Monday, May 22, 2006

The Metric System

I’m just old enough to remember the great Metric System debacle of the 1970’s.

Unlike every other country, the U.S. still uses miles, and feet, and inches, and furlongs, and pounds, and quarts, and gallons. Bits and pieces of metric show up in specialized applications, like laboratory science, medicine, distance running (5k races are commonplace), and, for reasons I’ll never understand, bottling. (At some point, the 2-liter bottle replaced the 2-quart bottle. Don’t know why.) But for the most part, we’ve remained proudly wedded to the old English system, which even the English don’t really use much anymore.

There’s a great book waiting to be written on the failure of the push to convert to metric.

Looking back, I sorta remember the backlash against metric occurring as part of the backlash against an inchoate sense that America was in decline. In the late 70’s, there was a weird, curdled-populist anger that manifested itself in CB radios and Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan. It was a strange brew of xenophobia, misogyny, anti-communism, romanticism, evangelical Protestantism, redneck-ism, patriotism, jingoism, and a dumbed-down Jeffersonianism. (For the younger readers out there, picture an angrier Larry the Cable Guy. He’s exaggerated, but he’s recognizable.) It was in response to a whole series of national humiliations, ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan to oil shocks, inflation, and the Panama Canal.

It was a different time.

Anyway, the metric system at that time came off as a sort of effete, Euro-Modernist import, shoved down the throats of Real Americans by the same smug coastal elites who got all self-righteous about banning smoking and conserving energy. To my memory, the song “Take This Job and Shove It” pretty much captured the spirit of the age. At that point, to suggest posting highway signs in kilometers was tantamount to announcing that you like to traipse through daisies and dress up like a pretty little girl.

Readers of a certain age – do you remember just what, exactly, was behind the anti-metric movement? I think this represents the dilemmas of American liberalism in microcosm.