25 January 2008

Do we know what it is we do not know?

The follow-up question there would be: and do we care that there are things we do not know we do not know.

First, let me deal with a seemingly small problem that has arisen and about which my colleague wrote in what I thought was a very moderate fashion (well, at first, anyway). It is related to the main theme, I promise you.

The point at issue was the use of material laboriously put together by the editors of this blog, chiefly my colleague, by members of the MSM without any acknowledgement and the subsequent mutual admiration society between them, their friends and sundry bloggers. Devil’s Kitchen is excepted as are all bloggers who use our material and link back to the original. That is what the blogosphere is for and we have no desire to stop that.

On the other hand, neither of us is very keen on the advice that we should shrug our shoulders and get on with life; these things happen and anyway the cause matters more than the individual. Well, that’s very nice, of course, but it is not your work that is being nobbled and we have not empowered anyone to accept apologies on our behalf.

What attitude like that shows is the sort of contempt we have in this country for intellectual labour and achievement, whether it is a piece of research, translation (as I know to my cost) or a programme to enable large companies to get financial information tailored to their needs faster (as I know from someone who works for a very big international news and financial information agency).

These are all products, hard though it is to understand about something that is not a widget and cannot be picked up. The achievement of creating them should be acknowledged.

Intellectual property is a thorny subject but we, on this blog, ask for no money from people who use our material. You are all welcome to it. We ask for acknowledgement. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph, owner of all those clogs, goes ballistic if their material is used without payment, never mind a link or two. (I have now seen the exchange between Daniel Hannan and my colleague, as well as the odd unpleasant interjection from the odd forum reader and shall leave that particular subject alone. The principle, as far as the MSM is concerned, stands.)

Nor am I impressed by the argument that the cause matters more than the individual. First, let me say, define the cause. I think you may find that the cause as interpreted by various members of the Conservative Party may not be our cause. In any case, if one believes in liberty, as this blog does, one must believe in the importance of private property and that extends beyond widgets.

For the rest of it, people who say never mind who your allies are, think of the cause, remind me of those misguided souls who insisted that one must not oppose anything the Soviet Union did because that plays into the hands of the Fascists or the Nazis. Then the Soviet Union played into the hands of the Nazis; then luckily for the misguided souls, the thieves fell out. Alliance with the Soviet Union may have seemed like a very good idea on the morning of June 22, 1941 and, in any case, there were few choices, but the long-term damage that did is still with us.

This brings me rather neatly to the main theme of this posting. We are fighting a war of propaganda on various fronts, not least in the war against terror or against terrorism, if you prefer.

Let me remind our readers of the following statement by Donald Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002:
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.
According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject it was not an original thought, which miraculously makes it clever, though the evidence for that is not presented and is likely to be rather spurious. Furthermore, the Plain English Campaign awarded it the Foot in Mouth Award in 2003 but that must have been before they were told that it was not original by Rummy.

Frankly, the Plain English Campaign had better award itself the Stupidity of the Year Award. That sentence is very clear, very plain and makes perfect sense, unlike numerous pronouncements by said campaign. (I am told by my colleague that said campaign gave an award to the MoD website for clarity. I rest my case.)

It has, however, been a staple of jokes by clever-dick British journalists, satirists and even, I am sorry to say, bloggers. Two of those I read regularly referred to the statement sniggeringly in the last week. I shall not link to them because I do not want to embarrass them and because they were both rightly lambasted by their readers.

The idea of “unknown unknowns” is well known (if I may put it that way) to all businessmen, managers and even theoreticians of management. Would that it were well known to our policy makers and the people behind them, who supposedly produce the background work. I despair of commentators understanding anything.

As it happens I was reminded of Rumsfield’s dictum this week, reading the obituaries in the Guardian, the Times and the Daily Telegraph of a man I knew slightly for reasons that I need not go into and will not be guessed by our readers (in other words, do not waste your time or space on the forum), Charles Elwell.

Charles, as our readers can see from the two pictures I have posted, was the quintessential Englishman, tall, handsome, bumbling in manner and with a ridiculous sense of humour. It was hard to remember that he was one of the sharpest MI5 operatives this country ever had, cracking the Portland spy ring and uncovering John Vassall’s activities.

After an extremely good war, which included a stint in Colditz, he joined the Service, subsequently marrying one of his colleagues, Ann Glass, herself no mean operative. Ann Elwell, as I knew her, was impossibly glamorous in charm, person and intellect to my youthful eyes and it was even more difficult to imagine her as a successful agent.

Between them, Mr and Mrs Elwell did more for this country and its security than 99.9 per cent of all those self-important politicians, national or local or, for that matter, in Brussels, put together. I am happy to be able to pay this tribute to them here.

However, one must move on. There was an interesting point made in all the obituaries. In the 1970s Charles Elwell moved from counter-espionage to counter-subversion where he produced evidence, which was necessarily tentative, of widespread Soviet activity in the field of subversion. His bosses decided that he was exaggerating and he left the Service in sheer frustration.

Subsequently, he managed to find a useful outlet in the Institute for the Study of Conflict, where he published regular background briefings, which were considered by the authorities to be exaggerated. Even now, after much of what Charles Elwell said has been confirmed by the documents extracted from the KGB archives and published during those few years when it was possible, the obituaries still seem to agree with those MI5 bosses. One cannot help feeling that it is still considered to be somewhat infra dig to be digging into what the Soviets were really up to in all those decades.

The trouble that subversion and its close relation, agents of influence, come under the heading of “unknown unknowns”, considered to be unsuitable for our security agents and, these days when we no longer have institutes for the study of conflict or terrorism or any suchlike matter, even for analysts outside the system.

So we have a situation in which all warnings of Soviet subversion, including the stories that Islamic groups were being funded, armed and trained, were largely ignored or placed into the “exaggeration” file. Others tell that warnings from the early nineties that odd things were happening in some of the British mosques were also filed among the exaggerated “unknown unknowns”.

We are fighting an enemy that is adept at many things, including propaganda. The one thing they do not seem to be able to manage is build up a decent state with decent life for the people in it. So if they cannot have it, nobody can and they will try to make sure that will happen.

They are adept at propaganda and subversion because they were taught by the best – the Soviet elite, while people in the West, Britain in particular, sat back and talked grandly about exaggeration, just as now we snigger at the expression “unknown unknowns”.

Yet what we know about our enemies is still pitifully small and no amount of whining about those nasty Americans deciding that they were the enemy and, therefore, using "inappropriate vocabulary" forcing us to go along with it (something that I hear quite often from people in position of power and influence) while we just want to understand them and show our love for them so they love us back, will help. What we need to do is to go out there and try to find those “unknown unknowns”. Come to think of it, we could start with some of the “known unknowns”.

Coming back to the subject of our other enemy, the European Union and its minions, the same problem can be seen. That Rolls Royce of officialdom, the British civil service, has had rings run round it by the despicable Europeans for decades. No, not all of them wanted to give up everything that may have been once upon a time part of this country’s history and tradition.

Nowadays we call it the Anglospheric tradition, but that, too, gets a superior sniff from too many people, though that comes into the category of "known unknowns".

Quite simply, through not doing their homework, through not trying to understand the “known unknowns”, let alone the "unknown unknowns", they lost out. We all lost out and we are continuing to lose out.

While piecing the picture together, as best we can on this blog (yes, thank you, I don’t need any more lectures on how I must be generous with my work and how the cause matters more than anything – see all the arguments above and leave), we have realized that the EU elite is having a more difficult time than most people realize.

Seemingly victorious, they are feeling their edifice beginning to shake around them, though we, out here, may not feel the tremor yet. It is hard to know what is going on really, what are the “known unknowns” and what are the “unknown unknowns”. Any tenuous work we may do is either drowned out by the usual suspects bleating their political slogans or chanting about the need for another campaign, any campaign or it is dismissed as being an exaggeration.

One of our constant complaints on this blog has been the lack of respect the eurosceptic movement has shown for intellectual work – for research, for analysis, for attempts to get beyond the “known knowns”. All attempts to set up a genuine think-tank that would deal with these problems have failed; all money raised has gone to pointless campaigns, unnecessary umbrella organizations or superficial publications that promote politicians or their parties.

So here we are, still in a mess, still squabbling and still unable to see beyond those “known knowns”. I don’t mind the squabbling as occasionally something comes out of it but I do, very seriously, object to our inability to understand the concept of “unknown unknowns” and to get to a point when we get to know some of them. There can be no solution to problems we cannot even begin to define.