That nevere of hym she wolde han taken hede,Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, mid-1380s
For which hym thoughte he felte his herte blede
Upon the whole, I mourned thus for her for above a month; but finding Amy still come not near me, and that I must put my affairs in a posture that I might go to Holland, I opened all my affairs to my dear trusty friend the Quaker, and placed her, in matters of trust, in the room of Amy; and with a heavy, bleeding heart for my poor girl, I embarked with my spouse, and all our equipage and goods, on board another Holland’s trader, not a packet-boat, and went over to Holland, where I arrived, as I have said.Daniel Defoe, The Fortunate Mistress, 1724
It’s been previously argued, if somewhat jokingly, that we are all white liberals now. There are various methods for denigrating liberalism. A typical tactic is to throw in some other descriptive word to mischaracterize liberalism as an extremist ideology of a narrow minority: liberal class, liberal elite, limousine liberals, pinko liberals, and white liberals. Initially, the liberal label alone was not enough of a slur. It needed to be clarified by suggesting the true meaning of hiding some more radical ideology, perverse motive, corrupted sensibility, or out-of-touch status. The purpose is to obscure the fact of how extremely liberal has become nearly the entire American population — not only liberal but quite leftist, such that we are also all egalitarians now.
Some examples of this particular anti-leftist rhetoric originated in the early 1900s: ““Limousine liberals” is another phrase that has been attached to these comfortable nibblers at anarchy” (New York Tribune, 5 May, 1919); “pinko-liberal journal of campus opinion” (Time: the Weekly Newsmagazine, 7 Jun., 1926); “Editor Oswald Garrison Villard of the pinko-liberal Nation” (Time: the Weekly Newsmagazine, 9 Sept., 1929); “Pinko liberals—the kind who have been so sympathetic with communistic ideals” (The Mason City Globe-Gazette (Mason City, IA), 12 Jun., 1940); et cetera (What Exactly Is a ‘Liberal’?, Merriam-Webster). Maybe these were seen as the hyphenated ideologies brought by the immigrant populations of hyphenated Americans or those sympathetic to them. All ideologies were considered bad to a certain conservative mind, an attitude expressed by the Irish Edmund Burke during the French Revolution and the Southern plantation aristocracy during the American Civil War. Then, after a period of conservative decline, the rhetoric of anti-ideology ideology was resurrected and made respectable again by Russell Kirk in the early Cold War.
If all ideologies are bad, then a hyphenated ideology would be doubly dangerous. To this ideological worldview of the reactionary mind, only liberals and leftists have ideologies, not that this ever stopped conservatives from co-opting the ideological rhetoric of liberals and leftists, sometimes even to the point of calling themselves classical liberals or true liberals. But, generally, conservatives like to keep their ideological commitments obscure and vague so as to allow for plausible deniability, which is the reason why few racists ever self-identify as racists. To openly state an ideology is dangerous territory for the conservative mind because it is to admit that the ideological realism of the ruling order is socially constructed. Moral imagination is the conservative euphemism for social constructionism. The attack on the ideologies of others is a projection and distraction.
The hyphenated ideology slander was maybe more common in the past because a strong and highly organized leftist movement was a potent threat that needed to be neutralized. Now we’ve gotten to the point, after generations of Cold War propaganda and anti-leftist attacks, where such rhetorical lumping isn’t as necessary. The label of ‘liberal’ by itself has become an effective invective because all those other terms (pinko, elite, white, etc) are implied without needing to be stated. This was the result of a concerted effort to deligitimize liberalism specifically and leftism in general. It was surely part of the (now forty years’ old) New Right’s massively funded propaganda campaign involving the Shadow Network and media operations they built. They sought to promote a false narrative of the religious right as the ‘Moral Majority’. But that is a story for another day (if you’re curious, look into Joseph Coors, Paul Weyrich, Richard Wirthlin, etc). As shown above, it began much earlier than that.
There is a specific historical example to show how far left Americans have moved and how right-wing rhetoric has weakened over time. In the 1930s, one of the new rhetorcal attacks on liberals was to call them ‘bleeding hearts’, although it didn’t catch on right away (Sarah Laskow, The True Origins of the Phrase ‘Bleeding-Heart Liberal’). This political insult is an odd way of attempting to discredit the faith in loving-kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, the expression of fellow feeling and moral decency; in particular, Greco-Christian agape as unconditional love, the highest form of love through charity, and the mutual love between humanity and the divine. The symbol for selfless and sacrificial love, within the Christian tradition, was the bleeding heart. But this symbol was less familiar among American Protestants or maybe it was familiar in being associated with Catholics and hence associated with ethnic immigrants (i.e., hyphenated Americans).
Where did this use of ‘bleeding hearts’ come from? Westbrook Pegler, a newspaper columnist and mud-slinging bully, was the man who originated this as a mean-spirited taunt of humanitaranism and as a dismissive appelation to be placed upon the heads of liberals like a mocking crown of thorns. He came to use it often in his writings. But his initial use of it was to critcize the liberal movement that sought to outlaw lynching. Pegler wasn’t necessarily defendng lynching, per se, but neither was he entirely and clearly opposing it either. He merely thought that the issue of lynching was a conflict that should be locally and privately resolved between blacks and the white mobs hunting them down. Many conservatives agreed with him at the time. There is no doubt that some even suggested it was a matter of ‘states rights’.
To give some sense of what kind of guy Pegler was, consider that he joined the authoritarian, fascist, and theocratc John Birch Society, the original alt-right but admittedly popular at the time. The Bircher membership was similar to the widespread following gained by the radio host Father Charles Coughlin, another precursor to McCarthyism. By the way, it was the Birchers who claimed Dwight Eisenhower was a communist, despite Ike’s having been a social conservative, religious right advocate, and highly respected military leader (although, he did admit to being in favor of ‘liberal’ governance while preferring ‘conservatism’ for the private sector such as economics; then again, he promoted illiberalism when he put ‘In God We Trust’ on the US currency, which was the first major politicization of religion in the US presidency). Now consider that Pegler was so far radically right-wing fringe that the Birchers eventually kicked him out. So, the Birchers were to the right of the right and Pegler was further right still.
Yet, his rhetoric of ‘bleeding heart’ liberals stuck and became commonly used on the right, as if it were the most damning criticism. But it remains odd, considering those doing the attacking have claimed to be Christians. So, why has a traditional and ancient Christian symbol expressing the highest Christian value been believed to be a bad thing in the minds of self-identified Christians who claimed to defend the Christian faith? Whatever the reason, the sting of this insult has worn away from overused repetition and many liberals have reclaimed it as an honorable title. Presently, most Americans are not convinced that deeply caring about other humans is a moral failing and character flaw. In general, a lot of anti-leftist rhetoric isn’t as compelling as it once was. It’s similar to how the punch has been lost to calling someone a tree-hugging environmentalist or pot-smoking hippy. Heck, even red-baiting accusations that others are commies, socialists, and fellow travelers doesn’t have much impact these days.
In their smug confidence, the far right overplayed its hand. Their endless repetition of rhetoric, including the CIA’s Mighty Wurlitzer, has had the opposite effect than intended by normalizing leftist language and so making leftist ideology attractive. But it goes deeper than that, in how public opinion itself has changed, no matter how confused Americans remain about what words and labels mean. Americans have embraced left-liberal values. For certain, it is unimaginable for anyone today to use a symbol of Christian unconditional love, compassion, and charity as a dismissive caricature of lynching opponents. Not only did lynching become criminalized but so far outside of social norms and moral standards as to not even be defended by the staunchest of conservatives and libertarians. The American majority has gone further left still in now agreeing with and supporting the anti-racist and pro-egalitarian message of Black Lives Matter. Liberals have become the strongest and most authentic advocates of Jesus’ visionary message of love as a common bond of a universal humanity. And, in the context of this ancient religious radicalism turned modern secular value, we are all bleeding heart liberals now.
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by Rosemarie Ostler
The first uses of bleeding heart to mean “someone tenderhearted toward the downtrodden” began appearing in the 1930s. Before that time the pphrase described someone who was suffering emotionally, such as a bereaved person. In its new meaning, it describes people whose hearts bleed sympathetically for others, but with the implication that they are suckers or lack common sense.
The political meaning of bleeding heart may have been coined by conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler. It first appeared in print in a January 8, 1938, column in which Pegler criticized a “time-kiling debate” on antylynching laws, noting that only around fourteen people a year were lynched. In Pegler’s view, the country’s other problems were more pressing. He writes, “I question the humanitarianism of any professional or semi-pro bleeding heart who clamors that not a single person must be allowed to hunger, but would stall the entire legislative program . . . to save 14 lives a year.”
Bleeding hearts were often connected with the New Deal in the 1930s, as in another Pegler phrase, “bleeding-heart journalists of the New Deal.” The negative expression of bleeding heart liberal didn’t come into vogue until the 1960s. Liberal on its own didn’t become a pejorative term until around the 1980s.