Saturday, October 22, 2011

Distancing rurality (and the Amish as subset of it)

This New York Times op-ed , "Our Amish, Ourselves" discusses wider society's intrigue with the Amish, situating the phenomenon in the wake of the recent Amish-on-Amish violence in Bergholz, Ohio, population 1,057. Read more about the recent incident here. The author of the op-ed is Joe Mackall, a professor of English and Creative Writing at nearby Ashland University and the author of the book, Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish.

Mackall offers some keen insights into the relationship between the rural "English" (that is, the non-Amish) and the Amish in this part of Ohio, but he also takes up wider society's attitudes toward the Amish. Regarding the former, Mackall explains that he lives among the Swartzentruber Amish, one of the more conservative groups of Amish, and he observes that the English there do not romanticize the Amish in the way of people who do not live among the Amish. Mackall writes:
Around here people tire of swerving around buggies and dodging horse droppings. Around here people resent the amount of land bought up by the Amish and how they have their own kind of health insurance, an insurance called community. Around here people are convinced that the Amish are getting away with something, have figured out something, have too many secrets. Around here, people love to poke holes in the fabric of Amish solidarity.
Mackall characterizes this sort of local prejudice against the Amish as "more fundamental" or "practical." He also illustrates it, explaining that whenever there is bad news about the Amish, the English rush to Amish farm stands to buy produce--but with the ulterior motive of reporting the bad news to the Amish, to make sure they know the bad news, to see their reactions.

Later in the op-ed, speaking more to how those who do not live near the Amish see this religious group, Mackall's description reminded me of how wider American society views rural folks more generally:
I know that many Americans will continue to see the Amish as a backward cult of religious fanatics, but that more will persist in mythologizing them, seeing in them what they need to see.
He then quotes Wendell Berry, who has characterized Americans' view of the Amish as "perfect blindness."

Mackall continues:
The truest thing I can say about the Amish is that within a week, or even less, they will disappear from the media and from the nation's consciousness. They will deliquesce--until the next newsworthy incident--into the background of contemporary America.
It strikes me that the divide described between the Amish and the rest of America is just a more extreme version of the divide between the rural and the rest of America. Mackall (or I) could have written those sentences:
The truest thing I can say about [rural America] is that within a week, or even less, [rural America] will disappear from the media and from the nation's consciousness. They/[It] will deliquesce--until the next newsworthy incident--into the background of contemporary America.
Would this be an accurate statement of how predominantly metropolitan America sees its rural counterpart? As curiosity, as background?


Barbara Ching said...

While the Amish may disappear from the news next week, the other point you are making, about the Amish as "other" within rural communities bears further consideration. I grew up in central Iowa, and work there now. The Amish here are generally less traditional but still, from an early age, I learned, or was "carefully taught," as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song says, that the Amish were suspiciously "other," as were the native Americans still living in the area. They're exploitative: they'll use your car, but won't buy their own. Far from being careful stewards and practicing humane husbandry, they run puppy mills. (I heard this one last week). They suppress creativity and self-expression. Being told you look "amish," at least in the middle school my daughter attends, means that your mother dresses you funny.

Occupy Rural America may give us a new opportunity for some solidarity.

KevinN said...

I think the Amish are more a curiosity for the majority of Americans moreso than rural people solely because of their small numbers. While rural issues may not be in the national media on a daily or weekly basis, most major news items might have a rural angle to them. I don't think the same can be said for the Amish.

Further, since 20% of America lives in rural places, it is far more likely that people know someone or are related to a rural person whereas the majority of Americans have no such ties to the Amish. This isn't to say that there is no divide between urban and rural America (there clearly is), but rather that the divide when dealing with a group as discrete and insular as the Amish is bound to have an extra type of fascination associated with it.

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ScottA. said...

I don't know if the media is really going to let the Amish go entirely. Certainly the beard cutting story may go away, but they are just to different for popular media to give up.

I've been seeing a couple shows pop up on TLC and MTV about young Amish leaving the community. The producers of these shows clearly delight in the drama that is caused when these young people are banished from the home because they choose not to live so austerely as their parents.

I think as long as the Amish shun things that the rest of America embrace, there will be plenty of rural and urban people willing to watch a show or read a news report about the Amish. And the media will provide that information.

Azar said...

I agree with you that you can essentially interchange "Amish" and "rural America" in Mackall's comment. However, I think that the amount of media sensationalization and negativity is more persistent when you are talking about a religious group outside of the mainstream.

There are so many day-to-day political and legal issues that affect rural living and this at least puts some (although very minimal) focus in media on these issues. The only time a group like the Amish EVER makes news is when something truly remarkable happens that will appeal to people's interest (or when a columnist feels like sensationalizing their unique lifestyles).

My dad is from a close-knit and relatively small Syrian Jewish community concentrated in Brooklyn, New York and Deal, New Jersey. Despite being located in a very urban area, virtually no one has ever heard of them. The only time the community EVER made any kind of news that I can recall in my lifetime is when a couple of Rabbis and community leaders were implicated in a big money laundering scandal that involved many non-Jewish city leaders as well. While the actions of the members were clearly despicable, the community felt branded by the reports. All of the charitable efforts, day-to-day work and livelihoods of the people didn't seem to matter- the community was branded as a fringe group that as a whole, was dishonest and not to be trusted. As bad and prevalent as some urban-rural stereotypes can get, this type of sensationalization of religious groups can be even more harmful and brutal.

Scarecrow said...

When Winter's Bone came out, NY Times readers from Toronto and New York said the characters were too drawn out and couldn't really be like that. That suggests urban people don't think of rural people as different in the same way as they think of the Amish as different.

One of the big challenges for journalists is making sure to follow-up on stories. Doing so is that much harder when the story is geographically distant from your office. Jill Abramson, in a New Yorker profile, said one of her goals as the new executive editor of NY Times is to remember the readers who aren't living in cities. We will see if she can meet this aspiration.

Scarecrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

At times, I think urban America does see rural America as a curiosity or background. While urbanites might like to take a trip to the country once a year for "farm day," it is unlikely they think about rural communities often beyond that day. A reminder may come each week in the form of a CSA box, but it may be more of a reminder of an organic lifestyle than of the rural community that grew and shipped the produce.

However, I agree with Kevin's comments. I believe the "English" find the Amish more curious than they do rural communities. The fascination lies in the Amish’s uniqueness and the interest can be fleeting. In addition, rural communities exist across the nation, while the Amish are more concentrated in certain areas of the United States, namely the Midwest. The unfamiliarity with Amish communities in areas like the West likely contributes to the Amish’s curiousness and propensity to fade into the background.