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The Bodies Buried In The “American Heartland”

An interesting article by linguist Ben Zimmer last week about the history of the phrase “American Heartland” illustrates the complex meaning(s) of cultural and political metaphors.

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg found himself in hot water after a rather banal tweet calling for a president “shaped by the American Heartland rather than […] ineffective Washington politics.” Both he and Klobuchar have invoked this folksy phrase to describe their midwestern roots, but this time, the Twitter-verse wasn’t having any of it. Replies and retweets poured in calling out the exclusionary implications of the common phrase. Here are just a sample:

Cracking The Metaphor Code

These responses rightly point out that the phrase “American Heartland” is “code for white.” But from the perspective of someone studying conceptual metaphor and its role in meaning-making, this only leads to further questions. Questions like: why? and how do we know?

How do metaphors prompt for meaning? How do we unpack them? What clues us in to the fact that a phrase might contain more than meets the eye? What is it about the words “American Heartland” that signals its exclusionary nature to someone encountering it for the first time?

Many Americans might not even recognize “American Heartland” as a metaphor. Isn’t it just a colorful nickname, they might object, denoting a particular geographic location and the people who live there? Turns out, the phrase has been a metaphor from the beginning. In his article, Zimmer explains:

The British geographer Halford Mackinder used “The Heartland” to refer to the interior of the interlocking continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, a landmass he called “the World-Island.” Eastern Europe held the key to control of the “Heartland” and in turn the “World-Island,” Mackinder argued in his 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality. As the European powers clashed in World War II, American commentators seized on Mackinder’s model, looking inward to find the equivalent North American “Heartland.”

Dating back only to the mid-20th century, the phrase “American Heartland” was initially an analogy between two landmasses, drawing attention to their roles in the geopolitical order. In this analogy, the “heartland” stood in metonymic relationship with the rest of the continent — a place that was not only of strategic importance, but also a part that could stand in to represent the whole (such as in the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” where “pen” stands for the written word or communication in general and “sword” stands for brute force or violence). Buttigieg makes similar use of metonymy in his tweet, when he refers to “Washington politics.” Here, “Washington” is a metonym for the federal government and its influence, which obviously extends far beyond the city limits of Washington D.C.

As a metaphor, the phrase “American Heartland” was used from the beginning to evoke a complex ambivalence about the role of the midwest in American culture and politics. One writer who helped to popularize the term, Bernard De Voto, used it somewhat unflatteringly, fretting that the protected “Heartland” of America was less engaged in international affairs as those living on the coasts, writing in a 1948 column: “it is so deep in distance and feels so secure that an instinctive disbelief is central in its consciousness.” However, he also praised the “Heartland” for its “potential for comfort, kindliness, fellowship, human sympathy, and hope.”

These positive values of friendliness and comfort are exactly what Buttigieg meant to evoke when he appealed to the “American Heartland,” and it’s a connotation many immediately recognize, while the ambivalence De Voto expressed about the tendency towards ignorance and isolationism is often forgotten by all but history buffs and the woke. Why should this be the case? Understanding the role of embodiment in conceptual metaphors helps to explain.

The Heart Of The Matter: Matters Of The Heart

In order to make sense of this phrase and its changing meaning throughout history, it helps to look at how the word “heart” commonly functions in metaphor. There are several overlapping, interrelated meanings usually evoked by “heart” metaphors, which differ in slight but significant ways.

The first of these is The Heart As The Center. This location-based metaphor rests on the fact that the physical heart is located in the (approximate) center of the body — this is true not just for all human beings, but indeed for most non-human animals as well. Reinforcing this conceptual metaphor is a related one: Important Is Central. Because of our binocular vision, human beings tend to focus our eyes so that important stimuli or stimuli that demand our attention are centered in our visual field, giving rise to this primary embodied metaphor. These two anatomical facts — the central position of the heart and the nature of our visual field — reinforce each other, so that we also often make use of the metaphor: What Is Important Is The Heart (which it is: a vital organ, which happens to be centrally located and which needs to function properly in order for us to stay alive).

You can find this conflation of location and importance in many heart-based metaphors. When we head into the “heart of the city,” we aren’t just going into the physical center of the city, but its sociopolitical center — the place where its most important cultural and political spaces are located and its most identity-defining activities and events occur. When we get to the “heart of the matter,” we aren’t just talking about what’s most important — we’re penetrating to the “central point” (rather than getting “side-tracked” by “tangents” that are “besides the point,” in other words, getting “lost in the weeds” because we’re “way out in left field”). These last few examples of the Important Is Central metaphor show how easy it is to mix-and-match different variations or extensions when they all share the same underlying primary metaphor. This will be important later, so let’s “put a pin in it” for now.

The other “heart”-metaphor we need to examine for this discussion is less universal, more culturally-specific, but still immensely powerful: The Heart As The Source Of Love. Go into any grocery store in early February and the association of love with the heart is inescapable — heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, heart-shaped balloons, teddy bears hugging plush hearts embroidered with the words “I Love You,” and many other romantic gifts proliferate as Valentine’s Day approaches. Of course, these Valentine hearts are not really hearts in the anatomical sense, but stylized icons that represent the heart as the source of emotions, especially love and affection (and the grief of “heartbreak”). This symbolic representation of the heart dates back in Western culture to the early 14th century and appears in paintings and illuminated manuscripts depicting burning hearts, shining hearts, crowned hearts and hearts clasped in the hands of a devotee as an offering to the object of their devotion.

This connection of the heart to love and emotion is culturally-specific rather than universal (some cultures locate emotions in other parts of the body, such as the head, stomach or liver). However, like the primary metaphors we saw above, the Heart As Source Of Love metaphor also has its roots in a common embodied experience. Though the personal and social nature of love consists of many complex, interconnected and even numinous experiences (and modern science tells us much of what we experience as love consists of chemicals in our brains), research suggests that we consistently feel love and other strong positive emotions as located in our chests and torso — that is, in and around our hearts. Our breath quickens and our heart beats faster; we feel warmed, energized; we may even feel a sensation of expansion or opening in our chest, or alternately, a pressure or tightening associated with nervousness or anticipation.

The heart as a metaphor for love and emotion isn’t limited to iconography, but appears everywhere in the English language. We can “speak from the heart,” “wear our heart on our sleeve” or “pour our heart out” to someone we trust, but if they don’t reciprocate we may accuse them of having “a heart of stone.” We caution our friend not to “give their heart away” or they may “get their heart broken.” About our true love, we might say that “our hearts beat as one,” a combination of this metaphor and the metaphor Love Is Unity. When we love someone “with all our heart,” we combine the metaphor with a metonymy in which “heart” stands for our whole self. We say that “home is where the heart is.” In fact, long before its 20th-century association with geopolitics, the term “heartland” itself traces back to a 17th century poetic concept that originally meant “a place where love resides.”

In these last two examples of home and heartland, it’s especially important to note how the Heart As Source Of Love and the Heart As Center metaphors subtly combine to reinforce each other. While we may travel far and wide, “home” as “the place where love resides” remains at the emotional center of our lives. Although not as universal as the Important Is Central metaphor, these loving heart metaphors carry a great deal of evocative power. Recent studies into embodied metaphor suggest that we experience metaphors as more salient and memorable when they are emotionally evocative; when they are “activated,” we feel them physically in our own bodies as if we were having the described experience all over again. Perhaps because of this bodily intimacy of emotionally evocative language, the use of such metaphors also leads us to perceive a greater intimacy between the speaker/writer and their audience.

All of these overlapping and mutually reinforcing associations help to explain why the term “American Heartland” continues to provoke powerful connotations of warmth, friendliness and comfort even when it is used primarily to refer to a geopolitical location. It also gives us some insight into why presidential candidates for the past century have “courted” the “American Heartland,” using this language to evoke a sense of caring and intimacy that they hope will win over voters “heart and soul” — and why this strategy, and this language, continues to be effective for so many.

Code For White: A History

None of the metaphors we’ve examined so far, however, explain why “American Heartland” is code for “white.” And here, we come back to the central and perhaps most intractable challenge of unpacking and understanding culturally-specific metaphors.

When Buttigieg is called out for his “heartland” euphemism, it’s fairly straightforward to understand why places like Compton and the Bay Area are excluded by the term — these cities on the coast of California are not only racially and ethnically more diverse compared to the midwest, but they exist on the physical “edge” of the continent, not at its center. It’s more difficult to explain why the term “American Heartland” also works to obscure the experiences of rural black communities in the midwest itself, not to mention racially diverse urban centers like Chicago and St. Louis — why its “cloak of gauzy innocence and authenticity” only seems to cover white people.

The answer is as depressing as it is straightforward: racism. America’s long history of racial discrimination has for centuries defined who counts as fully human, and who does not. Racist stereotypes of people of color portray them as lacking the same range of emotional and intellectual experiences as white people, denying them the complex interior lives that are an essential aspect of our shared humanity. To be black, according to white supremacy, is to lack a central aspect of humanity — to be, in a metaphorical and metonymic sense, “heartless.” (I won’t list any specific examples of this metaphor here because they are too ugly and cruel to bear repeating; I leave it to the reader to think of their own.) To be “heartless” automatically excludes you from being a part of the “heartland,” no matter where you happen to live.

The racist implication of the “American Heartland” metaphor is a difficult one to parse unless you understand the history of racism in the United States and the metaphors that have been invoked to justify it. It is these highly specific cultural assumptions and associations that can render certain metaphors almost invisible to an outside observe or someone encountering a metaphor for the first time. Most of us are familiar with the common embodied sensations and experiences that give rise to primary metaphors such as Important Is Central and The Heart As Center, allowing us to re-construct possible meanings even if a particular extension or variation of these metaphors is new to us.

History, on the other hand, is not something we can directly experience for ourselves in our own bodies. We must learn about it through the stories that our community tells about itself and the metaphorical associations that are invoked in that retelling. Such historically-rooted metaphors are often unspoken, unacknowledged and obscure, reinforced through repeated association rather than explicitly stated. These culturally-specific metaphors can be easy to recognize in an ancient text, for instance, when we come across a strange or idiosyncratic phrase that we’re unable to render meaningful because a key piece of historical or cultural context has been lost. (Another example: I often hear Boomers bemoan the fact that kids these days don’t know what it means to “dial a number” because they’ve never encountered an old-fashioned rotary phone. This is a stupid example, but it illustrates the point that some metaphors are based on specific cultural or historical contexts that may, over time, be lost.)

The relative invisibility of racist metaphors gives plausible deniability to people who want to reject their implications. It allows white people to insist that the “American Heartland” carries no such racial overtones, that it’s only a coincidence that the midwest is associated with these folksy values, which stand in metonymically for “American values” more generally. It’s what leads white Iowa caucus-goers to celebrate being “at the center of the universe” and to insist that, despite Iowa being 90% white, Iowans are “diverse in their hearts.”

The good news (and the irony) is that the racist implications of the term “American Heartland” are not “baked in” to the metaphor itself, but result from a toxic combination with other damaging metaphors that have been reinforced by white supremacy throughout history. As we have seen, the primary conceptual metaphors that inform our understanding of the “heartland” have little to do with race or ethnicity; rather, they are much more universal, rooted in shared human experiences of emotion and location that are accessible to everyone. The same loose association that allows for plausible deniability also means that it is possible to call out and reject the racist history of the term while preserving and extending its more universal meaning. The more progress we make in rejecting and dismantling the racist metaphors that underlie a racist interpretation of the “American Heartland,” the more likely it is that future generations encountering the metaphor for the first time will have less reason to assume that it excludes or obscures the experiences and perspectives of people of color.

But before we end on too cheery a note, let me sound a note of caution. Zimmer concludes his article saying, “We’d be better off returning to the original meaning of heartland as ‘a place where love resides’—which can, of course, be anywhere you find it.” Not so fast! Though this might be technically true, the nature of the primary metaphors in this phrase also make it highly unlikely that people will give up on the conflation of location and importance that we find in many loving-heart metaphors. There will probably always be a powerful temptation to conceptualize the “heartland” as being centrally-located, whether symbolically or literally, or both. So long as the midwestern U.S. remains racially and ethnically less diverse than the coasts, this emphasis on its importance will tend to reinforce white supremacy.

For now, then, we’d be better off following Lakoff’s advice in Don’t Think Of An Elephant, where he points out that metaphors often reinforce concepts and associations even if we invoke them in order to denounce them. Rather than trying to force a top-down change in the phrase’s meaning, a better strategy is to continue to call out politicians and political analysts who use it, and to refrain from using it ourselves. Before the “American Heartland” can be freed from its racist baggage and rehabilitated, we have a lot of work still to do.

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