Sarah Palin is the gift who keeps on giving. Think about it. Palin holds no public office. Her political experience includes, exclusively, a term as a small-town mayor and an unfinished, albeit scandal-ridden term as governor of America’s least populous state. Her educational background includes attendance at six different schools merely to earn a bachelor’s degree. Despite having run for vice president—in what John McCain’s top advisers later admitted was a desperation move—she has never participated in a full-fledged press conference with members of the national media. She communicates almost exclusively via 140-character pronouncements on Twitter, updates on her Facebook page, and brown-nosing interviews with the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on Fox, from a studio the network built for her in her home. And yet she is by far the most written about, talked about, and most definitely muttered about woman in America.
Palin received more coverage in 2010 than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi combined, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. And guess what? She did even better on MSNBC than on Fox, though CNN was close, too. Print, and the networks, followed a similar pattern.
True to form, Palin managed to dominate the news cycle during the past week in an entirely bizarre fashion—with an accusation made in a video posted on her Facebook page against unnamed detractors of “blood libel”—one that it is far from clear she even understands. As Marc Tracy noted, the phrase has its origins in the accusation made centuries ago that Jews must murder Christian babies and use their blood to make Passover matzah. (It was the 1475 trial of the Jews of Trent, in which the blood libel—the actual blood libel—was invoked.)
But the phrase has been circulating around right-wing circles for a while, presumably because it sounds vaguely scriptural and associates its accusers with historic victimhood. In this regard, it recalls Clarence Thomas’s odd accusation during his 1991 confirmation hearings that by presenting evidence of his inappropriate behavior as head of EEOC and other positions, opponents were participating in the equivalent of a “high-tech lynching.” It made no sense whatever, but the violence of the words succeeded in giving his adversaries pause.
Palin’s accusation makes no sense either. It is undeniable that she published a map with crosshairs on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s district. She also called on her followers to "reload, not retreat" after last year’s health care debate. It is equally undeniable that many of Palin’s friends and allies on the far right and in the so-called “Tea Party” have used rhetoric that implies an approval of violent solutions—here and here and here—to what they understand to be America’s political problems. Ms. Giffords herself specifically addressed this fact. Here is what she said to MSNBC:
I think it’s important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party … community leaders, figures in our community to say, "Look, we can’t stand for this." I mean, this is a situation where people really need to realize that this rhetoric, and firing people up, and even things … for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there’s consequences to that action. … in the years that some of my colleagues have served, 20, 30 years, they’ve never seen it like this.
The fact that a disturbed individual like Jared Loughner, as well as those who previously threatened Ms. Giffords, might have missed the irony in these statements—or failed to understand that they were intended entirely metaphorically—is hardly beyond the realm of imagination. Beyond that, it’s hard to say much, given the apparent confusion demonstrated in the convoluted and contradictory ideas to which the murderer apparently subscribed. (Anyone who touts both the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kempf is no paragon of consistency in any respect.)
For Palin to equate the notion that rhetoric like hers and that of her allies might have contributed to an atmosphere that could lead to a tragedy to one of “blood libel” would have to be considered insane if taken literally, though she appears to have borrowed it from right-wing bombthrowers Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Breitbart, who deploy it to defend the Tea Party against criticism. (Amazingly, the folks at The Washington Times manage to take this victimization metaphor even further, whining about, I kid you not, “the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers.” I wonder how the victims of say, the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 would feel if they could hear the uses to which their suffering is being exploited.)
Sadly, Palin could not even get the famously left-bashing, Glenn Beck-admiring Abe Foxman to get her back this time. And to add insult to injury, Newt Gingrich thinks "that she’s got to slow down and be more careful and think through what she’s saying and how she’s saying it. And forgive me for another historical analogy, but Gingrich—who thinks Obama’s worldview is inspired by "mid-1960s, Marxist-inspired, Kenyan, anti-colonialism" among other nutty things—telling Palin to slow down and think a bit puts me of the time that Keith Richards—yes, Keith Richards—felt he had to intervene with his friend Graham Parsons to suggest he lay off the partying a bit. (Parsons died of an overdose at 26.)
Obviously, many in the media share the blame, not only for ignorant and exploitative comments made above, but for paying so much attention to a figure whose views are decidedly marginal to those of the vast majority of Americans, and whose approval ratings bespeak little more than devoted cult. But any car crash is likely to attract attention and this last orgy of victimization by Palin and company serves not only to change the topic from the wisdom of their own violent rhetoric but gives their minions a chance to rally ‘round their leaders however illogical their complaints. I don’t expect this to happen, however. Palin is far more a symbol of the degradation of our political culture than its cause.
Meanwhile, I’ll give the last word to Susannah Heschel, a scholar of Jewish history at Dartmouth and daughter of the revered rabbi, the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the most influential Jewish theologian of the past century:
Indeed, I would join other Jewish leaders who hope that, despite having the benefit of Jewish advisers, Palin was simply unaware of the history of “blood libels,” and used it out of ignorance. If she did use the term deliberately, with full knowledge of its connotations, I tremble at the political fabric she is manufacturing. Either way, Ms. Palin may have just garnered a spot in the Jewish history textbooks. Invoking “blood libel” in an utterly inappropriate context, she will be remembered for her manipulative use of one of the ugliest yet most persistent anti-Semitic canards Jews have faced.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.