A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Dr. Bandy X. Lee, the Goldwater Rule and The Impeachment Process
As a teenager living half a century ago, I was often troubled by the thought that, in a manner of speaking, the whole world was mad. Evidence for this, I thought, was the persistence of racial and religious prejudice, the Cold War, the Vietnam war, the nuclear arms race, and the dominant culture’s avid embrace of science and technology, which were widely seen as unmitigated blessings and the solution to all of our social and economic ills. Being somewhat cautious and introspective, I knew that these disturbing thoughts might be construed by others as reflecting more on my own state of mind than they did on the world around me, and that unless I was a skillful satirist like novelist Kurt Vonnegut, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick or songwriter Tom Lehrer, expressing these sentiments openly and often could have extremely negative repercussions for me personally. So I generally kept my own counsel, but gravitated toward the study of psychology and politics, hoping for illumination along the way.
How times have changed! Now, a half century later, full grown adults, many much younger than I am, frequently declare that the world has gone mad, and that the chaotic state of affairs in the USA clearly reflects this grim reality. As evidence, they cite our President’s incoherent foreign policy, his fervent embrace of anti-democratic tyrants and adversaries like (Vladimir Putin), and his contempt for America’s intelligence agencies, which sounded the alarm about Russian attempts to undermine or dismantle our democracy; a fact which he steadfastly obscures, minimizes or denies. Or they may cite the fact that Trump is crippling the EPA’s regulatory capabilities, though we face galloping environmental degradation, ever escalating climate catastrophes and looming mass extinctions (our own included). Alternatively, they may cite the President’s demonization of racial minorities, the mushrooming concentration camps on the Mexican border, or the failure to pass sensible gun legislation to curb mass shootings, even in our elementary schools. (The list goes on and on.)
So, I wonder, what happened in the interim? Did the world actually become crazier since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the rise of the Internet? Or did the collective delusion that we are basically a sane and democratic society merely crumble in the wake of resurgent lies and hatred? Or do both these propositions contain a measure of truth? To the first point, neither perestroika nor the Internet brought the robust benefits we were assured they would. On the contrary, like Pandora’s box, they’ve unleashed a torrent of evils that appear to be utterly beyond our control. As a result, democracy is more menaced by terrorism and authoritarian populism now than at any point since the 1930s, and the nuclear arms race is on again, with even more (and more unpredictable) players in the mix.
To the second point, however, the smug convictions we cherished when I was coming of age – that progress was inevitable, that we knew who we were and what we were doing, and that any threats to our democracy emanated from the outside – were obviously nonsense. We were warned, however. In Self and Others, published in 1961, psychiatrist R.D. Laing observed that our conventional criteria of sanity and madness are often quite equivocal, and that the majority of nominally sane people are enveloped in what he called “social phantasy systems”, were the prevailing consensus insures that disturbing social realities that are at variance with prevailing narratives about group identity don’t get acknowledged or addressed, and that people who insist on disturbing the collective slumbers of the group are labelled and dismissed as bad or mad (Laing, 1961; Burston, 2000). Sound familiar?
Then, one year later, in Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Erich Fromm observed that for the vast majority of “normal” people in our alienated, capitalist society, most of what is real is not conscious, and most of what is conscious is not real; that when all is said and done, the average person is deeply estranged from existential actualities (Fromm, 1962; Burston, 1991). Needless to say, most mental health experts dismiss Fromm and Laing’s critiques of societal alienation and prevailing concepts of normality as alarmist and “over the top”. But prescient though they were, neither Laing nor Fromm anticipated the situation we are in today, when the most powerful man in the world, who claims to be a “very stable genius”, is vividly disturbed and disturbing to many, many others, and not just according to some renegade shrink’s criteria, but according to mainstream, conventional and widely accepted psychiatric criteria.
As just one indicator of his mental state, reliable sources report that Trump utters 12 to 13 falsehoods a day (at least). I doubt that anyone knows precisely how many of Trump’s incessant falsehoods are deliberate lies or deceptions, and how many are the products of delusions, self-deception and confabulation. But the fact that 43% percent of the American electorate still offer him their unwavering support is a sad and frightening commentary on American culture. Why?
For one thing, this state of affairs reflects on the steep (and accelerating) decline of public education during the last half century or so. Up until very recently, people believed that the hallmark of a good education – be it a religious, scientific or humanistic education – was a truth-loving disposition. The idea that a truth-loving disposition is a product – or alternatively, perhaps, a prerequisite – to a deep and sound education begins with Socrates and Plato, and is closely linked to a belief in the emancipatory power of truth, or the idea that “The truth shall make you free.” During the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed another closely related theme that animated many brave and committed activists who followed in their footsteps, namely, that a truth-loving disposition and a loving disposition are closely aligned; that hatred flourishes among lies, and is greatly diminished by the power of truth. Is this a logically demonstrable proposition or a testable hypothesis?
Probably not. But even if we allow that some of Trump’s falsehoods are inadvertent, the product of wishful thinking and an overactive imagination, the fact remains that the torrent of falsehoods he unleashed has helped to create a wave of hatred and violence in the United States unlike anything we’ve seen since the resurgence of the KKK in the second and third decades of the 20th century. The fact that Trump lies freely, frequently, without inhibition or remorse is already bad enough. But on top of that, there is abundant evidence that he is mentally unsound and unfit to govern.
Enter Dr. Bandy X. Lee, professor of psychiatry at Yale University, president of the World Mental Health Coalition, organizer of the “Duty to Warn” Conference at Yale, the “Duty to Warn Petition” and editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (2017, St. Martin’s Press). Dr. Lee has garnered more than 41,000 signatures, mostly from mental health professionals in the United States, attesting to the fact that Donald Trump is mentally unstable and unfit for office. In the wake of the drone strike that Trump ordered on January 3rd, which killed Iranian General Quassem Suleimani, and very nearly precipitated a vast and messy regional conflict, the World Mental Health Coalition called on Congress to perform an in-depth assessment of Donald Trump’s mental state, since there were in fact no imminent and sinister threats to American lives emanating from Suleimani, as Trump initially claimed (without providing even a shred of evidence). Why? Because Suleimani’s assassination could likely have resulted in a massive loss of life on both sides, and there was no one there to put on the brakes.
Many Republicans, including many Senators, were also dismayed by Trump’s reckless decision and dishonest cover story. But they are also quite fearful of Trump and his base. So Dr. Lee’s efforts have provoked a fierce backlash from Right wing critics and Trump supporters, which includes thousands of death threats. Fortunately, most of her critics merely resort to name-calling, accusing her of lacking proper medical credentials or practicing “tabloid psychiatry”, although in truth, her medical credentials are impeccable. But when asked to comment on her activities, the President of the American Psychiatric Association scolded her for violating the so called “Goldwater Rule”, which instructs psychiatrists (and by implication, other mental health professionals) to refrain from commenting publicly on the mental health of political office holders, whatever their personal opinions may be.
The Goldwater Rule is named after Barry Goldwater, a Republican Senator from Arizona who ran for President against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Though he lost that election, Goldwater is widely credited (by conservatives) with triggering the revival of American conservatism and creating the movement that led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Goldwater was always fiercely independent in his political views. On the one hand, he was a fiscal conservative who bitterly opposed fellow Republican Ike Eisenhower’s economic policies as profligate and potentially ruinous. And like Donald Trump, he often wondered aloud why nuclear arms weren’t used more routinely against America’s adversaries. But unlike Donald Trump, he stood for a clear separation of Church and State, and was no friend of evangelicals like Pat Robertson, who he said were harming the Republican party, and were mostly interested in making money. Moreover, unlike the majority of his peers, he opposed segregation, defended women’s reproductive rights, said gays should be allowed to serve in the military, and advocated the de-criminalization of marijuana. In short, Goldwater was not your average conservative. He was a “maverick” like his friend, admirer and fellow Arizonan Senator John McCain – a man Trump reviled in cruel and abusive terms, even long after his death.
Nevertheless, in the lead-up to the 1964 election Goldwater’s desire to use nukes to ferret out the Viet Cong by deforesting vast swathes of North Vietnam proved to be his Achilles’ heel. His campaign motto was “In his heart, you know he’s right.” And by way of reply, the Johnson campaign shot back “In your guts, you know he is nuts.” Johnson won, needless to say, not because his conduct of that war was more principled, but because the electorate (and most defense experts and policy pundits) knew that if nukes were used there, the Russians or Chinese would swiftly commence using nukes as well, putting the entire world on a slippery slope to Armageddon, just as in was in the Cuba missile crisis two years previously.
In any case, before the election in 1964, Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of Fact magazine, surveyed 2,417 board certified psychiatrists, of whom 1,189 – nearly half! – said that Goldwater was mentally unfit to hold office. The remainder declined to offer a diagnosis because they had not conducted a clinical evaluation of him, though many of these confessed to harboring considerable reservations about his candidacy. The controversy unleashed by the publication of this survey prompted the American Psychiatric Association to formulate the Goldwater Rule in 1973, as follows:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
On the face of it perhaps, the Goldwater rule sounds reasonable. And once upon a time, it was, and perhaps still is, in some instances. But Dr. Lee and her associates argue, in effect, that in the case of Donald Trump, where evidence of impulsiveness, poor judgment and potentially destructive behavior is so abundant, and the potential dangers so grave if they are not contained, the duty to warn takes precedence over the Goldwater Rule, which functions more like a gag order or a muzzle that protects those in power than a safeguard to protect the rights of the individual. Another way of saying the same thing – in instances where the potential danger to the public exceeds a certain threshold, the public’s right to be informed of expert opinion eclipses or outweighs an individual’s right to privacy.
Since the rule in question was named after Senator Goldwater, it is tempting to speculate how he might have responded to Dr. Lee’s position. After all, as a libertarian conservative, he was all about individual rights, and did not hesitate to sue Fact magazine and its publisher, Ralph Ginsburg, after the election was over. OK, but consider the following. Unlike Donald Trump, Senator Goldwater was not a habitual liar, nor was he prone to confabulating and making stuff up at the drop of a hat. He did not resort to calumnies and threats, but addressed his rivals and adversaries with the civility that his role as Senator required. And he was not a base hypocrite who pandered to evangelicals, yet whose personal conduct (and his policies by and large) are completely at odds with the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Above all, perhaps, he was not corrupt, nor would he ever countenance calling on a foreign power to interfere in our elections, as Trump has done repeatedly. Despite his unnerving views on nuclear arms, Goldwater was a man of principle, who possessed a great deal of personal integrity.
Finally, it is important to point out here that like Senator McCain, Goldwater was never actually the President of the United States, and therefore in a position to act on his reckless policies. He was merely a candidate for the office. Donald Trump, by contrast, is our President, and is also a habitual liar, is prone to confabulation, and lacks even a scintilla of decorum or decency. His conduct has debased the office of the Presidency and the Constitution of the United States almost daily since he took office. Moreover, despite his conservative/libertarian views, Goldwater believed in democracy. He knew very well that unlimited power in the hands of a malignant narcissist (like Hitler or Stalin, for example) could soon result in the deaths of tens of millions of people, and would probably have treated Trump like the gangster that he is. That being so, I can very well imagine Goldwater endorsing – or at least not opposing – Dr. Lee’s call for mental health exam for Trump in the context of impeachment hearings.
In light of our current historical moment, it is obviously time to reconsider and perhaps revise the Goldwater rule. I propose that it can and still should be applied to candidates running for office, but not to high office holders, at least when they wield tremendous power, and behave like a proverbial wrecking ball endangering the safety of the Republic (and the entire world) on a whim.
Leaving Trump aside for the moment, the other question that we need to consider carefully now is what role opportunism and hypocrisy play in contemporary American politics. Given the course of the impeachment trial thus far, it is evident that the vast majority of Republican Senators maintain a palpable indifference or hostility to truth; one masked in displays of faux outrage and feeble excuses for the President’s misconduct. When “the greatest deliberative body in the world” (according to Chief Justice Roberts) is riddled with this kind of irresponsibility, it is incumbent on us to consider whether we, as a nation, even value a truth-loving disposition anymore, and if so, how this belief (or the lack of it) shapes or disfigures our democracy. Finally, we are left to wonder whether democracy can survive, never mind flourish, when so many people place their trust in power alone, and relinquish their pursuit of honesty and of a truth loving disposition.
While the outcome of the Presidential election in November of 2020 is still unknown, one thing is absolutely certain. Regardless of who wins, or by how wide or narrow a margin, this will be the most consequential election in American history, and perhaps, indeed, in the 21st century. If Americans re-elect Trump, he will shatter what little is left of American democracy, rendering the whole system of governance completely dysfunctional or irrelevant, and all American citizens ever more vulnerable to corruption and manipulation by anti-democratic powers abroad, imperiling the lives of virtually everyone on this planet in the not too distant future. If not, God willing, we may still have a fighting chance.
Daniel Burston is an historian of the behavioral sciences, and author of the forthcoming book *Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University*, which appears in the series Critical Political Theory and Radical Social Action from Palgrave MacMillen in May of 2020.
Copyright 2020 Daniel Burston