Words matter. The Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word,” (John 1:1). Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer, dissident, and ultimately first president of the Czech Republic, quotes that verse from John 1:1 at the beginning of one of his most famous speeches, “Words on Words,” given in 1989 while he was still protesting Communism.
After quoting the Bible, Havel talked about his experience of living under secretive, totalitarian regimes and “the stifling pall of hollow words that have smothered us for so long.” These “hollow words” have “cultivated in us such a deep mistrust of the world of deceptive words…”
“Hollow words” are words that have had all the meaning taken out; it is speech designed to hide, not to reveal.
I have come to believe Mitt Romney, GOP presidential candidate, and some of his advisors, are using “hollow words” to defend Romney from the growing number of questions about his time at Bain Capital.
Late last week, Mr. Romney made the rounds at five news shows, addressing the ‘when did you really leave Bain Capital’ question. Romney has repeatedly said he “quit” Bain in February, 1999. The problem is that two Boston Globe reporters have, as the New Yorker put it, “turned up documents that say otherwise. One of them, which Bain Capital filed with the government in 2001, refers to Romney as the ‘sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president’ of the firm.”
The question, of course, is about whether Mr. Romney can therefore be held responsible for job-destroying practices like outsourcing overseas. The careful non-answering of the question of responsibility struck me in interview after interview. This exchange with CBS News’s Jan Crawford of CBS highlights the issue:
“CRAWFORD: You don’t remember a board meeting, you don’t remember talking about whether or not there should be outsourcing jobs overseas? Do you remember any involvement with Bain Capital from 1999 on?
ROMNEY: Jan, I had no involvement with the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999.”
Thus has Mr. Romney made “management” into a hollow word, a word he has been employing to hide from the larger question of his responsibility.
The way partnerships are structured and the meaning of SEC documents are difficult to define and create an atmosphere where “hollow words” -- on both sides of the issue -- can flourish. The Washington Post Fact Checker concluded that much of the language of SEC documents saying Romney was “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president” was “boilerplate and did not reveal whether he was actually managing Bain at the time.” The Obama campaign, of course, wants us to believe he was because during these months Bain did more outsourcing than the previous years when Romney was clearly in charge of the company (and is eager to take credit for its successes).
And as this controversy continues to unfold, more “hollow words” get used as explanations and only serve to make it worse. Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney campaign advisory, explained on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that Romney is not responsible for Bain activities in the period in question as he actually “retired retroactively” from Bain. What could that possibly mean?
To me, and to Obama campaign managers who keep hammering away at this issue, it means Romney was functioning as a manager at Bain Capital after he said he retired, as a corporate document filed with the State of Massachusetts in 2002 indicates. It lists Romney as a “managing member” of Bain Capital Investors, according to the Huffington Post.
Words can create a world of meaning. Certainly words can also be used to destroy meaning through untruths. But perhaps one of the most debilitating uses of words in our public life is the half-truth. The half-truth is a “hollow word” where truth has been carved out so only the shell of the word remains.
In the old Communist system, Vaclav Havel was saying, words were eviscerated of meaning, made “hollow” by propaganda. A true word by a dissent, therefore, could strike fear into the totalitarian regime and result in long prison sentences. The true word really meant something when speech was not free. True words helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
In the U.S. we have “freedom of speech” as guaranteed by the Constitution. But as corporate America has come to dominate our political system, it is well to realize how much the culture of secrecy in the corporate world is starting to dominate public life and our politics as well. Of course, private-equity firms in a capitalist system have little economic parallel in the Communist world. What they do have in common, however, is that both value secrecy so much.
John Cassidy, in The New Yorker, notes the “opacity and secretiveness” of “the private-equity business.” Writes Cassidy:
“What’s killing Romney now is another aspect of the private-equity business, and Bain Capital in particular, which has received rather less attention: its opacity and secretiveness. As a private company, Bain Capital isn’t legally obliged to say much about what it does, but its aversion to public disclosure goes beyond standard norms. Like the Carlyle Group and other big private-equity firms, it deliberately withheld as much information as it could, both to create an aura that would help it attract outside investors and to disguise how much money its partners were making.”
Vaclav Havel’s address shows us why such a culture of “opacity and secretiveness” is so dangerous for American public life. Havel notes that speaking a true word is what is meant by the biblical text about how “in the beginning” the “word” was creative. He says, “[W]ords can be said to be the very source of our being…[and the source of] Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world.”
Havel’s life and work should teach us to be very, very suspicious of the capacity of hollow words to smother meaning and rob us of the kind of insight that helps make us human, make us Spirit, make us capable of the great political project of democracy. A great part of all of that is the ability to speak a true word. A full word. A complete explanation.
Tell us the whole truth, Mr. Romney. Listen to Vaclav Havel:
“In the beginning of everything is the word.”
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.