Errol Morris has long shown an obsession with the nature of facts and evidence (The Thin Blue Line), violence and war (The Fog of War), and obsession itself (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). His newest film, which premiered Tuesday, combines all three: It's a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld and what Morris sees as his obsession with going to war in Iraq. Here's the trailer:
The title of the movie, The Unknown Known, comes from Rumsfeld's most famous statement while serving as George W. Bush's secretary of defense:
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know 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.
Morris is exploring that quote in a series of posts on The New York Times website this week. Through the first two posts, he has begun a detailed deconstruction of that quote—the antecedents for it as far back as Keats, how Rumsfeld conducted (and generally seems to have delighted in) press briefings, how he dueled with reporters, and the secretary's relationship with evidence and reality. I won't try to summarize Morris's posts, because they're absolutely worth reading in full, and also because they're unsummarizable.
But his interviews with reporters who were present at the start got me thinking about that quote, which has become so associated with Rumsfeld that he also borrowed from it for the title of his memoir, Knowns and Unknowns. It's a truism that we live in an age of soundbites, where quick quips—or even better, anything that fits in 140 characters—are the rhetorical weapons of choice. (Rumsfeld's remark, from those innocent pre-Twitter days, clocks in at a behemoth 244 characters.) The truism is likely reductive, but also seductive, in part because anyone can use it to advance their view of contemporary society. For Cassandras, it's a sign of how the culture has degraded into bluntness and black and white, throwing aside nuance. For Pollyannas, it makes communication easier than ever, flattening the playing field and removing obstructions. For most people, it's the simply the way we live now, decontextualized and fragmented. No matter where you fall, it's certainly new and different, disjointed from historical experience.