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    in defense of don rumsfeld

    I'm no fan of Donald Rumsfeld, and I won't be sad to see him go. But his departure has sparked some retrospective commentary, in which his (in)famous statement about "known knowns" has made another round of appearances. I've always felt that it is, in fact, misguided to present this quote as a golden example of governmental obfuscation, which seems to be what people intend when they trot it out. Let's give it a listen:

    "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

    OK, I'll admit that the repetition is initially curious to the ear, but beyond that neither the English nor the meaning behind it is particularly tortured. Furthermore, this is a completely reasonable, strategically sound, and actually somewhat insightful way to think about not only military knowledge but knowledge in general. I'd go so far as to say that maintaining an awareness of "unknown unknowns" is good mental practice, a vaccination against hubris.

    It is true that Rumsfeld leaves a quadrant of his scatterplot chart unarticulated: "unknown knowns," things that we don't know that we know. The omission may be revealing. Slavoj Žižek, writing on this, relates "unknown knowns" to the Freudian unconscious, and describes it memorably as "the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values." Perhaps this blind spot helped contribute to Rumsfeld's failure.

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    Thursday, November 09, 2006
    6:31 PM


    In the spirit of nonpartisanship, I will also say that I think that Bill Clinton gets an unfairly bad rap for having said "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," another quote that "sounds funny" because it contains repetition but which is a valid point to make in the original context (here).
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