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March 28, 2006

A Scalian gesture

Note: Updates below.

Recently, I had the chance to sit in on a Supreme Court argument, and I have to say that my physical proximity to the justices made me wince. Up on the bench or in the audience were several justices I had photoshopped with stupid, juvenile, or even vulgar words coming from their mouths. (Former justice Sandra Day O'Connor was in the audience, and when I looked at David Souter on the bench, I cringed when I thought of this.)

But one thing I was either too respectful or insufficiently infantile to do in any of these photoshops was to show Justice Scalia making an obscene gesture -- which is what a Boston Herald reporter now claims he did on Sunday.

Minutes after receiving the Eucharist at a special Mass for lawyers and politicians at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had a special blessing of his own for those who question his impartiality when it comes to matters of church and state.

“You know what I say to those people?” Scalia, 70, replied, making an obscene gesture, flicking his hand under his chin when asked by a Herald reporter if he fends off a lot of flak for publicly celebrating his conservative Roman Catholic beliefs.

“That’s Sicilian,” the Italian jurist said, interpreting for the “Sopranos” challenged.

“It’s none of their business,” continued Scalia, who was the keynote speaker at yesterday’s Catholic Lawyers’ Guild luncheon. “This is my spiritual life. I shall lead it the way I like.”
But could Scalia, however irritated by the question, actually have made an obscene gesture? Apparently not, at least according to a spokesman for the Supreme Court.
"It was a hand off the chin gesture that was meant to be dismissive," Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.
But considering the credibility of the press, who're ya gonna believe -- a Supreme Court spokeswoman or a newspaper reporter?

And if press sources are to be believed, there was more to it than that:
Meanwhile, a photographer from The Pilot, the Archdiocese of Boston's newspaper, caught the moment, although Scalia reportedly admonished him, "Don't publish that!" The Herald has labeled it "conduct unbecoming a 20-year veteran of the country’s highest court - and just feet from the Mother Church’s altar."
The Herald itself ran a follow-up article today, in which the Boston Archdiocese announced it wouldn't publish the photo in its newspaper, "because it won't."

The mysterious hand gesture is the subject of some scholarly debate. The blog Confirm Them provides a photo illustration and a link for further review. Wonkette has another, similar explanation. Riehl World View also weighs in.

And thanks to Stop the ACLU, we have a link to the Mudville Gazette. Scalia had recently responded to a question from a European about giving Geneva Convention rights to prisoners at Guantanamo by saying this: "If he was captured by my army on a battlefield, that is where he belongs. I had a son on that battlefield and they were shooting at my son and I'm not about to give this man who was captured in a war a full jury trial. I mean it's crazy." The Mudville Gazette then notes that:
And regardless of whether he's a Supreme Court Justice or not, having a son in the battle gives him REAL ULTIMATE MORAL AUTHORITY. There's no arguing against that.
Take that, Maureen Dowd!

UPDATE (3/29): Original meaning? Or merely original intent? The author of the gesture in question writes a letter to the Boston Herald trying to set the record straight by explaining what he meant with his gesture:
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.)


Antonin Scalia
The letter is in image form here.

UPDATE (3/30): Confirm Them posts a link to the photo, supposedly the actual one taken of the gesture by Scalia.

UPDATE (3/30): Via NRO Bench Memos, we learn that you have to keep reading the Boston Herald. The Herald not only published the photo mentioned in the previous update but also published an article that begins -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- "Amid a growing national controversy about the gesture U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the freelance photographer who captured the moment has come forward with the picture." A growing national controversy? Well, maybe if you include one that's made it all the way up to, oh, say, 37th place.

And as a bonus for trolling the Herald site, I found an article that discusses a disagreement about the meaning and appropriateness of Scalia's gesture among various members of the cast of "The Sopranos." (Excerpt: "'It's not that bad, but I wouldn't do it to my mother. No way. Would I do it in church? These days, maybe. It depends if the priest was giving me the hairy eyeball,' said Stoneham native John Fiore, who played Sopranos capo Gigi Cestone.")