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.