Back in 1964, short-lived US glossy Fact led with a question that landed its publisher in court. The provocative mag had asked all 12,000 members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for their assessment of presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Most didn’t reply. Others assessed the project itself as reckless. Still, doctors’ responses — some of which were doctored — went to print and the GOP figure was variously described as latent homosexual, schizophrenic and self-hating Jew.

Goldwater was awarded punitive damages in 1969. In 1973, the APA wrote section 7 into its Principles of Medical Ethics. The section, which cautions psychiatrists against making public evaluation of public figures, became known as The Goldwater Rule and is now interpreted by many journalists to be some sort of absolute law; moreover, one that must, in the era of Trump, be immediately revoked.

Press can have no nobler rationale in calling for an “end” to this recommendation than self-interest. Those very clickable and shareable mental health assessments of Trump, which do appear in local press, would be even more clickable and shareable should they include medical opinion. Further, the publishers of such diagnosis might feel a little better about ignoring the guidelines provided for Australian reporting on mental health. Finally, it’s a profit thing. It takes far less time to bash out a popular piece for Fairfax on the madness of Trump than it does to locate Trump within a Western political present in an article likely to attract fewer eyeballs.

Look. Pretend it’s just you, me and a slab. We could have a laugh about the “very stable genius”, and maybe sink a pot every time we found a symptom in the Diagnostic Manual that described the US President. As I drank more, I would offer the inexpert opinion that authors of pieces on Trump as Madman were just lazy writers themselves suffering “cognitive dissonance”, which is a thing I heard about once on Radio National. That’s OK. We can pretend to be psychiatrists in private. It is reprehensible when those paid to offer political analysis in public make like shrinks.

In such cases, not only do reporters reinforce the “stigma” surrounding mental health they so often claim to despise, they restrict themselves to the simplest and most unhelpful analysis. Yes, it’s possible that Trump is a basket-case. It’s also possible that Russia “hacked” the election and elevated a basket-case. After months of investigation and press speculation, however, no evidence of Kremlin interference has been found. (None. Really.) After a brief investigation, Trump has been declared mentally fit for office.

When the Graun has to say about the immediate need to deploy a team inside the head of Trump on the grounds that he is powerful, it should also ask about the real-life consequences of such an act. First, the nominee who bounces up and down in her chair upon learning of a violent extrajudicial assassination by Islamists is probably going in the nutty bin, too. Second, do we truly love the idea of submitting any person with any scintilla of professional power or responsibility to mental health checks? Imagine just how joyfully employers would take this public precedent and abusively run with it. Today, companies fire insecure workers for simply discussing their insecure employment in private. One whiff of “it’s OK to fire those in poor mental health” and joining a union will soon be seen as pathology.

I do understand the temptation to diagnose, say, Peter Dutton with persecutory delusion, which I once heard about on Radio National. Back at the slab, you and me would say that this guy’s decision to uphold the “rights” of white South African land owners stems from his own deep fear that the repressed will return. We mustn’t do that in public.

It is not helpful to diagnose Dutton. In fact, it’s destructive. To artificially contain the virus of white guilt in one head, or just in a few, is ahistorical. To describe the mass fear that Aboriginal people will one day reclaim their property is far more instructive.

Sure, Dutton is a person I happen to find repugnant, and ours is a media landscape where my personal declaration of this would briefly make me very popular. What would serve to inform us all, however, is not a patient history of this one man in denial. A patient history of the nation, on the other hand, is more likely to move the urgent need for treaty forward.

Treaty is a matter of justice for Aboriginal people, first and foremost. But, it will also serve the mass unconscious of white Australia well. You could say, responsibly and usefully, in a public place that the ongoing mass refusal to acknowledge the shame of past white violence not only perpetuates such violence but does not permit white Australians to form a true sense of national identity as a group.

It’s easier and more profitable to call Dutton or Trump a nut-job, or to ask a psychiatrist to give you a technical synonym. It’s harder and more valuable to take a patient history of history itself. A diagnosis of the present would allow us all to take the political personally, rather than simply stating the case that the personal is political with no sound basis.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey