Highway renaming has potential drawbacks

Monday, June 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

I imagine it happening at a hush-hush meeting. Members of the committee would have sat fretfully around a table and pondered what they could possibly do — about 0.5 miles of highway. Not just any stretch, but a bit outside Springfield, Mo., that was adopted by the National Socialist Movement, a “white civil rights group” that discriminates against pretty much anyone who isn’t straight, Caucasian and Christian.

Suddenly, a solution hits upon one of them: Get a bill passed that would name that road after a prominent Jew. Ah, yes! Revenge is sweet! That’ll show 'em! Etc.  

Clearly the details are fanciful, but the story line is true. The Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, along with other groups, was sincerely upset about the National Socialist Movement having its name on state-issued Adopt-a-Highway signs. So they suggested naming the adjoining asphalt after Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian and activist who died in 1972.

State Representative Sara Lampe sponsored the renaming legislation, and the legislature passed it. The measure now waits, as part of a hefty transportation bill, to be signed or not to be signed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

The appeal of the tactic is clear. Tit for tat. Eye for eye. Jew for neo-Nazi. The same idea was used in 2000, when a bit of Missourian road adopted by the Ku Klux Klan was renamed after Rosa Parks, and the vision of anti-Semites picking up trash along the "Abrahamway" smacks similarly of poetic justice.

Renaming the road is also a smart way to play the system. The New York Times reported on the proposal — that paper only keen to highlight the Ozarks for the sake of white supremacists or cashew chicken — and the reporter rightfully called it a “rather clever tack.”

Given the pros, it’s easy to see why Lampe’s office has been flooded with expressions of support and gratitude. But before we all shout “KO” and hoist Lampe on our shoulders, there are some potential drawbacks to consider. Perhaps they will weigh insignificantly against the potential catharsis, but they bear a thought just the same.  

First is the fact that, at least on some level, Heschel’s memory is being used instead of honored. This is largely why Heschel’s daughter, Dartmouth College professor Susannah Heschel, opposes the renaming and said her father would have "been appalled" at the act. "I don't want Nazis stomping on a highway named for my father … The whole thing is disgusting,” she told the AP.

And you don’t have to take her opinion as Yahweh’s; this is stuff from Morals and Ethics 101. A crucial part of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s moral system, for example, is that you never use someone else as a means to an end. The reason you don’t is because it diminishes personal freedom, and certainly having your name appropriated after your death, against the wishes of your survivors, is flying in the face of some free choice.

The circumstances of this remembrance can also be seen to insult his legacy of fighting for civil rights. Naming the highway after him because neo-Nazis are picking up trash there instead of naming it solely for his sake is like being asked out on a date because someone wants to upset your rival; that doesn’t preclude true love being there, but the gesture is cheapened regardless.

A resounding approval from Heschel himself would trump these concerns, but he’s not here to give it. Even if the road were named after an equally poignant, alive-and-consenting figure though, another problem would remain: By playing this passive-aggressive political game, the proponents of the measure are giving the neo-Nazis a chance to rise above it.   

It reminds me of an anecdote from “I Wouldn’t Start From Here,” a book by journalist Andrew Mueller. He was speaking to a Palestinian friend about the funeral of Yasser Arafat. There had been great chaos, firing and yelling amid trying to get Arafat’s body through Israeli-controlled space, and his friend lamented that the world saw Palestinians causing such tumult; she wished they had peacefully taken the body to the checkpoint and asked to enter. Mueller told her they would have been denied.

“That's right,” said the friend. “So we'd have sat down, all of us, and waited, quietly, with the coffin, until they let us across, or tear-gassed us. With every television camera in the world watching, carrying it live, updates every half hour. Imagine that.”

Sure, no one is firing guns here, but by meeting the Adopt-a-Highway signs with a measure of equal or greater hostility, by trying to beat the National Socialist Movement at their own game — one they started — an opportunity to do something less combative, more peaceful and more powerful is possibly being missed.

Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis are given the perfect opportunity to do just that. If the road is renamed, they can continue to pick up trash the allotted number of times per year, saying that they don’t care what the highway is called because they adopted it for the sake of Springfield: They’re given a chance to make it look like they have a redeeming quality, like they are the collectively bigger person, and to keep their signs anyway.

That said, maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe tit for tat is the way to go. But how much more impressive would it be if bands of homosexuals, Jews and other minorities converged to help the National Socialist Movement pick up trash along that road in the name of the community? There’s too much justified resentment for it to happen, but I'd call the "KO" in a heartbeat.  

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.

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Mikey Popshot June 29, 2009 | 7:02 p.m.

Big-picture thinking, as we expect from you, Katy. But let's get more nuts-and-bolts. If Lampe (a former primary school teacher) had done some elementary planning -- say, a simple phone call to Heschel's family -- she would have seen this bump in the road and acted accordingly.

Instead, she's left in an awkward place. Instructive.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 29, 2009 | 7:33 p.m.

Why doesn't everyone just ignore the Nazis? After a while, they'd get tired of playing with themselves and go home.

They thrive on conflict, and conflict brings them publicity. Let's not give them publicity, or conflict. Just walk away.


(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro June 29, 2009 | 7:52 p.m.

@Mark Foecking:
("Why doesn't everyone just ignore the Nazis?")
It depends on how you define "ignore."
Europe and Roosevelt ignored the Nazis, and by then it was too late.
The Adopt-a-Highway program should be canceled.
The state should not be involved in providing "advertisment and publicity" for every hate group under the sun.
Smart people should just "distance" themselves from these in-bred cretans.

(Report Comment)
RW B June 29, 2009 | 8:57 p.m.

OMG, a Civil Rights group picking up trash from the highway. Somebody stop them, before it's too late! lol

Seriously? This is the biggest threat to the United States?

Why don't the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee just do the same and do the Adopt-a-Highway and pick up trash? They think that is bad if another group clean up that 0.5 miles highway. Their group had the same chance to adopt that highway, but they didn't. Why not?

The "bands of homosexuals, Jews and other minorities" can do the same, they can adopt a highway and clean it. The Christian groups do the same.

Stop whining and adopt a highway. This country has a Constitution, you are equal, whatever is your religion, race or belief.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro June 29, 2009 | 10:35 p.m.

NSM is not a civil rights group.
They are monitored by the FBI at the same level as KKK.
Like I said, a smart government would not have any "advertising and promotion" program which would allow hate groups of this magnitude and history to have access to "adopt public state highways and roads." for any purposes.
They have tainted this state fund raising program and the program should now come to an end.
(St. Louis' Anti Defamation League's website and many other sites have horrific reports and exposes on NSM and KKK.)
Missouri should be ashamed of itself for allowing NSM to get any foothold, whatsoever.
NSM needs to be disbanded, ASAP.
They represent only deception, propaganda and evil.
The word "Nazi" should never ever be used as a term of endearment.

(Report Comment)
JT Ready June 30, 2009 | 3:23 a.m.

"...the proponents of the measure are giving the neo-Nazis a chance to rise above it."

What a shame that you are so fearful of the Nazis being bigger people and rising above the political pettiness and opportunism of some grandstanding politician. We are told over and over in the media how dangerous these Nazis are. Yet in reality we see the Nazis peacefully assembling, exercising free-speech, and adopting a highway to clean up all the trash that the non-Nazis have thrown all over our once beautiful America. It is in fact the non-white gangs we see terrorizing the neighborhoods, slinging illicit dope at schools, vandalizing our towns with graffiti, and doing drive-by shootings on our playgrounds. Not Nazis. But shouldn't we expect this hypocritical tirade leveled against the Nazis instead of the non-white forces of real hate on our streets? After all, these outlandish distortions of reality should come as no surprise because the Jews thoroughly control our media. Now it all makes perfect sense.

(Report Comment)
RW B June 30, 2009 | 10:04 a.m.

The NSM is listed as a hategroup, not a Civil Rights group? The Ron Paul supporters are listed as "terrorists". Do you think they are terrorists? Do you think everybody who believe in the Constitutional rights is terrorist? Come on.

The ADL website? Who believes them? The ADL is a working group, and they earn money for making fear in the country. Scare people. That is their job. They are just like the liar Mark Potok. He said the hate crimes are rising and there are more hate crime happens than ever. Then the FBI was in the same TV show later, and they said the SPLC's report is fake, and the hate crimes are not rising, but going down. But the SPLC's job is making fear, they are just like the ADL. Who believes them?

I agree with JTReady.

The FBI should watch the gangs, not the political groups. Bloods, Crips, M13 and other criminal gangs. They have 1million members. Illegal aliens murder 12 Americans daily. Who stops them? Sounds more important, than few people, who picking up trash from the freeway.

(Report Comment)
anna morris July 2, 2009 | 12:19 p.m.

I don't get it. Why not solve the problem by making it about the Palestinian Holocaust; maybe name it after one of their heroes. That way nobody is messed over. Just make it about a current problem, not from 100 years ago.

(Report Comment)

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