March 29, 2006

"I am, by the way, an American jurist."

Wrote Justice Scalia, chiding the Boston Herald for referring to him as an "Italian jurist." It's all part of today's best tempest in a teapot -- better than boiled babies -- that little scuffle we might call Italianhandgesturegate:
"Your reporter, an up-and-coming 'gotcha' star named Laurel J. Sweet, asked me (o-so-sweetly) what I said to those people. . .," Scalia wrote to Executive Editor Kenneth A. Chandler. “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."

In his letter, Scalia goes on to cite Luigi Barzini's book, "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."'"

"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.)"
(Do you think Scalia watches "The Sopranos"?)

Anyway... "I responded, jocularly, with a gesture..." If a reporter asks a question and gets only a hand gesture as a response, what exactly makes it read as "jocular"? Isn't there something inherently brusque if not rude about only gesturing? It's a dismissive gesture too. And he concedes she asked "sweetly" -- though perhaps he's only keen about wordplay and he did not know how to restrain himself. Couldn't she justly have been taken aback at getting a gesture? Is it fair to peg her as playing gotcha?

As to the explanation, "That’s Sicilian" -- that's more complex. If a person hears that as threatening, is she being prejudiced, thinking too quickly of Mafiosi? How did he say it? Was he giving it a tough guy nudge? He chose to say "Sicilian," not "Italian." Are we wrong to pick up a Sopranos vibe?

I'm not saying Sweet didn't have to research the meaning of the gesture, and I'm not saying Scalia shouldn't have written the letter. I love the letter! It's hilarious!

CORRECTION: I originally wrote that the Boston Herald called Scalia an "Italian-American jurist," which I read here. They called him an "Italian jurist," much worse, of course.

UPDATE: Well, now the Herald has a photograph and, though Scalia lookes reasonably "jocular" in the picture, the photographer is saying "'The judge paused for a second, then looked directly into my lens and said, 'To my critics, I say, ‘Vaffanculo.'" Sweet won't confirm that Scalia said that word, which really is an obscenity. Remember when Scalia was saying his kids said he should get out more because it "it makes it harder to demonize you"?


Dave said...

Scalia does not suffer fools gladly.

Good for him.

I can't see any Supreme Court Justice watching the Sopranos. They take themselves too seriously.

Ann Althouse said...

"The Sopranos" is serious art. And, what, you don't think judges watch television?

Aspasia M. said...

Uh - if Scalia had his pinky and his thumb out while he flicked his hand under his chin - That would be giving the reporters "the horns."

Basically it's calling them a bunch of cornutos.

Which translates to an offensive nuance. Literally, someone who wears the horns is someone who's wife is cuckholding him.

It's quite an offensive guesture, actually. Don't do it in Italy unless you're ready to get your nose punched.

Dave said...

Oh, some judges may watch tv.

My grandfather was a municipal court judge and he watched a lot of TV. He could wax philosophic about the wonders of Vanna White.

But I digress.

As for the Sopranos: yes, it is serious art, but don't you think many people are biased against TV, and immediately assume all of it is junk? Especially people like the Supreme Court justices?

Perhaps I'm wrong about them. Maybe they like nothing more to sit on the couch and watch American Idol.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave, I tend to think someone who refers to a TV show watches that show.

There are pop culture references in Supreme Court opinions.

As for "American Idol," 40 million people watch it. The thing is watched. Who knows why?

anonlawstudent said...

I was hoping your "boiled babies" link was going to send us here ...

Hey said...

I believe that the Sopranos aren't from Sicily in the show. Further, Italy has very serious regional differences, so saying that something is "Italian" when it's actually "Sicilian" or "Tuscan" or whatever would be fairly misleading (in that saying "y'all" is American rather than Southern).

From what I've seen of the article, it has been described as "giving the finger", so there are very many reasons for Scalia to be upset.

Steve Donohue said...

Eugene Volokh said that the Boston Herald actually referred to him as an "Italian jurist" in their online account, and that was probably what Scalia was referring to- not the "Italian-American" description.

In terms of the Sopranos mention: it wasn't that long ago that a judge qoted the Adam Sandler movie "Billy Madison" in a footnate in a case. Judges are people too, as much as we'd like to negate them of their hearts and souls once they don the black robe.

SippicanCottage said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Steve: You're right. It's in the article I linked (though the link was bad). I've corrected.

Jim H said...

Ann Althouse said:

And he concedes she asked "sweetly" -- though perhaps he's only keen about wordplay and he did not know how to restrain himself.

Certainly it's wordplay, but I wouldn't call it a concession. Sarcasm is one of the man's favorite devices.

Now, I'll concede that sarcasm isn't always effective in print.

Jinnmabe said...

Boy, is this newsworthy. "Scalia may or may not have mildly insulted me!"

Icepick said...

Now Ann, how do you know that a tempest in a teapot is better than boiled babies? Have you ever had a tempest in a teapot? And is this just another opportunity for me to link to a HuFu site?

My guess is that the answers to these questions are 'No', 'No' and 'Not Tonight'.

bearbee said...

Pictue of "THE GESTURE"

Does Ms Sweet have a sense of humor....?

Henry said...

I wonder what the Sicilian gesture for "I have life tenure" is?

Hazy Dave said...
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PeterVE said...

The picture shows what appears to be the tail end of a gesture (flicking the fingers forward from under the chin) which means "F... you" in the parts of Italy I'm familiar with (Turin to Rome). "Vaffanculo" (Va fa un culo: literally "Go make an ass") reinforces the gesture.

The Luigi Barzini quote Justice Scalia uses refers to moving the fingers side to side horizontally below the chin. Non mi fa niente.
Mi spiace, Giudice, ma lei deve controllare sua collera.

Valery said...
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