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Langue de Bois: The Newspeak Dictionary Goes Gallic

Langue de bois is the French term for the special language that was spoken and written by Communist leaders and functionaries. It is hard to define but easy to recognize. It is simultaneously high-flown and supremely dull; it never descends to particulars; it confuses abstract aspiration with actual achievement; it is terminally humorless; it disguises obvious lies, and tries to preclude any opposition, by resort to pompous moral banalities and abstractions. It acts almost instantly on the mind as a general anesthetic, but without the soothing element of sleep.

It did not disappear with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Politicians are by nature inclined to use it when in a tight corner, as are bureaucrats and senior executives. But in my opinion, this year’s Brezhnev Prize for langue de bois ought to be awarded forthwith to Dr. Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister (and one of the founders of Medecins Sans Frontieres), for his article “For Greece, for Europe.” It was published in the French newspaper Liberation on May 10.

The question that arises as soon as one starts to read is whether the words used in it correspond to any actual thoughts. Is there anyone who, within the fastness of his own skull, actually thinks like this? Or is it all merely a performance, an act? I think it must be the latter; if the former, only a Frankenstein’s monster would not go mad with boredom with his own cerebration.

A few quotations will be enough to establish the point:

Let us not give in to facile anxiety-provoking, declinist speeches, and looks things in the face. This crisis demonstrates only one thing: that we have need of Europe more than ever. Europe was born in crisis and will emerge stronger from this ordeal. Of this I am certain …

These are not the worlds of a politician cornered by a journalist who has asked a difficult and awkward question, who is trying to buy time by hiding behind vague generalities. They are the considered words of a senior politician who is voluntarily committing them to print.

The article goes from bad to worse:

We are motivated by a very simple and very strong conviction: to help Greece today is to protect our common currency but also to defend the incomes and the work of the French people tomorrow. Over and above the debates among the twenty-seven states, the solidarity of Europeans is total.

This is a combination of magical thinking — that somehow to wish a thing, such as the future prosperity of the French people, is automatically to bring it about — and lying, dressed up in the most wooden of wooden terms. What could the total solidarity of Europeans mean? There isn’t even total solidarity in a small village, let alone across twenty-seven countries. Many Germans now despise the Greeks and many Greeks hate the Germans. The only total solidarity to be found is probably among the bureaucrats of Brussels who know on which side of every question their expenses claims are signed.

Dr. Kouchner attempts a crescendo of eloquence, which induces a strange combination of hilarity and nausea:

We need a generation of firm and resolute politicians, entrepreneurs and thinkers whose minds and above all ambition are equal to the dimensions of Europe in its diversity, richness, and the scale of its trajectory. It is through the blossoming of the universities and the circulation of ideas that, nearly ten centuries ago, the first outlines of the European adventure were drawn. To make the parcours more European is the yeast of renewal.

On the one hand, life is too short to analyze and argue against this preternaturally boring drivel; on the other hand, not to do so is to allow its perpetrator to remain invulnerable within his carapace of self-regard and self-importance.

Unfortunately, there is a dangerous asymmetry between those who seek power and those who think it ought to be limited. The former are generally monomaniacs, the latter are not. By use of langue de bois, the former can bore the latter into indifference.