Published on
the New York Times

A World in Denial of What It Knows

COULD there be a single phrase that explains the woes of our time, this dismal age of political miscalculations and deceptions, of reckless and disastrous wars, of financial boom and bust and downright criminality? Maybe there is, and we owe it to Fintan O’Toole. That trenchant Irish commentator is a biographer and theater critic, and a critic also of his country’s crimes and follies, as in his gripping if horrifying book, “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger.”

He reminds us of the famous if gnomic saying by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the United States secretary of defense, that “There are known knowns... there are known unknowns ... there are also unknown unknowns.” But the Irish problem, says Mr. O’Toole, was none of the above. It was “unknown knowns.”

What he means is something different from denial, or evasion, irrational exuberance or excess optimism. Unknown knowns were things that were not at all inevitable, and were easily knowable, or indeed known, but which people chose to “unknow.”

Unknown knowns were everywhere, from Wall Street to Brussels, from the Pentagon to Penn State. Ireland merely happened to offer an extreme case, where “everyone knew.” They just chose to forget that they knew — about the way that Irish banks ran wild, how easy credit fueled a monstrous explosion of property prices and speculative house-building. Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister at the time of the rapid economic growth, merely boasted, “The boom is getting boomier,” preferring to unknow the truth that booms always go bust.

Beginning in 2008, the skies were lighted up by financial conflagrations, from Lehman Brothers to the Royal Bank of Scotland. These were dramatic enough — but were they unforeseeable or unknowable? What kind of willful obtusity ever suggested that subprime mortgages were a good idea? An intelligent child would have known that there is no good time to lend money to people who obviously can never repay it.

Or recall how we were taken into the Iraq war. That was the origin of Mr. Rumsfeld’s curious words 10 years ago. When he murmured about “things we do not know we don’t know,” he was touching on the unconventional weapons that Saddam Hussein might — or might not — have held.

In a sense, Mr. Rumsfeld was more right than he realized. Those of us who opposed the war may be asked to this day whether we knew what weaponry Iraq possessed, to which the answer is that of course we didn’t. Nor, as it transpired, did President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld or Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

But that was the wrong question. It should have been not “what weaponry does Saddam Hussein possess?” but “Is Saddam Hussein’s weaponry, whatever it may be, the real reason for the war, or is it a pretext confected after a decision for war had already been taken?” The answer to that was obvious and could have been known to all, but too many people chose to unknow it.


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Then there was another unknown known: the likely consequences of an invasion. Shortly before it began, Mr. Blair met President Jacques Chirac of France. As well as reiterating his opposition to the coming war, Mr. Chirac offered the prime minister specific warnings. Mr. Blair and his friends in Washington seemed to think that they would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq, Mr. Chirac said, but that they shouldn’t count on it. It was foolish to think of creating a modern democracy in an artificial country with a divided society like Iraq. And Mr. Chirac asked whether Mr. Blair realized that, by invading Iraq, they might yet precipitate a civil war.

This has been described in a BBC documentary by someone present, Sir Stephen Wall, a Foreign Office man then attached to Downing Street. As the British team was leaving, Mr. Blair turned and said, “Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it,” to which Sir Stephen now adds dryly that he turned out to get it rather better than “we” did.

At that time, Mr. Chirac was reviled in America, and his career has just ended in disgrace, with a court conviction for embezzlement. But who was right about Iraq? All the calamities that followed the invasion were not only foreseeable, they were foreseen. And yet for Mr. Blair, as well as Washington, they were unknown knowns.

One more such, bitter as it is to say so when many people have been ruined, was the Bernard L. Madoff fraud. For years, his investors gratefully and unquestioningly accepted returns that were strictly incredible. Loud warning voices sounded. Harry Markopolos, a former investment officer, exhaustively back-analyzed Mr. Madoff’s supposed figures by computer. He spent nearly nine years repeatedly trying to explain to the Securities and Exchange Commission that these figures were not merely incredible but mathematically impossible. And still the S.E.C. chose to unknow it. Leos Janacek wrote a harrowing opera called “The Makropulos Affair”; Peter Gelb at the Met should commission someone to write “The Markopolos Affair” as a fable for our times.

In a very different kind of scandal, not everyone at Penn State, and certainly not every fan, knew what had happened in the showers. But quite enough was known by people who could have acted. They chose instead to unknow. And so to another classic unknown known, the euro. The recent summit in Brussels turned into a silly melodrama, with a British prime minister, David Cameron this time, once more playing the pantomime villain. But Mr. Cameron was right, if for the wrong reasons, to oppose the European Union’s latest frantic (and doomed) plan to prop up the euro.

If truth be told (but it so rarely is!), the euro cannot work and could never have worked. That is, a single currency embracing countries as diverse in social culture, productivity, work practices and taxation as Germany and Greece, or the Netherlands and Portugal, is economically impossible without much closer fiscal and financial union — which is politically impossible. Anyone could have known that at the time the euro was introduced, but for the rulers of the European Union it was their very own unknown known.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” is a medieval classic of mystical writing, and unknowing still hangs over us. It will be a happier new year if we can dispel some of that cloud, try to unknow less, and know a little more.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of “The Controversy of Zion,” “The Strange Death of Tory England” and “Yo, Blair!

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