Measuring Resistance and Outlasting Progressivism

October 7, 2021 Updated: October 9, 2021


The swarm of busybodies and prissy reformers has been with us a long time. And in the name of progress they’ve always pushed, always hectored, always demanded that we join them on the winning side of history.

What seems to elude them is the irony that it’s only the winning side if we actually do join up. With a steady-enough resistance, the self-proclaimed progress of progressivism can be halted.

Take, for example, the metric system. It’s a small case, I know, but it’s also an example of success. We haven’t reached the end of the metric system, but here in 2021 we can see the end of the insistence on the metric system—the end of the notion that the metric system alone is correct. The end of the claim that the swarm of metric-measurers stand on the right side of history. The end of the sneer that the metric system represents true progress, and resistance is futile.

Those too young to remember the 1970s—fortunately, if it means they don’t have to recall the days of disco, Trimline phones with long curly cords on the kitchen wall, and the presidency of Jimmy Carter—won’t understand how constant was the pressure to adopt the metric system and how complete was the denunciation of those who kept to the old measurements.

In those days, if a newspaper humanized a science story by mentioning that that the moon is almost 239,000 miles from Earth, or the width of a human hair is around a thousandth of an inch, the editors would be flooded with letters raging against the unscientific, even anti-scientific, use of customary American measures. How dare the publication pander to the troglodytes whom true progress is leaving behind? Only the metric system is modern. Only the metric system is correct.

These days, one rarely hears that kind of self-righteous dismissal of rulers and yardsticks. It’s a sign of changed times when NASA, for example, tells children that the moon is “238,855 miles” away. It’s a sign of changed times when the Wall Street Journal casually publishes a piece, as it did on Sept. 15, noting that Canadians often ignore the metric system. Canada imposed metrification in 1975, and four decades later, the process is still incomplete.

America got its own, lighter version of new government-directed measurements in 1975 when Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, directing businesses to begin to transition to liters, grams, and meters. A public counter-movement soon emerged. Tom Wolfe helped plan a much-publicized “Foot Ball” in New York, while the widely syndicated Chicago newspaper columnist Bob Greene helped push a WAM (“We Ain’t Metric”) campaign. Winning the White House in 1980, the Reagan administration soon proved uninterested in the Carter-era project, and a major victory came with the Federal Highway Administration’s decision not to demand metric speed-limit signs.

Meanwhile, European regulators insisted on the metric system. Throughout the 2000s, the European Union tried to ban even the mention of any non-metric measures. They didn’t want pubs to offer “a pint (473 milliliters).” They wanted to prohibit the word pint—along with mile and pound.

The British took this as a swipe at them, which it was, since the UK was the only EU country whose citizens hadn’t fully adapted to the metric system. And the perception of over-regulation was a small but real cause of the unhappiness that led to Brexit, the UK’s 2016 vote to withdraw from the EU.

That’s why Boris Johnson, who became prime minister in 2019, pledged that post-Brexit Britain would have “tolerance towards traditional measurements.” Politicians’ promises aren’t always kept, of course, but this one was. On Sept. 16 this year, Brexit minister David Frost officially announced that shops could sell items in the old imperial units.

As it happens, feet are a useful measure, easily divisible into quarters and thirds. The smaller Fahrenheit degrees feel more human than the large Celsius degrees. Still, the metric system may be, in truth, a better measuring system in many contexts. I like to see old words in circulation: furlongs, leagues, bushels, and pecks. But love of language isn’t what kept the old customary system around long enough to survive the push for the metric system from the 1970s through the 2010s. People just decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and in the end, the attempt to change them petered out.

Maybe some of that is due to the fact that the metric system was part an Enlightenment-era demand for rationalizing everything, and “universal Enlightenment reason” has become the great bugbear of the postmodern Left. Computers probably had more to do with it, as moving from one system to another became easy and fast.

But the real lesson we should take from metrification is social. The progressives always say they represent inevitable progress. They always claim that only the stupid and the evil could oppose them. They always tell us that resistance is futile, for they will inevitably win.

The fading of their old metric sneer is proof that they don’t always succeed. It demonstrates that their claims of historical inevitability are true only if we believe them. And it confirms that resistance can lead to victory. Give us an inch, and we’ll take a mile.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”