‘Blood libel’

‘BLOOD LIBEL’…. If the goal of Sarah Palin’s speechwriters was to get lots of attention, it worked. Her use of the phrase “blood libel” this morning has sparked quite a bit of discussion.

In context, the half-term governor, speaking by way of a pre-recorded video because she can’t handle interviews, argued that “journalists and pundits” had manufactured “a blood libel,” which in turn may “incite … hatred and violence.”

Palin was a little vague as to what, exactly, constituted “blood libel,” but the implication was that she was referring to those who dared to criticize her.

Given the loaded qualities of the phrase, much of the discussion has been about whether she was right to use it. Jonah Goldberg, of all people, agreed this morning that it should have been avoided. Adam Serwer today helped explain why.

Blood libel is a term that usually refers to an ancient falsehood that Jews use the blood of Christian children in religious rituals. For hundreds of years, particularly during the Middle Ages, it was used to justify the slaughter of Jews in the street and their expulsion from entire countries. “Blood libel” is not wrongfully assigning guilt to an individual for murder, but rather assigning guilt collectively to an entire group of people and then using it to justify violence against them. […]

Given that people like Beck and Limbaugh have spent the last two years trying to convince their audiences that being white and conservative in America today is comparable to being black under Jim Crow, Palin’s use of “blood libel” isn’t entirely surprising.

The difference is, though, that Beck and Limbaugh don’t really fancy themselves as political leaders in the sense Palin does. As David Frum wrote earlier this week, Palin’s previous response to the incident was “petty at a moment when Palin had been handed perhaps her last clear chance to show herself presidentially magnanimous.” That was before she was drawing parallels between harsh, even unfair verbal criticism and genocide.

I’ve seen some suggestions that Palin isn’t nearly smart enough to know why her use of the phrase might be offensive. The point is not without merit — if she thinks the “Bush Doctrine” refers to the former president’s “worldview,” it’s safe to assume her understanding of the “blood libel” phrase is limited. That said, ignorance isn’t exactly a compelling excuse.

What’s more, I’ve seen others suggest Palin couldn’t possibly have written her statement — the grammar was correct and it was lacking in unnecessary exclamation points — so it’s not quite her fault. That’s unpersuasive, too. Palin has to take ownership of the words that come out of her mouth, especially in pre-written remarks.

Some prominent Jewish Republicans, by the way, were asked this morning for their reaction to Palin’s use of the phrase. They didn’t seem eager to talk about it.

For additional context, it’s also worth mentioning that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is Jewish and the attempt on her life fell on Shabbat*. I seriously doubt Palin or the folks who put words in her mouth thought about these details to this degree, but it reinforces why the former half-term governor probably shouldn’t have used “blood libel” in her remarks.

* edited for clarity, thanks to suggestions from Alan and Enceladus in comments