Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin Victim of a "Blood Libel," or, Why Medieval History Matters

Apparently, Sarah Palin spoke out today, denouncing those who've criticized her for (or just questioned) her perceived role in the assassination attempt and mass murder in Arizona over the weekend, and accusing journalists and pundits of a "blood libel."

Just to be perfectly clear: "Blood libel" was an accusation leveled against Jews living in medieval Europe that they ritually murdered Christian children and used their blood in religious rites. It is a specific thing--a real thing--and it has formed one of the main justifications for anti-Semitic violence and the annihilation of Jews in Europe for a millennium. It does not mean "making someone a scapegoat." Just because the concept of "blood libel" rests on a false claim, it does not mean "to make a false claim."

The claim that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood appears first in England in the twelfth century, but was more broadly disseminated by Chaucer. The Prioress' Tale is about the murder of a Christian child by Jews and mentions the legend Little St. Hugh of Lincoln. This became one of the most well-known and oft-cited examples of Jewish ritual murder, and the Jews were eventually expelled from England in 1290, after almost a century of violent pogroms.

Here's a riddle: So, now that a public figure (publicly Christian and evangelical in ideology) claims to be the victim of the most pernicious kind of anti-Semitism, in response to questions about the effect that her political rhetoric may have played in the assassination attempt of Arizona's first (and only) Jewish Congressional representative, who do you think Glenn Beck will accuse of being like the Nazis? Will it be:

1. Sarah Palin
2. Congress
3. The Jewish-controlled mainstream media
4. President Obama

I bet 3.


Unknown said...

Yes, you are right that what makes this so wrong is that these words refer to a very specific (terrible) thing -- something SP seems not to know or care about. I think the 'let's all lower the tone' meme is wrong -- SP invoked the blood libel in a perfectly civil 'tone'. For my money, the (conservative) pundits and pols should devote themselves to driving fantastical/conspiratorial world views out of the(ir) mainstream.

I agree with your betting on #3, and would like to pose a riddle of my own (if I may): how long do you think it will take for the SP camp to make public every threat and nasty e/mail she has received over the years?

E. R. Truitt said...

I: Hm, I hadn't thought about the potential to learn about every nasty threat that SP's had leveled at her over the years. Will anyone care?

This whole thing reminds me of the Nazi-fication of our language. Once everyone or everything became a Nazi (soup, femi, etc.), then it diminishes the actual Nazis, the mass-murderers. But hey, perhaps we just live in a "reality-based world."

Blicero said...

Something that seems obvious to me, no idea if it's actually true: when Palin used the term "blood libel" (which means libel concerning the use of blood) she actually meant "libel so heinous it justifies bloody vengeance."

In other words, I'm assuming Palin used the term according to her impression of its meaning, and I'm guessing that meaning is not far from "people who talk this way about me shouldn't be surprised if they get a bullet in the head."

Also, what's up with this comment system? You have to do a word verification every time you post? Is that how it works these days?

Alisha said...

Great post! I should add that the Glenn Reynolds used the term "blood libel" (also completely out of historical context) in an editorial in the WSJ on Monday, which is presumably where Palin picked it up.

Clearly, both Reynolds and Palin liked the incendiary feel to the term and had no clue what it actually means. Which, as you say, is why medieval history matters!!

Unknown said...

Releasing info on threats strikes me as what the SP camp would consider a necessary corollary to the 'blood libel' statement -- informing us that she is 'under the gun', too. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe this is all they've got:

E. R. Truitt said...

I'd never considered Brian's point, but in light of the Glenn Reynolds piece in the WSJ that Alisha pointed out, I think there's something to it.

It clearly seems to mean (in these contexts) something more than "a really bad false accusation" and goes deeper, as though "blood" means something essential, rather than the use of blood and human sacrifice for religious rites.

I am AGHAST that the WSJ editors let "blood libel" be printed in that context. Are we just totally doing away with any link between sign and signifier? Are they completely untethered to one another, so that, pretty soon, I'll be in a restaurant eating an collection of baked ground, seasoned meats (beef, pork, veal) with a roll on the side, and instead of calling it meatloaf, it will instead be called "a baked deconstructed hamburger"?

Oh, wait: that already happens.

E. R. Truitt said...

Blicero said...

I've never heard of pork and veal in a hamburger. (Meatballs, yes.) Certainly not in a Wendy's Old-Fashioned Sautéed Ground Beef Sandwich.