Donald Rumsfeld and The Unknown Unknowns

“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. … But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.” — Donald Rumsfeld. Feb. 12, 2002.

I’m probably the last person in the world who should be writing an article on Persian poetry. I can read it, I understand it, but I don’t have much appreciation for the finer nuances of the art given that I’ve lived away from the country for over forty years.

Growing up in Iran meant being literally surrounded by poetry at every step, a concept that is hard to explain to those who’ve never lived through it. It’s a national obsession. Adults recite poems at every opportunity, starting and ending debates with well-known verses. Politicians, teachers, and laymen alike quote fragments extemporaneously, expecting the listener to not only know the rest but also to recognize the relevance of the poem to the point being made. The walls of public buildings are festooned with famous verses. Children are required to take poetry classes in school and memorize long poems, often with many esoteric ancient words they’ve never heard before and are likely never to encounter again.

A few famous poets did tell stories, Ferdowsi’s Shah-Nameh (The Book of Kings) perhaps being the best known one. But most classic Persian poetry has no discernable story line, comes in strict formats such as the quatrain, and uses double-entendres and vague allusions to make its points.

Take Shakespeare’s collected works, force every line into a fixed archaic format, remove any semblance of narrative and plot, then multiply by hundreds of poets over the course of centuries in order to get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

It’s impossible to translate Persian poetry into other languages. The beloved English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, for example, is almost unrecognizable to a native Persian speaker. It’s not “translated” so much as it is “inspired” by the original. Like other children, I memorized many of these poems but often didn’t understand the meaning and no longer remember them.

There are a few poems, however, that every Iranian knows; and one of those is a proverb that immediately came to mind when I heard Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment. I’ve found several articles on the web pointing to the same poem so I’m certain of the connection even if Rumsfeld himself may not have been aware of it; he claimed to have first heard “a variant of it” from the administrative head of NASA. The poem has been attributed to everyone from Rumi and Naser-al din Tusi to Ibn Yamin and Mullah Ahmad Naraghi but none of the sources I found seem authoritative.

Several similar sayings exist in English and, according to Quote Investigator, can be traced back to the seventeenth century. Many of these were reported as translations of an “old eastern proverb.” One of the best known attempts is attributed to the famous explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890) and was included by his widow in his posthumous biography:

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, can be taught; teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep; wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is a prophet; follow him.

Unfortunately, such bland translations fall far short of the charm and nuance of the original, much of which can’t easily be translated. Here’s an attempt at a more faithful translation with much help from the internet:

He who knows and knows that he knows,
Vaults the horse of wisdom over the spinning dome [Earth].
He who knows, yet knows not that he knows,
Wake him so he may not stay in his deep slumber.
He who knows not, yet knows that he knows not,
Still manages to bring his lame donkey home.
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not,
Will remain mired in dark ignorance forever.

Go back and read the Burton version again and you’ll see what is meant by the phrase “lost in translation.” There are two more lines in the poem on some websites, having to do with those who don’t even want to know, but they don’t seem authentic and are not linguistically on par with the language in these four lines. They’re not included in any of the old English translations I’ve found nor do I remember ever hearing them as a child. I think they’re recent additions and, as such, I haven’t included them here.

The four part framework defined by the poem has been used extensively in topics ranging from social psychology to strategic planning, risk analysis, and more.

The author never mentions what it is we’re supposed to know but that’s typical of classical Persian poetry, allowing for myriad different interpretations. Most often, the words are meant to evoke mystical connotations, “it” being the mysteries of the universe.

The first half of each line is hypnotically simple, breaking humanity down into four groups. Those who don’t know and don’t know that they don’t know, the poem goes, will live forever in ignorance. There’s simply no hope for them. This line has become part of the Persian vernacular, offering a popular refrain for those wishing to end a debate with the clueless not even aware of the depths of their own ignorance.

The advice from the second line is easy to remember, too: there’s hope for this guy. Wake him up so he doesn’t stay “asleep.” He might come around if only he becomes aware of the facts. But what does it mean to know something and not even be aware of the fact that you know it? Are these folks in denial?

Those who don’t know but are aware of their own ignorance, the third and funniest line says, eventually reach the right destination, delivering their “lame donkey” home. At least these guys are willing to admit they don’t know everything and to seek the truth.

The point is simple and positive; any eight year old Iranian child can tell you that: Question your assumptions! Every time you come to a topic, ask yourself whether you know everything about the topic. The answer, almost certainly, is no. Beware of that fact and seek more information instead of assuming you know everything.

The proverb admonishes the reader to seek better understanding of what he doesn’t know, starting with the recognition that he’s not omniscient. Yet the lesson Rumsfeld took away is that anything is possible even if you can’t prove it… especially if you can’t prove it!

Instead of focusing on humility and seeking to find out more, Rumsfeld threw up his hands and used the fear of “unknown unknowns” to justify war: Look, we know what our intelligence tells us about Iraq and Saddam. It clearly shows the man has no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He’s barely hanging on to power. That’s based on real data. We looked, we found nothing. But, then again, there are always things we don’t know and we don’t even know that we don’t know them. So, hypothetically, he could have such weapons. As such, I’m going to ignore all the available data and instead believe the exact opposite! Be afraid, be very afraid of what you don’t know. Better safe than sorry. Bomb them to smithereens! Shock and awe! Let’s go to war!

The problem with such a line of reasoning, of course, is that it can be used to justify anything! Not just war but also “enhanced interrogation” (torture) as it later became evident. Yes, of course there are always unknowns in every problem space and it’s important that we recognize that. But the right answer is to seek more data and reduce the unknown unknowns, not to use that as an excuse to believe in anything we choose with no evidence at hand.

I’m no fan of Saddam. The man was clearly evil and I’m glad he’s gone. He caused much suffering, started two wars with his neighbors, even gassed his own citizens. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Lack of knowledge should never be used as an excuse for making up your own truths.

The folly of American foreign policy in the Middle East (as elsewhere in the world) is that politicians convince themselves of their own righteousness instead of trying to seek the truth, “pulling a Rumsfeld,” as it were. If you watch him make the comments, it becomes obvious that he’s lecturing the reporter on something he has thought about and talked about for some time. He used this exact line of reasoning to convince the rest of the administration and an entire nation into an unnecessary, costly, and ultimately tragic war.

Ask yourself every day and with every question: Which one of those four groups do I want to be in? And, just as importantly, which one am I in now? If you want to “pull a Rumsfeld” on any given topic, leave me out of it. I’ll be busy leading my lame donkey home, if you know what I mean.

I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thanks.

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