The real problem with Sarah Palin’s video is not her use of the phrase “blood libel”. True, it may have been insensitive to many Jews, but it is quite possible that she never considered that angle. Some suggest that she is in unaware of the phrase’s anti-Semitic overtones and she is only repeating what has been said before by other politicians, on both the Left and the Right, in other circumstances. Maybe. But being a self-professed Evangelical, Palin is likely very aware of the Biblical roots of the phrase.
In the 27th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angry crowd calls for the crucifixion of Jesus:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
As Christianity became more Roman and less Jewish, this phrase was used to justify the persecution of those Jews who would not convert to the Jesus faith. Christians throughout history, and many to this day, believe that the Jews have been cursed by God for the killing of Jesus (conveniently forgetting that Jesus was Jewish and his executioners were Roman). Palin obviously sees this as an unjust charge, just as unjust as the liberal charge that Tea Party rhetoric is responsible for the murders in Tuscon. So in that respect the phrase is appropriate and correct, if perhaps politically unwise, especially when you remember that Representative Giffords’ is Jewish. (Probably not many in the mainstream media are conversant with scriptures and were not immediately aware of the phrase’s origins.)
The big problem I found (aside from the bad timing of this video’s release and its narcissistic thrust) is that its main premise is contradictory. Palin defends Tea Party rhetoric, saying that people are responsible for their own actions. Words are just words and those that use them cannot be blamed for the violent behavior of others. But then she accuses her liberal critics of exactly that, by inciting “hatred and violence” with their criticisms of the Right:
“…within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own, they begin and end with the criminals who commit them.
There are those who claim that political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow got more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their difference with duelling pistols?”
Just because American demagogues have historically resorted to hyperbole and attacks upon the character of their opponents, to the point that they ended up in fisticuffs, riots and duels, does not mean that we should continue the tradition into the 21st century. Palin, Beck and the Tea Partiers need to remember something important: that was then and this is now. Historical wrongs, no matter how many of them, do not justify present ones.
But anyway, what’s the verdict here, Sarah? Do words have the power to incite violence and hatred? And if so, then what kinds of words would do that best?