Elliot Kaufman is a Stanford junior who writes with great intelligence from inside the asylum. National Review has posted his several pieces for the site here, but he saved his best yet for the Wall Street Journal in “For a Stanford applicant, perseveration pays off” (behind the Journal’s subscription paywall).
Following in the footsteps of the late John Updike, Kaufman makes good use of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kaufman writes:
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” (1846), tells the story of a young man who escapes from a mental asylum. He quickly realizes that to evade detection, he needs to convince the mentally sound that he is one of them. He reasons that if he sticks to the objective truth, no one will doubt his sanity. Consequently, every step he takes and to every person he meets, the patient repeats, “The Earth is round. The Earth is round. The Earth is round.” He is returned to the asylum immediately.
That paragraph appears in the middle of Kaufman’s column. He invokes Kierkegaard’s lunatic for purposes of comparison and contrast with successful Stanford applicant Ziad Ahmed:
Every year, Stanford asks its applicants an excellent question: “What matters to you, and why?” Ziad Ahmed of Princeton, N.J., summed up his answer in three words. His essay consisted of the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” repeated 100 times. He got in.
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The teenager evidently finds the Black Lives Matter movement worthy and important. But saying it once would have made that clear. The endless repetition seems designed not just to pre-empt but also to prevent any argument in response.
Unlike Kierkegaard’s lunatic, however, Ahmed is one canny salesman pushing the buttons of guilty buyers seeking to prove their bona fides. He is, as they say, crazy like a fox. Kaufman makes the point in his own way in his conclusion:
[N]o one questions Mr. Ahmed’s mental health. On the contrary, adult society celebrates him at every turn. Princeton and Yale have accepted him too. [The website] Mic reports that he was previously invited to the Obama White House and “recognized as a Muslim-American change-maker.”
It is no longer madmen who merely repeat obvious truths. Now the success stories do it too. The society in Kierkegaard’s parable immediately recognized that mindlessly repeating the truth was a sign of something wrong. Our society applauds it. That is the chilling part of this story. The young man or the society—it is no longer clear who has escaped from the asylum.
Here I would turn to the wisdom of the visionary comedians in the old Firesign Theater troupe. As they put it in the title of their fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.