Blood Libel & Linguistic Evolution
I’m no big Sarah Palin fan, and I’ve not followed news or commentary regarding the Arizona shootings in detail. (There are only so many hours in the day.) Nevertheless, when I first heard of the debate regarding her use of the phrase “blood libel,” my first thought was, “I guess she means to say that blame for the recent Arizona shootings is being falsely placed on her & her supporters.” Turns out I was pretty on-the-mark, since this is what Palin actually wrote:
But, 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.
I’d like to think my aforementioned thought process isn’t indicative of gross historical ignorance. I am well aware that the phrase “blood libel” had its origins in anti-Semitism, and that it particularly referred to accusations that “Jews supposedly murdered Christian Children as an act of ritual worship or to prepare unleavened bread for the Passover seder.” When people like Jeffrey Goldberg & Jonah Goldberg pointed this out, it wasn’t news to me.
No, the reason I managed to reconstruct a reasonably-accurate paraphrase of Palin’s words, solely from the knowledge that there was an ongoing debate regarding Palin’s mention of “blood libel,” is because I’d previously seen that phrase used in contexts outside its medieval anti-Semitic origins. Palin was hardly the first to use “blood libel” to connote false accusations of complicity in murder, or even simply a grossly-false & seemingly-malicious accusation. Nor, for that matter, was Glenn Harlan Reynolds (of Instapundit fame). They’ve both had plenty of company in the past five years.
For example, in a 2005 op-ed, Andrew Cohen noted charges that Terri Schiavo was “murdered by judges,” and a victim of “judicial homicide,” and labeled such accusations “a blood libel against judges.” Later that year, the term reappeared on the right:
Here, at the spot known as Ground Zero . . . planners are busy developing an “International Freedom Center.” Finally! A place you can visit to find out exactly what you did wrong to bring about the 9/11 attacks.
Hundreds of relatives of those slaughtered at the World Trade Center . . . came out yesterday in a unified show of force, to perform a previously unimaginable task. They came here to defend their loved ones against a blood libel.
The next year, Tony Blankley asserted that “media people,” in reporting about the 2005 Haditha killings, were “casually perpetrat[ing] blood libel against not just the still-presumed-innocent Marines but against our services more generally.” Jack Kemp, writing in support of Joe Lieberman’s Senate candidacy, stated, “As a Republican, I don’t want the Democratic Party to lose a Scoop Jackson Democrat and become isolationist in the face of Islamic fundamentalism with its message of jihad, hatred, and blood libel against America and Israel.” Matt Foreman, of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, asserted that Republicans had “dispatched henchmen like Tony Perkins and Pat Buchanan to offer the blood libel that gay men are prone to pedophilia.” A New York Times article noted, “This week, Mr. Fiedler accused an op-ed contributor for El Nuevo Herald of ‘blood libel’ for suggesting that a Herald reporter who broke the Marti story had ties to Cuba’s spy agency.”
In 2007, Cragg Hines wrote, “We need not consider [Jimmy] Carter’s latest book, whose title is a virtual blood libel with its title’s reference to apartheid and allusion to Israel.” An apparent truther expressed annoyance in a letter to the editor: “This libel [that 9/11 truth seekers are paranoid], like the 9/11 blood libel against Muslims, dehumanizes its victims and makes its author, editor and publisher complicit in the holocaust of the 9/11 wars . . . .” Chris Floyd, guest-blogging for Glenn Greenwald, accused Tony Blair of “seiz[ing] the opportunity of a New York speech to trumpet the blood libel that Iran is now the embodiment of the entire ‘global ideology’ of Islamic extremism . . . .”
In 2008, a letter to the editor condemned a columnist for “repeat[ing] yet again the ‘blood libel’ against unbelievers, that only creationism offers any basis for ethics” An op-ed by John Farmer lamented “the blood libel that as EPA administrator [Christie Whitman] deliberately misled responders at Ground Zero about the air quality . . . . The fact that she repeatedly advised responders to wear protection goes unmentioned.” Another, by Andrew Cohen, responded to accusations of “judicial activism” by asserting, “[I]t is nothing short of a blood libel against judges to accuse them of operating by fiat.”
An article from the campaign trail noted, “Just before Obama spoke, Newsday editor Les Payne had called ‘blood libel’ the argument that African-American journalists could not objectively cover Obama’s candidacy.” Another article, regarding forged British National Archives documents which purportedly showed that Churchill & Himmler maintained a “secret, cordial relationship” during WWII, noted a British historian’s complaint about the documents: “’That’s a blood libel against Churchill and totally untrue,’ said historian Andrew Roberts, who signed the letter published in the Financial Times.”
In 2009, Carl Cannon lamented increasing partisanship on Politics Daily: “Anything bad said about my homeys is a blood libel. Anything bad said about the other guy is obvious truth, or free speech or, you know, just satire. Lighten up, dude.” In 2010, Andrew Sullivan stated that “The conflation of homosexuality with child abuse” was “the oldest blood libel against gays . . . .” And P.J. O’Rourke, writing in praise of Radio Free Europe, noted, “The effort to provide accurate information combats rumor, conspiracy theories, scapegoat hatreds, and blood libels.”
Following Palin’s invocation of “blood libel,” some defended her use of the phrase, by noting that whatever its origins, it has long since acquired a broader connotation not necessarily related to anti-Semitism. I am inclined to believe that these defenders are correct. Perhaps such linguistic evolution really is a bad thing. But if so, Palin is hardly the first to be complicit in it.
 MICHAEL BERENBAUM, THE WORLD MUST KNOW 13 (1993).
 Andrew Cohen, Op-Ed, Schiavo was calm eye of the perfect storm, DENV. POST, Apr. 3, 2005, at E-05 (emphasis added).
 Andrea Peyser, Wrong Time, Wrong Place For Lefties’ PC Prattle, N.Y. POST, Jun. 21, 2005, at 9 (emphasis added).
 Tony Blankley, Op-Ed, Media dance macabre; Journalists in orgy of excessive Haditha reporting, WASH. TIMES, Jun. 7, 2006, at A21 (emphasis added).
 Jack Kemp, Working For Lieberman, N.Y. SUN, Aug. 29, 2006, http://www.nysun.com/opinion/working-for-lieberman/38756/ (emphasis added).
 Press Release, Nat’l Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Latest blame-dodging tactic in Foley scandal is ‘appalling, disgusting and pure McCarthyism’, (Oct. 05, 2006) (emphasis added) at http://www.thetaskforce.org/press/releases/pr985_100506.
 Andy Newman, Standoff at Miami Papers Ends in Cartoonist’s Arrest, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 25, 2006, at A10 (emphasis added).
 Cragg Hines, Op-Ed, Carter is right about Bush, VIRGINIAN-PILOT, May 25, 2007, at B9 (emphasis added).
 Kevin Barrett, Letter to the Editor, Reporting on 9/11 Conference Was Distorted and Libelous, CAP. TIMES, Aug. 11, 2007, at A9 (emphasis added).
 Chris Floyd, Chris Floyd for Glenn Greenwald: Blair and Bush team up to sell new war, SALON (Oct 24, 2007, 7:34 PM), http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2007/10/24/selling_war (emphasis added).
 John B. Hodges, Letter to the Editor, Religion has no special claim to an ethical basis, ROANOKE TIMES, Dec. 27, 2008, at B7 (emphasis added).
 John Farmer, Op-Ed, Why the true mavericks can’t win, STAR-LEDGER, Oct. 19, 2008, at 35 (emphasis added).
 Andrew Cohen, Op-Ed, McCain Sings Same Old GOP Song On Justices, CBS NEWS, May 7, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/05/07/opinion/courtwatch/main4077336.shtml (emphasis added).
 Abdon M. Pallasch, Obama rips foe on affirmative action, Iraq, CHI. SUN-TIMES, Jul. 28, 2008, at 2 (emphasis added)
 Carl M. Cannon, Free Speech vs. Hate Speech, POLITICS DAILY (Aug. 18, 2009), http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/08/18/free-speech-vs-hate-speech/ (emphasis added).
 Andrew Sullivan, Proving Animus, THE DAILY DISH (Jan. 14, 2010, 3:37 PM), http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/01/proving-animus.html (emphasis added).
 P.J. O’Rourke, Radio Free Europe, Freedom of Speech, and Liberty, WORLD AFFAIRS (Aug 12, 2010, 2:57 PM), http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/new/blogs/editors/The_Relationship_Between_Freedom_of_Speech_and_Liberty (emphasis added).
 See, e.g., Shmuley Boteach, Sarah Palin Is Right About ‘Blood Libel’, WALL STREET J., Jan. 14, 2011, at A13, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703583404576079823067585318.html (“The expression may be used whenever an amorphous mass is collectively accused of being murderers or accessories to murder.”); Publius, Exclusive: Alan Dershowitz Defends Sarah Palin’s Use of Term ‘Blood Libel’, BIG GOVERNMENT (Jan. 12, 2011, 10:24 AM), http://biggovernment.com/publius/2011/01/12/exclusive-alan-dershowitz-defends-sarah-palins-use-of-term-blood-libel/ (quoting Alan Dershowitz as stating, “The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People,its current usage is far broader.”).