Scalia Fires Back
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, bemused by a recent report in the Boston Herald that he had delivered an obscene gesture in front of a Catholic Church, responds with a rather amusing letter to the editor which they published.
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.)
That about covers it, I think.
Update: Or maybe not. A friend forwards a follow-up story in the Herald.
“It’s inaccurate and deceptive of him to say there was no vulgarity in the moment,” said Peter Smith, the Boston University assistant photojournalism professor who made the shot. Despite Scalia’s insistence that the Sicilian gesture was not offensive and had been incorrectly characterized by the Herald as obscene, the photographer said the newspaper “got the story right.”
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.
“How could your reporter leap to the conclusion (contrary to my explanation) that the gesture was obscene?” Scalia wrote.
Quite easily, according to experts, even if the justice had offered more than a two-word explanation – “That’s Sicilian” – Sunday. “There is no answer to ‘what it really means,’ because those gestures have different meanings in different locations, even in neighbouring locations,” said Janet Bavelas, a University of Victoria, British Columbia, psychologist who has studied human gestures. 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 in Spokane, Wash.
Minus the “Vaffanculo,” this is an honest dispute over the meaning of a gesture. With it, it’s more than that. I suspect we’ll never know for sure.