The cloud of unknowing that hovers over Washington.
Donald Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, apparently knows so much about the homeland that she knows nothing about the rest of the world. When asked by Senator Patrick Leahy of the Senate Judiciary Committee if Norway is predominantly white, Nielsen replied, “I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that’s the case.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Hold to be true only the facts that are useful for the business you are conducting. Everything else is relegated to the domain of the imagination.
Know and imagine are two verbs with special meanings in the world of politics and more generally in American speech. Outside of the context in which they are spoken, there is no way of knowing what they mean. It is therefore best to “imagine” the interlocutor’s intention. Imagine, for example, is often used as a synonym for believe: “I imagine most of the guests will prefer champagne to orange juice.” Know is often used as a synonym for imagine: “I know you’re going to love the musical, Hamilton.”
Nielsen graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, where she presumably had courses whose content included at least a mention of the geography and demography of exotic, faraway places, such as Norway. Her first and last names are Scandinavian, which might at some point have piqued her curiosity about that part of the world.
According to the profile on her reported by Quartz at the time of her appointment in October 2017, “Nielsen has a reputation as deeply-read and detail-oriented.” That doesn’t imply that she knows Ibsen by heart, has ever heard of Quisling, has examined Norway’s special status with regard to the European Union, or even that she read the newspapers at the time of white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik’s criminal rampage in 2011. But for most people the racial character of the population of Norway isn’t a “detail.” On the contrary, it may be the only fact most Americans “know” about Norway.
Nielsen made one statement that at least sounded true to anyone who has had any close contact with politics. “What I was struck with frankly, as I’m sure you were as well, was just the general profanity used in the room by almost everyone.” Of course, this sounds like an excuse, of the type “but everybody does it,” which confuses the general with the specific. It also sounds disingenuous coming from someone who has been in politics for many years. Politicians and business people use profanity in private to emphasize strong feelings, but there’s a difference between profanity itself and using it to insult and denigrate an entire population.
In the 19th century, there was a short-lived political party called the Know Nothings. They earned their name, given to the party by opponents, because of their rules of behavior for its leaders that required them to answer “I know nothing” to questions about the party itself and its workings. Paul Krugman writing in The New York Times describes them as a “bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors.”
It is difficult to escape the impression that, like the Know Nothings, Nielson had received orders to join the “Heard Nothings” alongside several other Trump loyalists, all of them contradicted by both Democrats and Republicans present at the same meeting.
Finally, it’s worth citing a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently knew something about knowing. “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Nielsen appears not to know for the simple reason that she doesn’t care.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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