Friday, January 14, 2011

"Blood Libel"

Note: I am focusing almost entirely on my "Aging Together" blog (see link) these days. I will mostly use this site to repost articles from my Goodwill blog that are not "Goodwill"specific." Like this one.

The tragic and horrific shootings in Arizona have precipitated national debate on a number of issues, including gun control (good luck on that one), our mental health treatment system, and—most broadly—the nature of political discourse in our nation, and its potential to precipitate anger and violence.

Sarah Palin has been a central figure in much of this debate because she, it is argued, has employed particularly violent metaphors (“don’t retreat; reload!”) and sponsored an ad that featured crosshairs superimposed on the 8th congressional district where Congresswoman Giffords serves.

How, or if, these things are connected no-one can say. There is no evidence that the disturbed young man who attempted to assassinate the congresswoman, taking many other lives in the effort, was politically motivated in the conventional sense. As Palin and many others have pointed out, violent images in American political discourse are hardly a new phenomenon. My guess is that we will see a scaling back in this kind of violent imagery in political discourse, at least for a period of time, and that can only be a good thing. There will always be a small number of emotionally-disturbed persons teetering on the edge of some sort of violent action, and when society sets clear moral boundaries it may help them to reign in such impulses. And less exposure to angry, violent images would certainly benefit society as a whole in countless ways.

So I was minded to view the emerging national debate precipitated by this tragedy as an opportunity for positive change rather than an opportunity to cast blame. But more recently my jaw dropped when Ms. Palin, defending the images she has used, employed the term “blood libel.” I can only assume that she, like most Americans, was not aware of the origin of this ugly phrase. It dates to the first century, a time of tension and conflict between Jewish and Christian communities marked by bizarre rumors and accusations from both sides. Jews were accused of mixing the blood of Christians in with the matzos prepared for the Passover, and were alleged to especially prize the blood of Christian children and infants. It gets much worse than I care to describe: the Christian children were allegedly tortured in unspeakable ways before being ritually sacrificed.

These accusations (or blood libel) were revived again and again throughout history They figured prominently in the Nazi persecution of Jews that led to the Holocaust, and still play a role in undergirding anti-Semitism today. The term “blood libel” should never, ever be used in any context other than making reference to its ugly role in breeding anti-Semitism.

Any of us who have ever inserted our foot in our mouth, making things worse rather than better (which is pretty much all of us) should have some sympathy for Ms. Palin. I would be pleased and grateful if she were to acknowledge that it was a serious error to use this hurtful, hateful term, but that is not likely to happen. I trust that it will not be used again, by Ms. Palin or anyone else in public life. Words matter; words can be weapons, words literally can kill. And when words are used on a public stage, their power to wound, or heal, is magnified. We should expect and demand public discourse that uplifts rather than denigrates the human condition.

1 comment:

rick in cos said...

"optimism" and "politics" aren't usually included in the same sentences that I use, even being an optimist by nature. That being said, I had a moment of optimism listening to the president's speech about a call for civility, another word that I have abandoned in the lexicon of politics. My optimism faded with the whole Palin response. She obviously hasn't learned what I did years ago, that the best way to get oneself out of a hole is to quit digging......
I think if all of talk radio would suddenly,overnight, morph into additional new age XM/Sirius radio channels, there would finally be hope for America....