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Friday, December 2, 2011

The Sheepish Identity of the Amish

Courtesy of and (c) Jeff Corriveau.
    Jeff Corriveau’s 27 November comic-strip featured his star character Mamet, a sassy attention-grabbing sheep, assuming an Amish identity in order to attract women at the local bar.
    Mamet defends his scheme in that he feels women are attracted to the mysterious unknown of men who are culturally different from themselves.  But… his scheme backfires when one of the bar grazers snaps a photo of Mamet with her girlfriends.  Mamet comes undone yelling out, “No graven images, you soul-stealing monsters!!!!”  Then the delusional sheep grabs the camera and stomps it into the ground.
    “Okaaay, guess we can cross off “Amish,” is his conclusion.
    As enjoyable as Corrivau’s comic is, I find that it contains two cultural truths.  First, general culture tends to oversimplify even those traits it finds admirable in the culture and identity of others.  Second, that many Americans are content with only the most superficial cultural understandings of others -- a fault less noticeable amongst others such as in Canada.
    In many ways, Mamet’s choice of Amish was probably not the best.  While many Americans do face Amish, Hutterite and Conservative Mennonite culture with a mix of curiosity, fascination and often even suspicion, their understanding of Anabaptist cultures tends to go no deeper than the fact that many Anabaptists dress differently and often drive different sorts of vehicles.  Many American diners are not even fully comprehensive as to why their premium Hutterite chickens (or Turkeys in this holiday season) are innately Hutterite.  So there is an aura of mystery or at least, non-understanding.
    But, that being said, most Americans do often view Amish and Mennonites as simply like everyone else but in funny costumes.
    Corriveau knows enough to understand that Mamet’s intentions and behavior are inconsistent with Anabaptist tradition and cultural values.  He differentiates Mamet from the Amish when Mamet loses his temper and smashes the camera.  Anabaptist values of gelassenheit (humble submission or submissive humility) and non-resistance would discourage such episodes (not that Amish or Mennonites are perfect in this regard).
    I am not saying that all Anglo-Americans are similar to Mamet.  That would not even make a good generalization.  Yet, there are core differences in basic cultural value formation between that of the Anabaptist ethnic cultures, and those of the greater Anglo-American culture.  I am not sure that one is actually any better or worse than the other, but they are definitely distinct.
    Is this a useful cultural distinction?  On the part of the Anglo-Americans, it is.  Mennonite-Americans, Amish-Americans and Brüderthaler-Americans, like all American ethnic groups, have contributed a share of distinctive values, perspectives and traits that have helped shape the American identity – if to a somewhat less extent than the prevailing Anglo-Americans.  In the case of the ethnic Anabaptists, we have established a cultural – sometimes even religious – witness to the value of community, the necessity of true separation between church and state, the value of a simple lifestyle and the witness of non-resistant pacifism.  While we have often found allies and common interests with others, these have always remained minority, if honored, values.
    Is this distinction useful for ethnic Anabaptists?  It must be.  If it is not, and we allow ourselves to fully assimilate, the charge of preserving this cultural heritage and the value witness of our fathers and mothers will simply disappear and be forgotten.
    The Anglo-Americans have us at a bit a disadvantage in that they have a label for us – Amish, Mennonite, Russländer – all conveniently hyphen-able to designate us as a unique American experience.  Apart from the Amish epithet “Inglisher,” we do not have a similar label for the larger culture from which we are to be differentiated – against which we might measure our core values.
    Ironically, there is not even a decent moniker for United States-ians.  The closest appropriate term – Usonian is the most correct but in the United States, is most often used to refer to a particular architectural design style from Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Canadians are a bit more fortunate.  Unlike the United States, Canada has long recognized the role of other cultures in establishing their nation – specifically that of the French-Canadians and that of the First Nations.  While the term Canadian Mennonite does not differ much from Mennonite-American, the larger dominant society in Canada is most-often referred to as Anglo-Canadian.  At least there is a differentiation.
     For the most part, I guess that while I will continue to use the term Anglo-American to refer to the dominant culture in the United States – and the culture into which most immigrants and sub-cultures eventually assimilate, I will also increasingly refer to the terms United States’ and United Statesian
    On the other hand, maybe I am being a bit premature.  Are we really all that different?
    While I am not sure Corriveau meant to be ironic, there is an amusing coincidence of timing.  It appears that just as Mamet was exploring his Amish-side in Deflocked – leading to most un-Amish-like violent behavior, so too were the somewhat un-Amish Amish members of the Sam Mullet clan being arrested in Ohio for violent attacks against fellow Amish and anti-Amish hate crimes.  Maybe Mamet is more Amish than Corriveau realized.
    Of course, the moral of this all is that if we forget to preserve the heritage and cultural values that differentiate us from everyone else, that for which we are labeled differently or seen to be exotic and mysterious, then we fall into danger of being just like everyone else.  We are either of this world, or that one … whose values will win out?

On a similar vein -- I would strongly recommend Tony Norman's Pittsburgh perspective on the Sam Mullet gang -- see link below.


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