Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Simplest Wisdom

I've been inside during the last hot week, stepping outside only long enough to water the vegetables. This morning, a cool breeze blew in, so I went downtown to pick up some books at the library, see the bay, and walk along the creek.

A bronze bell like this one hangs along the Whatcom Creek Trail,  cast by sculptor Tom Jay.  The unattributed text that circles the bottom reads

"Our simplest wisdom is to follow the sea-bright salmon home."

These are the most comforting words I've heard in a long time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"The Unknown Known": Rhetorical fallacies and Errol Morris's new film about Donald Rumsfeld

Facebook has not let me include a direct link to this post, for the first time ever, because of "security" issues. Maybe it's the map below, but that's widely available on the web. 


When I was teaching rhetorical fallacies to English classes, I often referred to examples I’d stumbled on in the news. These made a dry subject a little more relevant, at least to me.

The slippery slope fallacy is an easy one to spot. It argues that one event must necessarily flow from another, without providing the intermediate steps or the probability that the final step will happen at all.  About gay marriage, for instance: if we let women marry women and men marry men, soon we’ll be asked to approve the marriages of uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, sisters and brothers, parents and children, humans and dogs. If we take that first step, any number of appalling and unnatural acts will become legal.

Donald Rumsfeld
My example of the appeal to ignorance came from Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense until 2006. In this fallacy we’re asked to believe something based on evidence that is not presented or is unavailable to us. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, when UN investigators repeatedly failed to find weapons of mass destruction in that country, Rumsfeld steadfastly maintained that they existed. “The absence of evidence,” he said, “is not evidence of absence.” That is, just because the UN team couldn’t find the WMDs, that didn’t mean Saddam didn't have them. The UN team wasn’t looking in the right places; Saddam Hussein was a pathological liar; etc.

From The National Security Archive: "Eyes on Saddam"
American and international public opinion was insufficiently swayed by Rumsfeld’s argument, so photographic and other evidence was produced that Saddam was obstructing the investigation by moving nuclear material around and silencing Iraqi scientists. Colin Powell presented this evidence to the UN in February 2003.  He deeply regrets this speech because, although the evidence had been vetted by the CIA, or at least part of the CIA, it turned out to be wrong. He later learned that some in the US government knew it was wrong before he gave the speech. And as you know, when we invaded Iraq, no WMDs were ever found.

At one point Rumsfeld made this infamous statement: “Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq turned out to be a known unknown rather than a known known, but Rumsfeld's and others' certainty that Saddam had these weapons, and their willingness to produce false evidence, became the justification for a pre-emptive war.  

Slavoj Zizek
Errol Morris titles his film about Rumsfeld with the fourth possible combination of known and unknown--the unknown known. I'm guessing that he is familiar with philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek's suggestion that this fourth category encompasses knowledge we have but cannot or will not accept. This unknown known, according to Zizek, amounts to the unconscious, which is where ideology comes from. The unknown known comprises our "unconscious fantasies, our silent prejudices." They are "the texture in which we are embedded . . . we literally don't even know that we know them." Our unknown knowns are the reason why, he said in 2008, "you are in such trouble in Iraq" (

As Morris pointed out in a presentation at Harvard last November (, when photographs of our treatment of prisons at Abu Ghraib began to show up in the media in late 2003, Rumsfeld pretended to be shocked and appalled. Yet he, along with others in the Bush administration, had suggested and approved "enhanced interrogation" techniques that fell just short of inflicting severe, prolonged pain leading to organ failure or permanent damage. Was it Rumsfeld's unconscious which kept him from seeing that what was happening in Abu Ghraib--the degradation, sexual abuse, stress positions, beatings, and (maybe unintended) deaths--had been made possible by procedures he'd authorized, that the Abu Ghraib practices were outgrowths of what he had already permitted?

Errol Morris
I still don't know the answer to this question. Morris isn't in the business of "pathologizing" the subjects of his documentaries. (See also his fabulous film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.) Morris does not fall into the trap of the appeal to ignorance himself, positing a gap in Rumsfeld's faculties or a particularly lethal belief. He doesn't try to "reveal the cloven hoof," "the smoking gun," "the one incriminating, irrefutable detail that gives you the key to everything." Although he jokes that his time with Rumsfeld  made him want to add another condition to the latest DSM, "irony deficit disorder," his overriding impression of the inner workings of Rumsfeld suggested to him there might be nothing there at all. Perhaps Rumsfeld suffered from "the absence of something rather than its presence."

From 34 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld, Morris has focused in his two-hour film on material that relates to Rumsfeld's use of language. The author of some 20,000 memos during his career, Rumsfeld sent out a barrage of "snowflakes" to the DoD, from 20 to 60 memos a day that show his efforts to formulate the role the U.S. should play or was playing in Iraq. He defined words like terrorism, insurgency, and defeat narrowly as a way of "hiding things from himself." In the November interview, Morris mentions an argument he had with Rumsfeld, not included in the film, over the definition of meretricious. Rumsfeld was under the impression that it was "synonymous with meritorious." I would have liked to see that clip.

Rumsfeld is unreservedly positive about what the US has perpetrated in Iraq. He may be disgusted by what was done at Abu Ghraib, but his confidence that the overall mission was well conceived doesn't waver. Morris provides some context for this sunny view by including Rumsfeld's response to the war in Vietnam (R. was also secretary of defense from 1975-77, when that war ended): "Some things work out. Some things don't. That didn't."  Morris calls this "fortune cookie talk."

When pressed, Morris describes Rumsfeld's philosophy as based on the belief that "weakness is provocative." Strength and its abuses, apparently, are not.

About the claim that the "absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," the appeal to ignorance itself, Morris says it could be used "to justify anything." Rumsfeld and others relied on the supposition that if you believe something, then it must be true, that there is no objective truth. 

Zizek describes a similarly misguided notion when he speaks more broadly about the current western belief  that truth can be found in the stories we formulate and tell about our lives. No, he says--and I found this surprising coming from a psychoanalyst--"the truth is out there."

I was struck by how confident and cheery Rumsfeld is throughout Morris's film. Morris, on the other hand, when interviewed at Harvard, was scary--sharp-tongued and given to shouting. How little appearances tell us. 

I remain fascinated by Zizek's idea that our deepest attitudes are unknown knowns, beliefs we don't know we have.  He aims to discover these in cultural attitudes and practices. I want to discover them in myself. Maybe that will tell me something about my opposites, the powerful of the world.