Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where are we headed, where are we now?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Following the news these last few days has made me sad and frustrated about my country's political landscape.

This morning, four days after the tragic assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in which 6 people died and 14 others were injured (including Rep. Giffords, who was shot through the head and still in critical condition).  Immediately following, there was much discussion in the blogosphere, twitter, the news,  heck, all over the Internet about the role our vitriolic political discourse, notably the rhetoric associated with ex-Governor of Alaska and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the Tea-Party movement may have played in this shooting.  I think this is a healthy discussion to have.

I do not blame Sarah Palin for the shooting.  I do not blame the Tea Parties for the shooting.  I may have something more to say on this, but this is not what I want to blog about here.

This morning, Ms. Palin released a statement about the shooting:

It starts off as a good statement, but I started to disagree with the assertion in the fifth paragraph:

After this shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness, to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event.
There are a couple of paragraphs on individual responsibility that follow - I don't completely agree, but that's not the point about what I'm blogging about here.  When I read the eighth paragraph, I was filled with horror and sadness, frustration and anger.  I was speechless - sure, I could make some stupid smartass comment, but all that seemed hollow.  The only thing I could mutter, was "oh my god.  she didn't.  oh my god."  But she did.  Talking about vitriolic rhetoric (especially discussions about her rhetoric, her target map which put crosshairs over Rep. Giffords's district and talked about reloading):
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.
I think she's right to not be blamed for the shootings.  But when she describes people attributing blame to her as "blood libel" she's calling forth something very powerful.  She's bringing up an evil that has existed for centuries, an ancient evil that has resulted in millions of innocent deaths, millions of ruined lives.  And shame, shame on her for doing this.

Let's talk about Blood Libel.

You can go look up Blood Libel on wikipedia or whatever.  I'm going to pull many examples from there.

  I first learned about in an anthropology class in college -t he professor's book about it is a fascinating and horrifying read.  The Blood libel legend: a casebook in anti-Semitic folklore

The Blood Libel is the idea that Jewish people kidnap and ritually sacrifice children, often Christian children, so that their blood may be used to make Passover matzohs.  If you look at the history of anti-Semitism over the last couple of millenia, you will see this accusation towards Jews made repeatedly, from as early as the first century.  This blood libel has led to persecution of Jews.  Show trials.  Lynchings.  Murders.  The use of it in mass exterminations took off in the Middle Ages when the boy William of Norwich was found dead with stab wounds, and the Jewish community was blamed for ritually executing William. Dozens of Jews were murdered or executed because of this one incident.

I think it's incredibly tasteless for Palin to claim she's a victim of "a blood libel," especially when the Congressperson who was the prime target of this Saturday's assassination attempt is a Jewish woman.

Over the centuries since William of Norwich, the Blood Libel has fed anti-Semitic propaganda in Europe, and most times, some number of Jews died as a result, often horrifically.  The Middle Ages saw the formation of what I would call Christian death cults, to memorialize allegedly martyred children, at times even to sanctify these alleged victims of the Jews.  It shows up in the Canterbury Tales (the Prioress' Tale).

There have been many attempts to put an end to the Blood Libel.  Pope Innocent IV in 1247 tried to annul all measures adopted and to dissolve all cults formed related to the Blood Libel.  Pope Gregory X issued a papal letter rejecting the Blood Libel in the 1270's.  The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire tried to denounce the Blood Libel in the 1550's.  In 1961 Pope John XXIII had a plaque placed in the church of Judenstein absolving Jew of the murder of the alleged martyr Andrew of Rinn, supposedly murdered on the "Jew Stone" in 1462 (the fresco and statue there still stand, I believe)  Even in 2003, an advisor to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak published a denunciation of the Blood Libel, calling it a myth.

But despite all of this, the Blood Libel lives on and on.  It has appeared in Nazi propaganda. It has shown up in the Middle East in books, drama, film (often alongside the infamous anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion").  It has shown up in a request to the Russian Duma to enact laws against Jewish groups of being "anti-Christian" and referencing ritual murder, in 2005 (these 2005 legislative calls were rejected).  And today, Sarah Palin summoned it forth, comparing the bad press she's been getting about a stupid target map to this persistent persecution of Jewish people.

Psychological Considerations of Blood Libel

There are some notable practices in the Judaic tradition regarding blood and sacrifice.  "Thou shalt not kill" forbids murder, for example.  If you look at dietary laws, there are many prohibitions against the use of blood in cooking.  There are very specific requirements with regards to animal sacrifice, which, at the time of the Middle ages, were not possible (due to the Temple in Jerusalem not standing).  Human sacrifice is specifically forbidden in the Old Testament.

There is nothing about using human blood to make Passover matzohs.

So what's going on?  Where did this bizarre association with blood and matzohs and Jews come from?  Alan Dundes wrote an essay in his book: The Ritual Murder or Blood Libel: A Study of Anti-Semitic Victimization through Projective Inversion that sheds some light on the matter.  If anti-Semitic bigotry is to exist, it helps to have a reason, no matter how twisted and distorted.

It is essential to place the Blood Libel legend in the context of Christianity.  A vital element of Christianity is the crucifixion of Jesus.  There needs to be an apotheosis from the worldly Jesus Christ to the Divine Jesus (and some will argue that there never was a difference) through the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Christianity would be very different - arguably, it might not exist today - without these legendary events.  Parts of some Crucifixion narratives include the role of the Jewish people.  Although the Jews did not kill one of their own (i.e. it was the Romans who killed Jesus), there is an undercurrent in Christian belief in which some attribute the death of Jesus to the Jews (this is where the hateful idea of Jews as "Christ Killers" comes from).

[ Though I'm not convinced the film is representative of mainstream Christianity, one of the criticisms of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" in 2004, where, in at least an early script, the Jewish religious orthodoxy led by Caiaphas was portrayed as seeking Jesus's death, and even Pontius Pilate had offered clemency to Jesus before an angry mob, but was overruled by the crowd, and thus Pilate had no choice but to reluctantly have Jesus crucified.  This is, perhaps, a modern representation of Jews as "Christ Killers." ]

With this in mind, one of the driving forces of Christian anti-Semitism is the supposed Jewish role in an essential element of the the Christian faith, the Crucifixion of Christ.  Thus the Crucifixion can be interpreted symbolically as a ritual sacrifice of Christ by the Jews.

I'm not a big follower of Freud, but there are concepts of his that are relevant.  The first is Freudian projection.  Generally, we assume that people act similarly, so if one behaves in a certain way, that person assumes, i.e. projects, that others will behave similarly.  There's another idea, "projective inversion" where one's undesireable thoughts, motives, desires towards something or someone are "projected" onto someone or something, as a way of justifying one's own individual thoughts, motives desires.  "I hate him" becomes "He hates me, therefore it is OK for me to hate him back."  This idea of projective inversion is key, I believe, in interpreting the Blood Libel legend.

The next clue is the role of the Eucharist in the Christian Church.  The consumption of bread and wine as part of this tradition represents symbolic consumption of the flesh and blood of Christ.  In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, this transubstantiation means the literal flesh and blood of Christ are being consumed.  But is this cannibalism?  Historically, this has been an accusation made of early Christians, that they were cannibalizing their God.  From a Christine doctrinal point of view, it is not cannibalism, but arguably, doctrine defines cannibalism away in this case.

But from a symbolic point of view, the Eucharist may be described as Christian ritual requiring the consumption of wafers/bread as the flesh of Christ along with wine as the blood of Christ.  Compare this with the Blood Libel accusation where Jews sacrifice Christians so that blood may be used for Passover matzohs.

Anti-Semitic Christians dislike or hate Jews.  But through projective inversion, in the eyes of the anti-Semitic Christian, this becomes, Jews hate Christians.  This is corroborated by the Christ-Killer meme that persists just outside of mainstream Christianity.  Furthermore, the Eucharist is transformed through projective inversion to be the ritual consumption of Christian blood and flesh, the ritual cannibalism for which early Christians were persecuted.  In this tradition, the Blood Libel becomes, symbolically, a ceremonial re-enactment of the murder of Christ by Jews.  Which, for the devout anti-Semitic Christian serves as a call to action against Jews, and act they have, as has been demonstrated throughout history, and from time to time even today.

About Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin's clumsy use of Blood Libel - something that has been associated with anti-Semitic hatred for centuries, if not millennia - it truly is an ancient evil - her invocation of it is appalling.   I know that she's a devout Christian in the Pentecostal tradition.  I don't know if her particular branch espouses the evil "Christ-Killer" meme.  In her response to the shooting she describes herself as a victim in this tragic shooting as a response to assertions (which, again, I don't believe) that Palin is to blame by virtue of her rhetoric.  Palin has evoked the anti-Semitic Blood Libel to frame herself as the victim where the true victims of this tragedy are dead or seriously, if not critically wounded, where the main target of this violence was a Jewish woman. 

I'm glad this is a country where she's free to say things like this, because now I think we know better who Sarah Palin is.  I've never been convinced that she was a leader I could get behind, but today she went too far, and I don't see myself ever voting for her.  I'm convinced that she doesn't have what it takes to be a responsible leader; by invoking this old, anti-Semitic evil, her bad judgment has convinced me she's bad for America and bad for our cherished American way of life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whatever the historical and psychological source of blood libel, this current bringing up of the concept introduces a modern analogy. The use by the far right of lies and inventions to further their own selfish goals is a related tactic. Conservative talk-show hosts, swift boat, Koch brothers and the like are excellent examples.