Blood libel

12 January 2011

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonist Tomas hears Czech political leaders of the 1960s claiming to be innocent because they did not know the true effects of their actions — and it reminds him of the tale of Oedipus.  When Oedipus learned he had been sleeping with his own mother, he did not loudly proclaim his innocence.  Unable to live with what he had done — however unknowingly — he gouged out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.  With that classic myth in mind, Tomas is furious with his own leaders’ unwillingness to acknowledge guilt for having wrought terrible outcomes:

As a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt?  How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done?  How is it you aren’t horrified?  Have you no eyes to see?  If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

Sarah Palin could have done the right thing:  acknowledge that her crosshairs poster may have been irresponsible, and apologize for it.  Certainly it received criticism long before Jared Loughner’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona on Saturday.  Certainly critics made it clear long ago that such a poster was irresponsible due to the widespread, if less catastrophic, violence perpetrated by many individuals during the summer and fall of 2009; and they likewise criticized the broader culture of overheated right-wing rhetoric encouraging violence, such as Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment solutions.”

Instead, Palin issued a video comment today that denied all culpability and claimed the crown of free speech for herself and her Tea Party compatriots.  In fact, she lashed out with such vitriol against critics that she used the term blood libel to refer to criticism against her.  “Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn.  That is reprehensible,” she says.  It’s a move she has made before:  I can say whatever I like because of free speech in America; but when you criticize me you are guilty of crimes that are immoral and possibly illegal. In using blood libel she likens herself to Jews who, for centuries, suffered violent persecution due to vicious lies claiming that they killed Christian children and used their blood in religious ceremonies.  In drawing such a bizarre analogy — implying that she has somehow suffered the same persecution as Jews of the past millennium — Palin should be ashamed.  The attempted assassination of a political figure is no time to claim persecution for engaging in free speech.  Sharron Angle goes even further to turn this into an opportunity to heighten the rhetoric:  “The irresponsible assignment of blame to me, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement by commentators and elected officials puts all who gather to redress grievances in danger.”  Have you no eyes to see?

We have no clear evidence that Jared Loughner was inspired by the Palin crosshairs poster, and I’m certainly not accusing her of indirectly contributing to the Giffords shooting.  But unlike Oedipus, who was wholly innocent, Palin has heard criticism of her overheated rhetoric ever since she and John McCain were forced to start denouncing the racist, anti-Obama slurs that got thrown around at their campaign rallies in 2008.  More generally, critics have long warned that hysterical political rhetoric contributes to a broader culture of violence now just as much as it did during the 1960s, the last terrible era of political assassinations.  The fact that Palin felt the need to explain her “taking up arms” comments — “When we say ‘take up our arms,’ we are talking about our vote,” she says in the video — signals the tortured logic of one who should know better.

As a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt?  How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done?  How is it you aren’t horrified?  Have you no eyes to see?  If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

I don’t understand why major figures like Palin cannot step back from the abyss, why they refuse to see the power and respect they might command by taking responsibility and changing the national conversation.  I don’t understand how an event like this can leave someone eager merely to claim innocence.  I don’t understand why we cannot collectively feel a sense of shame and loss, and through that fire become a better and more responsible nation.

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