Sarah Palin and the “blood libel”

Sarah Palin is coming in for criticism for using the term “blood libel” to describe accusations that she and other outspoken conservatives somehow have blood on their hands in connection with the Tucson shootings. Palin’s remarks on the shootings are also being compared unfavorably to President Obama’s speech at the University of Arizona. Obama’s speech was healing and uplifting, while Palin’s, some say, was divisive and defensive.
I find both criticisms of Palin unfair.
As to using the phrase “blood libel,” it is true that the term originally referred to a very specific libel, namely that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian babies so they could use their blood as a food ingredient during Passover. Later, it became a more general accusation that Jews kill non-Jews in furtherance of Jewish religious observances.
However, the phrase “blood libel” has come to be used much more generally to encompass the false assertion, made with malice, that someone is responsible for the spilling of someone else’s blood. Jim Geraghty has collected examples of such usage.
Palin may be the first prominent politician to have charged others with a “blood libel” in the broad, modern sense of the term. This shows her, once again, to be “edgy.” But being edgy doesn’t necessarily mean acting improperly. Once a certain usage gains acceptance in mainstream political discourse (I don’t recall anyone objecting to the new usage of “blood libel” until now), I see no obligation on the part of politicians to steer clear of that usage.
Whether it is prudent for a politician to steer clear is a different question. Given the special scrutiny Palin receives, it probably was not prudent for her to have used the term “blood libel” as she did. But political imprudence isn’t the same thing as doing something wrong.
Comparisons between Palin’s presentation and Obama’s are also misguided. Palin was accused of somehow being responsible for the Tucson massacre; Obama wasn’t. Thus, Palin’s approach necessarily differed from Obama’s.
Obama was speaking on behalf of the nation for the purpose of memorializing the victims and attempting to give meaning to the tragic event. Palin was rebutting an argument, or rather a libel.
Palin might have been better advised not to speak at length about the massacre, knowing that Obama was giving to do so, and quite likely in a boffo way. But again, this goes to her political prudence, not the propriety or quality of her remarks.

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