Contested History in a Heterogeneous Society

I. The dream of equality.
A. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1963 describes a lack of fit between symbolic statements of American National Character and the reality of segregated society.
B. The use of images or symbols of unity to assert a national purpose and a mythic past leaves many, perhaps most, Americans outsiders in defining the core values and positive reasons for national allegiance.
1. John Anthony Scott wrote “America” as a patriotic hymn in 1831. Like virtually all national songs of the day, America was a borrowed tune from a British song, “God Save the Queen.”


      . Sung by the Peerless Quartette.


    Edison Indestructible Record 1359, released 1910.

a. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a reworking of an English Drinking Song.

Our national song

    . Performed by Harry E. Humphrey and choir boys of St. Ignatius Loyola. Edison Blue Amberol 2984, 1916.

This Land is Your Land

    Woodie Guthrie, 1944.

God Bless America

    . Kate Smith, 1939.

b. The acceptance of “America” comes at a time of increased immigration, after a period when immigration had not been as vigorous. It also coincides with a period of internal expansion within the United States and tensions over the possibility of race rebellion.
c. Through the word-pictures of the lyrics Scott defines the American heritage of a particular social and ethnic class as foundation for the Nation.

2. Francis Bellamy (1855 – 1931), a Baptist minister, wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance that was published in the September issue of The Youth’s Companion, a family magazine in 1892.

a. At the time Francis Bellamy was also a chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. As its chairman, he prepared the program for the public schools’ quadri-centennial celebration for Columbus Day in 1892. He structured this public school program around a flag raising ceremony and a flag salute – his ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’

b. In 1923 and 1924 the National Flag Conference, under the ‘leadership of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge’s words, ‘my Flag,’ to ‘the Flag of the United States of America.’

      c. In 1954, Congress after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words, ‘under God,’ to the Pledge. The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.


    d. Belemy’s original Pledge read as follows: ‘I pledge allegiance to my Flag and (to*) the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ He considered placing the word, ‘equality,’ in his Pledge, but knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.

C. “America” and “The Pledge” were both made institutional through the development of first Sunday schools, the public education, and then compulsory public education.

II. Conflicted, Contested, or Vague images.

A. Nations are social constructions more than geographic or demographic entities, dependent upon the cultivation of a sense of collective identity and belonging among their inhabitants. (Branham).

    1. Scholars have sought ways to describe the processes of resistance by less powerful social groups to the stereotyping and marginalizing of their experience.

B. One way to describe the terms of national character is as vague.

1. While this account is helpful in giving us a rough idea of what we mean when we say that a concept is vague, it is itself open to at least two alternative interpretations. We need to become clear on which interpretation is the right one if we are to know what sorts of linguistic moves are appropriate with respect to vague concepts. In particular, this account of vagueness can be understood as making an epistemic point (there are unclear cases because we do not know whether the concept extends to them or not), or as making an ontological point (there are unclear cases because the concept as a matter of fact neither extends to them nor fails to extend to them).

2. One way to avoid this sort of problem is to understand the vague concept as designating a characteristic whose possession is a matter of degrees. Thus, in the case of baldness, we might say that baldness is not a matter of all-or-nothing, but a matter of more-or-less. The heads that are “clearly bald” are simply those that admit of a sufficiently high degree of baldness. Those that are “clearly not bald” admit of no degree of baldness. The gray area comes into existence because some heads have an intermediate degree of baldness. In effect, this move attempts to treat vagueness as emerging out of the elliptical use of language. There really are no “bald” heads; there are only heads that have varying degrees of baldness. To say that a head is “neither bald nor not bald” is to speak imprecisely, and such a statement can be reformulated more precisely in terms of degrees of baldness; such a reformulation does not violate the law of excluded middle.

1. A concept is vague just in case there are borderline cases or individuals to which it seems impossible either to apply or not apply the term. Thus a word’s vagueness is usually indicated, more or less explicitly, by some statement that situations are conceivable in which its application is “doubtful” or “ill-defined,” in which “nobody would know how to use it,” or in which it is “impossible” either to assert or deny its application. (Black 1949, 30)

    2. But are these issues of heritage vague? David Hollinger has stated that “The tension between descent and nationality has been an especially prominent feature of the United States, where descent-communities are many in number and historically unequal in status, and where the national community is officially committed to treat individuals equally regardless of descent.” It is not the vagueness of the concepts that creates tension but the core of determining identity through descent. The concept of descent is not only accepted, but demanded (among marginalized communities) such as Native Americans and African Americans.

C. It might also be possible to describe these artifacts as attempts at “persuasive definitions.” In this sense “America” is an attempt to mold immigrant thinking into accepting their secondary status in heritage while enjoying their opportunities in social union.

    1. It may, however, be inappropriate to refer to them as “persuasive” definitions, since this term typically carries with it the implication that something illegitimate is being done–specifically, that value judgments are being inappropriately “smuggled into” a definition. For example, in 1923, the Daughters of the Confederacy proposed that a bronze memorial to honor the Mammy of the Old South be placed somewhere on the grounds of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The persuasive attempt to model “appropriate” African American behavior.

D. Where there is no possibility of a consensus definition, often scholars of ethnic and gender studies have used the term “conflicted.” As described by W. B. Gallie in an article “Essentially contested concepts,” written in 1956.

      1. In brief, an essentially contested concept is, for Gallie, a concept that is used to make an appraisal of an object–for Gallie, a positive appraisal of an achievement. In other words, there is a common value judgment that attaches to all objects that fall within the concept’s extension: to be such an object is to have achieved something significant (consider the concept “art”). Furthermore, the achievement is not a simple one, such as the achievement of scoring the most points in a game. Rather, the appraisal is based on a complex set of characteristics that the object will contain to varying degrees. This set of characteristics is drawn from some original exemplars or paradigms, which everyone agrees fall within the concept’s extension. But while everyone agrees that objects must bear a resemblance to the paradigms in order for the concept to apply properly, there is no similar agreement over which characteristics of the paradigms count the most, or how these various characteristics figure into the appraisal. What is it about the paradigms that makes them worthy of the positive appraisal? There are competing answers to this question, and hence competing understandings or descriptions of what is to fall within the scope of the concept. Adherents to each rival understanding of the concept are aware of other understandings, and maintain their understanding in the face of these rivals (Gallie 1956, 168-81).


      2. The fundamental justification for a concept being used in an essentially contested way that the debate itself has a realistic possibility of advancing and perpetuating the kind of achievement exemplified by the paradigm cases.


    3. To call a definition “legitimate” is not to say that it is correct–after all, an essentially contested concept is one which admits of rival definitions, each incompatible with the others and yet each legitimate. To say that a definition is legitimate is simply to say that it embodies a perspective that ought to be heard and considered carefully in the normative discourse framed by the concept.

III. What are essentially conflicted concepts in American culture?
A. Spaces. The U.S.-Mexican border region has historically been a highly contested space, revealing the competing and converging needs of capitalism, imperialist expansionism, and a U.S. nationalism. The history of the southwestern United States, “the borderlands,” has been and remains a site of Anglo uncertainty that seeks to strike a balance between competing hegemonic desires: the impulse toward expansion, the protection of a material space, and the perceived need to assimilate the others who populate that space.
B. Nature of the social compact. History has placed the contemporary United States in a position to develop a national culture less dependent on any one, particular community of descent than are most other comparable national or protonational solidarities. However, the history and imagery of one group in “America” or advertising, has created the playing field of competitive advantage. Despite “Melting Pot” imagery, the diversity is strong and politically effective.
C. Redress for past injustices. Bakke vs Regents. Powell said, in the interests of achieving a diverse campus environment. Powell explained that the nation’s future depended on leaders exposed to “ideas and mores . . . as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”

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