Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar and founder of many of California’s Spanish missions and on track to be beatified by the Vatican, is under some scrutiny. State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, wants to replace Serra’s statue in the U.S. Capitol with that of California astronaut Sally Ride.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who declined to attend the unveiling of the Ronald Reagan statue, defended the Serra statue, even though Serra is, shall we say, way unpopular in the Native American community for his use of their labor in building the missions.
Brown noted that Serra was a “very courageous man, and one of the innovators and pioneers of California.” He went on to note that “tragedy and good and evil often inhere in the same situation. And that doesn’t mean we won’t have our saints. It’s that we have to understand that saints, like everybody else, are not perfect.”
That hasn’t been my understanding, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Saints are supposed to be perfect. But Brown is right: Everyone, particularly historical figures, has a flip side.
As we witnessed the national campaign to take down the Confederate flag, and rename schools and towns named after Confederate heroes even in California, it caused me to think of the historical counternarrative for a lot of people we think of as saints or heroes. Let’s try this:
Accepted narrative: Brilliant polymath author of Declaration of Independence, president of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia.
Counternarrative: Spendthrift slave-owning hypocrite who also had sex with women he owned, while running a heroin poppy growing operation.
Accepted narrative: Brilliant polymath author of multiple histories, president of the United States, war hero and governor of New York.
Counternarrative: Borderline lunatic ADHD-sufferer and gun-obsessed, narcissistic moralist who slaughtered thousands of innocent animals for fun.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Accepted narrative: Inspirational president who led the allies through World War II and pulled the nation out of the Great Depression through innovative government programs.
Counternarrative: Power-mad, womanizing, spoiled rich mama’s boy who married his own cousin and prolonged the Great Depression through useless programs created through his dictatorial reign.
John F. Kennedy
Accepted narrative: Graceful, witty war hero who fought back against childhood illness to become Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and president of the United States who led the nation to the moon.
Counternarrative: Sex addict speed junkie who concealed his ailments and somehow managed to have his PT boat rammed by a Japanese destroyer, which allowed him to be awarded the Pulitzer for a book he didn’t really write and steal a presidential election purchased for him by millionaire defeatist/isolationist father.
Accepted narrative: President of the United States who saved the Union and literary genius for the Gettysburg Address.
Counternarrative: Neurotic, sleepless raconteur/mouthpiece lawyer for Big Railroad, married to a compulsive shopper; almost lost the war because he had the wrong commanding general for much of it.
Ulysses S. Grant
Accepted narrative: Tactical genius who won the Civil War and president of the United States.
Counternarrative: Chain-smoking alcoholic who won the Civil War while drunk and led one of the most corrupt presidential administrations in U.S. history.
Accepted narrative: Fiberglass-haired narcissistic sociopath who leveraged himself into Chapter 11 with his father’s money, now demonstrating precisely why our presidential campaign finance system is broken.
Counternarrative: See accepted narrative.
See? Brown isn’t always right.