Not every freedom Americans have is listed in the Bill of Rights. Alongside that famous language guaranteeing freedoms of speech and assembly, one does not find rights so basic as that to privacy (or so trivial as that to mow your lawn), but we don’t let that stand as a reason we shouldn’t expect to have them. I think we can all agree that we take most of our rights for granted, one of the less glamorous of which is the right to pick up trash.
Nevertheless, news bells rang out across the country last week when people noticed that the National Socialist Movement, a white separatist group, is taking part in Missouri’s Adopt-A-Highway program along a stretch of road outside of Springfield. The word splashed across all the headlines was “neo-Nazi,” one of those terms that Americans have been trained to immediately follow with internal red flags and furrowed brows, and one which journalists must feel at least doubles the interest value of any story.
The question implied in the subsequent reporting was this: Why did Missouri not reject the National Socialist Movement’s application to be part of the litter prevention program? The answer from the Springfield office of transportation was that the state was not legally able to (due to a court decision that came down after the comparably extreme Ku Klux Klan fought for their right to pick up trash in 2005). But even if the state were legally allowed to reject the National Socialist Movement's application, why should they? Have people actually thought about what it means to be so up in arms over their community service?
To explain what I’m getting at, I pose a more general question: What don’t we want to happen to groups with radical views? Certainly we don’t want them to feel downtrodden and marginalized enough to justify extreme action. What they’re asking for is relatively little in the scheme of things, and trying to deny them an immaterial right simply gives the group one more complaint to lodge against the country they already feel antagonistic toward. Like it or not, the United States protects their right to have whatever viewpoint they want, unpopular though it may be, and to enjoy the same privileges as every other law-abiding citizen.
By treating the National Socialist Movement's involvement in Adopt-A-Highway as something worth reporting on and objecting to, two much greater problems present themselves. First, it makes them seem perversely glamorous.
Even though the stories are multiplying because the National Socialist Movement's ideals are so abhorred by the American public, how powerful must group members feel when all they have to do to make the news is offer to pick up rubbish four times a year along a small stretch of rural highway? Instead of treating the group as too irrational to be entertained by civilized society, we put them on a "Pedestal of the Fantastically Forbidden" and give them and their ideals more limelight that they could ever pay for.
The corollary is that by having such a knee-jerk reaction to something the National Socialist Movement does, we inadvertently give them a reason to believe they are a threat; we show ourselves worried, as if there were some greater evil to fear from their involvement in such an innocuous act.
Perhaps someone justifying the hubbub might say that to allow a racist group to be involved in a government-run program is to suggest that the state of Missouri endorses their views. That is giving society a shockingly small amount of credit.
On the National Socialist Movement's Web site, one finds the “25 Points” which shape their ideology. The first is that they “demand” the union of all white people into a "greater America." If that weren’t ludicrous enough, in their second point they call for the revocation of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the World Bank, among other things.
Can we seriously be worried that people might believe the Missouri government was on board this crazy train because the group’s name appeared on a few hinterland highway signs? The National Socialist Movement might as well be calling for zombies to murder the world’s golden retriever puppies; it’s embarrassing to act as if people who are so laughably radical legitimize the worth of ink it takes to print a story about them.
In short, we all just need to relax and be grateful that the "neo-Nazis" are announcing where they are and what they’re up to. I’d much rather know they’re toiling along a byway than imagine that they’re hatching a hateful and destructive plan in some abandoned shed.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.