The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic. – H.L. Mencken
So, were y’all thoroughly confused yesterday? Were you wondering who the hell wrote that crap that was posted under my name, or did you think it was a great improvement over my usual baroque sentence structure and outré descriptions? Did you find yourself saying, “Ye gods and little fishes, it’s as though Ernest Hemingway had come back from the dead to write a guest column!” Or did you not even notice anything amiss?
Yesterday was, of course, April Fools’ Day, and for this year’s prank I decided to run my Reason essay “The Mythical Invasion of the Super Bowl Hookers” through Hemingway, a program which purports to “improve” your writing by making it “bold and clear”…in other words, by shortening and simplifying each sentence down to a level that would not confuse a rather slow-witted ten-year-old. Hemingway said that my original text was “OK”, with 16 demerits; the final product was rated “good” with only 8, though I had eliminated everything the machine had labeled a “problem”. Presumably, my score couldn’t get any lower because it still had too many words of more than one syllable and too many highfalutin’ terms like “prohibitionist”, “television” and “Canada”.
Now, in part I did this was because I thought it would be funny; not necessarily Monty Python funny, Three Stooges Funny or even Noël Coward funny, but at least whimsically amusing. But I also did it to show just how stupid it is to defer to the aesthetic sensibilities of something that would lose in a battle of wits with a starfish. Even if one stupidly believes that there is only one kind of good writing, and suffers from the lamentable but popular delusion that Hemingway was its archetype, and furthermore imagines that even Hemingway always wrote in that clipped, easily-parodied style we refer to as “Hemingwayesque” (which he did not), the notion that a glorified Nintendo console is qualified to judge adherence to that standard is ludicrous at best. But as stupid as that idea is, a very large fraction of moderns cling to it with childlike devotion because it is a natural outgrowth of one of the most pernicious dogmas of the machine age: that human beings are just another kind of (albeit complex) machine governed by knowable rules, and that Utopia can be achieved if we can only discover those rules and implement them thoroughly (and ruthlessly) enough. This is the heart of “Progressive” thought: force people (via social engineering, prohibition and criminalization) to only eat, wear, watch, read, hear, say, do and think what “experts” have decided is “good” for them, and the Millennium will arrive on the very next high-speed train.
The problem with this is that it’s 99 44/100% pure bullshit. Human beings are not Skinner’s programmable modules, social interactions are incredibly complex and most “experts” aren’t even qualified to make decisions for their dogs, much less for millions of people they don’t know. That idea that human beings can and should be governed by rigid, top-down rules designed by said “experts” has given us the Drug War, sex work prohibition, mass incarceration, mass surveillance, the nanny state, “Child Protective Services”, the “sex offender” registry, mandatory minimum sentencing, “zero tolerance” school policies and a host of similar abominations far too numerous to list. People’s lives, like their writing styles, are unique, and what works for one does not necessarily work for another; by the reductionist “logic” of modern governance, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoyevsky were all terrible writers because they don’t sound like Hemingway…and their works should be mercilessly edited until a mindless computer program declares them acceptable.