I keep wanting to write about something other than the woke revolution. Heaven knows there are other things happening right now. But, as Michael Corleone says, just when I thought I was out, it pulls me back in.
The latest insanity is the attack on scientific principles. Oxford University has hired a team of students to diversify and “decolonize” its STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.
What does this mean in practice? The usual: Digging around for women scientists in times and places in which they were rare, placing heavy emphasis on anything non-European, and reassessing the “history of modern measurement, which is tied deeply to the idea of the ‘Empire’ and Imperial standardization.”
That’s right, they’re coming after imperial measures, which is what the units of size and weight employed in the United States are called everywhere else. The U.S. is now almost alone in using ounces, yards, and so on. But they survive informally elsewhere, especially in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the Anglosphere.
The U.K. adopted the metric system in the 1970s when it harmonized its regulations with Europe’s. In theory, things are now sold in meters and liters. In practice, most people still mentally buy apples by the pound and milk by the pint.
I remember a Brussels official once explaining, with the air of a man letting an obstinate child win a game, that we Brits were still allowed to sell pints of beer, provided we didn’t call them that. He meant it, too. A market trader in Sunderland was prosecuted in 2001 for selling bananas with imperial scales — that is, in the units his customers preferred. He became a national cause célèbre. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the so-called Metric Martyr’s travails contributed to what eventually became Brexit.
It is curious, on one level, that Oxford should thus line up with the bureaucracy against the little guy. But when absolutely everything is seen through the prism of anti-colonialism, the word “imperial” is fatal.
In fact, the truly imperialist project, the project spread with revolutionary fervor by French radicals and imposed with force of arms by Napoleon, was the metric system. Similar to all revolutionary ideals, it is abstract, inhuman, and rooted in theory rather than practice.