Lunar New Year Tragedy

I’m tired of writing these sad posts, and I know you must be tired of reading responses to the outbursts of violence that plague our country’s communities. I was a few miles away from Monterey Park over the weekend, adjacent to the violent tragedy. There is relief now that the shooter is no longer a threat, but also profound sadness at the loss of life. 

As German Lopez reminded us this morning in the New York Times briefing:

“This kind of mass shooting has become tragically common in the U.S.; what would be a rare horror in any other developed country is typical here. Yet the cause is no mystery. America has an enormous amount of guns, making it easier for someone to carry out a deadly shooting … All over the world, there are people who argue, fight over relationships, suffer from mental health issues or hold racist views. But in the U.S., those people can more easily obtain a gun and shoot someone.”

Monterey Park will find community resources to heal from this awful event. May the memory of the deceased be a blessing.
UPDATE: And now we must add Half Moon Bay to this sad list of tragedies. We don’t have to live this way.



Historical Recollection and Political Inspiration on MLK Day

A couple of years ago on the the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., I quoted my friend and Wesleyan alumna Saidiya Hartman (’84, Hon. ’19) on the importance of remembering for the work of political imagination: “In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery.” We don’t have to accept the triumph of amnesia. “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.” Today, we can choose recollection.

Memory always takes place in context; it is never neutral. Prof. Hartman writes:

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line…To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present.

In the past year, Prof. Hartman published the 25th anniversary edition of her pathbreaking Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th Century America. In her new preface to the book, she notes that even in slavery “everyday practices cultivated an imagination of the otherwise and elsewhere, cartographies of the fantastic utterly antagonistic to slavery…the enslaved articulated a vision of freedom that far exceeded that of the liberal imagination.” Of course, recollection and imagination were not enough to change the world. “What awaited us were centuries of struggle animated by visions that exceeded the wreckage of our lives, by the avid belief in what might be.”

Recollection and imagination and struggle in hopes of transforming the present. This, too, can be a way to mark this holiday and those who fought to transform their lives. To what end does one conjure the memory of Dr. King, one might ask, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?

Remembering Representative Quentin Williams

Yesterday we learned the very sad news that Quentin Williams, who represented Middletown in the Connecticut General Assembly, was killed in a car accident. I first met “Q” years several years ago, and, like everyone who knew him, I was struck by his energy, optimism and … that SMILE. As our state representative, he listened attentively, worked constructively and was indefatigable in support of those most in need. He was joyfully dedicated to the common good, and when one was with him, more things seemed possible. 

Our hearts go out to Q’s family, colleagues and friends. The Middletown community will gather to honor Q’s life at 7:00 pm Friday, 1/6, on Middletown’s South Green (corner of Main St and Pleasant St). All are welcome.

May his memory long be a blessing.

A new book on failure and humility

Last week, The Washington Post published my review of philosopher Costica Bradatan’s new book on failure and humility. I thought it might be of interest to many of you.

At the start of his latest book, “In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility,” the philosopher Costica Bradatan notes without chagrin that when we consider our origins and our ultimate fate, humans are not very impressive. We are designed to fail, he emphasizes, and death is the framework for all our attempts to make something of ourselves. In a previous book, “Dying for Ideas,” he considered how philosophers across the ages wrestled with mortality. In “In Praise of Failure,” he looks at how various thinkers — Seneca, Mohandas Gandhi, Simone Weil, Emil Cioran, Yukio Mishima — detached themselves from an obsessive drive for worldly success by reckoning with failure and death. Bradatan wants us to grasp how striving to succeed prevents us from dealing with our mortality and hence from living a more meaningful life.

One hears plenty of voices these days singing the praises of failure, but Bradatan is not to be confused with those Silicon Valley types who drone on about an “iterative process,” aiming to “fail better.” Those folks like to quote a snippet of Samuel Beckett in this regard, but, observes Bradatan, the stern Beckett actually proposed something much more pessimistic: “Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” Bradatan quotes this passage approvingly because he despairs of those who would co-opt the idea of failure into some happy tale of ultimate progress. Reading this most interesting philosopher, I was reminded of a Bob Dylan lyric: “There’s no success like failure, and … failure’s no success at all.”

The French thinker Simone Weil brooked no happy tales. She was attracted to suffering and has attracted readers somehow satisfied by her failure to find anything satisfying. Weil was moved to help those in distress but was quite inept at doing so; and since she was writing during the Nazi occupation, there was plenty of distress to go around. Still, her identification with suffering has struck many of her readers as noble, and Bradatan thinks she had mystical insight into the ways that things fall apart. All things. Always. Weil developed the notion of “decreation,” which is “to make something created pass into the uncreated,” thus getting closer to God. The things of our world are products of the Fall, and by giving up on the material world we “give back to God what is properly his.” Bradatan sees a radical humility in Weil’s luxuriating in suffering; another might see mostly mystical arrogance in her insistence that by abjecting herself she approached the divine.

The second tale of failure concerns politics, and here Bradatan is especially good at showing the hypocrisy of leaders who proudly display their humility. Front and center is Gandhi, who worked very hard at showing that he was giving up working for anything like material success. He lived a very public life of renunciation to inspire those around him to find meaning in their poverty. Bradatan quotes one of the great Indian leader’s aides who bemoaned how expensive it was to keep the Mahatma in poverty. Political leaders who become inordinately powerful, Bradatan emphasizes, are those who tell stories that satisfy their community’s desire for meaning. Going beyond Gandhi, he shows that the most dangerous stories are those that ground that meaning in a violent attack on an enemy, a scapegoat. The leader is the opposite of that enemy, embodying the patriotic virtues to which the community aspires. The moral is that the search for political purity is always dangerous.

The third tale of “In Praise of Failure” explores how we frame “the losers,” the people who just can’t measure up to the standards of the world around them. The doctrine of predestination is particularly tough in this regard since it deems losers those whom God has not selected for salvation. There is nothing the losers can do, though many wind up striving for worldly success because they imagine this is the way to prove they are among God’s chosen. The central figure of this chapter is the idiosyncratic Romanian writer Emil Cioran, for whom Bradatan has enormous sympathy. Like Weil, Cioran has terrible judgment and seems incompetent at everything but writing (especially about his incompetence). But whereas Weil found something divine in her failures, Cioran was content to trace the human dimensions of not being able to do anything right. “Only one thing matters,” he wrote: “learning to be the loser.” I don’t understand why Bradatan finds something redemptive in this embrace of failure, but the Cioran he presents is an entertaining, aphoristic writer whose pessimism becomes comedic, and the ability to laugh in the face of inevitable failure is for Bradatan a very good thing.

The fourth and final tale in the book concerns, you guessed it, death. A concern with mortality hovers over all of Bradatan’s writing, and in this section of “In Praise of Failure” he underscores that “nothing in the world compares to what we experience when we face the ultimate failure: our own death.” This is the kind of thing that a great many thinkers have said for a very long time, and here Bradatan selects two: the Roman Stoic Seneca and the Japanese novelist Mishima. Although separated by millennia, the two men are joined by the strong desire to make a good death. Bradatan tells us about the complexities and hypocrisies of each and how both, despite years of planning, botched their suicides in gory, if not obscene, ways. But he respects their willingness to consider (even choreograph) their deaths in detail, even if this didn’t seem to help all that much when the final moments came.

Bradatan wears his erudition lightly. He is a pleasure to read, and his prose conveys a happy resilience in the face of life’s inevitable contradictions. His lessons in humility remind us that the pursuit of success is often motivated by the dread of failure — and that our attempts to create things are often driven by an avoidance of our mortality. The Stoics considered fear of death to be debilitating, and Bradatan emphasizes that fear of failure can sap the meaning from our lives. It doesn’t have to be this way, he assures us.

Acknowledging that we are designed to fail might lead us to live more joyfully and meaningfully, whatever our origins and ultimate fate.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His latest book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”

 In Praise of Failure

Four Lessons in Humility

By Costica Bradatan

Harvard. 273 pp. $29.95



Happy New Year!

As 2022 comes to an end, I send my best wishes to the extended Wesleyan community around the world. Campus has been cold and quiet until very recently, and in the next week or so students, faculty and staff will start returning for Winter Session, research activity, athletic training and competition, and to continue the preparations for the semester ahead. 

Our past year has been filled with challenges and with the creative energies we’ve summoned to meet them. The pandemic has continued to take a toll on us all, and yet we have found ways to build back an ever more capacious environment of learning, innovative experimentation and achievement. This will be the foundation of our efforts in 2023.

I do hope your holidays have been joyful and restorative. I look forward to seeing what we can all come up with as the sun rises on a new year!


Antisemitism (again)

Recently some students came to see me about their fear that antisemitism might be growing at Wesleyan. They were cautious about making any claim, knowing that this university has been a welcoming place for Jewish students, faculty, and staff for about fifty years now. Yet they were also aware that Wesleyan is no bubble, and that attacking Jews has, on the right, become a key aspect of white supremacist talk and, on the left, a feature of criticism of Israel and of American elites. They did not disagree that Israel and elites are reasonable subjects for critique; they also were conscious of the fact that scapegoating Jews comes as easily to many people as other forms or racism and discrimination. I told the students that I would share their concerns more widely, and so I decided to write this blog.

There’s no doubt that public antisemitism is on the rise, and it’s not just Ye. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Expressions of Jew hatred are ever more commonplace in the public sphere, and Twitter’s recent welcoming back of known antisemitic accounts is yet another sign that this traditional form of hate speech has found a compatible outlet in contemporary social media. 

The students who came to see me recognized that many at Wesleyan would roll their eyes at concerns about bias against Jews, who many regard as privileged. At the same time, they were cognizant of the fact that over a very long time (and in some of the most learned places), Jews have periodically become objects of discrimination, public scorn, and violence. As Sigmund Freud ironically put it about a century ago, Jews, by being objects of aggression, “have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.”

I’ve written before about the scapegoating in America of queer and trans people, and about the pernicious, deep-seated effects of anti-Black racism. That these remain top of mind for many of us at Wesleyan is no reason not to be alert to the despicable and dangerous nature of antisemitism when it rears its ugly head.

Please Support #GivingTuesday at Wesleyan!

Tomorrow, November 29, is Giving Tuesday, a chance to support organizations around the world doing important work to alleviate suffering and create opportunity. This is Wesleyan’s ninth year of participating in #GivingTuesday. Over the years, thousands of alumni, parents, students, and friends have chosen to support their alma mater on this day. By giving to Wesleyan, donors have together unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for Financial Aid. This is the power of collective action. By joining others to help those with need, we all grow stronger.

In this year’s challenge, Wesleyan Chair of the Board John Frank ’78, P’12 and Diann Kim P’12 will make a $100,000 gift when we reach 1,000 donors. WE CAN DO IT TOGETHER!

The collective action of alumni to support students has enormous power. Won’t you join us by using this link?

Two Fall Athletes Score Big!

Before we move on completely to the winter sports seasons, I just want to note a couple of great late season accomplishments and honors our students received. Sophia Lindus ’26 was named both Rookie of the Year and Player-Of-the-Year. A second team All-American, she was also named to the first team all conference squad (along with teammate Bella Ahearn ’23). Sophia had a remarkable year with a great team, and there is no telling how many awards she’ll rack up as a Cardinal over the years.

I’ve known Nick Helbig ’23 since he was a first-year student, and he shines in the classroom and on the football field. This year may have been his finest. He was singled out by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston as the Defensive Player-of-the-Year for Divisions II-III in college football. NESCAC awarded him once again as the best defensive player in the conference, and he was named to the first team all conference squad, where he is joined by Logan Tomlinson ’22.

Congratulations to all our student/athletes. On to the winter seasons!

Happy Thanksgiving!

At Thanksgiving I like to express my gratitude to all those who make Wesleyan such an intense, innovative and joyful place. There is so much here to be thankful for this year—beginning with our ability to remain safely together on campus. With common sense precautions, we have been able to accomplish so much: from the Common Moment with the Class of 2026 to celebrating family and friends during Homecoming and Family Weekend, to theater and music productions. We look forward to ending the semester on a high note.

I am always grateful for our faculty and staff contributions. They keep the campus humming with creative energy and contribute to the world around us. Their achievements are plentiful. Recent highlights that come to mind include the work of Alison O’Neil on Alzheimer’s disease, the efforts of Erika Franklin Fowler’s team at the Wesleyan Media Project, Roberto Saba’s award-winning American Mirror and the interdisciplinary efforts of the Carceral Connecticut Project.

I have been heartened, too, to see so many of our students taking an active role in the midterm elections by casting their ballots. As Gloria Steinem told us this summer during Commencement, “Diversity and democracy are like a tree, they grow not from the top down, but from the bottom up. And they are growing, and you are a part of that growing.” I am proud of how we keep diversity and democracy growing at Wesleyan!

Thank you to our students, faculty, and staff, all of whom allow Wesleyan to continue thriving. And thanks to our extended family around the world whose affection and support are vital to the university’s heath. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving!