In his moving speech on Wednesday night, Barack Obama told the stories of the victims of Jared Loughner’s shooting rampage in Tucson. Earlier in the day, Sarah Palin released a video expressing anguish for another victim: herself. Making no apology for the inflammatory symbols that some (including Gabrielle Giffords) expressed concern about prior to the Tucson tragedy, Palin accused pundits and journalists of manufacturing a "blood libel" against her – a term whose origins date back to the Middle Ages, when anti-Semites falsely accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children to bake matzos for Passover.
The tasteless use of such an expression, only days after the attempted assassination of a Jewish Congresswoman, led some to speculate that Palin must have been ignorant of its historical meaning. But Palin’s use of the phrase was also symptomatic and predictable. It crowned a week in which, in the wake of a tragedy that might have led conservatives to reflect on the martial imagery and rhetoric that too often suffuses their movement, many rightwing commentators and pundits instead bemoaned the fate of what unfairly maligned Tea Partiers, conservative talk-show hosts and Republican leaders. Indeed, Palin was not alone in likening the effort to demonize conservatives to the false accusations hurled at Jews in the past. “As the usual talking heads begin their ‘have you no decency?’ routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around,” wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “Where is the decency in blood libel?”
Thus is the party whose leaders and candidates talk loosely of “Second Amendment remedies” and who circulate maps with crosshairs over Democratic Congressional districts transformed from a fount of reckless and incendiary rhetoric into the target of defamatory smears and slanders. Dismissing perfectly legitimate concerns as offensive is a great way to deflect criticism and debate, as some on the right appreciate. This was indeed something conservatives used to deplore. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, authors like Dinesh D’Souza loved nothing more than to take the multicultural left to task for being overly sensitive to criticism and invoking victimhood to silence opponents. Such analysts had a point: sometimes, those who impulsively wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood are trying to short-circuit debate or change the subject rather than engage the arguments of their critics.
Yet today, the deftest practitioners of the rhetoric of victimhood are not multiculturalists on college campuses. They are Republicans like Palin and talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who, after his quest to become part-owner of the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams was derailed back in 2009 because of inflammatory racial statements he’d made, portrayed himself as the victim of “race hustlers” and “Obama’s America.” (Never mind that the league likely would have welcomed a talk-show host who hadn’t said, in the past, that the “NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.”)
There is no evidence that the deranged man who carried out the shooting rampage in Tucson was inspired by Sarah Palin. And perhaps Palin wasn’t fully aware of the origins of the phrase "blood libel" before releasing her video. But she surely does know that it is far easier to complain of being unfairly demonized than to pause for a moment in the aftermath of a tragedy to reflect on one’s role in sowing rage and divisiveness.