Germany is all a-Twitter today over a magazine cover that shows Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief political rival flipping the bird to the Deutsch nation little more than a week before a federal election.
It’s a visually arresting cover (which is what magazine cover art is supposed to be) but it really doesn’t signify much. And it will probably have zero impact on how German voters cast their ballots on Sept. 22.
Still, it’s a nice reminder of what a universal gesture of derision flipping the bird (or giving the finger or whatever you want to call it) is — and has been since ancient Greeks first γυρίσει το πουλί.
Every time someone with any degree of celebrity extends a middle finger in public, it becomes that day’s trending topic.
If it’s not Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga or Keith Richards, it’s Anthony Weiner or Pierre Trudeau or some ancient Greek.
The latest in this long line of celebrated finger flippers is Peer Steinbrück, leader of Germany’s centre-left SPD (equivalent to Canada’s NDP) and likely runner-up to Angela Merkel for the post of chancellor in next weekend’s German election.
It’s no secret that Merkel is almost certain to head Deutschland’s next government, so many observers are seeing Steinbrück’s gesture in the photo as a defiant rebuke to the voters who seem likely to choose Mutti over him.
Merkel’s allies have been quick to label the SPD leader’s gesture “unacceptable for a chancellor candidate.”
It’s not really. The photo is just part of a long-running series that Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin does in which celebrities from various walks of life are asked to express without words how they feel about various things
In the case of the flipped finger, SZ (as the publication is called) asked Peer Steinbrück to respond to the host of unflattering nicknames his critics have given the SPD leader — Problem-Peer and Peerlusconi and the like. Steinbrück’s spontaneous reaction was to flip the bird.
Now, Steinbrück does have the reputation for being a bit hot-headed and arrogant, prone to speaking his mind rashly and generally being a controversy looking for a place to happen — so the current magazine cover controversy fits nicely into that established scenario.
Steinbrück did have an opportunity to veto the cover, however, and chose not to, so it’s not really such an unguarded display of political nakedness as it is portrayed. Steinbrück’s response to the flip flap is roughly along the lines of “It was a joke, dummy. Get a sense of humour or get a life or get something.”
The magazine could have picked a number of other images from the Steinbrück photo shoot for its cover, but the finger flip was the obvious smart choice.
Here are a couple of other poses from the photo gallery. I think Steinbrück was probably wise to stick with the distended digit cover. It certainly got him a shot of attention in an otherwise sleepy election campaign.
Now, I knew I had written about flipping the bird before but I couldn’t remember when.
Turns out in was back in February 2012 (and earlier in August 2011 too, if you must know). The main purpose of that particular blog post was, from my point of view, to defend the honour and dignity of flipping the bird and to run photos of 20 or 30 famous folks giving the finger for whatever reason. My favourite — the ultimate — always has been and always will be Johnny Cash. More about that later.
Here’s a REWIND of the Nosey Parker piece that ran on Feb. 8, 2012, shortly after singer M.I.A. got attention (and upstaged Madonna) by extending her middle digit during the halftime show of that year’s Super Bowl.
(Don’t worry if you don’t remember the incident — it was entirely inconsequential. I just used it as a jumping-off point for a legitimate salute to the noble art and honourable tradition of flipping the bird. By the way, Giants beat Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI, if you forgot that too — as I did.)
And now, without further ado, I give you … the finger:
I may be the only person in the world who didn’t see M.I.A. flip the bird to the Super Bowl multitudes.
Doesn’t bother me. I never heard of M.I.A. before and hopefully never will again now that’s she’s had her five seconds of fame.
What does bother me is that she somehow misappropriated a fine finger gesture with a noble heritage and used it for her own calculated, crass, publicity-seeking ends. Shame on you, M.I.A.
And shame on NBC and the NFL for apologizing about the gesture. They should apologize for giving M.I.A. a massive international platform on which to abuse the gesture. But “the finger” itself is blameless — honourable, in fact.
“Flipping the bird” or “giving the finger” has been recorded as an expression of rude derision since the time of the ancient Greeks and was probably in use long, long before that.
One might almost say it’s a primordial instinct.
I’m not going to get into the origins of the gesture (and the related British “two-finger salute”) because, frankly, no one knows for sure where or how it came into common usage. And it just doesn’t matter.
It’s one of those things that is so right and so righteous (when used properly, of course) that Moses may as well have brought it down from the mountain along with those tablets.
The key element that makes a bird properly flipped or a finger properly given is a sense of real, heartfelt outrage.
Sometimes it’s joyously obscene or just plain frivolous, but usually giving the finger is so far away from any sexual or scatological connotation as to be essentially unconnected.
At its best, the finger (or fingers, if you’re British) is a spontaneous gesture of such genuine and immediate sentiment that it cuts deeper than any word or weapon.
And it’s an underdog gesture. Flipping the bird is an expression of defiance, of resistance, of unbending, unwavering opposition to the target of the flippage.
It’s generally a gesture of the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is why it’s gotten an undeserved bad rap in “polite” (read “dominant”) society.
You’ll never see royalty or a president flip the bird.
Oh, never mind.
But the fact remains that for the finger to be effective, it should be from the heart and express a deep, personal antagonism. Not a flash of irritable pique from a spoiled celebrity.
Oh, never mind.
And you really can’t do rock ‘n’ roll in any of its forms without having at least one obligatory bird-flipping photo in your press kit.
Anybody (even a Godfather or a grandmother) can flip the bird — it’s the great equalizer (and it’s always at your fingertips when you need it).
Now I’m going to show you a few photos, many of which you will have seen before, of various people flipping the bird in an appropriate matter. In most cases, I’ll tell you a little story with each photo.
Most people know this photo: It’s an Internet classic. What you probably don’t know is where the photo was taken and who the kid is.
Reuters photog Jasper Juinen made the image at the 2002 UEFA Cup soccer/football final between Holland’s Feyenoord Rotterdam and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in Feyenoord’s home stadium.
The kid is Mikey Wilson, then five years old, and he’s wearing a Feyenoord jersey so I think it’s safe to say Mikey’s flipping the bird to German fans on the other side of the stadium. Feyenoord won the match 3-2 over the favoured Germans, so maybe Mikey’s never-say-die attitude in the stands carried over on the pitch.
I just like this shot of Steve McQueen giving the British two-finger salute in the 1971 racing film Le Mans.
And I like this shot of actress Eva Mendes flipping a double eagle to someone in a restaurant. Actually I think the birds are meant for the photographer taking this picture and she’s just turning away from the camera. But it must have been interesting for the people (you can see one) sitting on the other side of glass to ponder why this beautiful angry stranger was gesticulating wildly at them.
Now let’s move on to fingers in the news.
Less than two weeks after the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster in 2001, New York City was again hit by terror attacks — this time in the form of bio-terrorism. Letters laced with deadly anthrax spores were mailed to newspapers and TV news organizations in New York and Florida.
A few weeks later, more anthrax letters were sent to the offices of U.S. congressmen. In all, 22 people were infected and five died.
This front-page photo from the New York Post shows editorial assistant Johanna Huden, the first person who contracted the skin form of anthrax on her finger when she opened the Post letter. It expressed the whole city’s defiance and determination in the face of repeated assaults by unknown, unseen terrorists.
(The FBI investigation eventually focused on a U.S. government scientist, who killed himself as a result. The case was closed and no further anthrax attacks occurred — but we’ll never know for sure if Bruce Edwards Ivins was the perp.)
In a way Johanna’s finger flexing showed the same spirit of “carry on” as Churchill’s V-for-victory wartime gesture.
And then there was the London Sun’s 1990 response to Jacques Delors when the then-president of the European Union suggested that one central EU government should supercede Britain’s Parliament and other national governments.
The front page was the subject of a number of complaints to Britain’s Press Council (mainly regarding the Sun’s perceived anti-French racism). But, as the BBC later said: “(T)he now defunct Press Council cleared the newspaper after (the Sun) said it reserved the right to use vulgar abuse whenever it felt it justified in the interests of the British people.”
Hear, hear. Three cheers for “vulgar abuse” in defence of the realm.
But my favourite bird-flipping photo is this spontaneous shot of Johnny Cash.
Here’s what I had to say about Johnny’s bird in an unrelated Nosey Parker blog post from last August:
“This iconic picture was taken in 1969 by rock photog Jim Marshall at one of Johnny’s San Quentin prison concerts. Marshall later said he told Cash ‘John, let’s do a shot for the warden’ and this is what he got.
“Cash used this photo for an ad in Billboard (below) a couple of decades later as a back-handed ‘thank you’ to the Nashville music establishment and country radio after he won the 1997 Best Country Album Grammy without their help or support.”
So no, M.I.A., you can’t have the bird. It’s not yours to claim and never will be.
On behalf of Johnny Cash, little Mikey Wilson and every other person who has flipped the bird and meant it, who has given the finger to tyranny or tedium and lived with the consequences, I reclaim the bird.
But now, on the count of three, we’re all giving the bird to you, M.I.A. Enjoy.
Oh, what the heck — let’s look at some more photos of celebrities flipping the bird (some in fun, some in annoyance at the invasion of privacy, some simply because they have fingers) just to completely remove any modicum of chance that M.I.A. still comes to mind when you hear the phrase “flipping the bird.”
Madonna again (heck it was her show that M.I. A. stole, so I think she deserves extra space here)
Kristie Alley (really, she’s still a celeb)
Heidi Klum (long before she met Seal, so it’s not aimed at him)
And finally Jodie Foster, just because she’s got the longest middle finger I’ve ever seen — a finger meant to flip a bird. Actually, I just noticed most of the women here have longer middle fingers than the men. But that’s a subject for another day.