In 1972 Jonathan Will, with a nice sense of family tradition, was born on May 4, his father's birthday. So in a few days he will attain the status of teen-ager, with all the prerogatives pertaining thereto. A wit has written that adolescence was first considered a phase, then a profession and now is a nationality. Jon's acquisition of citizenship in that nation comes on the heels of a recent ruckus here about people like him.
He has Down's syndrome, a genetic defect involving varying degrees of mental retardation and, sometimes, serious physical defects. When he was born we were bombarded with advice and information, much of it mistaken. Eve 13 years ago there was more certitude than certainty in the prognoses, most of which were too pessimistic.
It is said we are all born brave, trusting and greedy, and remain greedy. I am pleased that Jon has been like that -- like the rest of us, because it was depressing to be told, repeatedly, that children with Down's syndrome "are such happy children." That implied sub-human simplicity, a mindless cheerfulness of the sort racists once ascribed to blacks. Jon, like the rest of us, is not always nice or happy. Indeed, he has the special unhappiness of having more complicated feelings than he has the capacity to express. He certainly has enough problems without being badgered by bureaucrats telling him to quit avoiding the central issues of his life.
Recently two officials of the U.S. Department of Education resigned after stirring a storm with interesting metaphysical and political thoughts. One official was a woman whom readers of this column met in 1983 when she was saying that a "key reason" for declining academic achievements is that the government has been catering to groups such as the handicapped "at the expense of those who have the highest potential to contribute positively to society." This struck me as a frivolous analysis of a complex phenomenon and a dangerous subordination of individual rights to calculations of social utility.
She wrote a response, just now circulating, in which she said (as the sympathetic Wall Street Journal phrased it) that, "We are on Earth not mainly to promote our secular equality but to use our varying Earthly circumstances to perfect ourselves morally."
Nice try, Journal. But what she really said was:
"They (the handicapped) falsely assume that the lottery of life has penalized them at random. This is not so. Nothing comes to an individual that he has not, at some point in his development, summoned. Each of us is responsible for his life situation." And, "There is no injustice in the universe. As unfair as it may seem, a person's external circumstances do fit his level of inner spiritual development. . . . Those of the handicapped constituency who seek to have others bear their burdens and eliminate their challenges are seeking to avoid the central issues of their lives."
Jon avoids making his bed, but is hot to confront central issues of his life, such as why the Baltimore Orioles start slowly. His father is trying to fathom how Jon "summoned" chromosomal problems.
Sen. Lowell Weicker, chairman of the Appropriations committee that deals with education, got very exercised about what the woman wrote, but Weicker probably gets exercised about oatmeal, "Gilligan's Island" re- runs and rainy Tuesdays. Everything gets Weicker wrought up, and this issue would have done so even if he did not have a son with Down's syndrome.
The woman resigned as did another education department official, who favors repeal of, among other things, PL 94-142. That law guarantees handicapped children a free, appropriate public education. To millions of handicapped persons and their parents, it is as important, substantively and symbolically, as the Voting Rights Act is to black Americans. The official who advocated repeal was betraying a president who supports it.
The two resignations detonated The Wall Street Journal's editorialists. They issued another denunciation of us sinners who live within the Washington Beltway. The Journal said the two officials were victims of "the usual crazed antibodies," meaning "the Beltway white cells" in a "feeding frenzy" to destroy Ronald Reagan and red- blooded conservatism.
The strain of manning the ramparts of right-wing purity may be getting to the Journal. We inside the Beltway no doubt have shortcomings unknown in south Manhattan, which the Journal considers the perfect place to take America's pulse. But we know some things, including these:
Reagan opposes weakening PL 94-142. He has enough problems without being saddled with supporters who define conservatism in terms of dismantling such protections and who associate conservatism with crackpot metaphysics about (hey, cheer up, Ethiopians) the perfect justice of the universe.
If the Journal can believe that America does or should want such conservatism, then the Journal can believe anything -- for example, that budget cuts and economic growth are going to balance the budget. The Journal believes that too.