Thursday, January 13, 2011

Similes and metaphors

My ineptitude at shopping for groceries means that today, my lunch may be matzo brei, a meal easily composed of matzo, however stale, assuming you have access to warm water (to soften the matzo), oil, and a frying pan. But before I dig into that particular innocent-Christian-child entree, I want to return to something from the comments to the post below.

Commenter Sigivald brings our attention to a National Review article of sorts, a series of quotes from the last decade meant to defend dear Sarah and to disprove the librul coastal media elite notion that "The use of the term 'blood libel' in non-Jewish contexts is out of bounds."

Color me unconvinced. First, while I'm glad to see someone went to the trouble to look this up (I was so going to, but got distracted by my real work, to which the question of blood libel is tangential, the question of Palin irrelevant, and then there were some "House" reruns...), a handful of (mis)uses since 2000 is not enough to show that the term has taken a new meaning in our language. Then there's the fact that three of the 12 instances cited involve someone explicitly comparing something else to a blood libel. This, while perhaps hyperbolic depending on the context, is still an example of using the term in reference to Jews. Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich were, it appears, saying the treatment of gays is like the treatment, way back when, of Jews. (The Madoff-related quote also refers to a comparison.) Meanwhile, some of the others may have been using blood libel as a metaphor for something else - that is, while knowing what the expression means, not spelling it out with a "this is like that." Just because it wasn't specified that a comparison was being made doesn't mean there wasn't one. The issue at hand might not be Jews, but, as with more explicit comparisons, we're not looking at a new definition of "blood libel."

Such cases are more ambiguous - how do we know, without "like," if something's being compared to blood libel, which the author agrees has a specific meaning, or whether something that falls outside the definition of the term has now been declared to "count"? We don't, but we can make guesses either way, given the wording, the speaker, etc. So perhaps, on rare occasions, "blood libel" has been used to refer to something altogether unrelated to Jews. Where does that leave us?

There are two issues here. One is whether it's offensive to Jews to compare any other false accusation to blood libel. The other is whether the term "blood libel" now has an everyday definition of "false accusation of murder or something else icky."

As for the first, I don't see why it would be inherently offensive to compare other scenarios to blood libel. Godwin's Law does not apply to all that relates to Jews. (We're allowed to compare the current left-right divide in the US to the Dreyfus Affair, right?) That's not to say that certain comparisons aren't insensitive or idiotic (hi, Sarah!). It might not be the comparison of choice if you're already understood to be Bad for the Jews, unless you wish to perpetuate that image between the lines. But it is not in and of itself anti-Semitic or even inaccurate to say that some thing that isn't a blood libel (a rumor about blacks or gays, for example) is like a blood libel.

As for the second? If the metaphorical use of "blood libel" were sufficiently pervasive, we might see the term gain a whole new definition, such that anything that could be reasonably compared to blood libel in the traditional sense of the term now counts as "blood libel" in contemporary usage. But I'm not at all convinced this has happened, and it seems like a real stretch on the part of the Palin-can-do-no-wrong brigade to say that it has.


Sigivald said...

I just made a giant comment on this, and Blogger ate it.

Shorterish version, rewritten:

This Rabbi doesn't see a problem with it, saying

"The expression may be used whenever an amorphous mass is collectively accused of being murderers or accessories to murder."

While some of the examples in the thing I linked to are inapt by that qualification (and indeed, I pointed to it only to show that the term was widely used in Politics) and thus if Palin was being insensitive or offensive, the insensitivity and offense are widely spread and bipartisan - and thus nothing special about her.

I wasn't trying to suggest that "blood libel" had taken on a significantly new meaning, so much as to point that out.

I think the Rabbi, up above, defines "blood libel" quite aptly; it's just the prototypical use that applies to Jews and the Jewish experience, especially in Europe.

Using it to refer to other false accusations of murder against innocent groups or persons is thus not redefining it, but using the concept applied to a non-prototypical group.

Note further that while the examples given sometimes extend to "something icky" rather than bloodshed, in Palin's case she was having blood painted on her hands, so to speak.

I'm not remotely in the "Palin can do not wrong brigade*", but I'm just not seeing any wrong she's done here in this case.

I suppose primarily we disagree about your last; I DO think the term has, as I think usage shows come to be acceptably used for anything reasonably compared (ala "innocents tarred with guilt for murder") with the original Blood Libel against the Jews.

You don't, or at least are unsure about it.

That's fair.

(Footnote: On Dreyfus, I agree it'd be allowable with the bounds of decency, if the shape of the thing being compared to it allowed of useful mapping.

But I'm not sure it does, on the "left-right divide in the US".

Who's Dreyfus? Who's the military faking evidence against him? What's the treason being pinned on the wrong guy? And who's Esterhazy?

I can imagine notional circumstances where that would be a compelling metaphor; I just can't see how it maps to anything as broad as "the left-right divide".)

(* I'm ambivalent about her at best.

But I'll even defend my political opponents when they're being attacked when they're in the right, let alone people I'm ambivalent about, politically.

I figure if they're my opponents then I have plenty** of solid things to attack them with, and no need to let calumnies against them slide because they're against me.

** If I thought my opponents on an issue were substantially more correct than me, I'd change my position; thus axiomatically I must believe myself more correct and them more incorrect. Or we'd agree.

I suppose most people may not act like that, but it's always confused me. I blame/credit my philosophy training.

I want to be right, like everyone does - but I want to be really, truthfully right, not just Feel That I'm Right. Anyone can manage the latter with self-deception, but what good does it accomplish?)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes, I'm aware that the Jewish Palin supporters and assorted 'see, I'm not oversensitive' contrarians have come out of the woodwork on this one. That we can find some Jews who think what Palin said was OK is not surprising. I myself don't think it's evidence of her bad-for-the-Jews-ness (and I do think she's bad for the Jews) so much as of her stupidity - she connected "blood" and "libel," because, as others have pointed out, that sounds worse than regular libel, and because she was refuting the notion that she has "blood on her hands," an expression that does exist in the English language.

That said, I should probably point out that Shmuley Boteach in particular is just... no. Not representative of anything, not of rabbis, certainly not of Jews. He's basically a nutty televangelist, a massive self-promoter, a man whose entire purpose as a performer is to make Jews cringe. I'm sure he occasionally says things that aren't false, because anything's possible, but I wouldn't use him as a source on anything.

My point re: Dreyfus wasn't that the Affair is a good or bad analogy to the present, but that it's not offensive to Jews to make that analogy. However, since the Affair refers not to the specifics of the trial as to the reaction to it, which divided French opinion in two camps, not our left and right, but Dreyfusards on the left, anti-Dreyfusards on the right, it's not a totally ridiculous analogy to make.

As for popular usage of "blood libel," I think I fully addressed why I'm not convinced in the post, and am not sure why you disagree, other than because Boteach does, and he's a rabbi whose thoughts on this were published in the WSJ. The NRO quotes were not, for the reasons I explained, terribly convincing.

Finally, as I mentioned in the last thread, it strikes me that Palin's supporters, and even to some extent the Palin-ambivalent, keep giving her the benefit of the doubt as though she were just trying to make ends meet like the rest of us, and not trying to, you know, become president of the US. We absolutely can hold her to a higher standard, given the heights to which she aspires.

PG said...

"We absolutely can hold her to a higher standard, given the heights to which she aspires."

Yes. This is why I let most instances of "they tuk our jawbs!" pass, but called it out when it was coming from the Obama campaign (referencing Hillary Clinton as "D-Punjab"), and was not satisfied until Obama said it was wrong and that the people responsible had been demoted. I expect candidates for the presidency to be more informed, more thoughtful (particularly in prepared statements), more sensitive to various groups' concerns, than I expect of Andrew "Who's Trig's Mom?" Sullivan.

And I do think it's more apt to reference "blood libel" with regard to longstanding accusations against a minority group that have in the past led to violence against that group (e.g. the claim that black men are after fair white womanhood leading to the death of Emmett Till among thousands of others), just as it's more apt to refer to a "holocaust" of aborted fetuses because, yes, there genuinely have been millions of fetuses killed in abortion. (I think use of "holocaust" is unwise for pro-lifers who want to pretend they're on the side of pregnant women -- because who's Hitler in this analogy, if not the women who choose abortion? -- but at least there are million of dead human bodies involved.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed with your agreement, obviously.

The abortion-holocaust rhetoric is a particularly clear example, but what's interesting here is the extent to which Godwin now seems to extend to anything about Jews, as though Sarah Palin, in babbling about blood libel, was making light of the Holocaust. Indeed, I watched some news show where a history prof and a Jew for Palin debated her use of the term, and I started to cringe when the prof explicitly made this connection. If it's impossible to say that a given comment was insensitive to Jews without claiming that the speaker is basically Hitler, then it becomes far too easy to refute the accusation of insensitivity. It's like, because we know Sarah Palin isn't Hitler, how on earth could she have even mildly offended any but the most oversensitive Jews?

PG said...

While there are definitely lines between "blood libel" and Holocaust, I can see how the half-educated person would make the connection: blood libels led to pogroms, and then the Holocaust is what you get when you run a pogrom with 20th century German efficiency.

Considering that many of Palin's defenders also don't see what was the harm in Trent Lott's wishing that Strom Thurmond's Segregation Forever platform had won in 1948 (Lott was just complimenting Thurmond at his birthday party!), I'm afraid convincing them that Palin ought to have been more thoughtful in her use of a metaphor is a lost cause.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I see how the connection is made, and even a plenty well-educated person might make it. (I don't believe this is how all Holocaust scholars look at it - that society's always been somewhat hostile to Jews is a constant, making the Holocaust an extreme aberration and arguably more about genocide than about anti-Semitism. But opinions, even scholarly ones, differ.)

The issue is that, as far as I'm concerned, it's unfortunate that there's no way to mention that-which-is-bad-for-the-Jews, that-which-is-mildly-offensive-to-Jews, etc., without everyone rounding up to OMG Hitler. Unfortunate because, if those who call out less severe cases bring up the Holocaust, those defending themselves have an easy way of saying, look, what I did or said can't be so bad, because it's not as if I'm genocidal.

"convincing them that Palin ought to have been more thoughtful in her use of a metaphor is a lost cause."

Agreed. I think at this point, telling Palin's supporters that they should reconsider because she said something dumb is, in itself, much as this means I'm insulting myself, saying something dumb.