Members of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, not only participate in the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Adopt-a-Highway program, but have named a stretch of the road, which they spend a few hours each month cleaning, in honor of their group. And in recognition of their volunteer effort, the state put up a sign on the road which acknowledges the group and its effort in this area. It’s not the first time this has been done, either.
In Kentucky, the National Alliance, another hate group adopted a highway and named it after William Pierce, author of the “The Turner Diaries”, a perennial favorite among dangerous lunatics including Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. And in St. Louis, the Ku Klux Klan also adopted a stretch of road. In that case, after losing a court battle to end their sponsorship, the DOT renamed the Klan-adopted road, Rosa Parks Highway and put a sign to that effect alongside the one acknowledging the Klan.
Now the state is planning to rename the road adopted by the National Socialists in honor of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the world renowned theologian and civil rights activist. Considering the money saved by the government because of the volunteer efforts of these hate groups, is it really fair to rename the highways they adopt after people whose life work they diametrically oppose?
Absolutely, it is. And for the same reason that these organizations have every right to adopt these highways and have their groups acknowledged for so doing.
The acknowledgment which the group gets is in direct proportion to the contribution which they make in time and energy to the entire public. That good work deserves to be acknowledged. They do not insist that the roads upon which they work serve only white people, for example, and to devalue their commitment and effort would be wrong.
Likewise, the state has a right to acknowledge the civic pride felt because of the efforts of brave women like Rosa Parks, and brilliant thinkers like Rabbi Heschel. If the hate groups object to having their names appear in conjunction with blacks and Jews, they are free to stop volunteering and just as free to give up the publicity which their volunteer work merits.
This balance works for at least three other important reasons. First, it undermines the notion that people we don’t like are incapable of doing things that we do. The world is not simply divided between those whose thoughts and actions are good and those whose thoughts and actions are bad. It might make us comfortable to think this way but it isn’t true and such thinking rarely makes us any safer no matter how much some people claim it does.
Second, the response to bad speech must be more speech, at least as much as possible. As long as the message they put on their signs is not overtly hateful, what we would lose by constraining the freedom of expression for groups like the ones already mentioned, is far greater than that which we would gain from so doing. If the thought and deeds of people like Parks and Heschel are truly good, and they are, their names will stand up well when placed alongside the names of groups like the Klan and the National Socialist Movement.
Third, there may be some real long-term benefit in having the members of groups which are deeply committed to the destruction of what most of us hold dear, engaged with public welfare work. By continuing to serve the state, the members of these groups create relationships with the very governments which they usually portray as “out to get them”.
Whether they like it or not, whether they tell their kids that it’s just the price they pay for the free publicity, the bottom line remains that they are serving the state which they claim to oppose. That kind of engagement makes it increasingly difficult to see one’s self as disconnected from the larger culture. And given the role of alienation in nurturing the identity of hate-group members, that’s a very good thing.
So we see them a bit more realistically, even if their views remain ugly and potentially dangerous, and they see the rest of us as more connected to them than they would ever care to admit. If that’s the result of hate groups adopting highways, which are then named after heroes of racial and ethnic healing, it’s actually not such a bad idea.