Thinking about the recent not-so-smart observations on men’s magazines by Tory politician Michael Gove, it is useful to recall that our so-called moral guardians have for a long time got themselves all hot and bothered about the prospect of biddable young chaps getting an eyeful of the fairer sex:
“The French rulers [the Bishop informed the House], while they despair of making any impression on us by force of arms, attempt a more subtle and alarming warfare, by endeavouring to enforce the influence of their example, in order to taint and undermine the morals of our ingenious youth. They have sent amongst us a number of female dancers, who, by the allurement of the most indecent attitudes, and most wanton theatrical exhibitions, succeed but too effectually in loosening and corrupting the moral feelings of the people.”
Quoted in Decency & Disorder, by Ben Wilson, page 16. The comments were made by a Bishop sitting in the House of Lords in 1798. The late 1790s were a frightening period for the British ruling classes – as well they should have been. But it seems strangely comical that a Bishop should imagine that pretty French girls showing a bit of leg were more dangerous than the armies of Napoleon. Even at the time, I suspect that the likes of your average British sailor who was in the front line of defending Britain from attack would have thought this prelate to be a bit of an ass.
But however silly the Bishop’s comments were, they do point to something that is actually quite important: soft power, as foreign policy strategists like to call it. Yes, force of arms can subdue a weak nation. But any part of a “conquest” of a culture must take heed of the power, not just of tanks, guns or aircraft, but of ideas and preferences. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we tend to forget that the sight of Western advertisements for goods and services, occasionally glimpsed by people living in the Soviet empire, must have been a shock to anyone told that state central planning was the inevitable course of economic history. And when young people the world over – of whatever religion or of none – get to enjoy greater freedoms, most of them, from what I can tell, rather like them. Of course, religious extremists recoil in horror at such freedoms, just as the bishop I quoted did more than 200 years ago. Such folk may even use moral panics about such things to inflame opinion in reaction. But most people welcome a more liberal culture, which is why religious and other ideological puritans get so angry about it.
Maybe the Bishop was actually being quite wise after all. He need not have worried though, since those ladies’ men, Nelson and Wellington, dealt with the Corsican tyrant in the end, with a bit of help from a lot of Russians and Germans.