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Visiting America

Category Articles
Date October 1, 2000

Visiting America is increasingly like visiting a Britain one remembers. The ideas, beliefs, customs and language of these islands is surviving in the United Sates when they are being forgotten here. Church attendance is showing no sign of decreasing, and to sit in a full congregation is refreshing. New seminaries have been established to train men for the ministry, while liberal Baptist seminaries recaptured for the biblical faith. There is no ‘established’ denomination in the USA. American churches love the old hymns, using the new songs for choir pieces, musical specials, camps and children’s meetings. American families dissatisfied with public education have founded a vast national home-schooling movement, whose products regularly win some of the best Ivy League scholarships. Americans, as we used to, believe in voluntary organisations and self-reliance.

Americans can afford to resist their governments because as a society and people they are so much more free. Their nation is a continent, and whether one flies across or drive through America the emptiness and space, the wilderness prairies, mountains and forests are never far away. It is a deer or a prairie dog rather than a rabbit or hedgehog which will run across your path. The hand of the state lies more lightly on your shoulder.

As Peter Hitchens recently wrote, ‘One small but significant symptom of this is the determined defence of old but good things against the state’s meddling urge to modernise. The US dollar bill has been more or less unchanged for a century, and has yet to be replaced by a pocket-destroying coin … There are no kilograms–just pounds, along with ounces, pints, gallons and miles … This sort of thing either matters to you or it doesn’t (though if you are really British it ought to), but the European Union’s campaign against our friendly, human and unbureaucratic measures seems to me to sum up its dreary, mean mind and dictatorial obsession with uniformity and standardisation which has spread like mildew into every corner of British life. The modernisers tried to get Americans to use the metric system, but the American people ignored them until they went away.’

The appeal of counting in ten and multiples thereof, such as hundreds and thousands, is obvious enough. We have ten fingers, and finger-counting is both the earliest and simplest method of reckoning. Hence the term ‘digit’, which is derived from the Latin digitus, a finger. The Welsh went, as it were, a bit further, and included their toes, so we count in twenties. Vestiges of this system of counting can still be seen in the English word score, which alludes to the notch shepherds would make on a stick after counting twenty sheep.

There is thus an obvious rationale for the decimal system, based on our ready familiarity with the number of fingers and toes we possess. But Dr James Le Fanu has pointed out that the same practical arguments apply to the traditional system of expressing lengths in terms of inches, feet and yards, each of which is based on an approximation of the length of a part of the body: the inch being the length of the terminal phalanx of the thumb, a foot being a foot; and a yard three feet placed one after the other. Hence, when ordering a piece of wood 3 feet 6 inches long, we known instinctively what its dimensions will be.

By contrast, the metric system is an entirely arbitrary method of measurement, instigated by the Utopian radicals of the French Revolution, and it bears no relationship at all to the parameters of the human body. The standard metre is derived from ‘one ten-millionth part of a meridional quadrant of the earth’ (whatever that may be), while the gram, the basic unit of weight, was defined as the mass of an equally arbitrary ‘cubic centimetre of pure water at the temperature of its maximum density.’

But the metric system is not only divorced from any readily recognisable analogy with the dimensions of the human body, it is also a dismal failure in practical terms. Centimetres are far too small, while the next unit up, a metre, is simply far too large. Similarly, whereas the pounds, ounces and pints of the old Imperial system are useful practical measures for cooking, their metric equivalents are either too fussy or too unwieldy.

Thus the arguments in favour of metrication are entirely spurious. As human beings we need a practical, workable, method for estimating the parameters of the world around us, and the best way of doing so is by referring to something with which we are familiar–ourselves (cp. Dr James Le Fanu, ‘Our Bodies are the Best Measuring Stick of our World’, Telegraph, January 9, 2000).

We love the conservatism of America. It is something we ourselves are losing, quite deliberately. Of course, the chief delight of a visit to America is the vitality and godliness of Christians there, especially in their family life. The more I think about it, the more I look forward to returning to the USA.


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