The Measure of All Things

Remember when a “Conservative” was someone opposed to change? “Any change, at any time, for any reason is to be deplored,” as The Duke of Cambridge (Victoria’s uncle) once declared. Back in the 1950’s, the word got restricted to the meaning “anti-communist/capitalists who believed in a strong defense and a free economy, and it was embodied in the unlikely person of Barry Goldwater. By the election of 1980, Conservatives had taken the initiative and were now the bold innovators in economic and foreign policy. Most conservatives were delighted with the change of image—from Tory squire to progressive, from curmudgeon to optimist.

I am not too sure. Society needs curmudgeons, and somehow Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neil do not fit the part. A healthy skepticism is our best defense against the frivolous spirit of innovation that has infected since Tom Paine went up and down preaching blasphemy and the rights of man. Many of the old Conservative—one is tempted to say Tory—positions, as ludicrous as they might seem today, were more deeply rooted in human nature and its traditions than supply side economics or global anti-Soviet commitments. It would be hard, in these times, to drum much support for a crusade against women’s suffrage or to restore the rights of kings. However, another apparently ridiculous Conservative cause appears to have the support of the American people by a two to one margin: I mean opposition to the Metric System.

In our preference for the old “inch-ounce” system, now known as the North American System, we Americans are in distinguished company with Barbados, Gambia, Oman, and South Yemen. All the countries of Communist Eastern Europe and Socialist Western Europe have gone metric. At home we are backing a trend support by our most enlightened constituencies: The National Education Association, the Association of Classroom Teachers, the Natio al Association of Secondary School Principals. Between the NEA and South Yemen, it is admittedly a hard choice.

With all this pressure from the Best and Brightest, our reluctance to going metric is hard to understand. The fact is, our old English system was never legally established by Congress, although back in 1866 Andrew Johnson signed a law permitting the use of the Metric system, and in 1875 the U.S. was among the forty-eight signatories to the Convention du Mètre. These dates should cause Southerners to take heart: the reconstruction of our system of measurement in America was first approved by those same ideologues who were busy reconstructing human nature in the South.

Even so, it took Congress a hundred years to get around to passing a Metric Conversion Act in 1975. This reluctance to interfere is uncharacteristic of Congress, especially since the Constitution expressly gives them the authority for “fixing the standard of weights and measures.” President Washington, in is first message to Congress, requested them to make use of their mandate. Thomas Jefferson actually did propose two separate plans: the first simply confirmed the old, English weights and measures; the second converted the traditional units to a decimal system. It was probably not foreseen, even by Jefferson, that a much more radical reformation was about to be proposed and enforced by his friends in France.

Enthusiasts for the Metric System claim to have exploded all the old conservative arguments; a superstitious belief that God somehow revealed the inch; an equally superstitious fear of anything that originated in the French Revolution; and the mistaken notion that conversion will cost too much. Even people who are not much given to stroking rabbits’ feet or picking herbs that grow on a murderer’s grave by the light of a full moon, can still recognize that at the base of all superstitions is the acknowledgment that not everything is under man’s control. In this sense the superstitious man shows a healthy and realistic respect for Natural and supernatural forces. The apostles of Science, Progress, and the Metric System are a little like the advisors of King Canute, who assured him that authority alone could stop the tide. If they cannot understand our superstitious reverence for the NAS (Notice how they systematize even the irrational with their acronyms!), we superstitious conservatives might find their rage to rationalize equally baffling.

Now, no one is going to argue that God decreed the inch or defined the foot, but he did, we are reliably informed, make man among His latest and noblest creations. We used to measure things—quite literally—on the human scale: in digits (the width of a finger), palms (four digits), spans (the distance between outstretched thumb and little finger, and cubits (from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow). We still measure whiskey by fingers, though not (except in Texas) by palms, salt by pinches, and horses in hands. In this sense, we may agree with Protagoras’ otherwise foolish solipsism that “man is the measure of all things.”

We are more at home in a world measured by our hands and feet or by such homely measures as furlongs—the length of a furrow, originally, and acres—as much land as could be plowed by a team of oxen. In a world increasingly dominated by machines and other impersonal forces, we can sympathize with the Cowboy Hall of Fame, which is suing the Federal Government for going metric, on the grounds that the West was won “inch by inch foot by foot, and mile by mile.” Much of contemporary fashionable thought reveals a hatred of our species. Baby seals, whales, and snail-darters are reverently (and rightly) defended by the same people who prate about a woman’s right to control her own body, even when it means the death of her child. Man, we are told repeatedly, is the only evil thing in nature, the only creature that kills for pleasure. These urban misanthropes have never seen a weasel in a henhouse, as one of Melville’s characters remarks.

This hatred of our species has an ancient smack to it. It was the Docetists (among others) who rejected the Incarnation as crucifixion. God was too “pure” to take on human flesh and suffering. This mania for purity animated the Muslins in their destruction of icons and imagines, not to mention the English Puritans who vandalized churches and religious houses, closed the theaters, and desecrated the most potent political of man they possessed by chopping off the head of Charles I. The friends of the Metric System are the living descendants of the Dervish, the Roundhead, and every other sworn enemy of the human race. Under their prompting we now measure the world, not by the unworthy standard of the human body, but by 1/10,000,000th of the distance from equator to pole—or something fairly close to that figure. You see, the infallible savants made an uncharacteristically human error when they calculated the meter. Later on, it seemed easier to retain the imperfect meter as it was than to go to the trouble of changing the whole system.

Of course, not all traditional units of measurement were based on the human body. Measures of volume evolved from the sizes of certain containers. But even so, our old hodgepodge system, in so many respects typically Medieval, was a kind of living museum of Western history. Our terms pf measurement embodied the traditions of Greece, Rome, the Celts and Germans, even the Arabs. What a sense of history a man can acquire from pondering the dram (Greek drachma), the mile (Latin mille passus—a thousand paces), the Saxon fathom, the French gill, and the Gaulish league. What drives these reformers to hate their past so bitterly? It is like the middle aged adolescent who still complains to his analyst about the emotional damage inflicted by his parents. Such unreasoning hostility is always strange, but stranger still, when it is expressed in the name of reason.

In fact, the Metric System originated in the fanatical worship of the goddess Reason. It was Talleyrand himself who in 1790 proposed the overhaul of the whole system of weights and measures. The unhappy Louis XVI was directed to order a scientific investigation and to invite his brother monarchs to send in their experts. When George III expressed an understandable reluctance to collaborate with republicans, the French Academy of Science went on alone in the great work, setting up a commission which included the chemist Lavoisier. The revolutionaries decided to honor the commission by disbanding it and Lavoisier by sending him to the guillotine. In such a time, Lucan’s phrase about anarchy—Mensuraque juris vis erat (Force was the only measure of law)—might be aptly retranslated as: Measure was violence of law.

We ought not to be embarrassed to find ourselves in company with an exemplary reactionary like the Sheik of Oman, and the complaint that our old-fashioned weights and measures isolate us in the world is simply a confession of weakness. Back in 1821, John q. Adams may have had a point, when he suggested that we could not afford to jeopardize our trade with Britain by adopting the Metric System. But in a world dominated by us and the Soviet Union, surely we can indulge our eccentricities. The healthiest part of the American character has always been a willingness to persist in singularity, even when (as in the case of Prohibition) we are dreadfully wrong. The fact is that simplification and standardization are part of the same science fiction mentality that would reduce the world’s peoples to one language—Esperanto or Newspeak—one government—the UN—or a benevolent Soviet Empire—and one culture—Public Television.

The problem would be simpler if we could label the Metric System as Marxist. Unfortunately the problem is much deeper. We smell, inevitably, the whiff of brimstone the presence of Faust’s companion. We have subjected everything else in our lives to rational numeration, why not measurement itself. After all, this is the century that gave birth to serial music—a mathematical art-form utterly divorced from the requirements of the human ear. What are the Social Sciences, fundamentally, but an intrusion of numbers into places they do not belong? The rearing of ouch children is now become a matter of preference tests, IQ tests, and achievement tests. “Momentum” and opinion polls became the Djinn of political campaigns. WE cannot escape this pernicious intellectualism even in the wasteland of televised sports, where the commentators solemnly intone statistics about RBIs, ERAs, and passing records, swamping the activity on the field in a downpour of numbers. We even measure our lust in “vital statistics”—how big, how long, how often. It is easy to imagine Mr. Hefner drooling over the rubberized abstractions of his 92-56-92 (centimeters!) playmate.

Going metric may well be as inevitable as socialism or genetic engineering. Bayer aspirin is apparently 1 cm in diameter, and they already sell skis in metric sizes. GM is expecting all passenger cars to be metric by 1982. However, this is not simply a case of pragmatism versus tradition. There was an estimated $100 billion price tag attached, a figure which may turn out to be as accurate as the cost estimates in a defense contract. Even though most Americans are not aware that the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 created a Metric Board to coordinate but not require the process of conversion, they are complaining bitterly about all-metric speed signs and 200 ml (6.8 oz) half pints of Jack Daniels.

Complaints will not impress the reformers. The loves of order and abstraction (One Meter, One World!) have too much at stake to consider backing down in the face of popular superstition. Their universal vision is on the line—a tidy little world, sterilized against every taint of human history, with paradise just down the next kilometer. On the other hand, they might listen to more active forms of persuasion. We could build quite a bonfire with skis and Pontiacs, and we would have to do something with all those milliliters of Jack Daniels.

This essay first appeared in The Southern Partisan, Fall 1981, which Clyde Wilson and I created and edited. I have made a very few minor corrections and verbal alterations. The Measure of All Things

Thomas Fleming

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina