First Amendment Baiting

Sarah Palin’s statement on the assassinations in Arizona is days late and more than a few dollars short. Jonathan Singer notes:

It takes Palin nine paragraphs to condemn the violence. By contrast, Palin begins striking a defensive tone in just the fifth paragraph.

What more could we possibly expect than the master of making herself the center of the news cycle? Singer goes on:

The assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords that took the lives of six Americans was not about Sarah Palin. The debate that has ensued since has also not been about Palin, except for the extent to which the rhetoric she has used has been used to exemplify the type of over-the-top language Americans would like to see less of in the future. That Palin believes this makes her the center of the story, and moreover that she should release a defensive statement rather than one that calls on Americans to come together only reinforces the sense in many that she does not have what it takes to be a serious leader in this country.

While I certainly believe that Singer is right that Palin has proven her unworthiness as a leader in American politics with this crass, selfish statement, I think he’s missing an important point. Palin has, yet again, shown incredibly savvy. She makes things be about her when they are not about her. She appeals to the cheapest part of American civics, the side that thinks that the First Amendment means not only you can say whatever you want, but that you should be protected from criticism for whatever it is you say.

The statement included this outlandish line:

If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. 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. That is reprehensible.

Blood libel is a phrase with a very specific meaning. It refers to the anti-Semitic smear that Jews need blood – notably the blood of non-Jewish children – to bake matzos for Passover. Blood libel has historically been used to persecute Jews, including by Hitler in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Palin’s use of blood libel, according to a friend in email, “is an attempt to draw a connection between Hitler and the media. She basically said the media was behaving like Hitler.” Not surprisingly, many Jewish groups are condemning Palin’s use of the term today.

Palin’s statement also included this passage:

Just days before she was shot, Congresswoman Giffords read the First Amendment on the floor of the House. It was a beautiful moment and more than simply “symbolic,” as some claim, to have the Constitution read by our Congress. I am confident she knew that reading our sacred charter of liberty was more than just “symbolic.” But less than a week after Congresswoman Giffords reaffirmed our protected freedoms, another member of Congress announced that he would propose a law that would criminalize speech he found offensive.

I find it hard to believe that prompting a backlash against her use of blood libel isn’t a tidy way for Palin to turn around and say to her supporters, “See, they wanted me to say something about the shooting and now they’re trying to criminalize my speech.”

This isn’t to say groups shouldn’t continue to push back hard on blood libel. But rather, Palin should be criticized not just for using insensitive terms, but for being completely disingenuous. I don’t know if there is a term that is the First Amendment equivalent to race baiting, but Palin is certainly demonstrating a demand for one.

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