Owner of a Bleeding Heart
Westbrook Pegler, a name you may barely recognize at best, coined the term “bleeding-heart liberal” in 1938. The occasion was a bill before Congress, proposing an action he felt unnecessary.
“I question the humanitarianism of any professional or semi-pro bleeding heart,” he wrote in his syndicated column, “who clamors that not a single person must be allowed to hunger but would stall the entire legislative program in a fight to ham through a law intended, at the most optimistic figure, to save fourteen lives a year.”
It’s not that Pegler was racist — heavens, no! — but that the bill pandered to “crowded northern Negro centers”.
That’s what he said, anyway.
It’s also what he said twenty-three years later, this time aiming at Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi:
“It is a mocking comment on the mawkish generosity of the American character that the bands of insipid futilities of the type called bleeding hearts can invade one of the finest American cities and arouse a howling national uproar of indignation, disgust, pity and shame.”
Again, not racist! Just questioning their tactics! Just a coincidence that the tactics involve responses to white terrorism and oppression!
Pegler all but owned the term until the 1960s. Folks who have looked into this can find only one other significant early citation — Joe McCarthy in 1954, describing nemesis Edward R. Murrow as “a member of the extreme left wing, bleeding-heart element of radio and television”.
(If that sounds very familiar, it’s been a generation since the fall of the Soviet Union, but commie-bashing never goes out of style.)
After a long gestation, the term finally emerged into the general political conversation — Times columnist Russell Baker was poking fun at it in 1963, and fifty years ago this Labor Day, Ronald Reagan was calling himself a former “bleeding heart” Democrat in stump speeches.
The lexicographers at Webster’s provide a decent summary of the term as we know it now, describing bleeding heart as “a derogatory term for someone who expresses excessive sympathy for another’s unfortunate situation”.
Or, as we might call it, empathy.
Something the President of the United States seems congenitally incapable of.
Also, his supporters.
That’s what got us thinking about it this weekend, the sinkings at the Trump boat parade in Texas. Well, okay, we had to work through Titanic and Poseidon Adventure references first, being as adorably incorrigible as we are, but then we settled into Deeper Thoughts.
The boats didn’t just sink. What happened, according to the local sheriff’s department, was the wake of “many, many” boats running so closely together that capsized a few.
And this wasn’t the first time. Just a couple weeks ago, the wake from another Trump boat parade in Portland capsized an innocent byfloater on the Willamette River.
You’re supposed to know about this if you pilot a boat. You’re supposed to watch your wake. You’re supposed to care about the other boats on the water.
If you have any empathy, anyway.
You’re supposed to care about police murdering unarmed civilians in cold blood. You’re supposed to care about migrant kids being stuffed in festering cages. You’re supposed to care about a hurricane ravaging United States citizens on an island protectorate.
You’re supposed to give a shit about 192,938 Americans needlessly dying from a pandemic.
Unless you don’t.
Unless you’re some kind of heartless monster.
Unless you’re one of the half of white Americans who still — still! — abide by all this.
We don’t know what to say about you anymore — you, your greed, your delusions, your racism. You call yourselves Christians, you call yourselves Americans, but everything you are undermines what those mean.
Yeah, our heart bleeds. But at least we have one.