Sunday, December 28, 2008

"The Amish: A People of Preservation": this documentary short actually provides good insight into the "culture wars"


PBS, Netflix and Heritage Films offer a 54 minute documentary film “The Amish: A People of Preservation”, filmed in 2000, written by John Hostetler and John Ruth, with direction by Burton Buller. Here is a “PA Dutch” link for purchase. The film can be watched in “Play Mode” on broadband at Netflix (by paid Netflix subscribers).

A study of the Amish probably helps us understand the moral thinking underneath most socially conservative religious groups, especially more communal groups. For example, the Mormon Church shares some of the same community values of the Amish even if the Mormon Church often, in its own ways, embraces modernity.

The film starts with the early history of the group, in Switzerland in the middle of the last millennium. The group migrated to Alsace, and then the most conservative members came over to America. The Mennonites have beliefs similar to the Amish but are not as strict in controlling modernity. I have seen Mennonite communities in West Texas. The Amish are best known in Pennsylvania, around Lancaster, but also have settled in many other states, particularly in the Midwest, such as Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

Amish society emphasizes communal discipline and humility (“daamut”) instead of individual pride (“hochmut”). Typically, children go to school for eight grades and the teacher has only a grade school education. Amish society distrusts knowledge for its own sake (it is kind of “anti-Wikipedia”). It is a culture of “doing” rather than “saying”; it is “in the world” but not “of the world.” On one level, Amish values sound like they are scripturally driven. But the moral rules of the culture seemed to be designed around both sustainability (the Amish could survive a collapse of civilization if technology were destroyed by war or terror, like with an EMP attack, or some sort of astronomical calamity), and an intention to protect to life of every member of the community as a member before being an individual. Church elders monitor technological innovation very closely (usually rejecting electricity, especially), wary that efficiency will take over community, that the individual will become separate from social meaning, and that end results will become more important than the experience of work in a communal context. Elderly people do not become “obsolete” because of “progress.” Marriage exists not for the individuals in the relationship only but for the entire community. It is difficult for many modern western people today to accept this notion: that the most intimate parts of one's life -- love and marriage or partnership -- are driven by the needs of others in the community and not just one's own psychic needs. There is no such thing in Amish (or similarly communal) societies as individual psychological surplus; the individual is not allowed to operate independently enough to experience surplus. Everything that happens reinforces and emanates from the extreme socialization of members of the community. One could say that it is karma carried to the extreme, to the extent that karma itself becomes communized: the individual is not allowed to transcend responsibility for that which makes his or her life possible. As a result of this balance, everyone is guaranteed a meaningful place in the community for life. The Amish have maintained a culture where no individual "fails" in the usual western sense.

Other secular cultures have tried to carry this notion of “justice” to extreme, such as Communism (particularly under Mao). But some religious groups, like the Amish, that practice communal discipline are actually quite successful and stable and free from corruption. Others have not. Contrary to popular belief, Amish will pay for accept conventional medical services from the outside world. One benefit for such a group is that individual poverty and homelessness, so familiar in open capitalist society, don't occur; there is a bit of Utopian intention in such communities.

Amish church services are held in homes (which are often augmented for extended families), with lay ministers. Women and men sit separately in adjacent rooms. The hosting homes go through great food and hospitality preparations for the entire Sunday events.

Young people are allowed more “experiments” with modernity than older people, who, once they take their vows, can be excommunicated if they break ranks. Kids learn to accept the social experience of communal labor as "pleasurable" and have simple recreations, like a game of cornerball (similar to dodgeball) shown as played with some neighboring Mennonites.

Amish teenagers often leave the culture, but sometimes come back. They can be disadvantaged by the stoppage of school at eight grade, which the Supreme Court ok-ed in 1972, according to the film (ironically, Justice Burger talking about the value of diversity). On my TV Blog, I have a review of the ABC "Primetime Live" program “The Outsiders: The Amish Speak Out” on June 25, 2008, here.

The documentary briefly mentions the 1984 Hollywood film “Witness” from Paramount (directed by Peter Weir) in which a young Amish widow (Rachel McGillis) takes her son to Philadelphia, where he witnesses a murder of a policeman. Harrison Ford plays John Book, the detective who must protect them in their own community. The movie increased public interest in the Amish.

Picture: Amish schoolhouse near Bird-in-Hand PA, 2006.

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