Monday, December 19, 2011

Politics of power

I cracked open A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (2010) on a friend's coffee table. In the chapter 'On King Den's Sandal Label' I scribbled down the following quotes:
So how do you lead and control a city or a state where most of the people don't know each other, and you can interact personally with only a very small percentage of the inhabitants? 
This United Egypt was one of the earliest societies that we can think of as a state in the modern sense, and, as one of its earliest leaders, King Den had to address all the problems of control and coordination that a modern state has to confront today.

This little label is the first image of a ruler in this history of humanity. It's striking, perhaps a bit disheartening, that, right at the beginning, the ruler wants to be shown as a commander-in-chief, conquering his foe. This is how, from earliest times, power has been projected through images, and there's something disturbingly familiar about it. 
The label-maker's job was, however, deadly serious: to keep his leader looking invincible and semi-divine, and to show that Den was the only man who could guarantee what Egyptians, like everybody else, wanted from their rulers — law and order.

There are some early hieroglyphs scratched into the ivory which give us the name of King Den and, between him and the enemy, the chilling words 'they shall not exist'. This 'other' is going to be obliterated. All the tricks of savage political propaganda are already here — the ruler calm and victorious, set against the alien, defeated, misshapen enemy.

"I think they realized, as world leaders have realized throughout history, that nothing binds a nation and a people together quite so effectively as a foreign war against a common enemy, whether that enemy is real or manufactured."  — Troy Wilkinson

It's a discouragingly familiar strategy. You win hearts and minds at home by focusing on the threats from abroad, but the weapons that you need to crush the enemy also come in handy when you're dealing with domestic opponents. The political rhetoric of foreign aggression is backed up by very brisk policing at home.
The clichés are apparently  true:
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
        — French proverb 
Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.
        — Edmund Burke

The author and Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has a radio series of A History of the World in 100 Objects on BBC radio. The 15 minute episode about King Den's Sandal Label can be listened to here.