I have been called many things in my life, some of which were intended as insults but which I have turned into badges of honor. This is a self-defense mechanism. You know all those times I say “I should put that on a t-shirt”? In my head, I do. My residual self-image (which looks quite a bit like the Righteous Babe Records logo, if we’re being honest) changes t-shirts as I need her to, adjusting her armor to defend the fat kid, the weirdo with no friends, and the sad girl with the brain problems who also live up there. They’re not strong like the t-shirt broad. The labels make her (me) tough. One of them says “depressed.” One of them says “geek.” One says “mouthy bitch.” But one of my favorites says “bleeding heart liberal.”
My soft little bleeding heart. You know, like those creepy pictures of white Jesus holding his own glowing organ outside of his body and it’s wearing the crown of thorns instead of him because this is presumably after the resurrection and he’s all clean and coifed and pretty again but we’re supposed to feel like we carry his pain and suffering in our hearts because a bunch of sixteenth century painters decided to switch the seat of love from the liver to the heart because livers are ugly? No? Nobody else had a Catholic grandma with that terrifying shit looking down on you while you slept? Well, we all trudge through each other’s metaphors, anyway.
First, Jesus and the Glowing Organs is a great name for a band. You can have that one.
Second, I don’t actually know if that’s where the expression “bleeding heart liberal” comes from.
Third, how is that figure of speech remotely insulting? Even if it’s not a direct reference to the Jesus myth, I think it’s ironic that it’s most often tossed about by conservatives who have the higher numbers of Christians compared to liberals and that, in practice, the things that liberals hold as important social issues are the same ones Christ was into, right? Feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick, overturning corporate fuckery, ministering to the people who society would rather forget about and helping them to feel like people again.
*Disclaimer: this awkward transition between these two paragraphs is in no way me comparing myself to Christ. There’s no good segue here that doesn’t look like that’s what I’m doing.*
I do some volunteer work with my local food bank. Yesterday, I was sitting at a meal kitchen, helping to get homeless folks signed up for food stamps. There was a moment, when things had calmed down for a second, when I looked around and thought to myself: everyone Donald Trump hates is in this room right now. It’s true. People of every color, gay people, trans people, several folks speaking Spanish, a handful of Muslims, all of them either devastatingly poor or homeless. If I were to cast a movie nightmare scene for Donald Trump, this is what it would look like, right down to the guy off his meds in the corner, his shirt covered in what appeared to me to be blood, rocking back and forth and reading out loud from a battered copy of the Constitution. Apparently he’s there a lot; everyone kept calling him “America” and bringing him coffee and plates of food. You’re thinking I made that up, but I assure you that I’m not that good a writer. That guy is a C.S. Lewis-level allegory and he just walked into my life like a blessing from the gods of making a point.
I don’t know if it’s my bleeding heart or my family having raised me to not be a human garbage fire or just my writer brain with its lifetime of people-watching, but where a lot of people would rather ignore this room, this moment, pretend it’s not there in every church basement in every town in our great nation, I fell madly in love with these people. I wanted to leave my post and just go sit and talk with all of them. Fuck altruism and charity and volunteerism and white guilt and middle class mediocrity, put all that shit aside for just a second. These folks were beautiful. The young couple who looked like two different life stages of Jared Leto, who gave an old man their extra hat because it was cold out. The profoundly cross-eyed guy who joked with me that he didn’t eat breakfast or dinner the day before so he was balancing it out by eating two lunches today. The pregnant teenager in her pajamas, shivering and asking for hot water because coffee is bad for the baby. The old lady covered in glitter and wearing bunny ears. The giant of a man dressed head to toe in leopard print. The gentleman wearing a Vietnam vet hat and a “World’s Best Grandpa” shirt, quietly and happily talking to himself. The punk girl with the spikes and the yappy-ass dog who gave up her seat to one of the other ladies, then sat on the floor next to her so she wouldn’t have to eat alone.
I know it’s dumb to narrow anyone down to a first impression like that, especially people with such complicated lives as the homeless (or any disenfranchised group, I suppose, really). I know that saying I want to see them for their humanity and not as stereotypes is largely contradicted by my then listing off what are mostly physical traits or fleeting interactions, which come off as stereotypes when boiled down. Obviously. I get it. Cut me some slack. Writer brain. This is one of the problems with being the bleeding heart liberal. It becomes difficult to relate your experiences without resorting to stereotypes – either employing them as examples or pointing out the exceptions to what people think is the rule. Because what am I going to say? “The homeless people at the meal kitchen are a bunch of folks with weird lives, just like everyone else. The end.” That’s accurate, but it doesn’t get boots on the ground or cans in the food bank, does it? The extremity of their situations is what motivates people to help them. And that sucks. It sucks for them, it sucks for me when I’m talking about them, and it sucks in particular for the people who are in poverty limbo. The ones who are barely scraping by, going to work, raising their kids, keeping a roof over their heads, not conforming to some dressing-in-rags ideal of what being poor looks like, but still going to bed hungry. Those people? They’re the ones being called “lazy.” They’re the ones “asking for a handout.” We have this horrible, narcissistic tendency to equate those groups to each other because we are in neither. And that is bullshit, my friends. The working poor vastly, wildly outnumber the homeless in America. We can work on both problems at once without lumping them together or demonizing either one.
As usual, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here to some degree. I only have a few people in my life who I know for a fact disagree with me on this type of stuff, and I’m about 120% certain they don’t read my blog. I don’t have the time or the energy to argue with assholes over why I give such a shit about the things I do, so I’m glad I don’t encounter that very often in a real, personal way. I can ignore the idiots in the media, blow them off as ill-informed or uncaring. It’s harder when it’s someone you love or respect in front of your actual face. Which is another reason it’s difficult when I’m confronted with “bleeding heart liberal” as an insult – this comfort bubble that I have. My life is full of provably badass motherfuckers – teachers, ministers, counselors, volunteers, social workers, people who work for a wide variety of environmental groups, people who think like I do and are actually doing something about it. I went to my college reunion a couple of weeks ago and was legitimately embarrassed to talk about my jobby job. No matter how happy I was to see old friends, I was pretty uncomfortable. Being surrounded by people who are working to make the world a better place doesn’t always feel as good as you want it to.
On the other hand, sometimes this shit comes at you from left field. When I was training to do the stuff with the food stamps, one of the ladies in our class kept asking about work requirements and counting people’s assets against them. She was old-school, a retired social worker from Texas. You’d think she’d be onboard, but everything she said seemed contrary to our goals. For example, she seemed shocked that we would allow people who own their homes to apply for food stamps. “They could just sell the house and make money.” And then what? They’d have to move into somewhere else and pay rent (which is outrageously high around here) until the money runs out? You want them to be homeless and hungry? Or homeless before you admit they’re hungry? “Well, how are we supposed to help them get their lives together if they don’t have to prove that they’re trying to work?” That’s not our job. And, more importantly, it’s not the point. The immediate need for food is the point. You can’t worry about going out to find a job when you’re worried about finding something for your kids to eat today so that they don’t die. She quit the training a few sessions in, and I can’t say that I was sorry to see her go. I hope she finds something that’s a better fit for her and makes her happier.
I suppose I just don’t understand that attitude, that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” American Dream thing. Maybe I’m a child of Reaganomics, or I’m from a poor area, or whatever, but in my own life (since I’ve been conscious of the world around me), that thing hasn’t been possible for most people. Some dot com millionaires aside, my generation has pretty much seen barely getting by as the standard for grownup living. I mean, even our sitcoms for the last like forty years or so (between The Brady Bunch and The Big Bang Theory, maybe? That’s a conversation for another time) were about struggling, working-class families. We’re trained to see that as normal. We’re trained to see that other people have things we can’t ever have. We’re trained to be okay with that. Our parents came from a time when getting a college degree in anything meant you had a decent shot at getting a good job, and we were raised with that same expectation. Somewhere between their comings-of-age and our own, it became a lie. Perhaps not one told with malicious intent (barring, of course, the government scumfucks who make billions a year off of student debt), but an untruth all the same. To say to someone “you can have this prescribed standard of living if you work hard enough, you should want these things, and that’s what’s expected of you, and anything less is going to be seen as failure and maybe even immoral or unpatriotic if you’re really lucky,” is the most cynical, disempowering act of classist manipulation. And it blatantly, brutally disregards those who do work their asses off and can’t achieve that arbitrary bar.
Anyway. I don’t know why I’m so worked up about this at the moment. I guess I still have all those faces in mind from yesterday. And the faces of all the families at the food bank who can breathe a little easier for a second, and learn that it’s okay to ask for help sometimes. I wonder what kind of heart it takes to look into those faces and tell them “no.” To tell them that they’re lazy or they’re less of a person or they’re a failure. What sort of hard, unfeeling thing do you carry around in your chest to be able to do that? I’m glad I don’t have a heart like that. I’m proud my heart bleeds all over the damn place. What a mess I make.