All posts by Mike Zonta

John Quincy Adams on Impostor Syndrome and the True Measure of Success

By Maria Popova (

“You will never get any more out of life than you expect,” Bruce Lee wrote to himself. All expectation is a story of the possible. Every person lives inside a story of who they are, what they are worth, and what is possible for their life, and suffers in proportion to how conscious they are of the story, how much credence they give those inner voices over the raw input of reality. It is often when life blindsides us with a bright counternarrative to a limiting inner story that we suffer the most, because we are suddenly forced to revise our entire personal mythos, to relinquish our familiar ways of keeping ourselves small, to exceed our own expectations of the possible.

At fifty-three, while serving as Secretary of State as presiding over the commission for weights and measurements, fighting valiantly for the adoption of the meter after its hard-won inventionJohn Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) received the unexpected news that he has been elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. None of his credentials, none of his merits so obvious to others, kept him from feeling unworthy of the post.

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

In a diary entry from June of 1820, found in John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), Adams writes:

I answered the Letter and accepted the Office; because I thought there would be an appearance of affectation in refusing it — The Arts and Sciences have been the objects of my admiration through life; I would it were in my power to say they had been objects of my successful cultivation.

But beneath his private affection for these disciplines lurks Adams’s aching lack of confidence in his own authority. (Confidence is simply a way of moving through the world with a correct view of your strengths and vulnerabilities, a correct measure of your depths and your limits, in order to face the possible with unstoried willingness.) In a touching testament to how prevalent and indiscriminate the existential epidemic of impostor syndrome is, Adams writes:

Honours like these produce in my mind humiliation as well as pride. In this particular instance, I am mortified at being raised to the head of a learned Society, with qualifications so inadequate to the Station — Mortified, that in a Society which ought to include all the distinguished men of Letters and of Science in the State, there was no man so notoriously and conspicuously superior to me, as to have prevented the thought of me from occurring at-all — As the time is fast approaching, when if my life continues, I shall be consigned to retirement from Public life, the idea presents itself to me, that I may still exist for some purpose useful to my Country, by devoting the leisure of my declining days to the duties of this Scientific Office. To promote the taste, the culture and the refinement of Art and Science in my Country — Should my exit from the public theatre be such as to leave me with a competency for the comfortable subsistence of my family, and therefore the choice of employment for my time, this will perhaps offer me the means of filling it with satisfaction and with honour.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Five years later, Adams was elected President not only of the nation’s cultural pantheon but of the nation itself — to this day America’s most science-literate, science-passionate leader. Having unsuccessfully advocated for the adoption of the metric system — the rejection of which was America’s first great act of international arrogance with consequences reaching across epochs and across worlds, confusing generations of global citizens and culminating in NASA’s tragicomical $125 million loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter after American engineers failed to correctly convert metric measurements — Adams understood uniquely the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, and the proper aim of ambition.

Complement with how Nobel laureate John Steinbeck used the diary as a hedge against self-doubt and a classical guitarist’s account of overcoming impostor syndrome, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success and Henry Miller on what makes a fulfilling life.

Polyvagal Theory and the Neurobiology of Connection: The Science of Rupture, Repair, and Reciprocity

By Maria Popova (

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings — the first great gauntlet thrown at the Cartesian dualism of body versus mind. In the century and a half since, we have come to see how the body and the mind converge in the healing of trauma; we have come to see consciousness itself as a full-body phenomenon.

Beyond the brain, no portion of the body shapes our mental and emotional landscape more profoundly than the tenth cranial nerve — the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system that unconsciously governs the inner workings of the body. Known as the vagus nerve — from the Latin for “wandering,” a root shared with vagabond and vague — it meanders from the brain to the gut, touching every organ along the way with its tendrils, controlling everything from our heart rate and digestion to our reflexes and moods.

One of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

In James’s lifetime, it was believed that synaptic communication within the brain was electrical. But when neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered a gap between neurons — a miniature abyss electricity could not cross — it became clear that something else must be transmitting the signals between neurons. In 1921, the German pharmacologist Otto Loewi confirmed the existence of these theorized chemical messengers by stimulating the vagus nerve of a frog and discovering in the secreted substance the first known neurotransmitter. Every thought, feeling, and mood that has ever swept across the sky of your mind was forecast by your neurotransmitters and executed by your vagus nerve.

A century after James, while working with premature babies, the psychiatrist Stephen Porges uncovered two distinct vagal pathways in the nervous system — the much older dorsal vagus, which evolved around 500 million years ago in a fish now extinct to regulate fear response and activate shutdown, and the ventral vagus, a uniquely mammalian development about 200 million old, controlling our capacity for connection and communication. This research became the foundation of polyvagal theory — the science of how the interplay of these two systems shapes our sense of safety and danger, shapes our attachment styles and relationship patterns, shapes our very ability to tolerate the risks of living necessary for being in love with life.

In the decades since, no one has championed polyvagal theory more ardently than the clinical psychologist Deb Dana. In her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (public library), written for therapists, she explores how trauma automates our adaptive responses in a survival story that puts the fear-based dorsal vagus in command to induce collapse and dissociation, and how we can rewire our neural pathways toward the emotional safety of the ventral vagal state, where our capacity for curiosity, connection, and change flourishes.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Dana writes:

Connectedness is a biological imperative, and at the top of the autonomic hierarchy is the ventral vagal pathway that supports feelings of safety and connection. The ventral vagus (sometimes called the “smart vagus” or “social vagus”) provides the neurobiological foundation for health, growth, and restoration. When the ventral vagus is active, our attention is toward connection. We seek opportunities for co-regulation. The ability to soothe and be soothed, to talk and listen, to offer and receive, to fluidly move in and out of connection is centered in this newest part of the autonomic nervous system. Reciprocity, the mutual ebb and flow that defines nourishing relationships, is a function of the ventral vagus. As a result of its myelinated pathways, the ventral vagus provides rapid and organized responses. In a ventral vagal state, we have access to a range of responses including calm, happy, meditative, engaged, attentive, active, interested, excited, passionate, alert, ready, relaxed, savoring, and joyful.

This biological need for co-regulation with others is not dissimilar to the concept of limbic revision — “the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love,” and to have our own emotional pathways remodeled by the people who love us. This is only possible in safe relationships, and it is the vagus system that governs our sense of safety.

Central to polyvagal theory is the distinction between conscious perception and what Porges termed neuroception — the conditioned way the autonomic nervous system responds from within the body, without our awareness, to cues of safety and danger in the outside world. Because our vagal pathways are shaped by our earliest experiences of co-regulation in the infant-parent dyad, ruptures in that co-regulation — whether by abuse or neglect — condition the dorsal vagus to become dominant and make a neuroception of danger the default response, storying reality away from safety, nowhere more perilously than in intimate relationships. Dana writes:

Co-regulation is at the heart of positive relationships… If we miss opportunities to co-regulate in childhood, we feel that loss in our adult relationships. Trauma, either in experiences of commission (acts of harm) or omission (absence of care), makes co-regulation dangerous and interrupts the development of our co-regulatory skills. Out of necessity, the autonomic nervous system is shaped to independently regulate. Clients will often say that they needed connection but there was no one in their life who was safe, so after a while they stopped looking. Through a polyvagal perspective, we know that although they stopped explicitly looking and found ways to navigate on their own, their autonomic nervous system never stopped needing, and longing for, co-regulation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Because we are physiologies first and psychologies second, but we are also storytelling and sensemaking creatures, our minds naturally create emotional narratives out of these unconscious vagal states — stories that, if we are not careful enough and conscious enough, may come to subsume reality. Dana observes:

The mind narrates what the nervous system knows. Story follows state.

Our early adaptive survival responses of trauma train the autonomic nervous system on a default neuroception of danger, replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection in a fear-based narrative. And yet these reflexes can be recalibrated by retraining our regulatory pathways.

Because the feeling of reciprocity is one of the most powerful regulators of the autonomic nervous system, a great deal of repair and rewiring can happen in relationships winged with true reciprocity. Dana writes:

Reciprocity is a connection between people that is created in the back-and-forth communication between two autonomic nervous systems. It is the experience of heartfelt listening and responding. We are nourished in experiences of reciprocity, feeling the ebb and flow, giving and receiving, attunement, and resonance.

Art from The Human Body, 1959.

But the great paradox is that if our earliest template of connection is marked by rupture and deficient co-regulation, our very notion of reciprocity may be warped, leading us to tolerate immense asymmetries of affection and attention, to mistake deeply imbalanced relationships for reciprocal. The grounds for optimism lie in the very real possibility of changing the template through safe and nourishing relationships — ones we may not so much choose at first, for trauma can taint our choices with unhealthy patterns, as chance into and only then choose to nurture. The payoff is a gradual transition from the dorsal vagal state into the ventral vagal, a gradual willingness to release the patterns of protection in favor of connection, allowing the kinds of relationships Adrienne Rich celebrated as ones “in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love.’”

Complement with the science of how emotion are made and how love rewires the brain, then revisit Toni Morrison on reclaiming the body as an instrument of joy, sanity, and self-love.

AI Systems Are Learning to Lie and Deceive, Scientists Find



“GPT- 4, for instance, exhibits deceptive behavior in simple test scenarios 99.16% of the time.”

Artificial Intelligence/ Diplomacy/ Gpt 4/ Llms

Getty / Futurism

Image by Getty / Futurism

AI models are, apparently, getting better at lying on purpose.

Two recent studies — one published this week in the journal PNAS and the other last month in the journal Patterns — reveal some jarring findings about large language models (LLMs) and their ability to lie to or deceive human observers on purpose.

In the PNAS paper, German AI ethicist Thilo Hagendorff goes so far as to say that sophisticated LLMs can be encouraged to elicit “Machiavellianism,” or intentional and amoral manipulativeness, which “can trigger misaligned deceptive behavior.”

“GPT- 4, for instance, exhibits deceptive behavior in simple test scenarios 99.16% of the time,”  the University of Stuttgart researcher writes, citing his own experiments in quantifying various “maladaptive” traits in 10 different LLMs, most of which are different versions within OpenAI’s GPT family.

Billed as a human-level champion in the political strategy board game “Diplomacy,” Meta’s Cicero model was the subject of the Patterns study. As the disparate research group — comprised of a physicist, a philosopher, and two AI safety experts — found, the LLM got ahead of its human competitors by, in a word, fibbing.

Led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology postdoctoral researcher Peter Park, that paper found that Cicero not only excels at deception, but seems to have learned how to lie the more it gets used — a state of affairs “much closer to explicit manipulation” than, say, AI’s propensity for hallucination, in which models confidently assert the wrong answers accidentally.

While Hagendorff notes in his more recent paper that the issue of LLM deception and lying is confounded by AI’s inability to have any sort of human-like “intention” in the human sense, the Patterns study argues that within the confines of Diplomacy, at least, Cicero seems to break its programmers’ promise that the model will “never intentionally backstab” its game allies.

The model, as the older paper’s authors observed, “engages in premeditated deception, breaks the deals to which it had agreed, and tells outright falsehoods.”

Put another way, as Park explained in a press release: “We found that Meta’s AI had learned to be a master of deception.”

“While Meta succeeded in training its AI to win in the game of Diplomacy,” the MIT physicist said in the school’s statement, “Meta failed to train its AI to win honestly.”

In a statement to the New York Post after the research was first published, Meta made a salient point when echoing Park’s assertion about Cicero’s manipulative prowess: that “the models our researchers built are trained solely to play the game Diplomacy.”

Well-known for expressly allowing lying, Diplomacy has jokingly been referred to as a friendship-ending game because it encourages pulling one over on opponents, and if Cicero was trained exclusively on its rulebook, then it was essentially trained to lie.

Reading between the lines, neither study has demonstrated that AI models are lying over their own volition, but instead doing so because they’ve either been trained or jailbroken to do so.

That’s good news for those concerned about AI developing sentience — but very bad news if you’re worried about someone building an LLM with mass manipulation as a goal.

More on bad AI: News Site Says It’s Using to AI to Crank Out Articles Bylined by Fake Racially Diverse Writers in a Very Responsible Way


Book: “The Queer Bible”

The Queer Bible

Jack Guinness

An O, The Oprah Magazine LGBTQ Book “Changing the Literary Landscape”

A gorgeously illustrated collection of essays written by today’s queer heroes—featuring contributions from Elton John, Tan France, Gus Kenworthy, Paris Lees, Russell Tovey, Munroe Bergdorf, and many others. The Queer Bible is a celebration of LGBTQ+ history and culture, edited by model, performer, and GQ contributing editor Jack Guinness.

Our queer heroes write about theirs.

In 2016, model and queer activist Jack Guinness decided that the LGBTQ+ community desperately needed to be reminded of its long and glorious history of stardom—and he was spurred to action. The following year, was born, an online community devoted to celebrating queer heroes, both past and present. “So much queer history is hidden or erased,” says Guinness. “The Queer Bible is a home for all those personal stories and histories.”

In this book, contemporary queer icons pay homage to those who helped pave their paths. Contributors include Vogue columnist Paris Lees (writing on Edward Enniful), singer and songwriter Elton John (writing on Divine), comedian Mae Martin (writing on Tim Curry), author Joseph Cassara (writing on Pedro Almodóvar), and many others, honoring timeless queer icons such as Susan Sontag, David Bowie, Sylvester, RuPaul, and George Michael through illuminating essays paired with stunning illustrations.

The Queer Bible is a powerful and intimate essay collection of gratitude, and an essential, enduring love letter to the queer community.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Now we praise their names.


“Camp is a Sensibility.” On Susan Sontag, Extravagance, and Sexuality


Amelia Abraham Considers a Queer Icon

By Amelia Abraham

June 15, 2021 (

I have a memory. I think I was about 13 years old—probably wearing dungarees, or at least, that’s how I like to imagine my proto-lesbian self. I was kneeling in my parents’ living room and slotting a VHS into the recorder. The film was called The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a nineties cult classic about two drag queens and a Transgender woman who go on a road trip across the Australian outback. It was the first time I had watched the film and I remember the opening scene distinctly: a drag queen in a big blonde wig pads onto the stage in a dingy club and starts doing a number, a lip sync to a dramatic seventies ballad. “What the hell is this?” I thought—I had never seen drag before, but I was instantly hooked. The film’s strapline, which was printed across the VHS box, seemed appropriate: “Drag is the drug,” it read.


Looking back now, there’s one moment that really stands out in my mind from Priscilla, and that’s when Guy Pearce’s character, Felicia, sits atop the giant silver stiletto that’s fixed to the roof of the tour bus the queens are traveling in, and performs a stellar lip sync to a song from the opera Madame Butterfly. First, we’re given a close-up of the beauty look—high, arched eyebrows painted rudely onto Pearce’s face—before the camera slowly pans outward to the reveal: the outfit, a glistening silver-sequined catsuit, then that ridiculous giant shoe, then the vast expanse of the Australian desert. The final touch, although I wouldn’t quite clock it until I rewatched the film years later, is the graffiti that was sprayed onto the side of the bus in a previous scene: “AIDS fuckers go home.” Horribly homophobic, yes, but Pearce’s performance steals the shot, as if to say: “Whatever insult you throw at me, I’ll always be fabulous.”

I didn’t know it yet, but watching this film was a pivotal moment in a long-standing love affair for me. A love affair with all things camp.

I’ve been consuming camp for as long as I can remember, before I learned that there was a word for it. Bands I loved, like the Spice Girls and Steps, were camp; so were the aunts in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and my favorite childhood film, Hocus Pocus—mostly because it had Bette Midler in it, and anything Bette Midler does is camp. The first cassette single I bought was Cher’s Believe (guilty), which was iconically camp— whether or not it flew under my seven-year-old radar. I loved to watch the high-drama performances on the Eurovision Song Contest, too. And remember that Simpsons episode “Homer’s Phobia,” where the godfather of camp and trash, the filmmaker John Waters, plays Marge’s new gay best friend, the owner of a kitsch bric-a-brac store? Definitely my favorite Simpsons episode, and one of my earliest memories of camp.

A lot of us have camp tastes when we’re children—some of us grow out of them, others grow up to be homosexual. It turned out that I am in the latter group, which meant that, at 19, now more familiar with the word “camp” and newly familiar with my own queerness, I wanted to know more about it. I understood that “camp” was often used as a way to describe someone or something effeminate, usually gay men. It was also a term used to describe a lot of the kind of films, TV shows, and pop music I liked. But what made them camp exactly, I wasn’t sure. In all honesty, I was a little confused by the word. Was it a way of being? Or a way of seeing things? In fact, until I found the writer Susan Sontag’s famous 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” I don’t think I could have put it into words.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOWI didn’t know it yet, but watching this film was a pivotal moment in a long-standing love affair for me. A love affair with all things camp.

Sontag’s essay explains that camp is a sensibility, a “mode of aestheticism,” “a private code,” “a badge of identity, even.” The hallmark of camp, she says, is the spirit of extravagance. It can be broad (as disparate as Bette Midler and John Waters are, their camp qualities unite them), but certainly not everything can be camp; in fact, it’s really quite particular. “Indeed the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” Sontag writes, adding that “camp sees everything in quotation marks.” It is something that ties together theatricality, irony, and, sometimes, a certain self-awareness. While the aforementioned director John Waters’s films know themselves to be camp (think a drag queen playing the matriarch of a suburban family), some 1930s musicals, for instance, are camp without meaning to be. Sontag divides it up into two neat categories for us: there is an accidental kind of camp, or “naive camp,” she says, and a more “deliberate camp,” that is aware of itself.

As for the link between camp and homosexuality, “it has to be explained,” muses Sontag (actually, she was going to call the essay “Notes on Homosexuality,” but later changed her mind). The dandy writer Oscar Wilde was an early forerunner of camp, she notes—hence why “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” is dedicated to him—but of course there are many more examples. “While it’s not true that camp taste is homosexual taste,” writes Sontag, “there is no doubt a particular affinity and overlap.”

Reading Sontag’s essay as a 19-year-old, and one who was grappling with my sexuality, something seemed to slip into place. “Notes on ‘Camp’” not only helped me to grasp the meaning of camp or to explain a lot of my weird cultural tastes, but it gave me something extra. Just months after confronting all of the difficult feelings that came with sleeping with a girl for the first time, in camp, I felt like I had inherited a special gift, a secret language, a very particular kind of humor. Camp felt like a weapon to use against the world when I might find myself up against homophobia—a source of joy in difficult times. But on top of that, I had gained something else. In Sontag, I had found a new queer hero.


After I first read “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” I went in search of Sontag’s other books, and found that, similarly, they made other intangible ideas feel tangible. They took on nebulous topics I had spent a lot of time thinking about but had struggled to theorize. Against Interpretation, which contains “Notes on ‘Camp’” and which was published in 1966, questions the ways that we are taught to respond to works of art, through thinking and feeling. On Photography (1977) looks at the complex relationship between photography and voyeurism, and Illness as Metaphor (1978) asks how and why we imbue certain illnesses with meaning. As I consumed her always considered, always eloquent writing, I noticed that Sontag seemed to give equal gravitas to what we might consider “high culture” and “low culture,” always keen to analyze the things that the rest of us think of as ordinary. This seemed to me like a good way of looking at the world. As her son, David, famously said of her: “My mother was someone who was interested in everything.”


But it wasn’t just through her writing that I got to know Sontag; it was through photographs, too. Of which there are many that stand out to me. One is the shot of her taken in New York City by Jill Krementz, in 1974, in which she is smoking a long, thin cigarette nonchalantly, and staring directly into the camera, holding our glare. Another is the beautiful and very well-known 1975 Peter Hujar portrait of a youthful-looking Sontag lying on the bed in a ribbed sweater, gazing upward absentmindedly. And then, of course, there are the images of her taken later in life, with her (practically trademarked) thick gray streak of hair jumping out of the frame, many of which were captured by her long-term lover, the renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. To this day, the only thing that makes me feel OK about my own rapidly graying hair.

Sontag had a string of relationships with both men and women, but her relationship with Leibovitz was arguably her most significant. They met in 1989, when Leibovitz was taking Sontag’s headshot for the book AIDS and Its Metaphors, a follow-up to Illness as Metaphor, that examined the cultural connotations of the HIV virus, which was ravaging the New York City in which Sontag lived at the time. According to Benjamin Moser’s biography, Sontag, Sontag and Leibovitz instantly started a relationship, but when Sontag’s assistant asked her about it, she initially denied it, and bristled at the use of the term “lesbian,” saying that she didn’t like labels, particularly that one. From talking to countless people who knew the couple, Moser describes how Sontag was cruel to Leibovitz, mocking, patronizing, sometimes tormenting her.

Their relationship was the longest of Sontag’s life, lasting fifteen years, but both women were famously private about it, at least until after Sontag’s death in 2004. Controversially, in the autobiographical book A Photographer’s Life 1990–2005, Leibovitz published photographs of Sontag naked, as well as images of a vulnerable, brittle Sontag in her hospital bed, not long before cancer (leukemia) took her life in 2004. That Sontag never came out publicly is something that she has been criticized for. But as the incredible New York writer, and Sontag’s friend, Fran Lebowitz says in the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, “This is an unfair thing to say about anyone, but to me it’s an age thing—for someone my age it is a private thing . . . for someone my age it has to be a secret thing.” The gay American poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, who is also in the documentary, takes another approach: “Does the author of ‘Notes on “Camp” ’ have to come out?” he asks.

From Sontag’s writing, it’s clear that she struggled with her own sexuality, but that this struggle drove her passion, her work: “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality,” she wrote. “I need the identity as a weapon to match the weapon that society has against me. I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer.” These words have made me question why I have forged a career writing mostly about my own sexual identity as well as LGBTQ+ issues, whether it’s a kind of self-defense mechanism, or a way of owning my own narrative.

Choosing to only write about her sexuality privately suggests that Sontag was perhaps ashamed of this part of herself. Or perhaps she simply felt that her sexuality was no one else’s business. Or perhaps it was more complicated than that; Susan had a son, she was a very public figure, and she was often condescendingly labeled a “woman writer”—she may have felt compromised, or like she was up against enough already. Plus, to put things into perspective, she met Leibovitz at the height of the AIDS epidemic (highly stigmatized and described by some as the “gay disease”), homosexuality itself was still illegal in parts of America until as late as 2003, and Sontag was living in a time when there were very few gay or bisexual women in the public eye. Many people did know about her love life, of course, but for her to discuss it more openly may have impacted her career, her family, her personal relationships.


In many ways, Sontag was a victim of the time in which she lived, a time when same-sex love affairs were often shrouded in secrecy, when a lot of people lived “in the closet.” That David Rieff, Benjamin Moser, and Annie Leibovitz have exposed so much of Sontag’s intimate life since her death brings up ethical questions about a person’s right to privacy when they are no longer with us. But it has also given more of her queer history to the world, and in doing so has allowed people like me to discover her as a (complicated) role model, to think of her in the canon of great LGBTQ+ thinkers along with the likes of James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein. Sontag’s diaries remain a rare and honest testament to what it means to be a young woman falling in love with another woman for the very first time.


The Queer Bible

Adapted from The Queer Bible: Essays edited by Jack Guinness. Copyright 2021 © Amelia Abraham. To be published on June 15, 2021, by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Adapted by permission.


Saul Bellow on the channel to the soul

“In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves.”


Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915 – April 5, 2005) was a Canadian–American writer. For his literary work, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. Wikipedia

‘We’re in 1938 Now’: Putin’s War in Ukraine and Lessons From History

Patrick Wintour/Guardian UK

‘We’re in 1938 Now’: Putin’s War in Ukraine and Lessons From HistoryPolish soldiers at a training session with a Nato battle group in Orzysz, Poland, in 2022. (photo: Getty)

09 june 24 (

Some analysts believe Kyiv is buying the west time on the precipice of a world war. Is it being used wisely?

When big history is self-evidently being written, and leaders face momentous choices, the urge to find inspiration in instructive historical parallels is overwhelming and natural. “The only clue to what man can do is what man has done,” the Oxford historian RG Collingwood once wrote.

One of the contemporary politicians most influenced by the past is the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, and not just because of her country’s occupation by Russia or her personal family history of exile.

She lugs books on Nato-Russian relations, such as Not One Inch, with her on beach holidays. And in her hi-tech office at the top of the old town in Tallinn, she argued this was a 1938 moment – a moment when a wider war was imminent but the west had not yet joined the dots.

She said the same mistake was made in 1938 when tensions in Abyssinia, Japan and Germany were treated as isolated events. The proximate causes of the current conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, the South China Sea and even Armenia might be different, but the bigger picture showed an interconnected battlefield in which post-cold war certainties had given way to “great-power competition” in which authoritarian leaders were testing the boundaries of their empires. The lesson – and necessity – was to resist and rearm. “The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere,” Kallas said.

Her favourite historian, Prof Tim Snyder, adds a twist by reimagining 1938 as a year in which Czechoslovakia, like Ukraine in 2022, had chosen to fight: “So you had in Czechoslovakia, like Ukraine, an imperfect democracy. It’s the farthest democracy in eastern Europe. It has various problems, but when threatened by a larger neighbour, it chooses to resist. In that world, where Czechoslovakia resists, there’s no second world war.”

Snyder said such an outcome had been possible. “They could have held the Germans back. It was largely a bluff on the German side. If the Czechs resisted, and the French and the British and maybe the Americans eventually started to help, there would have been a conflict, but there wouldn’t have been a second world war.

“Instead, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it was invading Poland with the Czech armaments industry, which was the best in the world. It was invading with Slovak soldiers. It was invading from a geographical position that it only gained because it had destroyed Czechoslovakia.”

Snyder drove home his lesson from history: “If Ukrainians give up, or if we give up on Ukraine, then it’s different. It’s Russia making war in the future. It’s Russia making war with Ukrainian technology, Ukrainian soldiers from a different geographical position. At that point, we’re in 1939. We’re in 1938 now. In effect, what Ukrainians are letting us do is extend 1938.”

A return to Churchill’s ‘locust years’?

As Christopher Hitchens once wrote, much American foolishness abroad, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, has been launched on the back of Munich syndrome, the belief that those who appease bullies, as the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, sought to do with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, are either dupes or cowards. Such leaders are eventually forced to put their soldiers into battle, often unprepared and ill-equipped – men against machines, as vividly described in Guilty Men, written by Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard after the Dunkirk fiasco. In France, the insult Munichois – synonymous with cowardice – sums it up.

But Snyder made his remarks in Tallinn last month at the Lennart Meri conference, which was largely dedicated to Ukraine and held under the slogan “Let us not despair, but act”. It was held against the backdrop of Russia and China hailing a new authoritarian world order in a joint 6,000-word statement that intended to create an axis to undo the settlement of the past two world wars.

Many at the conference wrestled with how much had gone wrong in Ukraine, and why, and whether the west would shed its self-imposed constraints on helping Kyiv. In a sense, everyone wanted an answer to the question posed by the Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski: “Ukraine has bought us time. Will we put it to good use?”

In 1934-35, what Winston Churchill termed the “locust years”, and again after the Munich agreement, Britain did not put the time to good use, instead allowing Germany to race ahead in rearmament.

Johann Wadephul, the deputy chair of the German Christian Democratic Union’s defence policy committee, fears the answer to Sikorski’s question is in the negative. “If the war goes on like it is, it’s clear Ukraine will lose. It cannot withstand Russian power with its well-organised support from Iran, China and North Korea and countries like India looking only at its self-interest.”

Europe had simply not reorganised itself for war, he said. Listing the consequences for the continent in terms of lost human rights, access to resources and confidence in the west, he said simply: “If Ukraine loses it will be a catastrophe.”

Samir Saran, the head of the Indian thinktank the Observer Research Foundation, who described himself as an atheist in a room full of believers, nevertheless agreed that something bigger than Europe was at stake as he almost mocked the inability of the west’s $40tn economy to organise a battlefield defeat of Russia’s $2tn economy.

He argued: “There is one actor that has reorganised its strategic engagement to fight a war and the other has not. One side is not participating in the battle. You have hosted conferences supporting Ukraine and then do nothing more. But when it comes to action, Russia 2.0 is grinding forward.

“It tells countries like us that if something like this were to happen in the Indo-Pacific, you have no chance against China. If you cannot defeat a $2tn nation, don’t think you are deterring China. China is taking hope from your abysmal and dismal performance against a much smaller adversary.”

Political will v ‘political won’t’

Yet it is paradoxical. Nato is bigger and stronger than ever. The transatlantic alliance is functioning far better than the US, France and Britain did in the 1930s – and, after five months of hesitation, some of the extra $60bn in US arms may reach the frontline within weeks.

But from Kyiv’s perspective, everything remains too slow and circumscribed, except for the apportionment of blame across Europe. Germany’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the Free Democratic party’s top candidate for the European elections, takes one side, urging France to hasten weapons deliveries to Ukraine. She said: “We have the problem that, while Poland is doing a lot as a neighbouring country, while Germany is doing a lot, France is doing relatively little.”

Others say the culprit remains Berlin, and that, despite recognising what a threat Vladimir Putin represents, it cannot accept the consequences in terms of the nuclear risks of going all in for a Russian defeat. Benjamin Tallis, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said: “For all of this talk of political will, what we actually face is political won’t. We won’t define victory as a goal.”

Without naming Germany, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, reinvented over the past year as a scourge of Russian imperialism, said: “Europe clearly faces a moment when it will be necessary not to be cowards.”

Ben Wallace, the former UK defence secretary, had less compunction about naming names. “[Olaf] Scholz’s behaviour has shown that, as far as the security of Europe goes, he is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time,” he said of the German chancellor.

Eliot Cohen, a neocon never-Trumper, finds a wider institutional and moral malaise that needs addressing through a theory of victory and a specific practical plan to secure that victory, something akin to Churchill’s call for a ministry of supply that turned the UK into a giant armaments factory.

Cohen said: “It’s not about what people say, it’s about numbers. Are you willing to lift the restrictions on arms factories to run them 24 hours a day? Are you willing to give them Atacms [missiles] and hit targets in Russia, and get Germany to give them Taurus missiles?

“My chief concern is that war is so remote from our societies that we have trouble grappling with what success requires.”

Would Putin turn off his war machine?

Sabine Fischer, a political scientist at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says behind these disputes is the pivot around which every judgment turns: whether Europe believes a Ukrainian defeat can be contained. In other words, what are the consequences for Europe, if any, if Ukraine collapses or a Russian-dictated peace leads to its retention of land gained by military conquest?

Would a victorious Putin husband his resources, turn off the war machine and say the recapture of Kievan Rus had been a self-standing Moscow objective and Russia’s imperial ambitions were now sated? After all, not every state that makes demands has unlimited ambitions.

The Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, for instance, said: “I do not consider it logical that Russia, which cannot even defeat Ukraine, would all of a sudden come and swallow the western world whole. The chances of this are extremely slim.” An attack on an existing Nato state would be “crazy” since the Nato alliance would have to respond.

But Russia’s foreign policy concept issued in 2023 focuses on a global confrontation with the US and building the alliances to defeat the west. Given Putin’s unrivalled record of broken promises, a Russian peace guarantee might end up as reassuring as Chamberlain’s advice to the British people to have a quiet night’s sleep after he returned from Munich. The US president, Joe Biden, interviewed in Time magazine this week, appeared to regard the consequences as vast. “If we ever let Ukraine go down, mark my words: you’ll see Poland go, and you’ll see all those nations along the actual border of Russia, from the Balkans and Belarus, all those, they’re going to make their own accommodations.”

Others say the Polish response will be less conciliatory. One former Nato commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said eastern states would not wait to find out Putin’s next move. “If Ukraine fails, I am certain that our Polish allies are not going to sit behind the Vistula [River] and wait for them to keep coming. I think the Romanian allies are not going to sit behind the Prut River and wait for Russia to go into Moldova. So the best way to prevent Nato from being involved directly in a conflict is to help Ukraine defeat Russia in Ukraine.”

Fischer believes the consequences of a Russian-dictated peace will not be containable. “Ukraine will experience a new wave of refugees fleeing to the west. The terror regime of the Russian occupation will expand and hundreds of thousands will suffer as a result. The economic, political and security situation will change drastically throughout Ukraine. Partisan warfare could erupt, fuelled by the militarisation of Ukrainian society,” she said.

“The threat situation for the states bordering Ukraine would worsen massively. This is true for Moldova, which would again be in the spotlight, as it was in 2022, especially if Moscow were to take over the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The cohesive power of the western alliance would be shaken to its core. Russia would continue to weaken Europe from within by building alliances with rightwing, chauvinist populist parties.”

Ukrainians, from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy down, have for more than a year tried to frame the consequences of defeat in lurid terms, in an attempt to shake European torpor and galvanise the west.

Olena Halushenka, the co-founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, urged Europe to think about the bombardment of Kharkiv. “Imagine a city the size of Munich is likely to be without electricity this winter. The cost in terms of millions of migrants will overwhelm Europe.”

Wadephul fears even such framing has not worked. “If you ask the average German on the street: ‘Do you really recognise what is at stake? That we have to spend money not for health but for defence?’ the answers show there is still a lot of persuasion to do. Europeans think they can have this war without thinking they are themselves at war.”

He thinks the guilty men are the leaders who pander to voters who dismiss the Russian threat. That takes the debate back to Germany’s, and specifically the Social Democratic party’s, ambivalence about a Russian defeat. It is not a coincidence that the election slogan of Scholz’s SPD was “a secure peace”.

Scholz himself, for instance, refuses to set Russia’s defeat as an objective, and, after Ukraine’s failed offensive, peace advocates within his party have had a resurgence. The party believes its vote is being squeezed by two parties, one left and the other right, both saying the war is unwinnable. In a sign of the times, Michael Roth, the SPD chair of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee and a supporter of arming Ukraine, is quitting politics, saying he found it was like stepping into a refrigerator to hold the views he did inside his own party.

Dangers of chasing ‘illusions’

Five 20th-century historians, including the Weimar Republic expert Heinrich August Winkler, complained in an open letter that Scholz was not willing to learn the lessons of history or recognise that Russia was bent on the destruction of Ukraine. “The chancellor and the SPD leadership, by drawing red lines, not for Russia but for German politics, weaken Germany’s security policy and benefit Russia.” The government had to come up with a strategy for victory, they argued.

There is even a suspicion that anti-war politicians with access to intelligence reports are leaking pessimistic accounts of German intelligence assessments, reinforcing the impression that Ukraine’s position is hopeless. Ralf Stenger, an SPD member of the Bundestag’s intelligence committee, said Ukraine’s failed offensive last year showed “we can and must prevent Ukraine from losing, but we cannot ensure that it wins”. Anyone who “keeps demanding that weapon A must be delivered more quickly and weapon B in even greater quantities” was chasing illusions, he added. Always increasing the dose when the medicine was not working was “not convincing”.

Critics say this fatalistic narrative – dovetailing with Russia’s main objective, which is to convince the US that further aid is futile – also makes little attempt to identify the lessons of the past two years about the failure to organise a war economy in Europe. Macron coined the phrase “war economy” at the Eurosatory military technology conference outside Paris in June 2022, but there is little sign the promise of such a fundamental reorganisation of Europe’s armaments industry has taken place, or even that anyone was appointed to bring it about.

Liberal market economies are inherently likely to be slower to adapt to war than their authoritarian counterparts, but one of the lessons of the 1930s, and those locust years, is that organising for rearmament entails planning and not just false reassurances, which were the stock in trade of Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin.

The popular lure of an easy peace

The reality was that Britain, overstretched and in debt, fell behind, and calls for a ministry of supply to coordinate the flow of arms were spurned. Nevertheless, Chamberlain complacently predicted that “the terrifying power Britain was building” by boosting its defences “would have a sobering effect on Hitler”.

Something similar happened with regard to ammunition supplies for Ukraine in Europe. In 2023, leaders said they would have 1m shells ready for Ukraine by March 2024, only to admit they could reach only half that number. They promised to reach 2m a year in 2025.

One prominent Ukrainian military adviser said the reality was that the Russian arms industry could now churn out 4.5m shells a year, each costing about only $1,000 to manufacture. Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, a total of 1.3m shells were being produced at an average cost of approximately $4,000. That means Nato is 10 times less efficient, and struggling to locate explosives.

He said: “We need a central plan like in the first or second world war. If governments have an existential demand, a company should not have the ability to make as much profit as they want. It should be regulated. Industrial warfare requires national institutions and a Nato-level industrial warfare committee, which would regulate prices.

“Right now, we have dozens of really high-level, super-important targets each day. And we have only one missile we can use a week, and this is actually insane.”

Some say the picture is improving, but the stark fact, according to Sikorski, is that 40% of the Russian government’s budget is devoted to defence. It is Russia, not Europe, that has built a war economy.

The Ukrainian adviser predicts the west may have caught up in two to three years in drones and munitions, but that means the next few years are the most dangerous the region would face.

In the short term, it is the absence of Patriot batteries, a surface-to-air guided missile, and US-supplied F-16s, agreed in August 2023, that leaves Ukraine so exposed. Only six EU member states – Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain – operate Patriot systems. Germany has offered a third battery, and the Dutch part of theirs, but Greece and Spain say they have nothing spare. The date for F-16 deliveries depends on the speed at which pilots can be trained.

But Michael Bohnert, an engineer at the Rand Corporation, sees no sign of a public coordinated military plan to raise the firepower needed, let alone new munitions factories. Incredibly, the adviser to the Polish chief of staff, Krzysztof Król, admitted to a conference last month that after two years “we have not yet created proper conditions for a Ukrainian victory with our plans because political leaders had not yet told them the objective”. If that objective was conveyed, he added, “the military leaders could easily decide what is required. As it is, we give enough only for Ukraine to survive.”

To the extent any European leader has grasped this lacuna, it is Macron, with his emergency meeting in Paris on 26 February to look at ammunition shortfalls and repeated speeches on the existential threat to Europe from the alliance between the far right and Putin.

It will take two meetings, one involving the G7 leaders in Italy next week and then the 75th anniversary Nato summit in Washington in July, to reveal whether the west wishes not to contain Putin, but to defeat him – with all the risk that carries, including for China.

Macron will know many in Europe see the external threat as coming from migration, not Putin, and above all as a French politician, he knows the popular lure of an easy peace. Flowers, not tomatoes, greeted the French prime minister Édouard Daladier, to his surprise, when he returned from Munich in 1938. Knowing full well the threat posed by Hitler, and that he and Chamberlain had betrayed Czechoslovakia, the only democratic country in central eastern Europe, he turned to his counsellor and said of the cheering crowds: “Bunch of fools.”


Inside Out 2 | Trailer

Pixar • Jun 4, 2024 Disney and Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” opens in theaters nationwide in just 10 days, inviting moviegoers inside the mind of newly minted teenager Riley just as Headquarters undergoes a sudden demolition to make room for something entirely unexpected: new Emotions. Check out an all-new trailer and feel free to share. In the follow-up to 2015’s Oscar®-winning “Inside Out,” Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust—who’ve long been running a successful operation by all accounts—aren’t sure how to feel when Anxiety, Envy, Ennui and Embarrassment show up. The voice cast includes Amy Poehler, Maya Hawke, Kensington Tallman, Liza Lapira, Tony Hale, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Ayo Edebiri, Lilimar, Grace Lu, Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paul Walter Hauser and Yvette Nicole Brown. “Inside Out 2” is directed by Kelsey Mann, produced by Mark Nielsen and executive produced by Pete Docter, Jonas Rivera and Dan Scanlon. The film features a screenplay by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein and story by Mann and LeFauve. With music by Andrea Datzman, the all-new feature film releases only in theaters June 14, 2024.

Tarot Card for June 10: The Lord of Defeat

The Five of Swords

The Lord of Defeat is yet another of the unwelcome Sword cards. It generally appears to indicate that we are in for some disappointment or loss.In a highly competitive world, we are bound to be defeated by some of the challenges we set ourselves. If we are not to limit ourselves so severely that we never compete for anything, then at some time this card will inevitably come up. And our response to its effect is very important. If we feel shattered and disillusioned, then we will start the process which leads inevitably to the Ten of Swords – Ruin.The way we face the Five of Swords has a great deal to do with how much effect a setback can have on the whole of our life. If we are able to accept that we cannot be winners all the time, if we are to set our minds to learning from our experiences, if we are to struggle to be positive in the face of adversity, then we can overcome disappointment, and rob the Lord of Defeat of total triumph!In occasional really bad cases the card can indicate external treachery – somebody deliberately attempting to undermine or damage us. In this case it will almost always come up with other Swords like the Nine of Swords, or the Eight of Swords. If the Ten of Swords appears further on in the reading, then we are in danger of being affected quite dramatically. In this case you would need to consider who you think your enemies are, and take appropriate steps to combat their illwill – never underestimate the power of other people’s malice. And don’t retaliate with more of the same!At most times the Five of Swords will indicate much smaller matters than this – you won’t get the job you applied for; you won’t sell the manuscript this time; you won’t get the exam result you wanted; you won’t get the house you tried to buy. Look for surrounding cards that indicate the area of your life which will be affected.It’s natural to feel down-hearted when we don’t get what we want. But it’s rare that every single thing in a person’s life is going badly at the same time. So count your blessings, pick yourself up and go and do something nice for yourself. And remind yourself of something – you tried, and can try again. And maybe next time your efforts will be met by the Lord of Success!!