Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The last time I visited Jerry Brown at the governor’s mansion in Sacramento before he left office, I noticed a large portrait of Junipero Serra hanging in the expansive living room. Serra, a Franciscan monk who established a string of Catholic missions in the 18th century that formed the early infrastructure of what today is modern California, was beatified as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
When recently meeting up with Brown at his rural retirement ranch, I asked him how he justified displaying such a painting so prominently when so many of the righteous-minded across the state, far from regarding the Spanish missionary as a saint, demonized him as a brutal oppressor and exploiter of California’s indigenous population. In fact, as the cancel culture craze took hold in 2020, activists toppled a bronze statue of Serra in the park surrounding the capitol building. It is being replaced by a monument to Native Americans.
The former governor held his ground. For Brown, Serra is integral to California’s historical identity. He is part of who we are. “You can’t just go backwards and say this is the way the world should have been,” as if purifying the past somehow makes it all go away.
In that context, we recalled something a mutual friend of ours, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, said during a similar controversy that erupted in his country when he proposed erecting a statue of the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, on the 500th anniversary of Spain’s arrival in the New World. “We have not overcome the trauma of the conquest,” Fuentes argued. “We behave like a colonized country. We were born of a crime of extreme cruelty, but we were able to build ourselves and have created a culture that is Spanish, Catholic, mestizo. Our father was Hernan Cortes whether we like it or not.” Fuentes’ erstwhile literary competitor, the Nobel poet Octavio Paz, for once agreed.
In this final installment of our conversation, Brown advises cancel activists to “listen and learn” from history and argues that all of us, even our heroes, have flaws. Assuming a purist posture in judging any human being would mean you can’t honor anyone, since no one is perfect.
Instead of obsessing about what happened in the past, he quipped, we should focus on our actions today — above all, battling climate change — or risk being canceled by future generations for bequeathing to them an uninhabitable planet.