Today’s big political sensation seems to be a video released by Sarah Palin providing her presumably definitive commentary on the shootings in Tucson, the controversy over her PAC’s targeting of Gabby Giffords with what looked like a bullseye on her district, and the broader argument about the possible connection of violent anti-government rhetoric with acts of violence against government officials.
Most of the commentary on the video has focused on her use of the term “blood libel” to characterize accusations of conservative responsibility for the outbreak of violence in Arizona.
The term originally referred to persistent medieval claims that Jews were killing Christian children and using their blood for ritual purposes. Thus, it was suspected, Palin’s longstanding habit of appropriating every available symbol of victimization to illustrate the persecution of herself, her family, and her political supporters had reached a new low.
I personally think it’s more likely that Palin and/or her staff picked up on “blood libel” after it was used (and then endlessly linked to) by Glenn Reynolds in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday to turn the tables on liberal critics of violent conservative rhetoric. Maybe he knew the historical derivation of the term, but there’s no particular reason to assume Palin did; she probably thought, quite plausibly, that it referred to allegations of “blood on your hands” after an act of violence.
In any event, it’s not the “blood libel” reference that struck me about the speech, or the general, predictable effort to deny there was anything at all wrong or unusual about her and other conservatives’ rhetoric towards their political opponents. What was really interesting was how much Palin’s video was framed like a presidential address (disclosure: I borrowed this insight from The American Prospect‘s Mark Schmitt, who mentioned it in a private discussion), from its Olympian tone of reassurance right down to its “May God Bless America” closing. Viewed from this perspective, Palin’s self-exculpatory lines and the accusation of a “blood libel” seem more like a matter-of-fact statement of her viewers’ beliefs than any angrily-intended counterattack against her alleged tormenters
Check out this altar call at the end:
Let us honor those precious lives cut short in Tucson by praying for them and their families and by cherishing their memories. Let us pray for the full recovery of the wounded. And let us pray for our country. In times like this we need God’s guidance and the peace He provides. We need strength to not let the random acts of a criminal turn us against ourselves, or weaken our solid foundation, or provide a pretext to stifle debate.
America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy. We will come out of this stronger and more united in our desire to peacefully engage in the great debates of our time, to respectfully embrace our differences in a positive manner, and to unite in the knowledge that, though our ideas may be different, we must all strive for a better future for our country.
Now there’s obviously some red meat tucked into this passage, with the references to “mindless finger-pointing” and “stifling debate.” But that’s not the central thrust, which was bascially to tell “her people” that they were on the side of the Tucson victims, not to mention the angels, and that their political activities were in the best traditions and interests of the country as a whole.
It’s as though she knew “her nation” wouldn’t listen to its dubious commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, when he speaks tonight, and felt it needed its own presidential address to calm fears and restate pieties.
If this is an accurate interpretations of her motives, then it’s a token of the depth of divisions facing America that we can’t unite even rhetorically except by proxy. And it’s also a sign of Palin’s own self-appointed role as not just one of many conservative leaders, but as the voice conservatives have been waiting to hear.