Awhile ago, having just moved to Ohio from the east coast, I decided to spend New Year’s Eve with the Amish. Well, not really with the Amish but in the place where the Amish live: Amish country, the second largest tourist attraction in Ohio according to the brochures (1). The Amish don’t celebrate the new year however, nor do they celebrate Christmas on December twenty fifth. They celebrate “Old Christmas,” which is later, in January, and this seems to characterize a lot of what the Amish do: it’s not what the English do. (“English” is the adjective for the non-Amish. “Englisher” is the noun.) They’re on a different schedule.
It’s hard not to romanticize the Amish. Their food is delicious. They wear charming outfits (The bonnets! The beards! The wide-placket shirts!) and they ride around in black, horse-drawn buggies with big wagon wheels that harken back to a simpler time. That’s another thing the tourism brochures say again and again and it’s sort of true.
But, contrary to appearances, not all of this buggy-and-bonnet business is based on hard and fast rules. The seeming ban on technology is surprisingly porous. Though they don’t use electricity, some have batteries in their houses for small appliances. Many will use battery-powered sewing machines or flashlights. Some of their buggies have blinking rear lights like a bike, for safety (2). Anyhow, nowhere is it written that the Amish can’t have buggy lights or an immersion blender. While the bible is holy to them, they don’t determine what technology is acceptable by consulting any text.
Instead, they weigh the benefits of technology against its detriments in meetings, and the church leaders determine how it fits into the “ordnung”—the set of constantly updated rules that govern all aspects of their lives. The primary Amish relationship is between the self and God, the secondary relationship is between the self and the family, and the tertiary between the self and the community. If a technology seems to threaten any of these relationships, it’s out (3). So a ban on video games or internet use is a no-brainer. The Amish are not having PTA meetings about social-media bullying or sending their kids to rehab camp for their World of Warcraft addictions. They nip it in the bud. Likewise, they feel phones prevent face-to-face interaction. When you don’t have a phone, you get in your buggy to visit your extended family or your neighbors. When you’re at home, you spend time with the other people who live in your house.
Other technologies are banned for less obvious reasons. Manual farm equipment is the norm. The thinking behind this is along the lines of the buggies over cars logic: the negative consequences of speeding up the pace of life. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, so an Amish saying goes, and using up a lot of your time with manual labor makes some sense. They’re not bored and they’re not obsessing. They’re taking the long cut and and threshing and churning. But they’re also having fun. They have a fondness for trampolines, rollerblades, and board games. There are Amish romance novels. Dating is encouraged—they even have a tradition called “bed courting” which is basically what it sounds like. There is a large Amish community in Sarasota, Florida where the primary mode of transportation is oversized tricycle. Amish from Pennsylvania and Ohio sometimes go there for vacation or to retire, travelling by train or “Amish Taxi” driven by an Englisher.
One thing the Amish don’t have is debt. Though they use money and participate in the English economy—you’ll see some buggies parked at the Safeway and you might buy a Carhartt jacket or a pair of high-end factory-made work boots from an Amish store—they don’t take out loans and most won’t use credit cards. When an Amish family needs a house, they build it. And everyone else helps them. The down side of this is, of course, that you frequently have to be on hand to help build a house. That’s no small shakes. But it seems like a fair price to pay for debt-free home ownership and the sense of community that comes from a consistent commitment to team effort. But there I go again, romanticizing the Amish, harkening back to a simpler time.
I couldn’t help thinking, it being New Year’s Eve and my being in the place where the Amish live, that their way of life might be harkening forward more than back. I grew up in New England, around a lot of colonial reenactment-type joints that ran the gamut from the mixed bag old-timey to the pretty rigorously period specific. These places are staffed by actors and meant to be entertaining and educational. Children who go to them inevitably try to force the actors out of character by asking where their microwave is or making them acknowledge a proffered Gameboy.
These interactions are the awkward fissure in this practice and they ruin the whole thing, which ought absolutely to be ruined as such. We can’t go back to the past, nor should we desire to. We’ve used microwaves. We’ve crashed planes and exploded dirigibles. We’ve witnessed the failed communist experiments of the twentieth century. We’ve deployed the atom bomb. We’ve all seen the youtube video where David goes to the dentist and asks if it will always be like this. We know that it won’t. It’s always changing. The past can be harkened, sure, but it can’t be inhabited. The Amish aren’t doing that at all. They know these things, too. And they’ve made a choice.
The “choice” to be Amish is a bit of a debatable concept. You’ll be driven straight into the thorniest questions of free will and cultural hegemony if you give any serious thought to it at all. But it’s interesting to note that the whole tradition emerges from a firm belief in choosing. The Amish are descended from sixteenth-century radical Anabaptists, a sect who rebaptized themselves as adults because of their belief that one must be of age to make the decision to devote his or her life to the church. They famously continue to practice a custom called rumspringa, wherein Amish teenagers experiment with the trappings of English life before deciding whether or not to become baptized and go back into Amish life (4). When I explained this to my mother, she repeatedly failed to remember the correct term. First she called it “gutrunner” and then “gutrocker.” Both malapropisms get to the point rather nicely: the process is about searching your gut, seeing if cellphones and cigarettes and cars and Walmart will really make you happy. (There’s a pretty good documentary about rumspringa called “The Devil’s Playground” (2002) which features a lot of Amish kids sitting around smoking, doing meth, and going to heavy metal concerts. This doesn’t seem wholly typical.) The point is, they want you to be sure that this is what you want.
And most Amish do seem to choose to be baptized. The 2002 documentary claims that the church has a 90% retention rate. This is far better than most American high schools. But that leads us to those thornier aspects of choosing. The Amish only educate their children to the eighth grade. Education is one of those things, like mirrors and jewelry, thought to cause excessive pride. So the options available to Amish teenagers who choose to leave the church are relatively limited. There is now, however, a scholarship fund started by ex-Amish for ex-Amish who want to pursue higher education. There they go again, helping each other out even when they’re abandoning the whole concept.
Whether or not you believe that the Amish can really choose to be English, there is no denying that the English can’t very easily choose to be Amish. The Amish rarely marry outsiders and acceptance into the church is a long and complicated process that very few Englishers undertake. Someone raised English would have a hell of a time adapting to the Amish way of life. Language would be a problem. Among themselves, the Amish mostly speak the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. It’s not one of the languages offered as a Berlitz program and it’s not a popular course among institutions of higher education, though there are some basic tutorials available online.
More significantly, though, just as the Amish are poorly educated in science and history and advanced mathematics, Englishers are poorly educated in doing stuff. We’re soft. While we were busy making science fair volcanoes andwriting reports on US presidents, they were learning to plane wood and plant crops and make their own clothing. I had a brief fantasy that if I studied long and hard enough, I could infiltrate. They’d never know I came from the outside and they’d eagerly welcome me into the fold. But it would never work. My seams would be crooked and my butter would be lumpy and I’d frankly be terrified to sit in chair I’d built myself.
When I think about how useless I would be Amish, it makes me feel pretty useless full stop. Weighing everything I consume against everything I produce, the problems my existence creates versus the problems it solves, the way that I spend my time and my sense of connectedness to my community, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to continue to be English. But there is no reverse rumspringa, no option to try to be Amish and see if it works, if I can hack it and if it would really make me happy. But the stumbling block here is culture, not time. The impossibility of Amishness is not tantamount to the lesson that we “can’t go back.”
Wendell Berry wrote that American society’s inability to see the Amish for what they are is indicative of the most basic flaws of the American progress narrative. I think we’re beginning to see the frayed edges of that narrative’s unraveling. While the future used to appear to us as Marty Mcfly’s hoverboard, robo cops, and casual space travel; it now seems more frequently to come in the form of close-knit roving communities that communicate via flare and cook game over open fires, e.g. McCarthy’s The Road or Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.”
We usually cast these fictional futures as dystopias. But if Margaret Atwood is right—and she should know—“within every dystopia there’s a little utopia.” And I can’t help but wonder if, as our vision of the future continues to shift, our view of the Amish will shift with it (5). For now, the best I can do is to try to learn from the Amish.
These days, after another move, I’m living out west, where my little sedan is itself a buggy parked alongside the giant pickups at the superstore. I can’t be around the Amish anymore in the sense of space. But I can try to be closer to where they are in the sense of time, which is neither the past nor precisely the future (even if there’s a zombie apocalypse or the hipsters keep defecting to dairy farms and haberdasheries) but is squarely inside of the mystery of the present.
—Arielle Zibrak: waiting for her alto sax solo
1. They maddeningly do not specify what the #1 tourist attraction in Ohio is, but I’m guessing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Cedar Point. Given these options, I’d strongly encourage you to go with the Amish.
2. Were this an open letter to the Amish, I might add that the lights are a sound measure that, our of sheer concern, I wish would be more generally adopted. I nearly took out two buggies what with all the darkness and the rolling hills.
3. How these decisions get made on wedge technologies—sewing machines, electric lawnmowers, etc.—is an endlessly fascinating mystery. But it should also be noted that the ordnung have evolved very differently for each sect. Ohio has the largest Amish population in the world, containing at least three sects. In order from least to most accepting of techonology: Swartzenruber (they’ve ruled against cushioned furniture!), Andy Weaver (they have tractors), and New Order (there’s no telling what they’ll do next!)
4. Some sources I consulted suggested that the strictest sects do not practice rumspringa, but I could not find a solid answer on this.
5. To this end, I also wonder if “dressing plain,” as the Amish call their practice of wearing uniform-like garb, doesn’t bear a bit of resemblance to what Fredric Jameson has delightfully designated a hallmark of many imaginary futures: “pajamas à la Star Trek.”