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Known and UnKnown: Donald Rumsfeld’s Reality of the Virtual

The title of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown, comes from a statement he made during one of his famous “must-see” press conferences otherwise known as “spanking sessions for defense nerds” that occurred between September 11, 2001 and the start of the Iraq War on March 19, 2003. 

In February, 2002, Rumsfeld was asked whether Iraq had supplied terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. His response:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me…because, 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.

Rumsfeld’s “weird foray into the previously known unknown of metaphysical epistemology,” as one critic put it, has been the subject of much interpretation, serving, for instance, as the launch-off point for the philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s mind-bending discourse The Reality of the Virtualin which Žižek added an additional category, the “unknown known,” to Rumsfeld’s “epistemological puzzle.” 

Žižek’s idea of the interrelation between the symbolic, the imaginary and the real is a fascinating, although quite dense, discussion of the way we view ourselves and our supposedly “post-political” world, a post-9/11 world in which Donald Rumsfeld is a key figure. 

And in this sense, “Known and UnKnown” is also a very apt title for Rumsfeld’s memoir, which aims, with the benefit of hindsight, to give Rumsfeld’s version of the tumultuous events that marked the start of the 21st century. “Tell it like it happened, Don,” Henry Kissinger advised his old friend when they discussed the book. “Don’t gloss things over. I didn’t,” Kissinger added with emphasis. Rumsfeld will be appearing LIVE on Big Think this coming Wednesday, May 30 at 10:30 AM EST. 

What is Known and What is New?

The most significant development since the publication of the hardcover addition of Known and UnKnown last year was the death of Osama bin Laden. In light of this, Rumsfeld has added a new preface to the paperback addition, so that bin Laden’s death is an event that appropriately bookends his account of the War on Terror, an episode that occupies roughly half of this 800-page memoir. 

And yet, I would warn any reader against the temptation to skip over the first few hundred pages to get to ‘the good stuff.’ After all, Rumsfeld was both the youngest and oldest Secretary of Defense. His career was marked by the dramatic evolution of U.S. foreign policy, from detente to the strategy of “we win, they lose.” 

In order to understand the full significance of recent events, Known and UnKnown presents the essential context in politics and foreign policy over the last half-century from a man who played a decisive role at nearly ever turn. 

So now you’ve now been given fair warning. You’ve got a few days, so get reading, and we’ll see you on Wednesday. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


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