The Disabilities Act is likely to entertain C-SPAN viewers for months to come. The bill, which in its current form is a compromise worked out between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats, extends sweeping civil rights protection to the nation’s blind, deaf, lame, and degenerate (AIDS is, of course, a handicap). Times being what they are, the only serious debate is over money. The telephone companies alone may end up paying up to $300 million a year in special services to the deaf, while many smaller businesses—faced with the bill for access ramps and special restroom facilities—will have to close up shop entirely. If we really do decide that there are 43 million handicapped citizens whose rights must be protected by federal law, the lawyers, as The Wall Street Journal observes, are the only real winners.

Forty-three million. That is something like one-fifth of the population. If you throw in blacks and Hispanics, atheists and religious minorities, old people and children, it will be hard to find an American who is not covered by some form of civil rights legislation. And 43 million is probably a low estimate, because a legally recognized disability in the 1980’s means what a patent of nobility meant in the 17th century. The first thing that happens when a new privileged class is created is that millions of hitherto normal people suddenly discover that they too belong: members of the DAR married to descendants of Spanish grandees boast of their Hispanic surnames; North Carolina rednecks realize that their village really constitutes an Indian tribe; and deafness, which once meant the inability to hear, now is stretched to cover all forms of hearing impairment.

If you think about it long enough, everyone probably has some disability or another. I have this friend, a moderately successful white man from a middle-class family, but he does wear glasses and even had two operations on his eyes. What’s worse, nature was unwise enough to give him a sharp tongue without the physique to match. The painful result was more than one concussion administered by sore losers. Who knows what sort of money the poor fellow might have made if he had been normal? Everyone, I repeat, is handicapped by nature and experience. The children of the rich are so lazy and arrogant that they lose the family wealth in only two generations. The bourgeoisie spends so much time working and saving that it never learns how to enjoy life. Southerners are undisciplined, Scandinavians morose, short people neurotic. Which is the worse handicap, deafness or an IQ of 105? Who’s going to decide? Obviously, Congress and the courts. The deaf law student with an IQ of 135 will receive every assistance, at taxpayers expense, to minimize the effects of his handicap, while the hardworking 105 would be well-advised to find another career or else start a lobbying group for people of ordinary intelligence.

Frankly, I don’t think I am the only American who has heard about enough whining. How many times a day do you circle a parking lot, not daring to go into one of the dozen (always empty) places reserved for the officially handicapped? Who has not read of historic public buildings that had to be demolished because it would cost too much to provide access for wheelchairs, or college summer programs that had to be eliminated because of the high cost of providing tutors for one or two deaf or blind students? All we ever hear from the various advocacy groups is how the handicapped don’t want pity, that the only handicap is our insensitivity, that they want to be free to lead independent lives. It turns out, however, that their freedom and independence always comes down to the freedom to put their hands in our wallets. That, of course, is the definition of a civil right.

But more important than all the economic and political implications of the bill is what it says about our civilization. To our credit, we like to think of ourselves as the most generous and charitable people in the history of the world. We probably are. It is also to our credit that we are willing to do what we can to make it easier for the victims of circumstance to lead normal lives. But it is also true that we are a people who have bent all our efforts toward making life a little better for the worst off, toward raising the minimum standards of living and literacy a few notches up, while neglecting entirely that reaching toward superiority that has characterized all great civilizations. We are a nation of readers, but we are reading James Mitchener; a nation of music-lovers who listen to Irving Berlin and Michael Jackson; a great power whose affirmative-action army boasts of conquering Grenada. It is only in sports that we care about excellence, and even there we measure success by money. When we are gone, what will the Chinese historical encyclopedias say of us? That they were a genial people who worked hard, ate bad food, and felt sorry for the unfortunate. (TF)