Unknown Knowns: State Secrets and Family Secrets

By Pulda, Molly | Biography, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Unknown Knowns: State Secrets and Family Secrets


Pulda, Molly, Biography


In an opinion piece in The New York Times, published on the last day of 2011, Geoffrey Wheatcroft employs the phrase "unknown knowns" to sum up a host of contemporary woes, from the Iraq War, to the subprime mortgage collapse, to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Wheatcroft borrows the term "unknown knowns" from the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole, who extrapolated it, in turn, from Donald H. Rumsfeld's infamous musings on "known knowns" and "known unknowns" during a 2002 press briefing. (1) In his (2011) memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld even lengthens that speech, in brackets: "Reports that say 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 know] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know" (xiii). Rumsfeld goes on to define "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns" at some length (and somehow clarifying none of them xiv). (2) The category Rumsfeld does not address, however, is "unknown knowns"--what we don't realize or acknowledge that we know. "Unknown knowns" are also called "nescience," a concept I've been using to analyze a cluster of contemporary memoirs that disclose family secrets. (3) These memoirs often hinge on a moment when one family member confronts another's secret that she, on some level, already knew.

Nescience is just one of several concepts that link the intimate realm of personal narrative to the broader realm of politics. I would like to argue that state secrets consolidate institutional power in ways that strongly correlate to the inheritance and enforcement of family secrecy. Though they might seem incommensurate at first, family secrets and state secrets resemble each other in what I term their "mechanics of disclosure," or formal properties of revelation. They also elicit similar public reactions, though on a different scale of impact. Considering the dynamics and reception of one type of secrecy helps us understand the workings of the other. In what follows, I utilize memoir scholarship to interpret the reception and criticism--or "epitext," to borrow Gillian Whitlock's term (14)--surrounding the public reaction to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. (4) I focus on three applications of memoir theory and reception history to the phenomenon of WikiLeaks: first, the ethics of revelation and betrayal; second, the presumed transparency of "tell-alls" and "data dumps"; and third, readers' reactions as they begin to acknowledge open secrets. How do readers respond to the disclosure of others' secrets, from a domestic to global scale?

Although 2010 might have felt like the Year of the Secret, as WikiLeaks released three huge troves of government documents throughout the year, these disclosures were far from unprecedented. Julian Assange, the iconic founder of WikiLeaks, acknowledges Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Vietnam War's Pentagon Papers, as his predecessor and mentor. In 1969, Ellsberg, a former government official, began photocopying a 7,000-page top-secret government report, "History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy." After several Congressmen hesitated to introduce these Pentagon Papers in official proceedings, Ellsberg leaked portions to the New York Times and sixteen other newspapers in 1971. Ellsberg claims that he would have published more quickly in today's era: "I wouldn't have waited that long. I would have gotten a scanner and put them on the internet" (Cohen). (WikiLeaks is named after the speed of revelation on the web; "wiki" derives from a Hawaiian word for "fast.") Perhaps due to the startling pace and scale of the WikiLeaks disclosures, Assange is a lightning rod for controversy in current ethical debates on secrecy. If Ellsberg was the "most dangerous man in America" in 1971, according to Henry Kissinger, Assange is today's "anti-American with blood on his hands," at least according to Sarah Palin's Facebook post (qtd. …

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