Respond to this Article October 2004

The Simplest Life

Why Americans romanticize the Amish.

By Sasha Issenberg

One might have expected the uproar that ensued last February when UPN unveiled plans for a reality show called "Amish in the City." The premise--five Old Order Amish teenagers move to Los Angeles to live with six of their non-Amish peers, confronting the seductive powers of technology and libertinage--instantly aroused opposition from a coalition of Amish advocates, rural-life preservationists, and a majority of U.S. senators, who signed a letter accusing Viacom, UPN's parent company, of bigotry. "Amish in the City," these guardians of good taste insisted in newspaper ads and press conferences, would hold the Amish up to ridicule. (This was before the show had even been produced, let alone aired.) After mulling cancellation, UPN decided to air the show anyway, prompting Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), who represents the heavily Amish Lancaster area, to tell local papers that "[t]he very nature of this program is offensive and exploitative."

Pitts needn't have worried. True, "Amish in the City" carries all the formulas of the strangers-in-house reality-show model. There are domestic struggles (who left the dishes out?), stunt-based excursions (in one episode, the Amish kids and the city kids swapped outfits and hit the streets) and direct-to-camera confessional scenes in which the participants talk about how it all makes them feel. But, with the exception of some dubious dental work among the women and some aggressively unstylish sartorial choices among the men, the show's Amish characters don't fare poorly at all.

Indeed, rather than deride its protagonists, "Amish in the City" does what Americans have always done: It admires the Amish. In fact, in the show, it is the caricatured representatives of urban, cosmopolitan America--a gay nightclub promoter, the pierced-and-tattooed blonde fashionista, the sassy black student--who are the absurd figures, there for comic effect. Shortly after the program's July debut, the usually caustic New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley raved that in "this clash of cultures the three Amish men and two women are the sensible and likable ones. They are so unworldly that they marvel over a blender and weep at their first glimpse of the ocean, but they have much to teach their hip, patronizing housemates."

"Amish in the City" is only the latest example of a long tradition of Amish-loving American cultural mythology. We've long celebrated the "simplicity" of the Amish, idealized their way of life as an archetype of uniquely American goodness. Sure, we poke fun at them occasionally; cultural historian David Weaver-Zercher's The Amish in the American Imagination assembles a fine inventory, from a 1921 Travel magazine quip about "beards that look as if they had been cropped from a moss-hung Florida tree!" to David Letterman's "Top Ten Amish Pick-Up Lines." But Amish humor is a cottage industry compared to Amish tourism, which annually draws four million visitors who forgo Disneyworld to spend their vacations among the black-hatted, noodle-slurping barn-raisers of Lancaster County, Pa., the largest of several Amish communities in the country. (Most of the rest are in Ohio and Indiana.) They are, in the popular imagination, a peaceful people who spend their time going to church and making preserves, while the rest of us lost our spiritual way, got jobs moving paper around, became obsessed with buying stuff, and watched our families fall apart.

Past masters

The Amish have been fulfilling this role since the early 1950s when they became a perfect foil to a modernizing country of skyscraper-filled cities and burgeoning suburbs, whose residents were infatuated with cars, weapons systems, and gray flannel suits. Back then, the world of the Amish was one where subsistence agriculture, folk art, and intimate communities--all on the wane in most parts of the country--continued to thrive, a place where technology, money, consumerism, industry, and big government were absent by cultural and spiritual decree. The boom in Amish tourism that began during that decade marked an inflection point in Americans' conception of their own culture: Only when they began to view themselves as modern, did they take interest in the lives of the premodern. Watching people tool around in buggies is worth a weekend trip only when one knows little other than cars.

It didn't take long before Lancaster sprouted the usual infrastructure of American tourism, from bus tours to smorgasbord restaurants to an amusement park, Dutch Wonderland. (That complex, which faced Route 30 with an anachronistic castle façade hiding a monorail, was met with a backlash; Pennsylvania Dutch Tourist Bureau president Robert Shoemaker accused the owners of trying to "draw and exploit persons of poor taste…at the expense of those of us who were in all honesty playing up to the public interest in history, religion and rural and American culture.") Indeed, the Amish were foremost a cultural attraction, and spending days among them was an informal exercise in anthropology; tour books, brochures, and maps were visitors' field guides. In the Official Pennsylvania Dutch Guide-Book, a 1962 tourist-bureau publication, A. Fred Rentz--identified as "an Educator and Authority on the Pennsylvania Dutch"--wrote that the Amish "have virtues that the rest of us would do well to emulate." They do not take government aid or agricultural subsidies or purchase fire insurance, Rentz points out. Instead, "[t]hey took care of themselves." Rentz presented a picture of an American society where one can step away from the rigors of the invisible hand and refuse to have one's own outstretched. The virtuous among us, he says, are those who can live outside the welfare state and refrain from frivolous lawsuits.

Everything the Amish touch, it seemed, turned to simple. In the guidebook's chapter "Foods--And How We Like Them," before mentioning any dishes or specialties--before even giving the slightest hint of the distinctive taste or style of Amish cooking--writer Edna Eby Heller presents a culinary tradition subsumed by its culture's cardinal values: "hard working, creative and thrifty." Visitors were told of "a great many dishes common in today's Dutch Cookery created when a housewife felt compelled to utilize rather than discard. She wastes nothing in the garden, neither in the kitchen. That favorite little Milk Pie, she makes from left over pastry!" The virtues of Amish cuisine are apparently that it is resourceful, not savory. In a consumer society increasingly aware of its tendency towards wasteful indulgence, these are old-fashioned values. The Amish don't take pictures, and they leave only footprints. (Plus the wafting odor of homemade Moravian Sugar Cake.)

What makes the Amish such an odd and appealing object of cultural tourism is that the visitor is asked to suspend disbelief, trusting that the Amish are of today, not faux relics of a manufactured past, like Colonial Williamsburg. In living Amish culture, visitors see both the purity of a simpler past and a promise of a more virtuous present. (Though the Amish are never portrayed as unevolved or uncivilized; they are premodern without being primitive, old-fashioned without being savage.) They were us in the late 19th century, the literature suggests, but we changed and they didn't. The Amish were the virgin, lily-white America of strong families and simple values, before all hell broke loose and things went wrong. The Amish were Ozzie and Harriet's "Ozzie and Harriet." (That image has never really changed. When two Amish twentysomethings were convicted in 1998 of dealing drugs, the Lancaster New Era editorial on the subject was headlined "Amish Cocaine Sellers Have Set Example for Everyone.")

Back to the future

But as American anxieties changed, so did the representations of the Amish in our popular culture. In the 1960s, as the sexual revolution got underway, booklets about the non-carnal Amish-courtship practice of "bundling" started to appear. In the 1970s and 1980s, as agriculture faced consolidation and corporatization, historian David Walbert has observed, Lancaster County postcards began to feature increasingly family-farming motifs. By the time Witness was released in 1985, America's big cities had gone to seed--and Lancaster County offered a cultural refuge. (The film began with a grisly killing in the bathroom of the 30th Street Station, which you never see at the horse-and-buggy barn.)

All these portrayals, however, have something in common: In each, the Amish are the guardians of old-fashioned American values, foils to change and optimism about the future. The Amishman is the romanticized American that never was: He is Jefferson's gentleman-farmer; the perfectible, efficient handyman of Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack; Thoreau's self-cultivator at one with nature; Turner's homesteader on the frontier. And in that sense, Americans' lionization of the Amish is part of a broader tradition--the reactionary anti-urban, anti-consumerist vein in our national life that had its roots among America's first Puritan settlers, and has lasted well into the modern age in communities ranging from the crunchy back-to-the-land hippies of the 1960s to the right-wing survivalists of today.

American leaders have long tried to claim authority over the present by idealizing the past. Thomas Jefferson's utopian visions were based on ideas of agrarian virtue. "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man," he wrote in Notes on Virginia, published during the early 1780s. The allegedly "progressive" turn-of-the-century educator John Dewey traced the decline of "children's modesty, reverence and implicit obedience" to a culture of family and community order destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. "Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length from the killing of the animal and the trying of the fat to the making of wicks and dipping of candles," he nostalgized in 1899. Today, supporters of George W. Bush revel in the image-contrast between the president's common-man vacations to his Crawford ranch (clearing brush and chopping wood project rural values of work and simplicity) and John Kerry's allegedly high-fallutin' leisure activities. "Do you know how few Americans go windsurfing?" Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.)--himself a self-consciously self-congratulatory small-towner--sneered at the Republican convention.

For the most part, reality television has been an unexpectedly progressive institution, with programs to redistribute wealth ("Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"), guarantee sex set-asides for the fat and ugly ("Average Joe"), and to make moguls out of the clever and hard-working ("The Apprentice"). But by milking its coastal looks-like-America cast for laughs and casting Amish values as an antidote to modern solipsism, "Amish in the City" makes the same error that its Amish-loving antecedents do. It's true, of course, that there are aspects of Amish culture which we rightly miss in our modern lives--the close-knittedness of their families and communities, and even their manifest awareness that there are higher aspirations than material accumulation. But it's silly and disingenuous to hold the Amish up as an indicator of American decline. Millions upon millions of Americans prefer to live in modern suburban America, because Costcos are magnificent and churning one's own butter is an ordeal, and Americans have never chosen the past over the present.

Sasha Issenberg is a writer for Philadelphia magazine.


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