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The Timelessness of the Middle Finger

Whenever words and deeds fail us, it will be there, comfortable as an autumn sweater

The American flag can kiss my ass. The Pledge of Allegiance is horseshit. And don’t get me started on our dumbfuck national anthem. The only emblem of this country worthy of any respect whatsoever is the gesture that exudes our contempt for everyone else: the raised middle finger.

Go Fuck Yourself Middle Finger GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

One annoying thing about President Trump is the way he believes his own spin, even when the majority of his audience doesn’t. He likes to convince himself, for example, that the protesters lining his motorcade routes are enthusiastic supporters. But no level of self-deception is equal to a flip of the bird. When a brave cyclist in Virginia “successfully” and “repeatedly” saluted Trump with a rigid digit as he drove past, he could not mistake her intent. In that moment, she was a vessel of our weary rage, drawing that power into her hand with a small and bony lightning rod.

For the finger is a final revolt against impotence, is it not? We unsheath it when we’ve already been cut off on the freeway, or when we’re getting roasted and can’t think of a solid comeback. It’s the overture to l’esprit d’escalier — it is not clever. I can’t recall an incident in which I made the conscious decision to extend the finger, only times when it erupted, unbidden, like the coiled snake from a prank can of nuts. Nor do I remember learning about the sign, which seems a pre-existing artifact of muscle memory. All I know is that whenever you need the finger, whenever words and deeds have failed, it will be there, comfortable as an autumn sweater.

This timeless insult dates back to ancient Greece, appearing in the comedies of Aristophanes. While widely understood to be phallic in nature, it’s crucial to note that the finger of the classical era was more akin to a suggestion that the recipient “shove a finger into a bird’s anus,” or, failing that, their own rectum. Contemporary usage in the Western world is apparently owed to Italian immigrants, having caught on in the late 19th century. Since then, the finger has appeared at many decisive moments: As governor of California, Ronald Reagan offered it to UC Berkeley protesters; Kid Rock flashed it in an iconic tweet; in 1978, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a teenager who pulled it out for a police officer could not be charged with obscenity. (The legalese that accompanied the case referred to the offending finger as a “digitus impudicus.”)

No matter the context, the finger has remained a bastion of immaturity, refusing to fold itself into the arguably more symbolic fist, content with a simpler, schoolyard-style defiance. While often provoking an intense response, it refuses to treat the situation seriously — it’s like trolling a moronic pundit on Twitter and replying “u mad?” when they foolishly fight back. As an invitation to “sit and spin,” it departs from the classical interpretation to make the case that the target is somehow your puppet, their ticklish sphincter wrapped around your own knuckly appendage.

Leonardo Dicaprio Middle Finger GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Can we even translate the middle finger into spoken language? Not a chance — it exists apart and above our fumbling attempts to articulate this misbegotten world. The closest phrase would be “Go fuck yourself,” or perhaps “Fuck off,” and maybe “Up yours,” all of which betray an effort and earnest anger at odds with proper trash talk. The finger, after all, can also be chummy, the lazy reply to a friend who thinks he’s a charming wag. Nowhere in the collective repertoire of poses is there a gesticulation so universal yet far-ranging, conveying a host of emotions almost as an afterthought. If the human skeleton equipped us with just four fingers, we would have to evolve a middle one, lest we grow used to an easy balance and forget what idle resistance is.

So I hope you’ve done your part for society by flipping someone off today. Spring it on your obnoxious boss; stick it in your boyfriend’s face. On the off-chance you run into Trump, give it to him with both barrels. Nobody should be allowed to escape the scorn of our rude national bird.