged.

The NEXIS version of the story says "Italian-American," and perhaps the print version said the same. But it seems wrong to implicitly fault Justice Scalia for misquoting the story when he quoted one version (quite likely the most easily accessible one) correctly. ("The Herald had referred to him as an 'Italian-American jurist,'" in context, seems like an assertion that it had referred to him as that rather than as what Scalia quoted -- an assertion that proves to be incorrect.)

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So How Does One Submit a Correction Request to the AP?

 

UPDATE: Just to be clear, the only error that I suggested the AP made is the one noted below: The AP story said that, despite Scalia's allegation that the Herald had called him an "Italian jurist," "The Herald had referred to him as an 'Italian-American jurist.'" In fact, an online version of the article did refer to him as an "Italian jurist."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Gesturegate:
  2. So How Does One Submit a Correction Request to the AP?
  3. The AP on the Boston Herald and Gesturegate:
  4. Justice Scalia on Gestures:
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More on Gesturegate:

The Boston Herald reports:

"It's inaccurate and deceptive of [Justice Scalia] to say there was no vulgarity in the moment," said Peter Smith, the Boston University assistant photojournalism professor who [photographed Justice Scalia's gesture]....

Smith said the jurist "immediately knew he'd made a mistake, and said, 'You're not going to print that, are you?'" ...

Smith was working as a freelance photographer for the Boston archdiocese's weekly newspaper at a special Mass for lawyers Sunday when a Herald reporter asked the justice how he responds to critics who might question his impartiality as a judge given his public worship.

"The judge paused for a second, then looked directly into my lens and said, 'To my critics, I say, 'Vaffanculo,'" punctuating the comment by flicking his right hand out from under his chin, Smith said.

The Italian phrase means "(expletive) you."

Yesterday, Herald reporter Laurel J. Sweet agreed with Smith's account, but said she did not hear Scalia utter the obscenity.

In his letter, Scalia denied his gesture was obscene and claimed he explained its meaning to Sweet, a point both she and Smith dispute.

Scalia went on to cite Luigi Barzini's book, "The Italians," which describes a seemingly different gesture -- "the extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin" -- and its meaning -- "'I couldn't care less. It's no business of mine. Count me out.'" ...

The gesture typically means "I don't know" in Portugal, "No!" in Naples, "You are lying" in Greece and "I don't give a damn" in northern Italy, France and Tunisia, said David B. Givens of the Center for Nonverbal Studies ....

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