Rumsfeld through the Looking Glass

Tenniel illus. from "Through the Looking Glass"

Tenniel illus. from “Through the Looking Glass”

My son Toby alerted me to a recent New York Times article that alludes to Alice in Wonderland as it tries to understand former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the Iraq War. To emphasize the Alice connection, Rumsfeld’s face is superimposed upon Tenniel’s famous illustration of the Cheshire Cat.

The Lewis Carroll reference comes as the author describes the press conference where Rumsfeld made his famous distinction between the known known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown when asked whether he was sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

It was at a Pentagon news conference on Feb. 12, 2002. Reporters filed in to the Pentagon Briefing Room — five months after 9/11 and a year before the invasion of Iraq. The verbal exchanges that followed provide an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd, than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.

The author, Errol Morris sounds very Carrollian himself when he describes the experience of interviewing Rumsfeld:

When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?

Put in terms of the Alice books, interviewing Rumsfeld is like running with the Red Queen: one goes on and on but never gets anywhere:

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she COULD NOT go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’

Not that Alice had any idea of doing THAT. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried ‘Faster! Faster!’ and dragged her along. ‘Are we nearly there?’ Alice managed to pant out at last.

‘Nearly there!’ the Queen repeated. ‘Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!’ And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice’s ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.

‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Alice at least doesn’t go backwards, as she does in another scene. When trying to advance into the garden, she finds herself a bit like Errol in his interview: a step forward is actually a step back:

[Alice] set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment, and found herself walking in at the front door again.

Another Looking Glass character also comes to mind. Rumsfeld was often like Humpty Dumpty, insisting on his own definition of reality and pulling reporters into his maze by the force of his assertive personality:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

The nature of Carroll’s fantasy world is that is has an internal coherence—the logic of nonsense—even though it has little to do with reality as we know it. Throughout the Iraq conflict, Rumsfeld sounded as though he was making sense–or he did as long as one didn’t try to square what he said with the facts on the ground. Which pretty much describes the rhetoric we regularly heard coming out of the Bush administration.

All of which would be somewhat humorous if Rumsfeld hadn’t used such rhetorical stratagems to plunge us into one of the great foreign policy disasters in American history. Much money and countless lives were devoted to turn a country from Sunni to Shia control.

One other note: I hadn’t realized, until I read the second of Errol’s articles on Rumsfeld, that “known unknown” has origins in two British poets. Keats first used the phrase in Endymion (famous for “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”) and Robert Browning then used it in the dauntingly long Ring and the Book.

The poets apply it far differently than Rumsfeld, however. For Keats, a mortal shepherd longs for immortal love with Diana, goddess of the moon:

O known Unknown! from whom my being sips
Such darling essence, wherefore may I not
Be ever in these arms? in this sweet spot
Pillow my chin for ever? (Endymion, Book II, l. 741-44)

Browning, meanwhile, has a pope utter it. He is trying to render verdict in a murder case and, unlike Rumsfeld, has no confidence in his judgment. Whereas Rumsfeld was sure—or said that he was sure—that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, Browning’s Pope contrasts the tiny amount that he knows with all that God knows. Who is he but a tiny atom who picks up a few scattered points from the immensity of the sky?

O Thou, — as represented here to me
In such conception as my soul allows, —
Under Thy measureless, my atom width! —
Man’s mind — what is it but a convex glass
Wherein are gathered all the scattered points
Picked out of the immensity of sky,
To re-unite there, be our heaven on earth,
Our known unknown, our God revealed to man? (The Ring and the Book, ll. 1308-15).

Rumsfeld, on the other hand, routinely spoke with a godlike confidence. He even knew unknown unknowns and his cocky assurance helped make the case for war.

Update: In the final article of the series, Morris concludes that Rumsfeld was the Cheshire Cat. There was a confident smile there but there was nothing, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, backing it up:

Rumsfeld, too, may believe what he is saying. But believing something does not make it true. The question is why he believed what he believed. On the basis of what evidence? Mere belief is not enough.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice, perplexed by her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, says, “I have seen a cat without a grin, but I have never seen a grin without a cat.” I had a similar experience with Donald Rumsfeld — his grin and my puzzlement about what it might mean. I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all.

 

Previous posts applying Lewis Carroll posts to GOP politicians:

Scandal? Nothing but a Pack of Cards

Medicare Politics and Gullible Oysters

Romney and Ryan’s Gently Smiling Jaws

Mitt Romney and Looking Glass Politics

The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland

Rightwing Rewrites Reality

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Believing 6 Impossibilities before Breakfast

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

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  • Linda Stewart

    If Rumsfeld was the Cheshire cat, was President George W. Bush perhaps the Queen of Hearts crying”off with their heads” anytime someone disagreed with him, or presented information that conflicted with what he wanted to hear? Valerie Plame’s career in the CIA fell victim to that way of thinking.

  • Robin Bates

    Along these lines, Linda, it’s worth noting that Alice twice stands up to the Queen of Hearts. Maybe she’s the press or the principled voter. Here’s the first time:

    ‘And who are THESE?’ said the Queen, pointing to the three gardeners who were lying round the rosetree; for, you see, as they were lying on their faces, and the pattern on their backs was the same as the rest of the pack, she could not tell whether they were gardeners, or soldiers, or courtiers, or three of her own children.
    ‘How should I know?’ said Alice, surprised at her own courage. ‘It’s no business of MINE.’
    The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’
    ‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.

    And here’s the second:

    ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’
    ‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’
    ‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.
    ‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
    ‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
    ‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

  • Linda Stewart

    Sort of reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” when the constituents finally realize the naked truth, but the procession marches on as the Emperor pretends.

  • I wonder how often the Democrats are compared to characters in Alice. I should think it was often back when the party had true primary fights like the one in 1968.

  • Robin Bates

    Ideology of all stripes is particularly susceptible to satire, James. I suspect you don’t have to go back in time to find applications and am open to Democratic examples. The ultimate satire on the kind of social engineering often embraced by progressives is Swift’s “Modest Proposal.”


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