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Jewish World Review August 1, 2000 / 29 Tamuz, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

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Consumer Reports

Presidential campaign could use some anti-metric mania -- UP TO NOW, all four of the recognized candidates for president -- Bush, Gore, Nader and Buchanan -- have had at least one need in common. They've all wanted for an issue that communicates real disdain for globalization without having any major consequences for peoples' pocketbook -- preferably something that resonates with the average person without scapegoating an industry or community that could fight back.

Well, just in time for the major conventions, Britain has given us the perfect international equivalent to flag-burning. I'm referring, of course, to that heinous measure of tyranny, the metric system.

Britain's leading supermarket chain, Tesco, declared this month that they would return to "imperial" weights and measures, i.e. good old-fashioned pounds, pints, inches, ounces and feet. The reaction from the British public and press has been hysterically positive. Tesco took this step in part because a survey of customers revealed that about nine out of 10 people still used the old-fashioned measurements in their heads.

Tesco's decision follows in the wake of numerous small grocery store owners who have become national heroes by standing up to the European "food police" by defying what British press calls the latest "diktats" from Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Some British politicians, witnessing this unchoreographed national fervor, have been stoking the issue by encouraging other stores to follow suit.

Actually, the metric system has been unpopular in Britain for generations, but recently it has become a symbol of the European Union's -- a.k.a. the Brussels Bullies -- efforts to trample British culture and sovereignty by imposing more "international" and therefore more "logical" European standards. The fact that the official name for the metric system is Systeme International d'Unites (international system of units) doesn't help when marketing to the English, who are proudly anti-French.

Like anti-WTO fervor here in the States, anti-metric sentiment is an expression of disdain for outsiders who try to "improve" domestic arrangements. The metric system was originally concocted by hyper-rational French revolutionaries who wanted to impose "order" on the chaotic and supposedly unscientific system of weights and measures throughout Europe. They even tried to reduce the calendar to 10 months. If a local population refused to accept it, Napoleon's troops persuaded them to reconsider at bayonet-point. Hence the name "measure of tyranny."

Based on the base-10 system, the metric system was allegedly more rational and therefore easier and more scientific. For instance the kilometer was defined -- by Napoleon's decree -- as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole on a line running through -- of course -- Paris. Unfortunately, they got the measurement wrong, not realizing the Earth is a bit egg-shaped.

Indeed, the whole metric system, while seemingly rational on paper, is profoundly irrational in practice. Its motto is "for all people, for all time," but the items metrologists selected to define the system's base units were inherently unreliable and aren't easy for the average person to intuitively guestimate.

For example, the gram was first pegged to the weight of a cubic centimeter of water at its maximum density. Alas, this proved to be an extremely unreliable and unwieldy measurement. So the French scientists switched the base weight of the metric system to the kilogram and pegged that, not to 1,000 grams of water, but to a platinum cylinder kept outside Paris. Today, the meter is defined as the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458-th of a second. Isn't that a handy rule of thumb when buying a string of sausage?

The old system may be less rational, but it is more human. The inch was first defined in 1150 by King David I of Scotland as the width of a man's thumb at the base of the nail. Edward I of England redefined the inch in the 13th century to equal three grains of dry and round barley laid end to end. The inspiration for the foot's definition should be fairly obvious. The mile comes from the Latin, "mille passus," which means a thousand steps.

It's been 25 years since America was supposed to begin converting to the metric system (and more than a century since president Andrew Johnson encouraged us to adopt it) and we're not much closer now than we were then.

Still, wouldn't it make for a fun fight? "Mr. Gore, are you now or have you ever favored forcibly imposing a radically abstract system of French design on the American people?"

The only people guaranteed to be offended would be the French -- and that's its own reward.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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