By Jesse Van Mouwerik
Many of us often think of politicians using media forces to perpetuate their agendas as a relatively new phenomenon. And although the methods in modern times are much more sophisticated than they have been in past centuries, there is something perhaps slightly comforting in the knowledge that employing cultural narratives to get the public behind a given political agenda is as old as civilization itself.
The ancient Greeks (as in many things) are a good historical example. Although there was obviously no web access or newspapers thousands of years ago, there still existed clever methods of mass communication. Alexander the great, for example, mastered it. As King of Macedon from 326-323 B.C. Alexander successfully went from being in charge of a small city-state to forging an empire that spanned from the whole of Greece all the way to modern day Pakistan.
After absorbing large amounts of lands and peoples into his kingdom, Alexander needed to communicate the legitimacy of his conquest and reign across various cultures, languages and geographic regions in an almost subconscious fashion. To do so (among other things) he employed the simple act of placing the image of his profile on every coin in circulation. Printing a leader’s face on currency is something mundane by modern standards, but at the time proved revolutionary. Despite its simplicity, the coins communicated an idea to a population in the same basic way that a TV interview or a campaign poster of an American president would today.
It wasn’t until thousands of years later that people acquired the technology to scan the human brain and observe what parts of it are active when it views an advertisement. Amazingly, it is the same part of the brain that is active when a person is having a social interaction (study cited from a scientific interview from the documentary teenage paparazzo). From a neurological perspective, it makes no difference whether the thing that is addressing the brain is a person, a billboard, or a 3,000 year-old coin from Alexandria. All of them are interacting with you and sharing a human-generated message. This is how Alexander’s coins served as a subtle but very intimate reminder visible to all of Alexander’s power and legitimacy as a leader. Imagine the public reaction today if the U.S. mint announced plans to put our current president’s face on a coin.
Renaissance-era paintings of Christ’s crucifixion from Spain (left) and Germany (right)
Image of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Americans have also drawn on the imagery of Greco-Roman architecture, but more for its association with the democratic heritage of ancient Greece than for the imperial dominance of Rome (although many today argue that as more fitting). America’s early puritan populations used the image of the “white city on a hill” to describe the perfect society that they aspired to create in the new world.
As the technology to produce media eventually became more available and as societies became more literate, informed citizens were able to more easily create, absorb and circulate not just imagery, but the printed word. This proved at times both a force of empowerment for individuals and a threat to larger institutions. The invention of the printing press in Germany in the late 1400’s allowed information to circulate much faster than it had been able to previously. Germany was also the birthplace of the protestant reformation, which took off in the early 1500’s, just a few decades after the invention of the printing press. One could argue that a faster flow of information from various sources via the printing press was a great destabilizer of the Catholic Church. Translation of the bible into other languages also came around this time, allowing literate people to make their own interpretations of holy texts.
Much of this rebellion was a result of colonial pamphlets such as “Comon Sense,” a pamphlet written in 1776 by Thomas Paine, arguing for American freedom from British rule. It sold over 100,000 copies and was the best-selling piece of American writing at that time.
Media’s historic ability to influence international relations, whether by strengthening or weakening the credibility of institutions, governments, and individuals, or just by its ability draw a particular cultural narrative to public attention proves it to be a vital tool in foreign policy. Monarchies and dictatorships depend on media to creatively conjure up narratives that make whatever the leader does appear in the best interest of the citizenry. In a democracy it is necessary that the media function as a circulator of relevant information that can positively influence decisions made by citizens.
There are endless historical examples from Greek coins to catholic icons that show the effectiveness of media in successfully helping instigate activities in foreign policy. None of them, however, are useful to people today unless they can see them in the context of contemporary times, where imagery, institutional power, cultural narratives and the speed of information has been shaping the international arena more than it ever has before. In America, the role of modern media in international relations was at its first major start at the end of the 19th century.