Whatever happened to known unknowns – and indeed, to their even more mysterious relative, unknown unknowns? These were the range of risks, uncertainties and unforeseeables that need careful assessment and management, whose primary misfortune appears to have been making their popular debut in a speech by Donald Rumsfeld. As a brand association, that’s marginally less desirable than being handed to a riot cop by Kendall Jenner.
Back in the day, George W Bush’s defence secretary was reflexively attacked for his “baffling comment” by the Plain English Campaign, who prefer their immense complexities in plain English, whatever that may be. Revisionists have since done their best to rehabilitate the underlying concept of Rumsfeld’s speech – rightly, but without any success. Most uncertainty is now regarded as a sign of weakness. In the era of the filter bubble, the small percentage of things not treated as known knowns are deemed best explained by conspiracy theory. Neither “side” resists this tendency.
Writing in the New York Times recently, the Russian and American journalist Masha Gessen warned against succumbing to the evil-genius school of theories concerning Steve Bannon, though she noted there was “something paradoxically reassuring” to them compared to what can be openly seen: “a flailing, uninformed president who is indeed destroying the federal government before our very eyes with his own incompetence”.
When William Goldman came to assess the workings of Hollywood in his marvellous book Adventures in the Screen Trade, he was clear as to the total lack of clarity within the movie industry, explaining: “Nobody knows anything.” If anyone fancies an aphorism for the way we live now, I can only offer, “Everybody knows everything.” Not only could you cross a continent before you found someone who regarded public admission of cluelessness as a virtue; you could start a land war in one.
Whether that is what Donald Trump is doing with his strikes on a Syrian airfield is unclear. Indeed, almost everything about them is unclear – their motivations, their potential beneficiaries (direct and indirect), their potential victims (direct and indirect), what may follow from them, how best to limit the already unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people, and many other things besides. Or at least, it is to me. I wish I had a consigliere like Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing – a man retained by the mob boss because he “knows all the angles”.
Instead, I have what most other people have – a bit of social media, newspapers, broadcast news. And in those places, everyone is doing their best Gabriel Byrne. I feel increasingly like an island of uncertainty soon to be engulfed by a tide of conviction.
The only thing I can say for certain is that Trump’s strikes can (and have) been co-opted to support almost any position. For instance, they show how bonkers the Putin stooge theory is; they must be the result of a covert deal with Putin; they are an attempt to distract from investigations into the Trump administration’s ties with Putin; they are the clearest sign that the “deep state” will dominate and destroy Trump. Everybody knows everything.
If you’re planning to meet friends in the pub tonight, be warned: many of them will know everything. Many of them will caution against the absolute folly of starting a land war in Asia, and they will do so with the same degree of authority as a state department analyst of 30 years’ experience, even though we all realise they only truly know this because it’s a famous line from William Goldman’s movie The Princess Bride. Everybody knows everything.
For many, this sort of thing serves as a perfectly understandable displacement activity. If you find the thought of Trump deploying anything more than a water pistol gibber-inducingly terrifying, it might feel calming to affect a pose of authority. If it’s a toss-up between that and crying in the foetal position, you go right ahead and find an audience to whom you can confidently reel off the chain of events that would follow a notional removal of Assad, which you read in the Week. God knows we’ve all been there.
A few years ago, you couldn’t move for discussions about the breakdown of trust in institutions – banks, MPs, the church, M&S, Manchester United’s back four. Perhaps this has led inevitably to an upsurge in trust in oneself. Even so, I find the less able one feels to join in with knowing everything, the more clear the rules become. Here, then, are some of the things only the clueless may have noticed in recent months. No one rushes quicker to judgment than those who warn against rushing to judgment. You will find few less qualified armchair experts than the people frequently given to sneering at Michael Gove for declaring “Britain has had enough of experts”.
Similarly, you will find few more credulous subscribers to various unproven Trump conspiracies than those who were most vocally furious about the president’s birtherism. Most tweet-strings trumpeted with the word “THREAD!” will contain a glaring continuity error. And you will find no more vicious denouncers of Bannon’s terrifyingly simple worldview than people who have bought into terrifyingly simple conspiracies in which Bannon serves as figurehead. “Deep state” and “President Bannon” are two sides of the same coin. I hope you can already appreciate some of the distinct virtues of being so clueless as to subscribe to neither theory.
Even so, it is difficult to keep your uncertain head when all around you are losing theirs to certainty. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I often find myself attempting rashly to have a clue against my wiser instincts. As well as being hugely fashionable, simplicity is much more comforting than the alternative. But as the Syria debate is swiftly dominated by men of absolute certainty – and a few women, of course – I do hope this known-known brigade is reminded of Rummy’s unknowns too. After all, he famously failed to heed his own advice. And look what happened there.