[From reader “forgot to buy tinfoil” —DD]
After a long silence, Sarah Palin has finally responded to charges that her rhetoric of gunsights and reloading contributed to the shooting of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and 18 others attending a “Congress On Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona. Palin’s response comes just as the debate over political rhetoric gives way to an examination of the relaxed Arizona gun laws that allowed Loughner to obtain a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun and two extended 30-round magazines. Her delayed intervention is certain to revive questions that, by many accounts, have damaged her image.
Palin describes the accusations against her as “blood libel” — a provocative phrase that has caught the attention of the media. Her choice of words is typically overbearing. She might more reasonably say that she has unfairly been charged with having blood on her hands. The phrase “blood libel” suggests, much more darkly, the slander of an entire group for its affiliations and beliefs.
This is no accident. The same message emerges throughout her response, most clearly in this clumsily-worded paragraph:
No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.
Here she equates criticism of her militant metaphors with “being intolerant of differing opinion.” To express concern over images of gunsights and ammunition is, in her mind, to “muzzle dissent.” It is in this context that the complaint of “blood libel” begins to make twisted sense. For Sarah Palin, any criticism of her tactics is exaggerated into a fundamental evil directed against the right wing.
The concept of evil figures prominently. Jared Loughner is “a single evil man.” Palin’s audience must not be deterred by “those who embrace evil and call it good” (as she tellingly adds). Toward the end of her speech, she declares, “America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week.” And if by “last week” you think she means last Saturday morning, the next sentence leaves no doubt: “We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.” This trilogy of invocations moves the charge of evil steadily away from Loughner and towards those who oppose Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and the tactics they use. At first, her opponents are evil because they embrace evil “and call it good” — a reference, no doubt, to their Godless liberalism — but by the end of the speech they are evil simply because they have questioned her rhetoric.
The paragraph in which Palin actually mentions the matter of rhetoric is far from a model of logical thinking:
There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those “calm days” when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world all discourse would be civil and all disagreements cordial. But our Founding Fathers knew they weren’t designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our Founders’ genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So, we must condemn violence if our Republic is to endure.
The point of this paragraph is either that heated rhetoric is normal, or that government is required to temper it (an unexpected suggestion!), or that we must condemn violence. But we shouldn’t try too hard to understand it, because it is not meant to make sense. It is meant only to divert questions about the dangers of inflamed rhetoric, by a lamely executed variant of the Ransberger pivot, toward a motherhood sentiment against violence. Palin and the Tea Party, and their media affiliates at the FOX network, have no intention of toning down the rhetoric, because it works very well for them. This statement is their way of not talking about it.
Palin’s statement has been received by her followers on Facebook as a masterpiece of eloquence. It is far from that; but as rhetoric, there is a sense in which it is very good. For the followers of her movement, it provides the illusion of a satisfactory, even an inspiring, conclusion. And for Sarah Palin, realistically, there remains no other audience.