January 21st, 2011

Sarah Palin, 12 January [my emphasis]:

Especially 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.

Video here, at 3:30m.

This has been added to the pile of Ms Palin’s semi-comic gaffes; and the blogosphere seems to be following President Obama’s magisterial call to cool it.

Sorry to break ranks, but I’m not American anyway, and I don’t think enough thought has been given to the full iniquity of Palin’s accusation.

The blood libel was, as everybody knows, the lie spread at intervals from the twelfth century (with Hellenistic forerunners) to Tsarist Russia a century ago, that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children for the purpose of sacrilegious anti-Christian rites often involving the desecration of communion hosts.

(Paolo Uccello, The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, 1465-69, panel 2. A Jewish pawnbroker has bought a consecrated host from a venal priest and is frying (i.e. torturing) it in a pan. Transubstantiated blood from the host is dripping from the pan and seeping under the door. Not, strictly speaking, the complete blood libel, but a closely related one.  Art historians don’t seem to understand quite what nasty stuff they are looking at. (Footnote))

But let’s put aside our disgust a moment to note some other things.

The blood libel was unusual in the litany of anti-Semitic charges in being a total fabrication – not a distortion, however great and unfair, of some nugget of observed fact as with the modest numbers of Jewish bankers and Bolsheviks. Granting, for the sake of argument, the occasional existence in history of psychopathic Jewish child murderers at the same very low rate as in the general population, we can be sure that the one thing these monsters would not have done is mix up their acted-out fantasies with mumbo-jumbo about pieces of bread that would be completely meaningless to anybody not steeped in Christianity. As well make pornographic movies starring the Buddha.

Now since the blood libel has always been a total fabrication, we cannot suppose that it arose from diffuse social processes amplifying a seed fact, as with rumours and panics. Fabrications have specific authors and disseminators. For the blood libel, who were these? Agitators planning pogroms, such as the Franciscan Alonso de Espina in 15th-century Spain. Here is Wikipedia’s account of the genesis of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903:

The riot started after an incident on April 6 when a Christian Russian boy, Mikhail Rybachenko, was found murdered in the town of Dubossary, about 25 miles north of Kishinev. Although it was clear that the boy had been murdered by a relative (who was later found), the Russian-language anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz … insinuated that he was murdered by the Jews. Another newspaper, Svet … used the ages-old blood libel against the Jews (alleging that the boy had been killed to use his blood in preparation of matzo).
The Kishinev pogrom spanned three days of rioting against the Jews. Forty-seven (some put the figure at 49) Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded, 500 slightly wounded and over 700 houses and many businesses looted and destroyed.

The blood libel is hate speech in the fullest and vilest sense, incitement to murder.

So Sarah Palin accused progressive pundits (no mentioning but plainly including Paul Krugman) and bloggers (not mentioning but plainly including Markos Moulitsas and Mark Kleiman) – and by implication Representative Giffords herself – of actions equivalent to the total fabrication of inflammatory anti-Semitic charges designed to incite murder.

This is much more than just false. What some of us lefty bloggers did (I joined in a comment) was to charge some named conservative politicians (including Palin, Angle, and Bachmann) of making specific inflammatory statements, directly or indirectly referring to weapons and insurrection in the context of political opposition to Obama’s policies, that could have pushed Jared Loughner over the edge. Now this may have been unfair and premature, but it was based on incontrovertible evidence about the statements of the politicians in question, though only plausible guesswork about the gunman (footnote). Even more clearly, these charges were simply not incitements to violence themselves. Where’s the beef?

Palin’s charge is then demonstrably false. It is worse than deeply insulting: the accusation amounts to demonisation of her opponents. Pogromschiks can after all be lawfully killed in self-defence. It is therefore a perfect confirmation of the truth of our charges of recklessness against her.

It’s entirely possible that Palin simply doesn’t know what the words blood libel really mean. That changes her fault from viciousness to reckless negligence. I suppose there’s a moral and legal difference between shouting “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theatre in New York, because you want to cause a panic, and shouting “Pozhar!” in a Moscow theatre because you just like the sound of the word. But that’s not to excuse the second.

Either way, does a person who can say such things, not off-the cuff but in a prepared speech delivered in front of the American flag, have any further place in American public life?

Footnote 1
The jury hasn’t even been been convened on Loughner’s state of mind. Palin’s (defensible) “random nutter” theory is also premature. It faces the problem: why Congresswoman Giffords? Why go for a Democratic politician associated with the Affordable Care Act, and not any other authority figure? Finland and Switzerland provide useful benchmarks on shooting sprees as they combine ready access to guns with soporific electoral politics. And like everybody else, they have nutters. Recent attacks in Finland have been on schools (two) and a shopping mall. In Switzerland, it looks a bit more political. The latest (November 2007) was an attack on a mosque. In 2001 a man assaulted the cantonal parliament in Zug – but the occasion was a long-running legal dispute after an argument with a bus driver, nothing personal about the councillors. In the absence of inflammatory speech by and against named elected politicians, it looks as if men who were looking for targets did not choose named elected politicians. Not I admit a knockdown data point, but suggestive.

Footnote 2
What, you may wonder, happened to the Jewish pawnbroker and his wife in Uccello’s horrid strip cartoon?

Burnt alive, screaming their innocence as the flames seared their flesh, with their two children. That is, of course, the point. That’s what the blood libel did.

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