Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cogito Ergo BOOM

It started with Donald Rumsfeld's existential poetry:

There are known knowns
Things we know we know
And there are known unknowns
Things we know we don't know
But then there are unknown unknowns
Things we don't know we don't know.

I may be confessing the depth of my unknown unknown ignorance here, but I find it baffling and a little scary that so many people are taken in by Rumsfeld's poem all of the sudden. In an interview with Errol Morris at The New York Times, Cornell sociologist David Dunning credits a recent epiphany to Rummy's closing couplet:

He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.” ... If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.

After reading the above, Andrew Sullivan made it one of his Quotes of the Day. Ditto with esteemed Theatrosphere forum Parabasis. Future Pulitzer winner Dan Brooks used unknown unknowns to articulate the vapidity of Ke$sha:

Is the socialist-realist mural Ke$ha would paint if only she were much, much better at painting an unknown unknown, or is it not out there at all?

Call me cocky or stupid, but I already know there are things I don't know I don't know. Somewhere around age two, it became painfully clear to me that I'm not omniscient and that my growth and fulfillment in this life depended on how I square my limitations with my desires. Sure, I need periodic reminders of this. But to expostulate at length on a self-canceling non-thought like "unknown unknowns" strikes me as a fabulous waste of consciouness, not an enhancement thereof. Especially since, as I hope to prove here, Rumsfeld's poem has bigger things to teach us.

Now don't get me wrong: thinking about unknown unknowns is a great meditative exercise. And we can all think of people who are too cocky or stupid to know how cocky or stupid they are. (If we're at all mature, we check in with ourselves to see if that's us.) Perhaps these cocky stupid people will read The New York Times, The Daily Dish, Combat! and Parabasis and be disabused of their cocky stupidity, but I doubt it. Indeed, that rather seems to be the whole point of the Morris/Dunning dialog, the "discovery" everyone can't stop talking about:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. “But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras ... If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

The burglar suffers from unknown unknowns, he is too stupid to know he's stupid. Ha ha! What a stupid ... guy who ... is stupid. Again, what's the insight here? That stupid people have been known to do stupid things? That ignorance begets ignorance? Certainly that's true as far as it goes (and must be very reassuring to all us smart people mocking him from the outside), but how is this different from saying a hungry man stays hungry because his hunger saps the strengh he needs to get food? Hell, we can play this game all day if you want ...

It takes intelligence to seek intelligence.

How true.

Blue skies are pleasing to the eye on account of their inherent blueness.

Quite so.

You have to spend money to make money.

Which means you have to make money to make money.

Which means oooooooommmmmmmmmm!

Andrew Sullivan is so taken with unknown unknowns he tries to use the concept to skewer Sarah Palin. The implication being: Sarah's just like the burglar, too stupid to know she's stupid, blissfully unconcerned with the unknown unknowns. And this is where I rebel. Not to defend Sarah Palin, but because we've now abandoned any serious consideration of the unknown unknown (specifically: what it meant to the man who coined the phrase.) Donald Rumsfeld was the High Priest of Corporate Holy War, for crying out loud. His ominous incantations about the unknown unknown could not find a more worthy supplicant than Sarah Palin. Rummy wasn't toking up at a poetry slam when he said those words; he said them at a NATO press conference on the Iraq War. So before we spend another working day in an epistemological tizzy, can we pause to connect Rummy's spooky koan with the historical moment that inspired it? Please? Breaks down like this:

We know Iraq has WMDs.
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
It is a known known.
Now, we can't seem to find these WMDs.
But at lesat we know we don't know where they are.
It is a known unknown.
And before you ask any more questions ...
Just think of all the WMDs we don't even know we don't know about!
Beware the unknown unknowns!


The Zen masters tell us to ponder a tree falling in the forest. Does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it? The Secretary of Defense for the Global War on Terror would like us to ponder all the things we can't even know to be afraid of. Both ponderings are designed to silence the mind. One increases awareness of the inescapable contradictions that animate mortal consciousness ... and the other hypnotizes a terrorized public with the specter of a perpetually unknowable enemy. Infinite Justice indeed.

You can probably see how unblinking vigilance for unknown unknown enemies secures the prime psychological condition for any willing servant to the War on Terror. We will always need bizarre, extra-legal dimensions like Guantanamo so long as the Unknown Unknown is public enemy number one. These fuckers are so fucking evil we don't even know what the fuck to call them or what the fuck to do with them so let's put them in this weird fucking place with no fucking rules where they can just ... FUCK I HATE THEM!

Suddenly pre-emptive war, warrantless wiretapping, terror alert levels, racial profiling and torture make a lot of sense, don't they? If we're as serious about unknown unknows as Rummy wants us to be, we should follow the rest of his advice and strike first, spy on everyone, index our daily fear, lock up strangers and then torture them to find that ticking time bomb I keep hearing (about). For what is the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario but our favorite example of the fearsome unknown unknown? We've never actually encountered one, but it sure is fun to think about, isn't it?

I think Rumsfeld's poem is more noteworthy for what it hides than what it reveals. In his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Slavoj Zizek identifies a fourth category of knowledge missing from Rummy's pithy Punnett square. And I must confess here that I experienced an epiphany like Dunning's when I read about it. (I must also confess some restless anger at Errol Morris for writing a five-part column that says the same thing so many times without stopping to discuss this missing fourth category of knowledge directly.) Before you look at my diagram below, can you guess what it is and why it might be more important than any unknown unknown you can dream up?

Psychologists call it the subconscious mind, the psyche, the wild stew of forgotten thoughts and feelings that constitute the bulk of our souls ...


What don't I know that I know? What simmers beneath all my well-charted goals and stated intentions? Am I a lawyer because I love the study of logic and justice? Or am I a lawyer because my parents were lawyers and I need to be richer than they were? Am I looking for WMDs in Iraq? Or am I discharging my boundless aggression from 9/11?

How appropriate that Rumsfeld fails to include this. There's no room or time for introspection in the War on Terror -- that much has been hammered into our heads over the last decade, right? And how disappointing that Sullivan must resort to the empty construction "unknown unknown" to bash Sarah Palin's intelligence for the umpteenth time when Palin's problem isn't her lack of knowledge but rather her refusal to examine her psyche. What spooky unknown might she find within if she did so?

What has all this chin-rubbing about unknown unknowns taught us except that stupid people are so stupid they're, like, meta-stupid? Tragically, for Rummy and Sully alike, contemplation of the unknown unknown hasn't been a spur to new knowledge at all. Quite the opposite: it's just another way to confirm what they already knew. Iraq has WMDs. Palin is a moron. This is all logically sound, of course. But that's the problem: it's no better than logically sound. If it reveals anything new, it's that one can construct an airtight space of self-reinforcing thoughts, fortified by the logos, without ever having to question oneself in the process. Iraq has WMDs. Palin is a moron. How brave to think what you always thought, guys.

We're not learning a damn thing here. We're choosing to forget something else. The Global War on Terror is the largest psychological war yet declared in the history of mankind. It's right there in the title. Whenever we deny this fact, we push it deeper into the realm of the unknown known. It becomes the known we refuse to know. All repressed truths continue to govern our actions and feelings from within: witness our inhuman cruelty, our affection for toture, Guantanamo, ticking time bombs, and so on.

First we called it the War on Terrorism. Then our rage exceeded any nation, ideology or ism we could find, so we changed it to the War on Terror. That's not a lazy elision that makes our war more specific; it's an unconscious generalization that makes our war impossibly big. When intelligent people discuss the War on Terror, they love to point out that:

Terror is a tactic! It's not a country or a culprit! How can we wage war on a tactic? How stupid!

But they're not even half right. Terror is an emotion, people. At the end of the day, we are fighting a war against our own emotions and we will measure our triumph according to how we feel, not what we've done. (Small wonder, then, that our biggest recurring problem is winning the "hearts and minds" of the countries we've invaded.) We are fighting a war within the very territory of the unknown known. By calling terror a tactic without acknowledging that it's a feeling first, we confess that our feelings have already been weaponized. And by fixating on the unknown unknown instead of the unknown known, we bar the door to any investigation of why we keep failing.

Look, I know it's important to be receptive to the unknown unknowns.

GHOST: Swear!
HORATIO: Day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Hortio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

When we're not striving to know ourselves and the world, we should meditate on the infinitely unknowable. It's a healthy repose when the ravages of samsara cramp your soul. But we must remember that meditation is the only activity suited to this realm of knowledge. Sociological speculation like Dunning's and military strategy like Rumsfeld's will not benefit from focusing on the unknown unkown. Outside meditaiton, the unknown unknown quickly becomes the void into which we project what we want to be true: stupid people are stupid and evil is everywhere. Now, if only there were a realm of knowledge that let us explore what we want to be true and why ...

All great art stirs up the unknown known and brings it rushing back to the fore. Maybe one day we'll find a way to live through and beyond all this terror so we can see the completion (just not the fulfillment) of Rummy's literary masterpiece, too.