Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Metric System And American Exceptionalism

     Back when I was in grade school, sometime in the 70’s, they decided it would be a good idea to start to teach children the metric system in anticipation that we would soon be switching over to it. We were taught that it was based on common sense and logic rather than on the lengths of the king’s body parts or the quantity of liquid his bladder could hold.
     For example, the meter was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Pretty neat, right? There would be no arguments about exactly how long some long-dead king’s foot was when we had a constant scientific measurement that would be for all times provable. And then there is the measurement of area. Rather than the acre, which corresponds to I don’t know what, you have the are, which is simply 100 meters squared. And here’s the beauty of this, not only units of distance and area but also volume and mass and temperature are based on the simple meter. Because a liter is simply ten centimeters cubed. And the gram is the weight of the cube of a hundredth of a meter. And best of all, water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 degrees. Genius!
     And tens, everything was broken down into tens. Being young, I found it infinitely easier to learn than having sixteen ounces to a pint, two pints to a quart and four quarts to an American and five quarts to an Imperial Gallon. If that’s right: I’m still not sure how the Imperial Gallon worked.
     But beyond the fact that it was easier, it was universal. People all over the world were using it and it only made sense for the good old U.S. of A. to use it as well. Using an antiquated system of measurements that wasn’t even of our own design was an embarrassment. Even our own scientific community had long been using metric since it was practical when comparing studies in the world.
     So it made sense that we were switching over. We were told that there would be a certain amount of resistance from those who had been doing things differently their whole lives, that was understandable. But the change would take place and we’d all be better off because of it.
     The switch was taking place in Canada at about the same time. I remember one year visiting relatives in Canada and the older ones complaining about it. But when I visited them the next year, everybody was already adjusted to it. Suddenly, instead of measuring the speed limit in miles they were now doing it in kilometers and everybody was okay with that. In the course of a year, Canada joined the rest of the world and acquired a vastly superior system of measurements.

     But we here in the U.S. couldn’t do it. We just didn’t have the will it took to accomplish such a basic task.
     Perhaps it was because of the bicentennial. Right about then we started getting downright patriotic again. And looking around us we realized how well we had done as a nation and how we had everything we needed. And being patriotic and contented is only a short step from being arrogant and demanding. Somehow we got the attitude that we didn’t have to change for nobody, and that the rest of the world could just suck it. If they wanted to sell their goods in America (yeah, I know Canada is in America too, but dammit, we’re AMERICANS), then they would have to measure things in ounces and feet. Of course, other countries were glad to be selling their products and were only slightly put out having to convert things to our system of measurements, as long as our currency was profitably converting.
     Another reason, perhaps, that we could not manage to make the change was that we had an instinctive dislike of someone telling us what to do. We were Americans, and we were nothing if not free. How did we know? Because that’s what had been drilled into our skulls every day on television and in cigarette ads. We didn’t mind being told what to do by advertising, but by golly, we weren’t going to have our government doing it. At some point, we got it into our thoughts that any attempt our government made to gravitate us towards something was just a sinister move towards socialism.
     And so today we are one of the few countries in the world that has a system of measurements different from the rest of the world. Only Myanmar and Liberia now stand with us.
     I write this not to suggest that it is high time America switches to the metric system, although it is, if only to save money for mechanics who have to buy two sets of wrenches. I mention our failure to convert to the metric system as a symptom of a deeper problem. It seems that Americans today cannot come together on ANY problem, no matter how much of a no-brainer it is. We have lost the ability to unite in any kind of cause at all. During the Second World War, patriotism meant having paper drives, tin drives, and victory gardens. We knew that we as Americans, whatever divided us, were united in many ways. We knew that we had built something pretty good and that we would have to occasionally work together in order to preserve our way of life.
     That’s a long way from where we are today. After September 11, 2001, our president did not ask for us to come together to sacrifice for the common good, but instead implored us to continue our daily routine and go shopping. And in the ensuing years, it has only gotten worse. Today, there is no sense of unity, no sense that sometimes the only solution is to pull together and make the necessary—and often vastly preferable—changes that should be made.
     It’s not just our failure to commit to the metric system, which was and is a no brainer. Add to that our inability to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, from inefficient forms of transportation, from an addiction to foreign produced consumer goods that we simply don’t need, and a mass of other problems we have no heart to tackle. We have become frozen, unable to act to confront the problems that can only be confronted as a group. Not as individual consumers, but as a unified front. We have become like the old world that we once mocked for the way they clung to outmoded ideas.

     When I was young and my dad tried to tell me what to do, I always asserted my burgeoning age by telling him experience was the best teacher. His reply was that experience was not the best teacher but the most expensive one. I hope that we as a nation can learn our lesson before harsh reality hits, but if that’s what it takes, at least we will learn a lesson that will hopefully stick.

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