The Basement of Forgotten Knowns

Once upon a time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood before reporters at the Pentagon and gave a quote that attached itself immediately to his legacy: 

“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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

The way Secretary Rumsfeld deployed philosophy to pettifog his response to a reporter’s question was, obviously, obnoxious, but the statement itself is interesting and true in precisely the kind of way you might want to repeat — which is interesting because, true story, “known knowns” were mentioned in a TED Talk given to Homeland Security staffers just days before Rumsfeld turned everyone on to the Johari Window. 

The Johari Window is the 1950’s creation of two psychologists. Their idea was that self-discovery could arise through an exploration of the public and private areas of one’s life, which could be viewed in four quadrants:

In one corner is the “Arena.” This is where you find the “known knowns” of Rumsfeld’s quote, information widely shared. In adjacent corners are the “Facade,” where what is known to a subject is kept from others, and the “Blind Spot,” where what others know is hidden from a subject’s view. The final quadrant is simply the “Unknown,” which, ironically, is pretty easy to grasp. 

As Wikipedia helpfully notes, the philosopher Charles Handy suggested this model is more accurately envisioned as a house with four rooms. Examining your own “Johari Home” can help you develop a better sense of self and build relationships by opening up various windows and doors. It is a useful construct, so perhaps it was inevitable that someone would come along and dig out a goddamn basement.  


I recently started the process of buying a home. Having never before owned a home, everything about this process was new to me. Initially, this meant a lot of research. I learned about mortgages. I learned about property assessments. I learned about property appraisals. I learned about taxes and titles. I learned about septic systems. 

But the thing I learned that I like to repeat is: caveat emptor. 

Caveat emptor is a Latin phrase. It means “buyer beware.” It is also the legal principle which underpins real estate transactions, a rather blunt acknowledgement that a seller knows more about what he or she is selling than the buyer. When you are planning the biggest purchase of your life, I assure you, this is deeply unsettling. 

But that part comes later. When you start the home-buying process, it’s all sunshine and gazebos. The highlight is, by far, the part where you click around on Trulia or Zillow and look at nice places to live. At first, you sort through homes by what you like — towns, bedrooms, acres, etc. — but once you start taking the process seriously you begin sorting by what you can afford. 

This is, arguably, the hardest part of buying a home, the part where you must be disciplined enough to admit: I have only this much money. The line is easy enough to draw, but you quickly begin to notice exactly what — and where — your budget will get you. And when you see something that breaks the pattern, something you like, something that looks nice, your instinct is to ask: what’s wrong with it? 

There is always something wrong with it. River view? It’s in a flood zone. Four acres? Against a highway. Listed “1 bathroom” but no pictures of a bathroom? My friend, that property has an outhouse. Book it. At one point, I actually went to look at a fully renovated house which had impressive pictures and listed many more rooms than anything in my price range. I was suspicious, but also I was curious (and perhaps a bit desperate).

After touring a very nice but very basic three-bedroom home, I was informed there was an entire second house literally walled off from the part of the property that I had just seen. Hmmm. 

This “other” house, it turned out, had been torn apart years ago in the hope of some future renovation that never materialized. Momentarily encouraged, I thought, I could be that future! I could be the person this house has been waiting for! I poked around the plaster-less lathe-walled rooms imagining mine was the eye of a master builder, thinking, here, I would do this… and over here I would do that… at which point, I opened a door.

Behind this door were old wooden stairs leading into a black abyss. Somewhere behind me the realtor apologized meekly that she had never been “down there.” This was an obvious lie. I called her bluff. “Then let’s go on an adventure!” I said, turning on my phone flashlight and taking a tentative first step, expecting the first step to crumble at the slightest provocation. 

The stairs held. I crept down, knowing more surely than I have known most things in my life that at the bottom I would find something horrible. As the tiny light of my phone probed the recesses beneath the “other” home, a yawning gap in the foundation commanded the entirety of its beam. When my eyes focused, I saw the gap was in fact a breach — a massive slump of mud and earth that had broken the concrete foundation like a wafer. The whole “other” home, walled off but still quite attached to its “nice” facade, was being consumed from the ground up. 

Buyer beware. 


It is the understatement of the century to say that a lot has happened since Donald Rumsfeld dropped “known unknowns” into the American consciousness, but rather than treat his remarks as a quirky TED Talk takeaway they should have been a warning shot: politicians were fucking around inside Johari’s House. 

In retrospect, it makes all the sense in the world. There’s a nice big Arena for the government and public to exchange “known knowns.” The Facade of “known unknowns,” I’m sure, looks lovely decorated with state secrets. For our pesky Blind Spot, there’s a whole intelligence community ready to unlock the “unknown knowns.” Standing against the menacing Unknown is an ever-growing arsenal of weapons and our armed forces waiting to deploy them.

The difference between then and now, however, is that while Rumsfeld, Cheney and Dubya were shuffling around secrets and building up our fear of both the Known and Unknown, the White House is currently occupied by a bankruptcy mogul-turned-reality television host who is less concerned with figuring out what he doesn’t know than burying what he does. 

It is a fact that the President of the United States knew the Covid-19 pandemic was going to ravage America in ways we were unprepared to confront. Donald Trump buried that truth. It is a fact that President Obama signed the Veteran’s Choice Act into law on August 7, 2014. Donald Trump continues to bury that truth. It is a fact that you can attend religious services in the state of Pennsylvania. Donald Trump buried that truth

The list goes on and on and is familiar and exhausting and there is a common response to the litany of lies that justifies them by simply owning up to the idea that it’s all to “own the libs.” This is cute, perhaps, on the ground at rallies where the material plays for laughs and reliable cheers, but no one and nothing capable of accumulating such power as Trump has gathered around him does so for sheer spite.

What we have witnessed, in fact, during Trump’s time in the Oval Office, is the political ethos of “truthiness” that was formed during the last Bush administration metastasize into something very dangerous.

On Wednesday, Senator Mike Lee of Utah appeared as part a Senate panel inquiry into Section 230 and said the quiet part loud. He openly admitted truth is more than a little inconvenient. Complaining that social media companies shouldn’t be allowed to correct factual errors, Lee was making the case for a “right to lie,” which is precisely what Donald Trump has been doing all along. 

For four years, Donald Trump, like a shitty roommate, has commandeered America’s shared space of Known Knowns, saying one thing, doing another, declaring he has done both, and denying he has done either. This is waived off as “politics” and “rhetoric,” but behind the scenes truth has been secreted out of the Arena, taken through the Blind Spot to a room dug out beneath the Unknown — the Basement of Forgotten Knowns — where politicians seeking an advantage have stashed once-shared truths.


Just as the initial idealism of home-buying gives ways to harsh realities of what can be done, there is yet to come another moment in the game when we are no longer negotiating with ourselves. At the end, we must confront a seller who is withholding… something

Caveat emptor. 

We all have our Blind Spots. We all have our Facades. We use these spaces in small ways and big, seeking advantages in our lives. This is normal. To become lost in our own homes, however, to find the living room destroyed by someone who has clearly remodeled but keeps insisting it’s exactly the same, this is deeply abnormal. 

When we enter the Arena we want to believe that we will be armed with as much knowledge as the next person. But that isn’t true. I would suggest you bring a shovel.



  1. This is really a very good allegory–buying a house vs electing a candidate.  One of the things I remember very clearly before our first exercise in home buying was reading the book Freakonomics (the first one), in which there was an explanation why real estate agents typically sell their own homes at a higher price than the homes they sell for clients.  There were two major reasons at play.  The first is that the real estate agents benefitted from the knowledge gap.  They knew more than the clients did and so could more easily leverage that knowledge in the service of their own home sales.  The other reason was simple expediency.  The faster they can sell other people’s houses–even if those sale prices were lower than they could be–they wind up making more money on the back end through sheer volume.
    With Trump, we are not only suffering from a knowledge gap, but we also have to contend with an entire half of the population which is perfectly happy to expand the knowledge gap by swallowing all the bullshit Republicans can throw at them.  In fact, as we have seen, Republicans no longer feel bound by the ruse of the facade.  Now they just lie like fucking crazy in the arena because their 50-plus year crusade to destroy the educational system in this country has paid off quite handsomely.

  2. No one likes hearing unpleasant truths.  I don’t really.  I don’t like to think of myself as inept, weak or stupid, but there are moments in my life when I have been (many times all of the above.)
    However, one thing I know is the difference between a normal person and a weak one dealing with truth.  Facing unpleasant truths.
    A Tale of Two Fools
    The worst engineer I ever worked with never could deal with actual criticism.  Instead of asking her critics (like myself) why her projects were badly conceived or executed, she turned tail and ran away and took any criticism of her ideas personally.  I was on her shit list because I rattled off a list of bad ideas that needed to be stopped or changed before they ended up on the production floor at a meeting.  I heard she considered me a bully.
    When she left, the person who replaced her was… ironically… me.  I did what I could do clearing out the mess she left behind.  I was successful in correcting several of her blunders while making a couple of my own.  The main difference was that I didn’t run from the truth and fixed my mistakes before things went south.
    The 2nd person was the worst friend I ever had and gave up on was someone who couldn’t face himself.  He always putting down everyone around him but could never joke about himself.  Should have been a big red flag, but I was desperate for a social life and needed friends (dumb.)
    One day, I got a frantic call from him and he wanted me to change a PDF as he knew I had access to full Adobe Acrobat.  I asked him what it was, but he didn’t want to tell me.  It turns out the document in question was his work review.  It was pretty much the worst work review I had ever read (and that includes my two worst reviews ever) where he was eviscerated by his boss for his (abrasive) personality, (lack of) integrity/ethics, (questionable) knowledge, (poor) work ethic and (delusional) ego.  He wanted me to alter the document which was a legal one. I refused and he hung up on me.  It turns out his boss was way more right than wrong and this whole episode proved to be a turning point for me.  I realized that wanting friends didn’t mean I had to accept shit people.  I soon stopped talking to him.
    The sad part is both were right wingers.  He more rabid than she.
    Both so afraid of a world they wanted to control/dominate that they couldn’t deal with the ugly truth when it stared them in the face.

    • Your shitty friend sounds a lot like my brother.  Always has to put down others, can never laugh at himself, right wing imebecile.  The only major difference is that your old friend actually had a job.  My brother hasn’t had a job in decades, so he calls himself “self-employed.”
      There’s a school of thought out there which suggests that right wingers–especially Trump supporters–refuse to acknowledge their mistake and keep supporting that sack of shit because of sunk cost fallacy.  They simply can’t bring themselves to pay the price of admitting they were wrong.

      • The person in question has never held a job for more than 3 years and is now working for himself for the last 4 (moderately successful internet business.)  Blames office politics for his failures instead of himself.
        I think he would have been your brother if he were not a sole male child.

  3. “building up our fear of both the Known and Unknown”
    That’s another critical piece of the Trump puzzle. Fear is essential to motivate his core base, and people fear what they don’t understand. Keeping things Unknown means there are lots of bogeymen available to call on at need. 
    There’s a social psychology theory called Terror Management Theory, that postulates that humans are aware of their own mortality and they are in constant dread of it, to greater or lesser degrees. Cultural worldviews like religion, politics, or national identity “protect” frightened people by basically ascribing a structure to random frightening events. Studies show that reminding people of death actually shifts them to the right politically, increasing nationalism and conservatism. Your old racist uncle is sort of an avatar of this condition. As awareness of death increases, old people become more susceptible to Trump’s “rhetoric.”
    By constantly reinforcing the idea of an existential “threat” against his voters, Trump increases their aggressive tendencies, reinforces their bigotry, and basically cements himself into their consciousness. He did do this alone, or even consciously (he’s an idiot), but he tapped into years of Republican fear-mongering and essentially took it to its natural conclusion. 
    Citation here:

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