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The Elbert Files: The finger


“When did the middle finger become acceptable in polite conversation?” I asked my friend K.C. when I saw him on a blustery day at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. 

“Why do you ask?” he replied. “Did it bother you when Joni Ernst said Democrats are giving the middle finger to middle America because they no longer like the Iowa caucuses?”

“No,” I said. “But I thought it was a bit over the top for Brenna Bird to use ‘Give them the Bird’ as her campaign slogan for attorney general, and I was stunned earlier this year when Bobby Kaufmann ended a speech by raising twin middle fingers to anyone who wasn’t on board with his personal political agenda.

“Kaufmann’s gesture was the most disgraceful public conduct I’ve ever seen from an Iowa lawmaker,” I said.

“I thought there might be some consequences for his public crudeness. But there weren’t.”

“Why did you think anything would happen?” K.C. said. “You know he’s the son of the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. 

“Bobby’s double bird speaks volumes about life in the Kaufmann household,” he added.

“The fact is,” K.C. continued, “the middle finger has a history that stretches back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. 

“In ancient Greek dramas the single digit was used as a form of insult, along with farting in someone’s face,” he said.

“Public debate over its use in polite society goes back to Socrates, who said that people who used the gesture were boorish and stupid,” K.C. added. 

“That would be Bobby Kaufmann,” I said.

K.C. ignored me and continued: “While the middle finger is commonly considered a phallic symbol, it also has been associated with the anus.”  

“Neither are images we associate with polite conversations,” I asserted. 

“Some experts say 19th-century Italian immigrants brought the finger to this country, but given the fact that you can find it pretty much anywhere in the world, I’m not sure I buy that,” K.C. said. 

“Anyway,” he added, “the earliest documented use of the middle finger in the United States was in the 1880s. An 1886 photo of the Boston Beaneaters baseball team shows Boston pitcher Charles Radourn giving the finger, supposedly to the rival New York Giants.” 

“It’s obviously a popular sporting gesture,” I said.

“One of the most striking sports photos I ever saw was of Iowa State basketball coach Johnny Orr flipping off a referee during a game with Oklahoma. 

“For decades, that photo hung in a place of honor in the Des Moines Register sports department, although I don’t think it ever appeared in the newspaper.”

“Times being what they were back then,” K.C. said, “the editors had the good sense not to print it in a family newspaper. 

“Today,” he added, “there are no such standards. It’s not uncommon to see the word ‘suck’ and other obscene euphemisms in headlines. 

“One of the more unusual uses of the finger,” he continued, “occurred in the late ’60s when the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo and its crew. 

“The Koreans took pictures of the crew and used them for propaganda. Some of the sailors held their hands with middle fingers extended and told the Koreans it was a Hawaiian good luck sign. The Koreans were not happy when they found out that there was no such thing as a Hawaiian good luck sign.  

“During the Vietnam War years, the finger was popular with war protesters, but the gesture crossed the political spectrum when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both used it when they were governors. 

“Reagan gave the finger to protesters at Berkeley in 1968, while Bush flipped off a cameraman in Austin. At least Bush had the good humor to claim what he was doing was a one-finger victory salute.

“Get over it,” K.C. said as he walked away. “You just don’t like the idea that language that was once used by the left for shock value is now embraced by conservatives.”

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