Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Paranoid and the Disabled

Every so often we arrive at moments when the behavior of people on the other side of the political spectrum defies our best, genuinely open-minded attempts to understand their thinking. It is one thing for red-staters and blue-staters to mix it up over tax policy, reproductive rights, foreign aid, or fuel efficiency. It is quite another to reject a treaty defending the rights of the disabled, particularly a treaty designed on current US law that demands no alteration to current US law. The news lit up the pundit universe as the media struggled to grasp why 38 Republicans voted no. Jon Stewart, in a Daily Show segment titled "Please Tell Me This Is Rock Bottom," summed up anti-right-wing exasperation in one comment: "Look, I'm willing to keep an open mind here... what are your bullshit reasons for opposing this?"

Fair question, especially since it's so much easier to enumerate the reasons why they should not have opposed ratification. I mean first of all, it's December; Santa was watching. Second, this was really bad politics. No one looks good sticking it to disabled people, certainly not a party struggling to shake its reputation of prejudice and exclusivity. Third, this had as much bipartisan cover as any Republican could possibly want. George W. Bush's White House negotiated the treaty and a number of prominent old-guard Republicans endorsed it, including George H. W. Bush, John McCain, and Bob Dole, who sat in the Senate chamber in a wheelchair staring down all the Republicans voting against it.

The response from those Republican Senators voting nay was twofold: that ratifying the treaty would interfere with home schooling and would endanger US sovereignty. But as Catherine Powell argued in the New York Times, neither of these explanations makes much sense. The treaty has no force of law in the US that isn't already enforced through the ADA. How, then, should we make sense of this?

I am tempted in these moments to turn to historian Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," because it puts my emotive instinct—these guys are lunatic ideologues—in a scholarly framework. Hofstadter diagnosed in certain political movements "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Writing in 1963 & 1964 as Goldwater campaigned for the presidency, Hofstadter identified the small but influential John Birch Society as a contemporary example of the paranoid style, but pointed to other examples stretching back through American history: McCarthyism, anti-Masonry, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Illuminism. (Incidentally, the John Birch Society is still out there and unsurprisingly called for the Senate to reject the treaty for the disabled.) From all of these movements, a pattern or a kind of worldview emerged. For the paranoid...
History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.
 It is hard not to see these traits in the far right wing in America today. Paul Krugman invoked Hofstadter in 2009 to explain the outrageous distortions told about Obamacare and then again (less compellingly) in 2012 regarding Romney's accusation that Obama was responsible for high gas prices. And there are plenty of other examples of crazy crusades championed by the far right that smack of paranoia, like birtherism and climate change denialism.

On the other hand, the journalist Richard Bernstein warned against using Hofstadter too often to understand modern politics. "Not every upsurge of a radical populism or unrestrained irritation qualifies as paranoid," he wrote in the New York Times in 2010. "Nor is it certain that rational good sense won’t prevail among most Americans."

Bernstein's is a useful reminder—calling people crazy ought to be an explanation of last resort and skepticism of all grass-roots politics is not healthy for a democracy. Yet it is hard to escape the fact that, in the case of the treaty for the disabled, good sense did not prevail. Paranoid isolationism prevailed. Right-wing Republicans dismissed the interests of disabled people as inconsequential next to the terrible specter of global government and its malevolent instrument, the UN.

Here Hofstadter seems appropriate, because while most us see in the treaty a chance to, say, help people in wheelchairs, the paranoids see a sword pointed at the heart of American independence. As with all classic paranoids, their warnings concern the slippery slope the nation approaches, the trajectory of doom that America will find itself on should it take the first innocent step—it's crucial that they spell out how dire the implications will be at the bottom of the slope, because in truth there's nothing offensive at the top. In fact, there's not even a slope.

So Rick Santorum fired one salvo from his new post at World Net Daily that the treaty's use of the phrase "the best interest of the child" would actually threaten his daughter's life. Meanwhile The Heritage Foundation, where Tea Partier Jim Demint is headed, called the treaty "a threat to US sovereignty" and warned of "extreme liberal moralizing." And on the floor of the Senate, James Inhofe from Oklahoma had this to say:
Because of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we don’t need UN bureaucrats dictating our nation’s laws in the name of worldwide application. The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty through the establishment of the unelected UN bureaucratic bodies called the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a Conference of States Parties that would implement the Treaty and pass so-called “recommendations” that would be forced upon the U.S. as a signatory.
They are what Peter Spiro calls "New Sovereigntists," or conservative anti-internationalists. Unsurprisingly, they are also climate change deniers, since any admission of a problem that is global in scope will require a global solution. And, as Hofstadter reminds us, on all these issues, even something so benign as a treaty for the disabled, there is no deal to be made:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.
Lest we imagine these are just a few of the fringe candidates on the right wing, it is probably worth mentioning that the GOP party platform itself called for the Senate to "reject agreements whose long-range impact on the American family is ominous or unclear." It specifically listed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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