Reason, Disabled


On Thursday, Jonathan Alter took to the pages of Bloomberg to bear solemn witness to the “cruelty, fear, cowardice, xenophobia and disrespect” that have “invaded the inner sanctum of the U.S. government . . . bringing embarrassment and dishonor to what was once the greatest deliberative body in the world: the U.S. Senate.”

Alack! What twisted perversions of justice, what dark new reign of tyranny have these one hundred set loose upon the republic? Have the Alien and Sedition Acts been renewed? Have the internment camps been reopened? Has the 13th Amendment been repealed?

Worse, friends: “The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” fell several votes short of ratification, due to the opposition of some Republicans.

And in this odious swoop, what has the Republican minority done? Has it turned back the clocks on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which passed 76–8 with broad bipartisan support, and which is said by all parties to be the model of the U.N. convention? It has done no such thing. Because the treaty is, in Alter’s own words, written mere inches from his gloriously overwrought condemnation, “a largely symbolic document with implementation language that consists mostly of a weak recommendation for ‘due consideration’ of its lofty aims.”

Infamy! Infamy! Spare us. There are few creatures so vile — nay, not even the Senate Republican of legend and nightmare — that they object to reasonable efforts to accommodate the challenges of the disabled. But Alter’s lament is of a species with a number of left-of-center responses to the treaty’s failure, in which the feebleness of the treaty is cited as the very thing that makes Republican opposition so cold and cowardly. What a scandal to vote against the banal. What consequence in opposing the inconsequential. It is the witless accusing the “heartless” of being gutless for voting against a toothless document.

The few substantive reasons supporters offer for ratification are unconvincing. Our signing might make others more likely to join? We’d forgive the Senate for not hinging its decision on the power of our example to sway hearts and minds in Geneva and Turtle Bay. The treaty would make travel abroad better for disabled Americans? There’s nothing in its language that suggests this would be a straightforward consequence of ratification. It’s true that the disabled everywhere would be better off if every country had some of our protections for the handicapped, which are the strongest in the world. But that’s an argument that other countries should adopt similar laws, not that we should bind ourselves to U.N. edicts so we don’t look like meany-heads.

Indeed, some Republicans had concerns with the treaty that were, a fair observer would have to allow, in the very least unrelated to their own innate wickedness. These include the requirement that the U.S. spend millions to generate quadrennial compliance reports for U.N. “experts,” and language about how each signatory agrees to take “measures to the maximum of its available resources . . . with a view to achieving progressively the full realization” of “economic, social, and cultural rights.” This sort of language, which is foreign to the spirit of the Constitution, has rightfully made senators queasy for decades, and not just the cruel, frightened, cowardly, xenophobic, and disrespectful senators of Mr. Alter’s imagination.

Treaties should be entered into only with great care; treaties with the United Nations 192 times so. We see nothing evil or stupid, and a great much wise, in wagering in favor of the boundlessness of the U.N.’s capacity for folly in the way Pascal wagered in favor of God’s existence. As Pascal noted in the case of betting on God: If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. So it is here. If the treaty is really as anodyne as its protectors suggest, its defeat (which may be temporary) is no great loss. If it is as potentially dangerous as its critics worry, its passage would have been unacceptable.