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Sarah Palin's "blood libel": Upping the ante by speaking directly to her fans



palinindover-cropped2.jpgTaking the time to sort though Sarah Palin's recently-released statement insisting criticism of her political rhetoric following Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' shooting is a "blood libel," I wasn't offended by her use of a term steeped in anti-Semitic history.

I was, however, surprised that a woman who is often such a compelling media figure could make such a basic propaganda mistake.

I think Palin goofed while trying a standard tactic among conservative stars such as Glenn Beck and George W. Bush, who often use terms in speeches to general audiences that have a special meaning for their hardcore fans -- folks steeped in America's evangelical Christian culture.

In history, a "blood libel" is a false accusation steeped in prejudice -- say, an allegation that a certain type of religion uses the blood of children in religious rituals -- often used in Europe to justify the persecution of Jews. Palin may have been trying to speak to her Evangelical fans with this reference, casting herself in the role of a persecuted minority who is actually one of God's chosen people, lending an extra resonance to her argument which could be missed by those who don't know the term.

Instead, this clumsy move was pilloried by many analysts who picked up on Palin's contrasting messages. On the one hand, she's saying political opponents can disagree without lasting harm or violence; on the other, she's implying her foes are on the wrong side of a religious struggle, telling followers they "should not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good."

Can you really disagree agreeably with someone you think is on the side of evil?

This is the downside conservatives often face when their rhetorical methods draw controversy. The conservative message is so strong and well-honed, thanks to talents such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel and Karl Rove, that any public figure with a bit of charisma can leverage their strategies. But when less skilled operators try this stuff at home, the consequences can be disastrous (yeah, Christine "Not a witch" O'Donnell; that was a jab at you).

So far, Palin seems to be betting that speaking powerfully and sympathetically to her core audience is more important than soothing middle-of-the-road folks who might be won over by a more moderate message. It's a measure of how concerned other conservative pundits are about the impact of these discussions on political rhetoric, that they have pushed back hard against these ideas -- worried that their core rhetorical tactics might be demonized by a conflict-weary public.retreat-reload.jpg

But whenever folks insist to me that media messages don't influence behavior, I laugh and remind them: Our entire free broadcast system is based on the notion that messages bought by advertisers can influence an audience. Otherwise, why would you bother airing commercials before the devoted audiences gathered by Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Beck, Rachel Maddow and Palin?

And if a glossy image of an attractive person gobbling a Big Mac can spur sales, surely we must consider whether a gun sight on a map or an exhortation to "don't retreat, reload" sparks a different kind of behavior.

Shouldn't we?

Check out Palin's statement below and consider for yourself.

[Last modified: Monday, January 17, 2011 9:25am]


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