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Saturday, March 3, 2012

American Voyeurism and the Amish

Note: I have significantly revised the introduction to this essay...  I am now much happier with the wording.  Thanks.
(c) Wikipedia Images
     They might not be exactly superstars, but America’s Amish have been increasingly in the spotlight lately – some good and some bad.  PBS has capitalized on this recent publicity with a documentary titled, imaginatively, The Amish.  While I will certainly view the documentary at a later convenience, I was intrigued by The New York Times critic, Neil Genzlinger’s, take on the whole thing (They’ve Got Cute Buggies and Kids, but Their Lives Aren’t Always Heavenly, The New York Times, New York, NY, 28 February 2012, p C5).
    I especially enjoyed reflecting on Genzlinger’s observation’s regarding why the Amish (and elsewhere, the conservative Mennonite sects and Hutterites) continue to mystify their neighbors and stimulate often unwanted curiosity and publicity.  Genzlinger seems to indicate that this might be a sort of cultural fetishism.  I would tend to agree – but why is this and how does it impact this Anabaptist ethnicity?    Genzlinger appreciated both the 2-hour documentary and the fact that producer David Belton, “[made] an almost two-hour documentary about a group of people who don’t allow themselves to be interviewed on camera,” failing to note the further irony that most of those whose voices appear in a piece they will not be able to watch. 
    First off, to clarify a minor point.  Genzlinger “was told” that Canada and the United States are the only places where Amish live today.  From certain religious sectarian views, that is possibly true.  However, while the Old Order Amish (or what you tend to think of as such) are more-or-less a United States’ ethnic culture, many branches of the Amish have established themselves increasingly in foreign countries.  Driven by the need for land and tolerance, one has since the 1950s, found "Amish" settling alongside more conservative Russian Mennonite co-religionists in Mexico, Belize and South America.  Of course, the Amish have been struggling ever since they separated from the Mennonites over who is and who is not truly Amish – so it depends on to whom Genzlinger spoke.  
     But Genzlinger’s lack of familiarity with the group well-illustrates his own point that general American knowledge about the Amish (or the Mennonites or the Hutterites) is inexcusably superficial and overly fetishized.  A question that many have voiced regarding the Nickel Mines incident is whether the Amish girls were targeted merely for the perpetrator’s general acquaintance (or knowingness) with the area and its inhabitants (a crime of opportunity), or more specifically as a sort of Freudian symbol of virtue and innocence, the curious sexual longing for the “unknown,” the “other,” the “exotic.”
  Interestingly, having been of late in conversation with a Midwestern population more familiar with the Amish than with Mennonite culture and communities, my eyes have been opened to the oddly amusing concept of the “Plain Clothes-fetish” where non-Amish, non-Mennonites admit to a certain sexual fascination with Amish men and women.  Though in Canada also, single Mennonite men just have to expect to deal with questions about wearing beards and circumcision.  I am not equipped to begin analyzing this information beyond noting it with a somewhat wry amusement. 
    Returning to Genzlinger’s notes on voyeurism – he describes Belton’s efforts with a double pun:
“Mr. Belton begins his yearlong examination from a voyeur’s vantage point, with a summer tour group in Intercourse, Pa.  It’s a fitting start, since many Americans view the Amish as curiosities to be ogled. … ‘It’s a mystery to me why they come by the millions to look at us,’ says an Amish man … I guess it’s the simple life and the cute kids and the buggy and the cows in the pasture.  It’s all visual.  But anybody’s kids are cute,’” (Ibid).
    Apart from the mandatory quote from Pennsylvania’s Donald Kraybill … Genzlinger fails to get to the heart of Amish culture, the cost of being fetishized or the many deeper issues that would prove of greater historical, cultural and sociological value in the long-term.
    Genzlinger continues to ponder … 
“The program examines how popular perception of the Amish has changed to suit the needs of the culture.  At some points they have been viewed as backward renegades, at others the embodiment of virtuous simplicity…”
    What Genzlinger is describing is the objectification of the Amish (or Anabaptist) culture by the non-Anabaptist majority culture (the host culture) – other words for this are “stereotyping,” “cast rolling,” “fetishizing,” “idealizing” or “romanticizing.”  Trade the term Lakota Sioux for Amish and the whole concept takes on a very different light.  You might be able to do the same with term “woman.”
    Genzlinger notes the two poles between which perception of American Anabaptism has swung as those of intolerance and suspicion on the one hand (backwards renegades) and Romanticized fetish objects (rude, objectifying fetishism).  Indications are that this was true in Russia and continues in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Paraguay and Belize amongst the Mennonites today.
    An old joke or cultural observation from the Amish perspective has been illustrated as the expressed feeling of being in a zoo.  In fact, in an article on Amish Humor, Ervin Beck records humorous perspectives on the cost of voyeurism – to both extremes, to both sides: 
  A family of Amishmen, visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo, were standing in front of the monkey and apes display …  When they turned around, they discovered many people grouped behind them, staring at them.  So the Amish father walked away, imitating the walk, posture, and movements of an ape, saying:  “We just escaped from the cage.” (Beck, see below) 
     While Beck draws an entirely different and internally culturally pertinent observation from the above joke, it also well illustrates the notion of feeling objectified and on display.  But there can be positive benefits as well:
  A man bought a horse from an Amishman, assuming that the integrity of the Amish faith guaranteed a high quality horse.  Upon receiving and inspecting the horse, he found that it was an inferior animal.  So he went back to the Amishman and asked if he could borrow his plain-cut coat.  “Why?” asked the Amishman.  “Because I want to sell a horse,” the man replied. (Beck, ibid)
    Not mentioned by Genzlinger is what happens when the host culture turns against its Anabaptist minority – most notably in times of war when being different at all is enough to generate suspicion, the maintenance of a separate and distinct cultural identity is enough for others to question a person’s loyalties and the desire to refrain from military service often brings down epithetic charges ranging from “coward” to “traitor.”
    Beck’s piece goes on to include a couple of jokes to illustrate the extent of the culture gap between many Anabaptists and their American neighbors:
    From the Amish perspective:
  An Amishman was brought before the judge and the court to testify as to the kind of car that was involved in a certain kind of accident.  [The Amishman] was scratching his head and trying to remember whether it was a Pontiac or a Buick.  The judge says, “Can’t you tell the difference between these kinds of cars?”  And [the Amishman] turned around and said to him, “No,” he says.  “Can you tell the difference between the different kinds of buggies you see on the road?” (Beck, ibid).
    From the tourists’ perspective:
  A tourist from New York came to Lancaster County to look for the Amish.  And he was frantically searching for them all over.  So finally he asked one of the people, who happened to be a Mennonite.  The Mennonite was rather protective of the Amish and also had a good sense of humor.  He says, “Oh, you won’t find any of the Amish now.  It’s their mating season.” (Beck, ibid).
    Common to both anecdotes is the placement of the Amish world inside the context of the English or Yankee world – a context that is both alien to the Amisher and somewhat exclusionary of them.  Note the frustration in both stories seemingly demanding cultural compliance and participation from the Amish.  Reflected is the controlling, almost proprietary attitude or sense of cultural entitlement from the majority host culture towards those perceived as other, quaint, exotic or amusing.  (Nor would this be singular to the Anabaptist experience).
    While Genzlinger ponders whether or not the Amish are “exploiting” their image for tourism dollars, he really fails to note the frustration of the Amish (or Hutterites, or Mennonites) of being on display, of often feeling excluded or not being taken seriously or of being culturally marginalized in the place they call home – not to mention unwanted attention from tourists, cameras and video phones.  Even for the assimilated Mennonites and ex-Amish, the sense of cultural alienation or marginalization can continue into the classroom, university and work place.  My mother suffered being bypassed for family heirlooms because her family did not want the Hutterites to end up with them all.  (?!?!?!?)  Where do such ideas originate?
    Anabaptists, and other minority culture groups, are often asked to bear burdens, stigmas and annoyances that would not be tolerated by the majority culture.  For their part, the dominant culture often expects appreciation for their attention and patronage.  “After all, I am paying you to let me treat you like this,” seems like a fairly flimsy justification.  (Was Ginzlinger discussing voyeurism or outright prostitution?)
    Genzlinger concludes:
“Though [Belton] notes how hard the Amish can be on those who are raised in the sect but turn their backs on it, he doesn’t explore too deeply their interactions with the outside world.  …  Mr. Belton doesn’t delve into the finances of Amish families or businesses, or related topics, like whether the Amish exploit their own image to attract tourist dollars.  So the program, illuminating as it is, still feels a bit like those tourists:  peering in, not quite seeing the whole story,” (Genzlinger, ibid).
    In the end, I think the best question from Genzlinger would be not how the image of the Amish has changed to fit the needs of their, the Anabaptist, culture, but rather, how has the image of the Amish, the Mennonites or the Hutterites has changed to fit the needs, aspirations and social concerns of the American, or Canadian, culture. 
    A shared experience also felt on the Native American Reservations back home is that the majority culture seemingly feels free to exploit their fellow countrymen as “others,” being perfectly willing to rudely and demandingly restrict them to a preconceived, idealized and unnatural role to fit some wealthy urbanite’s tourism fix. 
    As one Native friend of mine once said, “They’re much nicer to us when they’re making a movie or having a war.”  “They” and “us” … what ever happened to e pluribus unam?

As a post script:  The Times accompanied Genzlinger’s piece with one of the best “Amish-iana” photos I have come across – simply as a work of photographic art.  I am posting / linking to an image of Tim Cragg’s photo in the spirit of criticism (fair use, please note copyright information).
    Apart from the general composition and a great eye for beauty, for lines and white versus dark space – there are numerous compelling elements:

(c) Tim Cragg for PBS, 2012, as appearing in The New York Times, 27 Feb 2012, p C5

  •  The buggy parted next to the trucks – a contrast of lifestyles and technology.
  • Yet both the trucks and the buggy are “utilitarian” indicating a shared lifestyle, concerns, struggles and general commonality between the two worlds.
  • The Pepsi sign and the buggy as product signifiers or advertisements of value(s).
  • The cold, foggy, blurred common environment.
  • The Amish couple standing in the roadway as headlights bear down on them.
  • The immovable, fixed stance of the Amisher.
  • The world of electric and phone lines webbed above and around them – an environmental irony and a sacrifice the Amish are complicit in to provide these luxuries to their neighbors.
  • The black shadow aspect of the Amisher – almost like cut-outs.  Are they real? 
  • A sense of confusion as to why the Amisher are in the roadway or where they are going.
  • Utilizing an electric pole as a hitching post for the horse – deconstructionism, essentialism and irony all rolled into one.  Etc.
         I find that it is generally just a really great and expressive image.

    Beck, Ervin, “Amish Joking,” Journal for the Center for Mennonite Writing, Goshen College, Goshen, Ind., c. 2008.
·         Genzlinger, Neil, “They’ve Got Cute Buggies and Kids, but Their Lives Aren’t Always Heavenly,” The New York Times, New York, NY, 27 Feb 2012, p C5.

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