Open Letter to Senator Mich McConnell on Civics and History

The Hon. Mitch McConnell

United States Senate

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington DC 20510

Dear Senator McConnell:

I read with amusement your letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressing your newly discovered “grave concern with American History and Civics Education.” Better late than never I suppose. But we could have used some of that concern back in December and January when Donald Trump was undermining our civil democratic electoral process with what you damn well knew was a blatant lie about the election being stolen from him. Instead of standing up to defend the very civic exercise that gave you your job, you refused to acknowledge the will of the American people expressed in what even Donald Trump’s most loyal toady, former Attorney General Bill Barr, admitted was a free, fair and legitimate election. Not until you found yourself cowering somewhere in the bowels of the Capital Building wetting your trousers as Trump’s mob screamed for your blood did it finally occur to you that perhaps respecting constitutional requirements might not be such a bad idea after all.

While your hypocrisy alone disqualifies you from self-righteously pontificating about the importance of civic education, your purported outrage over “activist indoctrination” and your call for “a rigorous understanding of … American history” is even more laughable. The above photograph, wherein you stand proudly under the banner of treason and white supremacy, the very banner that the Trump mob carried into the halls of our Capital building, belies your purported patriotism. It also demonstrates why you are in no position to tell anyone what constitutes “a balanced assessment of our imperfect but exceptional nation.” Indeed, you are part of the reason we desperately need to “reorient” our teaching of American history and civics. When an elected official cannot tell the difference between treason and patriotism, the flag of the American republic and the flag of those who tried to destroy it, that reflects poorly on the historical understanding and civic intelligence of the people who put him into office.

One can reasonably argue with the analysis put forth by some of the contributors to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” What you cannot argue away are the facts it discloses, none of which were taught in mine or my children’s primary education classes. To wit,

  • The United States Constitution, so far from guaranteeing the Declaration’s bold assertion that “all men are created equal,” counted black Americans as “three fifths of a person,” and that only for purposes determining representation of the states in Congress.
  • Ten of the first twelve presidents of the United States were slaveholders.
  • The routine separation of enslaved black families, wives from husbands and children from parents, for sale and re-sale.
  • The routine and quite legal use of beating, starvation and torture to discipline and control Black slaves.
  • The occurrence of the Tulsa race massacre of June 1921 in which mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the ground and from private aircraft and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States- leaving 36 dead and hundreds hospitalized with injuries.
  • Lynching was not an isolated occurrence, but happened routinely and claimed the lives of at least 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968.    
  • In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld life saving antibiotics to Black victims of syphilis in order to study the advanced effects of the disease.
  • Until 1967, interracial marriage between Black and white persons was illegal in nearly half of the states of the U.S. and punishable by imprisonment.
  • The historic (and still existent) practice of “redlining” and systemic discrimination in housing against persons of color which, incidentally, your former president practiced with regularity and was prosecuted during his years as a real estate baron.

Once again, you might quarrel with some aspects of the Times’ analysis, but the facts are what they are and your railing about “revisionism” and “propaganda” cannot erase them. Nor can the American story be told in a “balanced” way without them. I find the following paragraph from your letter particularly telling:

“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil. If your Administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”

Since when, Sir, is historical truth determined by legislative action, majority vote or the will of the masses? Do you really think it is the job of teachers, professors and scholars to tell people what they want to hear and already think they know? Is history nothing more than talk therapy for building up national self esteem? I think you know better than that-just as you knew better than to placate the propagators of the “stolen election” lie. But you have demonstrated to all of us throughout your career, Mr. McConnell, that truth, candor and integrity mean nothing to you. You will fly any flag, sing any anthem, placate any foreign dictator or domestic extremist and tell any lie you think will serve your political ambitions. Thus, your plea for “balanced” and “rigorous” education in civics and history strikes me as more than a tad hollow.

For all of the above reasons, your letter deserves to be dismissed out of hand and tossed into the dustbin of history (the real one) along with the rants of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. It has no more merit than its author does integrity.

Very Truly Yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (Retired)

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