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Whatever the reason and at whomever it was directed, it's good to see the middle finger is still socially relevant enough to cause a stir. Yes, I know M.I.A.'s finger drop occurred during the Super Bowl circus, but the oversensitive, post-Nipplegate media hasn't been shy about hammering her with some variation of the headline "M.I.A. middle finger mars halftime show." If by "mars," it means "create hype and interest around a then-pretty-dull game," then I think I get it. I'm a serious football fan (and had money on the game), but I can't remember more than a half dozen plays through the four quarters—I do, however, remember most of the halftime costume changes and each of the ten seconds that led up to M.I.A. flipping off 111 million people.
The recent Adele hubbub has been more reserved and sympathetic, because, well, it's Adele and she is beloved and she won every 2012 Grammy award and she got cut off mid-speech for stupid Blur. Her middle finger was warranted. As Village Voice blogger Michael Musto, put it earlier today, "Is a big 'fuck you' really out of line?"
In The Shock Index: Is Giving the Finger Still Offensive?, The Guardian's Stuart Jeffries uses the Adele and M.I.A. incidents as a jumping-off point to exhaustively investigate the middle finger phenomenon in history, including the varying levels of shock it elicits from British and Americans. He writes:
Oscar Wilde suggested that Britain and America were two nations divided by a common language; now we're two nations divided by a common finger. "The cultural difference in this is that flipping the bird over there is like the V sign over here," says Robert Phipps, author of Body Language: It's What You Don't Say That Matters. "It's telling you to eff off. They don't have any other gesture like that. Over here it's become quite accepted and doesn't carry the same meaning. Most people under the age of 50 don't find it offensive. It didn't even exist in this country until about 30 years ago.
And what of the origin in America? I feel I've perfected the obscene gesture in a variety of environments (especially here at the Reader), so it would be nice to pay homage to the ambassador(s) with my own eff you salute. Jeffries continues:
In Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution, anthropologist Desmond Morris and colleagues argue that the digitus infamis or digitus impudicus (infamous or indecent finger) is mentioned several times in ancient Roman literature — making the Agincourt story even more dubious. Thus, for example, epigrammatist Martial: "Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out." No one calls Sextillus a queen. Before that, in Athens in the fourth century BC, Diogenes the Cynic told visitors what he thought about the orator Demosthenes by extending his finger and saying: "This is the great demagogue." But you didn't get a spokesman apologising for Diogenes's rudeness.
In any event, many centuries later, according to Morris, Italian immigrants took the middle-finger gesture to the US along with olive oil and fine wines. As early as 1886, a baseball pitcher for the Boston Beaneaters was photographed giving it to a member of the rival New York Giants. How delightful, incidentally, that a team called the Beaneaters existed.
Well here's to you then, Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn (top left).