A Hero for Our Time

COMMENTARY: Should Americans Memorialize This Moment, the Statue Erected Wouldn't Be a Man of the State, or of Letters or of the Cloth, but Ambiguous at Best.

A statue with the bowed head of Father Junipero Serra is shown at the Serra Mission Museum.
A statue with the bowed head of Father Junipero Serra is shown at the Serra Mission Museum. (photo: Sherry V Smith / Shutterstock)

Begin in revolution; end in farce.

I have a vision of a new monument, befitting what my beloved country has become.

It will not be a statue of a statesman.

Tucked into a green triangle between Massachusetts Avenue, L Street and 11th Street, in Washington, D.C., there stands a fine bronze sculpture of Edmund Burke. His name is spelled BVRKE, as befits a man who, when he thought about politics, took his own advice and did not “live and trade on his private stock of reason,” but availed himself “of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” He learned from the past, sure in the knowledge that the nature of man, in his fundamental passions, in the errors to which he is prone, and in the bright moral visions that his best teachers have seen, has not changed. 

Because Burke treasured and honored the prescriptive liberties of his native land, he supported the colonies when they claimed that the crown and Parliament had violated those liberties. A staunch Anglican, he was friendly enough to Catholics to support the Quebec Act, extending freedom of religion to les inhabitants at a time when John Jay and many an American patriot found such generosity to be intolerable. As he said, and as the inscription on his pedestal reads, “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.”

It won’t be a statue of a man of letters either.

Walk a little farther northwest, and you will find, tucked into a smaller and less green triangle between Connecticut Avenue and M Street, a monument to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He is an old man with a full beard, and that conceals his perennially youthful spirit, though it does capture his quiet seriousness of purpose, to set American literature with all its native freshness on an equal stage with the rest of the world. 

When he translated The Divine Comedy of Dante, such was the reception in our still-vigorous nation that the edition went through four printings in the first year alone. But Longfellow was no pedant. He had the learning of Tennyson and the gentle soul of Whittier. His work was not merely read; it was loved; and though he was a man of strong opinions, he did not use poetry as a club to beat his readers with. 

I often recall an event that may as well have come from another world. A group of schoolboys paid a visit to Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to congratulate him on his 75th birthday. They didn’t know him personally. They just wanted to wish him well, because they loved his poems. Longfellow invited them in to eat a bit and to chat about poetry, till the February afternoon grew dark. They left in happy spirits. A few weeks later, he passed away.

The world had not yet been smothered in ugly ideological patois.

 Nor will it be of a man of God.

St. Junípero Serra, who gave his life to the Indians he served, to whom he and his brother priests taught the Catholic faith for the good of their souls, the art of reading for the good of their minds, and the arts of painting, sculpture, agriculture, herding, milling, carpentry, stone masonry and the culture of the grape and the olive for the good of their souls and their bodies; this Father Serra who could have lived in comfort anywhere in the Spanish world and not worn out his body with hard labor and privation, has long been detested, when murderous and ambitious villains like Che Guevara are celebrated, and a bloody blockhead like Hugo Chavez had to ruin a nation before he could draw even with Serra in a race for obloquy. 

Throughout California, statues of Father Serra have been toppled or decapitated. I doubt that the vandals had any idea of who he was and what he did. That he was a priest, if anything, counts against him.

We are not a bad people. Americans are still a cheerful and generous lot. But we are a silly people, and, by a long habit of despising our ancestors national and cultural, we are not likely to grow wise.

Consider a few of our troubles.

We are deeply in debt.

Our schools do not accomplish their fundamental work, and our colleges, hands deep in the pocket of the national government, are racketeers on a grand scale.

We imprison a rather large percentage of the population, nine-tenths of them male, and almost always for crimes they have actually committed.

Millions of young men and women live unattached, a new thing in the world and a symptom of social unraveling.

We are mostly governed by executive and bureaucratic fiat — and by the cultural preferences of a small closet of lawyers.

Large sections of our cities are ugly by design or by dilapidation. We have had no great public-works projects, on a national level, since the Interstate Highway System. We no longer build for the ages. They who slander their grandfathers and slay their progeny will never do so.

Millions of citizens are mired in intergenerational poverty and incapacity. Fathers are missing. No one cares.

No social institution is healthy. Fraternal societies die and are not replaced. Libraries dump thousands of real books in favor of the cheap, tawdry and ephemeral. We have more protests than parades. Civic life is sporadic and thin. Churches close.

And what is the great leap forward that our politicians promise to us? A sexual free-for-all, so long as you are polite about it, with immunity for certain preferred kinds of impoliteness — rather for confusion, selfishness, narcissism and depravity. That will pay down the debt, lay roads and railways worthy of a great nation, inspire arts and letters, fill the churches, reform the schools and bind up the wounds of a slow, cold and cowardly civil war. Yes, that will do it.

We are a silly country. So I suggest a statue fit for our time, to be situated near the Lincoln Memorial: a great bronze glob of Mr. Potato Head, “Mister” no longer, with a fedora on the head and lipstick on the lips. He will show what truths we hold to be self-evident, that there are no such things as boys and girls, and that reality is as irrelevant to our political life as interchangeable plastic arms and legs are to a lump of plastic shaped like a lump of starch.

Burke, Longfellow, Father Serra, Potato Head. Seems about right.