Remembering 9/11 Twenty Years Later

September 11, 2001.  Like many, I have a clear memory of that fateful morning. I was living in Berkeley, up early with the news on. I watched the replays of what I first thought was a crash, and then came to realize was an attack. Horrified, I gathered family around, as if being together would make us safer in a newly dangerous world.

At Wesleyan at the time, and all around the country, there was shock. How could this happen? Then came years of mourning, commemoration and efforts to remember the thousands who died at their desks, in elevators, on stairs, some heading up heroically to save as many people as possible. The photographs of those stunned first responders still make me shudder. Such sadness. We do our best to remember them.

We also remember the series of wars that were unleashed by the attacks of 9/11. The lies that led to the Iraq war, the hopes that many had of defending freedom, the slowly unfolding debacle in Afghanistan…torture, errant drone strikes, deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last 20 years. What would it mean to do our best to remember all those victims?

For me, this sad anniversary is an occasion for piety, and I take some consolation in communal remembrance. Going forward, I’d like to think that by discovering ways of joining with others to provide security without making war, we are doing our best to remember all the victims of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Vigilance, Excitement and Joy

Next week the Class of 2025 will arrive on campus, and although I am always excited about the start of the school year, this year brings a particularly distinctive mix of emotions. With a fully vaccinated campus, I am looking forward to a safer environment in which we can have more interactions with one another than we’d had in the past. But with the more contagious Delta variant, I also know that we must remain vigilant. The COVID-19 operations team, which consults with public health officials and epidemiologists with deep expertise, has developed protocols that should make our campus one of the safest places at which you could live and work.

Being one of the safest places at which you can live and work during a pandemic doesn’t mean the campus is risk-free. There will be some positive cases as we go through the semester, but with careful monitoring and basic preventative measures (like isolating when you’ve been infected and wearing a mask indoors), we will be able to prevent serious illness and widespread outbreaks.

I’m looking forward to seeing students engage in the full range of co-curricular activities, from athletics to theater, from poster sessions to art installations, as we get back in the swing of things. Although I taught in person last year, I so missed celebrating student, staff, and faculty accomplishments in person.

The transmissibility of the Delta variant should make us careful, but we won’t let it rob us of the kind of experiences that make being together on campus so powerful. With the cooperation of everyone, we will make the fall semester safe and joyful.

For Lola, being back on campus is just pure bliss!

Lola

Get Ready for a Great Year

Across the country, and in various places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is surging again, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. This is the bad news. The good news is that people who are vaccinated have excellent protection against the worst disease outcomes. Sure, there are breakthrough infections, some of which are symptomatic. But the vaccines protect almost everyone without co-morbidities from hospitalization or death. This is a great thing!

Last year, thanks to the cooperation of students, staff and faculty, Wesleyan was able to protect against the worst outcomes from COVID-19. And this was prior to the availability of vaccines. This year the University will be a vaccinated community, with very few exceptions for medical or religious reasons. With that in mind, though we will still want to exercise caution—especially in regard to indoor gatherings of large groups—we should be able to enjoy the kinds of social interactions and co-curricular experiences that make a residential education so potent and enjoyable.

The University will do everything possible to keep our community safe, while also recognizing that we will be living with the possibility of contracting the virus. Vaccinations should allow us the kinds of freedoms we have grown to expect while living and working on campus. We will require all visitors to campus to have been vaccinated. Of course, people who venture off campus should exercise caution, which will usually mean wearing masks when indoors, washing hands, etc. We can keep each other safe!

This is the time of year I usually begin to feel a sense of anticipation about the semester ahead. Whether I’m working on a syllabus, talking with advisees and colleagues, or planning events, I grow increasingly eager to be back in Wes mode. Sure, I’m nervous about the variants this year, but given the precautions we’ve taken and the cooperation of campus groups, I await the arrival of students and the start of classes with growing excitement.

So, enjoy the rest of the summer, and get ready for a great year at Wesleyan!

July 4th: “Inclusion is Patriotism of the Highest Order”

For years, on July 4th I turned to Frederick Douglass’ great speech (“What to The Slave is the 4th of July“) as a reminder of the promise and the painful hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence. If you look look back on this blog’s July 4th posts, you’ll find excerpts and reflections.

This year, I was moved by an op-ed in the Washington Post by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. He underscores the resonance of the principles enshrined in the Declaration with the Foundation’s work on equity and inclusion.

Inclusion is patriotism of the highest order. It informs our answers to that fundamental, founding question of representation and whether we, the people, will truly extend representation to each other — then, now and into the future.

And so, the American story we should celebrate this Fourth of July is one of expanding representation — however slowly, unevenly, and imperfectly. It’s the story of a small circle of White, property-owning men in Philadelphia that, generation by generation, continues to grow wider, precisely because of the patriotic struggle and sacrifice of the people who were once excluded — above all, Black and brown people, and women.

Political theorist (and now candidate for Governor of Massachusetts!) Danielle Allen has recently written about Prince Hall, an 18th century black activist whose political work was energized by the values he saw in the American founding. Hall, she writes, “invokes the core concepts of social-contract theory, which grounded the American Revolution, to argue for an extension of the claim to equal rights to those who were enslaved. He acknowledged and adopted the intellectual framework of the new political arrangements, but also pointedly called out the original sin of enslavement itself.” Hall helped establish an activist community of free blacks in Boston and established a Masonic Lodge that bears his name. A founding father, too long neglected.

However one marks the 4th, I trust we can find some inspiration in Hall’s life and work, and in these words of Darren Walker:

In their flawed genius, the founders entrusted us with the tools to fix what they were unwilling to repair. They left us the capacity to build something that had never existed: a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the blessings of representation to all.

This is a legacy worth fighting for, preserving and passing forward — today and always.

 

Celebrate Juneteenth and Work for Change

Like many, I was delighted when President Biden yesterday signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. June 19th has long marked the day in 1865 when Union troops rode into Texas with the news that “all slaves were free.” Months later the 13th amendment to the Constitution solidified the abolition of slavery in the United States. As Vice-President Kamala Harris noted, national holidays “are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history.”

Lately, there has been an angry debate about how to best acknowledge our history. As Matt Karp has recently argued:

American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism. Liberals, meanwhile, seem to expect more from the past than ever before. Leaving behind the End of History, we have arrived at something like History as End.

Debate is good; censorship is not. Attempts by legislatures to outlaw historical perspectives on race and forbid teaching about the active legacies of inequality in this country are shameful efforts to cut off discussions about who we are and who we have been. As the historian Annette Gordon-Reed says in her recent On Juneteenth “history is always being revised, as new information comes to light and when different people see known documents and have their own responses to them, shaped by their individual experiences.”

So, let us celebrate a holiday commemorating the aspiration to emancipation even as we recognize that the work for freedom goes on. “The attempt to recognize and grapple with the humanity and, thus, the fallibility of people in the past — and present — must be made,” Gordon-Reed writes. “That is the stuff of history, too.” Poet Kevin Young, director the National Museum of African American History and Culture, puts it this way: “When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.”

In Middletown, there is a Juneteenth festival in Veteran’s Memorial Park from 1 to 6 p.m. Wherever we celebrate, let us continue to work for positive change in the world and in ourselves.

Challenging Cardinals to Support Wesleyan

Every June we make a year-end effort to garner support for Wesleyan — from current use scholarships to athletics, to support for research and creative practice. This year’s Cardinal Challenge comes from Trustee Susannah Gray ’82, who will give $1M to Wesleyan when we receive 1,000 gifts (from alumni, parents, and friends) by June 30.

Many colleges and universities were in survival mode this year, which is understandable given the pandemic crisis and its reverberations. Thanks to the cooperation and support from students and their families, alumni, faculty and staff, we were able to plan for the decade ahead and to build capacity to invest in our institutional priorities. Progress means very different things to different people, but here at Wes we have a tradition of envisioning a future and then working towards it. We have a tradition of commitment to expansive and pragmatic liberal learning.

What does progress at Wes mean to you? Do you want to inspire others to join you in moving Wesleyan forward? At our Challenge Website donors can make a gift and set up their own matches/challenges to encourage more support for Wesleyan this year.

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide!

Book Review on Monuments and Memory

Last weekend was Memorial Day, and I published this book review on memory and monuments in the Wall Street Journal. I repost it here.

 

The Use and Abuse of the Past

It’s become a truism that monuments speak of the time in which they were built as well as the time that they commemorate. And that what we hear them saying changes. At moments of political upheaval, the way we choose to remember—even what we remember—can be dramatically reconfigured. Here in the U.S., not a few statues are being removed from places of honor. And around the world, we’ve seen monuments to paragons of former regimes be displaced or reduced to rubble. Some applaud this iconoclasm as a reckoning with legacies of oppression; others complain of the past being canceled based upon present-day values.

Monuments to World War II, though, have been remarkably stable. So far. Even as our understanding of that terrible war has grown more complex and nuanced, cartoonish monsters have remained lodged in our historical imagination, as have the heroic efforts made to defeat them. In the U.S., where most heroes of earlier times have been cut down to size, the image of “The Greatest Generation” still stands tall in the minds of many. TheBritish historian Keith Lowe knows all about patriotic respect for what Winston Churchill called “their finest hour.” He also knows about the hours that followed. In his books“Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943” (2007) and “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” (2012), he focused on the massive destructiveness of the conflict. Now, in “Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World War II Tell UsAbout Our History and Ourselves,” he looks at the ways in which a diverse set of countries have memorialized that bloody conflict, which set the stage for the world in which we still live.

PRISONERS OF HISTORY

By Keith Lowe St. Martin’s, 346 pages, $29.99

Mr. Lowe has visited monuments around the world—from Auschwitz to Volgograd to Jersey City. No art historian, he has little to say about architectural details or subtle shifts in symbolism. Nor does his book, unlike the brilliant work of James E. Young, explore the intricate ways in which public traumas are processed. What “Prisoners of History” does do—and does well—is explain why groups in each country built the monuments in the first place and how changes in politics and international relations affected interactions with them afterward.

In painting a powerful picture of the brutal Japanese invasion of China, Mr. Lowe plunges us into the horrors of the massacres and organized sexual violence in Nanjing. He also gives us a sense of how shifting political forces in communist China made memorializing this trauma possible, and how the Chinese government in the postwar years used tensions with Japan for purposes that had little to do with coming to terms with this profoundly painful past. Whether he is writing about far-flung places where he is a well-informed tourist or European cities where he has done deep research, Mr. Lowe is a confident guide who finds sources in each city to make our experience of the memorials more meaningful.

I was fascinated to read about the Russian penchant for massive memorials. Mr. Lowe’s narrative becomes even more compelling when he gets to Italy and the “more intimate”memorial to resistance fighters in Bologna. “In the 21st century,” he writes, “every nation likes to believe itself a nation of heroes; but deep down, most nations are beginning to think of themselves as victims.” After all, “martyrs are untouchable.”

For the past 40 years, Americans, too, have had an easier time celebrating survivors and martyrs than heroes, but when it comes to remembering World War II, the tilt toward heroism remains. This can lead to monumental disasters, like the World War II Memorial that took over a good portion of the National Mall in 2004. Mr. Lowe doesn’t say a word about it, which is perhaps an act of kindness. Others have derided its bombastic neoclassicism, calling it a “shrine to sentiment” and a “busy vacuity, hollow to the core.” Tourists still go there to pay their respects—or, perhaps, to cool off nearby in the nice fountain.

Mr. Lowe does dedicate a chapter to the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Va., which he rightly understands to be much more than a monument to the victory at Iwo Jima. The thousands who visit this monument each week, to gaze at the Marines’ outstretched arms and the American flag waving above them, see an aspiration to “virtues they believe to be universal: hope, freedom, justice and democracy.” In other parts of the world, Mr. Lowe notes dryly, the flag is seen “rather differently.”

The author’s story of an unofficial site of remembrance in Slovenia is especially powerful.While visiting the recently installed Monument to the Victims of All Wars in Ljubljana, he is disturbed by the way the “bland, abstract” memorial “repels attention.” Then a historian from the region takes him on a long drive into the countryside to visit a former coal mine that had become a mass burial site. Mr. Lowe descends into tunnels in which hundreds of men were executed and buried. He can’t help thinking about those entombed there—some while still alive. These were no heroes; most had been fighting alongside the fascists against Tito’s army: “In the end the authorities had simply locked the doors and tried to forget about them.”

Mr. Lowe believes that, in the long run, nations can’t distort history to support their current ideas and projects. Maybe. Visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, he is revolted by its memorializing of convicted war criminals and by its blatant distortions and ideological agenda. On the other hand, he is intrigued by the ways Lithuanians deal with the

legacies of Stalinism. Massive statues meant to inspire are now found in a park with animals doing their business: “The magic ingredient is ridicule.”

At the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Mr. Lowe is struck by how, in the aftermath of the war,“the urge to mourn had to compete everywhere with the urge to forget.” As a historian, he is committed to the notion that the work of mourning has to be based on what happened and not on fantasy and ideology. But he also knows that we often, maybe always, recollect the past for some purpose in the present.

Representing the past always draws on the impulse for accuracy as well as the interests of those doing the representing. I’ve argued that history and memory also draw on piety.There will always be arguments about accuracy and ideology, but perhaps we can agree to acknowledge, with the help of this thoughtful book, the very human desire to remember the most stirring dimensions of the past with piety, even with gratitude.

—Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. Among his recent books is “Memory,Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Support a Healthy Middletown Ecosystem

As many Wesleyans begin time away from campus this summer, it’s good to remember that the needs of Middletown continue beyond the academic year. One of the inspiring things we saw during the pandemic, was the level of care and cooperation that students showed their fellow citizens in Central Connecticut. We not only wanted to keep our campus healthy, we wanted to be responsible neighbors to those with whom we interacted in Middletown and beyond.

Wesleyan worked closely with the Community Health Center to facilitate vaccine delivery, and the ties between our organizations go way back. There are many nonprofits in the region that have benefitted from Wes energy, and the university has benefitted in turn. Many faith-based organizations, neighborhood support groups, and cultural organizations have worked closely with students, alumni, faculty and staff.

Wesleyan is a key part of a healthy Middletown ecosystem. One way to help the ecology of our region thrive is by supporting its not-for-profit sector. From mutual aid societies to food banks, our region has several organizations that we can support. A group of students sent me a list of some of them, and you can find here a more extensive listing.

I hope you will consider supporting one or more of these organizations that do vital work in sustaining our Middletown community.

 

Congratulations Graduates!!

When Kari, Lola and I went out before six this morning, we heard laughters and cheers from Foss Hill. There were many students out there to greet the sunrise. What a spectacular morning it was!

Looking forward to acknowledging the great work of our students, our honorees and to saying thank you to families, staff and faculty who make it all possible.

 

Here Comes the Sun

For many of us at Wesleyan this year, the springtime, like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, was a long time in coming. With not much of a spring break and ongoing tensions around the pandemic, this semester seemed longer than most. But then the weather turned warm just in time for reading week and finals, and I rejoiced to see students on Foss Hill or Andrus Field taking in the sun, finding ways to connect. And now, exams are finished, graders are grading, seniors are getting ready to celebrate, and covid is on the decline. The sun is here, and I say, “it’s alright!”

A special shout out to the pandemic committee (Rick Culliton, Lisa Brommer, Sun Chyung, Mark Hovey, Fran Koerting, Anne Laskowski, Tom McLarney, Chris Olt, Nicole Stanton, Andy Tanaka, Joyce Topshe, Joyce Walter, Mike Whaley, Dave Winakor and Renell Wynn) that steered our response to covid for more than a year. Well done! Professors found ways to connect with their students in labs, classrooms, zoom rooms, studios, and seminars. Staff members, mostly working from home, kept the institution running and in good shape to take full advantage of our post-pandemic future. Coaches found creative ways to build resilience and team spirit, and our far-flung Wes community supported our university with their attentiveness, care and generosity. Thank you all!

A special thanks goes out to Wesleyan students, on campus and remote, who made this academic year so successful. It was only because students worked together that they could stay safe, advance towards their degrees, and have a college experience they will always remember. And there were good things to remember, many obstacles overcome. The arts were in full flower this spring, from the galleries to the tents, studios, and lawns. Athletics also found its footing, and I was so happy to see our undergraduates competing in safe environments. Prizes were won, experiments were completed, people fell in and out of love… and lifelong friendships were forged even when wearing masks.

I’m excited for Commencement, just a few days away, and I wish you all a healthy, safe, and sunny summer!