Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Unknown Known: What You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: A Film by Errol Morris

“My goodness, what should we think of such a film?” I can hear Donald Rumsfeld saying it now. His good-natured, awe-shucks language serves as a veneer on this most ambitious and arrogant man. 

For those of you who may have forgotten, Donald Rumsfeld served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. On the filming and questioning end, we have the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara is among my favorite films. Indeed, I savored the anticipation of comparing the McNamara experience with Rumsfeld’s, but the comparison fell flat.

Someone likened McNamara to the Flying Dutchman, sailing from port to port in search of redemption. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara trying to come to terms with the tragedy of Vietnam, the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, the harrowing experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the loss of innocence (if that’s the right term) caused by the assassination of JFK. He came across as genuine and conflicted—not an evil man. He believed in his calling, and he remained loyal to the memory of the two presidents under whom he served. McNamara did only one stint in government: Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson (excluding military service in WWII for the Army Air Corps under Curtis LeMay) .

Rumsfeld doesn’t generate sympathy; he generates perplexity. His smile and charm are like the smile of the Cheshire Cat: he hides behind it. Morris lets us know that when Rumsfeld took the helm at the Pentagon for the second time (he held the job under Gerald Ford as well) he had the reputation of a consummate Washington player. One gets the sense from his resume and from keeping pals like Dick Cheney that he never went into anything naively.

We learn in the film that Rumsfeld is a memo-maker, writing notes to himself and others incessantly. “Snowflakes”, he (or someone) came to call them. He thinks on paper, or at least seems to think. But here's the enigma: the man who tried to reason out his votes as a young congressman appears immune to real reflection—at least by the time that he’s serving in the Bush Administration. One takes away from the film no admission of misjudgment or mistake and only a cursory admission of uncertainty about the whole Iraq War undertaking.
I’ve read recently about human reasoning as a vehicle for persuasion rather than a process for reaching truth. Sperber and Mercier have proposed the Argumentative Theory of Reason that claims that humans developed reasoning skills to persuade others. (Their paper here and summaries here & here.)  In a group with open discussion and the ability to examine and criticize others, reasoning can work well. However, when we attempt to reason on our own, our reasoning goes astray under the influence of the confirmation bias and other self-interested motives. Iain McGilchrist in his RSA Animate short and in his book The Master and His Emissary makes a related point about the brain. McGilchrist argues that the right brain, which perceives experience in context and dynamically, is undercut by the static, abstract, and tightly focused left-brain that is dominant (but not exclusive) in the production of language. McGilchrist writes: 

Sequential analytic ‘processing’ also makes the left hemisphere the hemisphere par excellence of sequential discourse, and that gives it the most extraordinary advantage in being heard. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain, a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Speech is possible from the right hemisphere, but it is usually very limited. We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the ‘word’ in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 6099-6104). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

I mention this because watching this film seems to lend so much support to this perspective. In appearance and in language (oral and written), Rumsfeld comes across as the consummate thinker and reflector, but in reality, it’s all so much bull shit. He makes no connection between the realities in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo and his words. In print and briefly in the film, Morris notes that Rumsfeld was very taken with the issue of Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese were able to attack U.S. bases when the U.S. knew that an attack was likely. (In articles appearing in the New York Times, Morris further discusses Rumsfeld’s interest in the work of Roberta Wohlstetter and Thomas Schelling about Pearl Harbor.) In fact, we learn that in July 2001 Rumsfeld wrote a memo about how such an event might occur again and (presumably) how to avoid it. But he makes no substantive connection with the events of 9/11. This happened on his watch. One plane crashed into his Pentagon. All words, no connections.

The film takes its title from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous utterances. You must watch to the end of the film to unpack what he said and then attempt to figure out what he means. In the end, it just seems to have been words, words, words.

At the conclusion of The Fog of War I felt sympathy for McNamara and I said to friends at the theatre, “they should send this to the Bush Administration”. I don’t think anyone in the Bush Administration watched that film before heading off into the war in Iraq. Alas, at the end of The Unknown Known, I can't feel sympathy for Rumsfeld. I feel sorry for us. I think we got suckered.

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