A top headline in today’s Washington Post reads (in the print version)
France’s Hollande intervenes in Mali
An odd headlne, I thought. I’m sure Hollande himself isn’t picking up a gun and heading for Mali. And if he’s simply sending troops (as the online version says), don’t we usually just say “France sends troops”? But in fact, of course, some person or persons actually send troops to war. It isn’t done by a whole country collectively. And in the case of France, apparently one person has the authority to launch military interventions. (Thank God we don’t live in such a country!)
The headline in my morning paper put me in mind of one of Tom Palmer’s favorite quotations in discussions of statism and individualism. It comes from the historian Parker T. Moon of Columbia University in his study of 19th-century European imperialism, Imperialism and World Politics:
Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country—when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”—we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead—thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?
I guess the Post has avoided the obfuscation of which Moon complained by stating frankly: “Hollande sends troops to Mali.”