So Sarah Palin said this morning that she and others are the victims of “a blood libel.” This has immediately ignited a controversy over Palin’s words, which is just like the last controversy over Palin’s words, and the controversy over Palin’s words before those: she uses provocative phrasing, her critics scream, and then they scream more loudly, and they scream following each other’s screams, and the phrase is amplified and amplified and amplified, getting a cultural currency it would never have achieved otherwise (“death panels,” “lock and load,” “hopey-changey thing”). The overreaction by her enemies triggers heated defense among her supporters and an ah-shucks tone among those who find her interesting and tend to agree with her views but are uneasy with her loose command of wonky facts and detail.
As for the use of the phrase “blood libel,” it’s perfectly appropriate if taken as two words strung together. We have all, those of us on the right, been accused of having blood on our hands in the wake of this massacre, it is a libel, and it is therefore a blood libel. But “blood libel” is also a term to describe a very specific brand of anti-Semitism. It’s the accusation, born in medieval England, that Jews sought out Christian babies for their blood to use in Passover matzah. It has been repeated and echoed over the centuries, and the term has come to mean, very generally, the evil notion that Jews are killing non-Jews to make use of their corpses in some fashion.
So in the sense that the words “blood” and “libel” in sequence are to be taken solely as referring to this anti-Semitic slander, Palin’s appropriation of it was vulgar and insensitive. I guess. The problem is that I doubt Sarah Palin knew this history, because most people don’t know this history, including most of the anti-Palin hysterics screaming about it on Twitter at this very moment. She used it as shorthand for “false accusation that the right bears responsibility for the blood of the innocent.” She shouldn’t have, though she certainly had no intention of giving offense to those sensitive about it, because it would be an act of lunacy to open that can of worms for no reason.
But here’s the thing. Sarah Palin has become a very important person in the United States. Important people have to speak with great care, because their words matter more than the words of other people. If they are careless, if they are sloppy, if they are lazy about finding the right tone and setting it and holding it, they will cease, after a time, to be important people, because without the discipline necessary to modulate their words, those words will lose their power to do anything but offer a momentary thrill — either pleasurable or infuriating. And then they will just pass on into the ether.
If she doesn’t serious herself up, Palin is on the direct path to irrelevancy. She won’t be the second Ronald Reagan; she’ll be the Republican incarnation of Jesse Jackson.