Best of Bweinh! — Metric/Imperial Clash

January 15, 2008, 11:30 am; posted by
Filed under Debate, Mike J, Tom  | No Comments

Originally printed on April 17, 2007!

In this corner, supporting the metric system, is Tom!

And in this corner, supporting the imperial system, is Mike!

As a people, Americans have always paid our collective independence more than its share of lip service. We claim to be a land of freedom, say we have thrown off the bonds of tyranny that yoked our nation in her infancy, and present ourselves to the world as a paragon of liberty. Yet we persist in using a system of weights and measures based not on any semblance of sense, but on the whims and physical characteristics of the despotic few who governed the monarchies of antiquity.

The standard system ruled the roost of world business for centuries, growing comfortably fat off the toil of our brows and calculating machines. Wide rolls of strange numerical conversions began to hang from its jowls as it glutted itself at the table of commerce. Was this monster decimal? Octal? Dodecahedral? Who could afford to question? Time was better spent trying to determine the number of ounces in a hogshead, or inches in a furlong. But a new wind was about to blow.

Amid the tumult of the last time the French showed any collective semblance of bravery, a few daring souls decided to forge a universal system of measure. Rather than the length of a king’s thumb, or the volume of your average sheep bladder, they selected a length they would use for a base, a length of the people. The world was changing! The king was dead; he could no longer force the people to memorize numbers like 12, 16, 1160, or 5280! Instead, they counted their fingers, counted their toes, averaged the result and arrived at the number 10. That’s right, the same number upon which our entire system of numbers is based.

Not only can you convert between a nanometer and a kilometer just by moving a decimal place, you can even move between two and three dimensions without straining. Without measuring someone’s anatomy. Without consulting a council of bearded elders, table of ciphers or magician’s grimoire. When was the last time a child was able to proudly tell his teacher the number of cubic inches in a gallon? But any precocious tot can be instructed that a thousand independent little cubic centimeters together become a proud, powerful liter.

In a time of increasing foreign tension, should we really be raising the next generation to measure the world in a way foreign to the others who call it home? Is it worth enduring the confusion and inconsistency of the standard system, just so our grandchildren will measure their ice cream in the manner of our fathers? Just look into your heart, and count your toes.

I think you’ll find they hold the answer.

I pastor a church in a threatened part of the world. Chester County, Pennsylvania, just east of Lancaster, is a county of rolling hills and mushroom farms, and is a traditional home to horse trainers. You can still pass an idyllic Saturday in the southern part of the county watching the county as it used to be.

But the town where I pastor, Exton, has long been under threat. Every chain restaurant in the world, it seems, has moved in. I live about twenty minutes away, in Coatesville; a mere ten-minute drive from our church or home could take you to five McDonald’s, three Wendy’s, two Friendly’s, three Applebee’s, and countless other familiar restaurants that have conspired to all but destroy local cuisine.

We don’t need more themed chain restaurants beating the individuality out of us, and we sure don’t need a metric system forcing us all into a mold, even if it is a perfectly square, perfectly sensible, extremely user-friendly mold.

Do you really prefer the meter to the yard? We know how the meter came into being: it was a product of the “pure reason” so popular (and so stunningly bloody) in the French Revolution. Indeed, in 1799, the French stored away the originals of the meter and the other metric units, adorning the metric system with the motto, “For all men, for all time.”

On the contrary, we don’t know precisely where the yard comes from, only that its origin lies in charmed tradition. The girth of a person’s waist? The distance from Henry VIII’s nose to the tip of his outstretched thumb? No one knows for sure–all we know is that it’s a much better story than a bunch of progress-minded revolutionaries laying off the bloodshed long enough to standardize something random, then attempting to force the rest of the world to use it.

And they have tried to force the metric system. Don’t believe me? Ask the “Metric Martyrs,” a group of five English grocers who were fined for failing to measure their produce in metric units. Ask any Canadian you want. Their government went to the trouble of creating a logo to demonstrate their allegiance to metric’s new world order, pushing imperial users into underground quietness. Like Narnians, they must patiently await their chance to again enjoy their nation as it used to be.

So, go ahead, vote for the metric system. And while you’re homogenizing the world, would you also cast a ballot for eradicating local accents, closing the family-owned hardware store, and creating a list of state-approved songs for worship?

Thanks so much.

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