The Unknown Known and the Meaningless Language of Donald Rumsfeld

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My last post featured John Oliver on drones.  In that video Oliver talks about a government memo in which the word imminent is robbed of all meaning.  Recently I watched the Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known, which is a documentary about Don Rumsfeld.  A better title would have been The Man Who Wasn’t There.  Rumsfeld talks in a bureaucratic language that robs everything of meaning.  He speaks almost entirely in euphemisms.  The more you watch of this movie, the less you know.

That does not mean that it is without value.  While you start the movie thinking it is going to be a movie trying to hold Rumsfeld accountable for the mistakes, namely the Iraq War, that he made while in government, it becomes that almost seems more to be about the manipulation of language.

Having just read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think but to compare Rumsfeld to Eichmann.  Now let me be clear, I am not comparing Rumsfeld’s crimes to Eichmann, or saying that they have an exact personality match.  However, both seemed to be characters in bureaucracies that used a kind of empty language that masked the horrible realities of their actions.  Both men also seem to be very shallow thinkers.

Rumsfeld, in this movie, rarely seems to reflect deeply on what he has done.  He has kept an amazing amount of records.  He dictated so many memos that he called them “snowflakes”.  He doesn’t seem to be consciously misleading Morris.  It is more that he answers the questions directly, but in a way that is devoid of any deeper meaning.  It is an interesting movie with an extremely frustrating subject.

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2 thoughts on “The Unknown Known and the Meaningless Language of Donald Rumsfeld

  1. Well said. I was confused after trying to decode some of Rumsfeld’s statements presented in this movie (this often involved having to pause the movie to understand the logic behind his comments, some of which were simply following circular logic). His arrogance is astounding, but I couldn’t help but think he truly believed in what he was saying because he used memos to reinforce his thinking, which explains why he wrote so many of them . I believe he has a psychopathic personality – this fact was, and is frightening.

    1. Yes it was an unsettling movie, but not in the typical way. You never got the sense he was truly lying or troubled by his behavior. He seemed somewhat genial. Yet he helped start a ward that we should have never entered that lead to the death of thousands. It is hard to intellectually bridge the gap between the two.

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