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Was Sarah Palin's 'Blood Libel' Comment a 'Dog Whistle' -- or Just Inadvertent?

3 years ago
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By now you probably know that Sarah Palin released a new video on the Tucson shootings, accusing the media of "blood libel."

Specifically, she said: "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. That is reprehensible."

As Tom Diemer and David Gibson noted, the term " 'Blood libel' is an extraordinarily loaded phrase because it recalls the false accusation by Christians against Jews that was used for centuries as an excuse for anti-Semitic persecution. The libel generally refers to the charge that Jews required human blood, and in particular the blood of Christian children, to bake matzoh bread."

(In keeping with the finger-pointing that has become ubiquitous this week, it is important to note that liberals have used this term before, as well. In fact, it isn't terribly uncommon.)

But as is often the case, when Sarah Palin says something, it gets media attention.

The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz Tweeted, "There was some sympathy for Palin over being tied to shooting, + she chose to go inflammatory. Blood libel has special resonance for Jews." And Politico's Ben Smith speculated on Twitter that because Michael Goldfarb (who is very knowledgeable on Jewish issues) is a Palin aide, that Palin and her team "get the context -- so this is a pot being stirred, not an accident."

Some believe this could be an example of "dog whistle" politics. I'm not so sure. A cipher works when the only people who hear the "dog whistle" are your complicit allies. That is clearly not the case in this instance. And so if others can immediately decode it, is it a dog whistle?

My guess is that this is simply a case of ignorance on the part of Palin and the speechwriter -- and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. Simply put, a lot of people don't realize that these loaded terms have deeper and more sinister meanings. (How many people who use the term the term "gypped" realize it is an insult to Gypsies?)

I once had a colleague who was very smart and talented. One day in the office this person referred to Barack Obama as a "boy." (My colleague thought that because Obama was relatively young and inexperienced, this would be a good line for John McCain to use against him.) This person had absolutely no idea that "boy" would be a very, very bad thing to call the then-senator -- and was incredulous when we explained the history of how African-American men were demeaned by this term. It was a case of ignorance, not malice. (Thank God this colleague tested the idea on us before going public.)

I also think the fact that Sarah Palin resides in Alaska is more significant than most people realize. The state's culture and history is quite different from that of the "lower 48." My guess is that she was oblivious to the sensitivities and "political correctness" that many Americans recognize. In some cases, this is refreshing. In other cases, as in this one, it is politically damaging.

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