Rumsfeld's Coolest Achievement

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I mentioned this back in the early days of this blog, but with yesterday's resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all over the news, I wanted to offer a little tribute by recalling of one of my favorite Rumsfeld moments. Whatever else you think of the guy, you have to admit that he's a very intelligent man who chooses his words with great care. At least that's what I would expect any intelligent observer to notice. But some group called the Plain English Campaign was apparently too stupid to figure this out when they gave him the Foot in Mouth award at the end of 2003, calling the following statement "the most baffling statement by a public figure":

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.

As far as I can tell, there's nothing grammatically wrong with that statement. It makes perfect sense syntactically. It also has pretty clear semantic content, and he even states each point in two different ways just to make sure it comes across correctly. As for its truth, it's even a moderately insightful recognition of a kind of ignorance that we don't often focus on. We need to distinguish between the things we know we're aware of, the things we know we have no idea about, and the things we don't know but think we know. He was admitting that there were things someone might not know but without being aware that they don't know it. What's so baffling about that? It's a recognition that we can be ignorant when we think we know something. Duh.

Anyway, I just consider it a cool achievement to have been awarded the foot-in-mouth award for saying something that's actually pretty insightful, an action that revealed more about their own stupidity than it did about the intelligent comment they were making fun of. And then there's what Scrappleface did with this.

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