Every New Year I find my thoughts returning to a classic speech that sums up much of life in a few short words: Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns” speech.
It’s nearly 10 years since his utterances earned international scorn and derision – which demonstrates (a) how time flies and (b) how US defence secretaries come and go.
Personally, I think it was his finest moment. He used his Rumsfeldian dumb delivery style to make it sound stupid, hence the international derision, but if someone smart had said it, it would have been hailed as wisdom beyond words. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, could deliver the Gettysburg address and make it sound daft.
Rumsfeld was, of course, highlighting three basic categories of knowledge: the known knowns – the things we know we know; the known unknowns – the things we know that we don’t know; and my favourite, the unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we don’t know.
He was talking about Iraq, but it holds pretty good for the whole of life, which is why it always returns to my mind as we head into another New Year.
Here are some of the knowns about 2012: London will host the Olympics (known known) and it will be chaos (known known). The UK may well go back into recession (known unknown). Some people will lose their jobs (known known) and others just fear they will (known unknown). The Queen will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee (known known, barring illness), with the stented-up Prince Philip at her side (ditto).
But what of the unknown unknowns? Well that’s the point. If we knew what they were they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns. But illness or death among previously healthy people, sudden changes in circumstances or fortune, and tragedy or bizarre good luck, would probably qualify. The point is we don’t know what life will throw at us while we’re busy making other plans, to quote the late great John Lennon.
At the start of 2011 the whole concept of the Arab Spring was an unknown unknown. Libya’s Gaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali could have had no idea they were months from death, trial or exile; that the freedom written into the DNA of their citizens would finally explode into street protests.
At the start of 2012 the fate of Syria’s Assad has become a known unknown, but many other unknown unknowns must lie ahead on the global news agenda and in our individual lives.
So at the start of a New Year I try to make room in my head for the things I don’t know that I don’t know. As part of that process there’s another classic set of words my thoughts always return to as well, a poem by Minnie Louise Harkins, used by King George VI in his New Year address in 1939, as Britain stood on the brink of full-scale war.
It starts: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'” …and it continues here:
Minnie was way ahead of Donald on the unknown unknowns. Happy New Year – whatever it brings!