The news is not good for The Daily Show, the ratings for which are down sharply from a few years ago. One might attribute this to its not-very-funny new host, but similar bad news is in for ratings of the Late Show with the widely-lauded Stephen Colbert. One gets the feeling that Jon “Stewart” managed to be the rat who left a sinking ship at just the right moment. The “Stewart”/Colbert brand of comedy was at the height of its relevance during the years of the Bush Administration, during which it was genuinely edgy and anti-establishment. The endless kissing up to power during the Obama Administration, however, took a huge chunk of the wind out of its sails. It isn’t too edgy to incessantly kiss the butt of the most powerful man in the world, and continuing to kvetch about a Republican administration that’s long out of power gets to be less interesting as the years of a Democratic administration roll by.
Not that this ever stops leftists. For heavens’s sake, they’re still complaining about the Nixon Administration! Christopher Hitchens wrote a book putting Henry Kissinger on “trial” for various alleged war crimes a full quarter-century after he’d left office as Secretary of State, and Futurama was still cracking jokes about Nixon and Agnew forty years after they were out of the White House (not to mention thirteen years after The Simpsons had remarked upon how out-of-date jokes about them were). Other than the fact – for which we can all surely be grateful – that they seem to have long ago realized that getting people to dislike Ronald Reagan is a battle they’re never going to win, the left seems incapable of ever letting old hatreds drop. Whether TV comedy shows will still be making George W. Bush jokes in the year 2048 is unclear, but what is very clear is that the left has an exceptional loathing of Bush and everyone who was in his administration.
(I’ve heard it suggested that this is for no other reason that leftists, who value slick sophistry above all else, simply hate the fact that they were beaten in elections – twice! – by someone as notoriously ill-spoken as Bush. All of their clever casuistry availed them naught against him, and it absolutely ate them up inside. He made verbal gaffe after verbal gaffe – and they still can’t believe that nobody cared! This, of course, is a much more plausible explanation than the idea that they genuinely objected to Bush starting unwise wars in the Middle East or establishing a horrifying surveillance state. The fact that mainstream leftist opposition to the government doing either of those things essentially vaporized the minute that Barack Obama was sworn in tells you everything you need to know about the sincerity of those sentiments.)
One way or the other, then, the left isn’t letting go of the Bush Administration anytime soon. This brings us to Errol Morris’s documentary The Unknown Known, which consists more or less entirely of snippets from an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Secretary of Defense for all but the last two years of his administration. I think it’s safe to say that the interview didn’t go as planned. If smarm were smarts, the left would have colonies on Jupiter, but the truth is that they simply aren’t as clever as they believe themselves to be. The obvious aim of the interview was to catch Rumsfeld in a “gotcha” moment of the sort for which The Daily Show is (or was, I suppose) famous, and which forms nearly the entire basis of their arguing style. This was to come of Rumsfeld obligingly being as inarticulate as his former boss. No such luck for them, however. A good example of this can be seen in an examination of the film’s title, which derives from a quote by Rumsfeld:
“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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
Far from being nonsensical, this quote represents a solid management concept taught in any good business school. Yet in trying to be too clever by half, the filmmakers implicitly place this quote in the category of Bushisms, thereby to tar Rumsfeld with the same label of incoherent oafdom that they (not without some justification, to be fair) applied to Bush himself. But this is because they don’t understand what a Bushism is, and isn’t. Here, I propose three categories of (apparent) incoherence. Let’s call them 1) Derridaisms, 2) Yogiisms, and 3) Bushisms. Now, let’s define them:
A Derridaism is a statement that seems sensible, erudite, or even brilliant when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one finds that it is, in fact, utter nonsense. (For a good example of this, listen to Stefan Molyneux’s explanation of why the argument that language is meaningless – a favorite of both Wittgenstein and Derrida – is not just wrong, but inherently self-contradictory).
A Yogiism (named, of course, for the famous baseball player Yogi Berra) is the inverse of a Derridaism. It is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that, slyly hidden under the surface, there is a nugget of wisdom that is sensible, erudite, or even brilliant.
A Bushism, however, is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it; then when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that it really is utter nonsense after all.
Morris is so keen to catch Rumsfeld committing a Bushism that he doesn’t realize that what Rumsfeld said was actually a Yogiism. Not only that, but he doesn’t know that Rumsfeld is in on the gag – that he understands perfectly well what the difference is, and that people who don’t like him are (intentionally or not) misunderstanding it completely.
You see, that’s the joke – the infamous “unknown known” quote is, in itself, the unknown known. Pretty meta, isn’t it?
And that’s not the only problem that Morris ended up creating for himself. Just as big an issue for this documentary is a phenomenon that (as long as I’m coining terms) I’ll call the “Wife of Bath Problem”. The core of it is that if an author lets the villain of their piece talk long enough – especially if that villain spends that time delivering eloquent justifications for their actions – there’s a significant risk of the audience starting to identify with them. The trope namer here is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Wife of Bath, who was almost certainly meant by Chaucer to seem lecherous and disreputable, comes across for the most part as strong and likable (which explains why many modern literary scholars have turned her into a proto-feminist hero). Arguably, Shakespeare ended up doing the same with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which ended up with the character transcending the stereotype of a greedy Jew and becoming an at least somewhat sympathetic character, justifiably angry at a long history of mistreatment. But the greatest example is that of Milton’s vision of Satan in Paradise Lost, which unintentionally turned the Father of Lies into an individualist hero who has inspired a wide spectrum of freethinkers, from William Blake to Anton LaVey.
So there’s real danger in letting your villain run his mouth too much, and that’s with a skilled author writing a fictional character. The situation becomes even worse when that villain has a mind of his own and is wily enough to stay out of whatever traps you’ve set for him. We see this unfold on the screen, as Morris’s (over)confidence in his ability to give Rumsfeld enough rope to hang himself ends up backfiring into a Wife of Bath Problem. Rumsfeld spent decades in politics developing a reputation as a shrewd survivor, and the interview makes it clear that, despite how things turned out for him in the second Bush Administration, that reputation was generally well-deserved. Far from seeming like a war criminal or a gun for hire in the service of greedy oil companies, Rumsfeld comes across at worst as a man who was simply in over his head, like the befuddled grandpa who calls you every few days for help because he can’t quite figure out how to use the iPad you gave him last Christmas. Is his grandfatherly smile just a bit to quick and practiced to be completely sincere? Perhaps. But if Morris is subtle enough to pick up on that, he’s never able to capitalize on it.
All of which brings us back to The Daily Show.
One thing you must understand about the left is that they have no principles, only ideology. Sultan Knish did a good job of explaining this in a recent column, when he wrote the following:
”You can’t find common ground with the left because it is an activist machine dedicated to destroying common ground, not only with the right, but even with its own allies on the left. Progress turns what was once progressive into what is reactionary. And what was reactionary into what is progressive.
These changes have the mad logic of a byzantine ideology behind them, but to the ordinary person their definition of progress seems entirely random.
A Socialist a century ago considered factories progressive instruments of the future and men in dresses a decadent reactionary behavior. Now factories are reactionary pollution machines of globalization and men in dresses are an oppressed victim group who have transcended biology with the power of their minds.”
Thus if you’re old enough, you’ll be able to remember when the left believed the exact opposite of what it claims to believe today. For example: I remember back in the 80s when the left used to complain about the trivialization of news and political commentary. I even remember the snide insult (of course – the left has a snide insult for everything) that they used describe it; they called it “infotainment”. It was apparently a bad thing, at least back then. But now in the age of “Stewart” and Colbert, when allegedly-powerful political leaders cower in fear of a professional comedian’s raised eyebrow, infotainment is where it’s at as far as the left is concerned. This is how we’ve ended up with the bizarre phenomenon of conservatives getting lectured about what a bunch of ignoramuses they are for getting their news and political commentary from Fox News (which, while I carry no brief for it, is at least a full-time professional news organization) by leftists who get their news and political commentary from Comedy Central.
The point of all this is that The Unknown Known is a piece of leftist infotainment that has signs of the trivializing influence of the Daily Show-ization of political discourse on the left all over it. This is evident in many aspects of the documentary. There’s the faux-symbolic, yet actually pointless cuts to scenes of the rolling ocean. There’s the inappropriately overdramatic score by Danny Elfman. But mostly there’s the laziness of it; staking his entire film on Rumsfeld making a disastrous gaffe meant that Morris skimped on both research and imagination. As a result, the questions he asked were predictable and obvious; I have no doubt that Rumsfeld saw them coming a mile away, and had answers memorized in advance for every last one of them. Thus, the interview is ultimately anticlimactic – the great “gotcha” moment never really happens, and Rumsfeld never does end up hanging himself with all the rope that Morris gives him.
Which is a shame. The moment at which my own journey away from mainstream conservatism and toward the alt-right started came sometime in early 2005, when it finally became undeniable that there wasn’t and never had been any WMDs in Iraq; and not only that, but that plenty of evidence had existed showing that there wasn’t. I had supported that lousy, useless war because I believed what the Bush Administration had told me, and in a single blinding flash I came to the awful realization that those fuckers had lied to me. I still believed in all the same moral and philosophical ideas that I always had, but from that point on, I could never again trust the party and establishment that had allowed this to happen. Thus began a journey that ended, well… here.
But there still remains the fact that the fuckers who lied to me back then ultimately got away with it. Others – American soldiers, countless Iraqis and Syrians, the Republican Party, the United States as a whole – ended up paying the price for what they’d done, but as for the decision-makers of the Bush Administration themselves, they all got away scot-free. Ultimately, Morris’s documentary has done nothing to change that.
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This post was sponsored by Murph and the MagicTones, who took a bit of time away from touring to send a few dollars my way. Many thanks, and keep playing that sweet, sweet soul music!