Here’s a pretty mundane news story about buggy warning signs being painted over with big red X’s in a Minnesota Amish community (no longer online).

This sort of thing goes on to greater and lesser degrees in many places where the Amish live.  Could the culprits be English bigots, kids out for a prank, Amish youth even?  Does it matter?  Just a dumb thing to do.

More interesting was the comment of a local highway engineer, who described himself as being ‘sickened.’  The general rational-thinking public seems to react pretty strongly whenever it seems the Amish are being picked on.  And perhaps even more so today, post-Nickel Mines.  It’s true this could have potentially endangered some buggy drivers.

Why do some non-Amish come out so strongly for the Amish?  Some English idolize the Amish, perhaps having a misguided, false-nostalgic view of them as representing a lost, purer past.  Some idealize them as innocent, more virtuous than the common man, even helpless to a degree, and thus deserving of extra protection.  That’s a pretty condescending viewpoint to take.  Most Amish certainly don’t see themselves that way, or wouldn’t want to be viewed in that manner anyway.

In any case, it often works to the benefit of the Amish, from the times of conflict over schooling to the present day, seen in the support given after the shootings.  Yet as the story shows, some seem to have quite opposite feelings towards the Amish.  It’s funny how a group that claims itself to be not of this world can in fact be so polarizing among those of this world.

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    1. Well, ya know there are always people out there up to no good. Doesn’t always mean they have something against Amish folks, some just like to cause trouble. Is there such a thing as a happy medium on feelings about the Amish? When you look closely at their lives they aren’t so different from non Amish. Sure they lead a different lifestyle but they care about their children, they work hard, they try to do the best they can for their families and community. We have no reason to dislike them and we really shouldn’t idolize them either. I myself am always trying to learn about things I don’t understand or fully know about and that is why I like to read things about the Amish. I just love to learn and the Amish folks and their life is one of many things that greatly interest me. Being a Christian woman, I suppose I also wish to know how their beliefs tie in with mine. And that is about enough yapping from me for one day! LOL!

    2. Amish people are sometimes thought of as passive — perhaps because of their pacifism. But they are anything but passive when it comes to technology. There they are deliberate in examining what it will do to their communities, family relations, and their religious life. When it comes to technology, the “English” world is in a sense the more passive — accepting whatever comes along without thinking much about what it will do to them.

    3. John, your point about the non-Amish being passive is valid to a degree. Just be careful of the context that you’re willing to put it in. Somthing as simple and mundane as baby tylonol wouldn’t exist if we depended on the Amish for it. The list could go on. You and I might not be alive except for the progress that has been made, no thanks to the Amish. That doesn’t mean progess is all good, but using the Amish to critique progress can be tricky

    4. Easy, there are lots of interesting angles to discuss someday. But the operative word is “careful.”

    5. What are you saying, carefully stay with the uninteresting ones?

    6. Easy, I meant careful in the sense in which you used the word. For example, if I followed the Amish pattern I would be careful not to adopt a technology just because it would keep me alive. There are other considerations, too, which might be more important. (Though I happen to place a high value on that one, just the same!) The Amish appear to be very deliberate about which technologies they adopt, which means that in a sense they remain the masters, not the slaves, of those technologies. But that raises some interesting issues that would be worth discussing further.

    7. The complication with accepting or rejecting technology is that they use baby tylonol, but won’t allow their adherants to be docters or scientists. A true expression of pacifism in the Nickel Mines case would’ve been if the adults would’ve refused to leave and joined the girl who asked the shooter to “shoot me first”. If someone did leave it should have been to get the rest of the community to join them in laying down their lives with that girl. But that’s not what happened. They called the police, who then risked their lives. Yet the Amish won’t let their adherants become police officers. Donald Kraybill says the Amish believe the shooter should have been held responsible (had he lived) and put in jail. Again they won’t be judges, lawyers, and jailers.
      This dosen’t mean that what the Amish are doing is bad, it’s just almost always inappropriate to use what they do to critique non-Amish society.

    8. Easy, those things you point out make it interesting, and nobody said it isn’t complicated. But I don’t see how you get from the points you made to saying it’s inappropriate to use what they do to critique non-Amish society. I think we can benefit from all sorts of comparisons.

    9. I also agree that we can draw lessons from and make comparisons with the Amish but I also see your point easy. In many ways the Amish occupy a fairly priveleged position in our society by virtue of the concessions they have negotiated with the larger society and government. I do think that on a number of issues (ie your police example, or how they’ve historically been protected by the nation’s military while arranging exemption from service for themselves), they are able to have their cake and eat it too.

    10. If you critique non-Amish society with examples from the Amish, without detailing the complexities involved, it feels to me like the Amish are being exploited. This is especially exasperating to me because, in my opinion the Amish could benifit from a non romantisized examination of their culture. Again, in my opinion they are vulnerable in this regard because of their authoritarian tendencies. It seems like the least that non-Amish society could provide.

    11. Here’s Kraybill in the preface of “The Riddle of Amish Culture”

      “the following pages are both a venture in cultural analysis, that is ,
      an attempt to understand the dynamics of Amish society, and an exercise in
      social criticism- a reflective critique of contemporary culture.”

      Note, that he only seeks to understand Amish society, but he is willing to critique contemporary culture. He not only, does the Amish a tragic disservice by only trying to understand them. But in his failure to extend to them, what all societies need, (namely honest and fair critique) he implies that they are unworthy, or not equal, (like laboratory mice) important only in relation to their usefulness in improving us.

    12. Should we criticize or observe Amish culture?

      It seems to me that you feel pretty strongly easy that the Amish, or at least certain Amish, are in need of some sort of critique and perhaps a subsequent revision of the way they do business so to speak.

      Personally I feel Kraybill writes with an even hand and I’ve never really had the feeling that he is trying to romanticise the Amish, though I imagine you may be able to pick through his works and find individual statements that may seem to support that idea. I know you do not explicitly say that, and we may have different definitions of ‘romanticisation’, but I’d like to point out that I find it hard to put Kraybill in that category.

      Maybe Kraybill refrains from critiquing the Amish as he is not a member of that culture. I’ve always felt the most effective arguments, at least if you are making them as an outsider, are the ones where you present the evidence and let people connect the dots themselves. There are a lot of sharp folks among the Amish that are capable of doing that and some do. The Amish, or at least the ones I talk to, generally seem to be very aware that theirs is a less-than-perfect society.

      But as we know change generally comes slow when and if it does, and in any case I don’t think that effecting some sort of change among the Amish is Kraybill’s purpose at all. As an academic he documents and describes and draws conclusions, rather than agitates for what he may feel is improvement. I just think that is his job description.

      And I’ve never thought that Kraybill’s work is doing the Amish a disservice. I think the major service he renders is that he has helped a lot of non-Amish people to understand the Amish better. His take, I feel, examines many of the complexities involved, and is certainly worlds better than what we might get from a romanticized novel or that which is served up at any of a number of tourist outlets. You could much more convincingly make the case that those books and places do the Amish a disservice.

      Hmm, but on the other hand, a romanticized vision of the Amish is at least partly responsible for a whole bunch of tourist dollars flowing into certain Amish pockets, after all. But that’s an issue for another post perhaps.

    13. Critiquing the Amish.
      Western culture is built on critical thought. The books you sell have been developed by skills honed through generations of exposure to critical thought. From the presses that print them, the graphic design, artwork, and even the maketing strategy that you implement, it all owes its quality and integrity to critical thought. The function of your website, the internet that makes it possible for me to access your site. The highways you drive on. The jet that takes you home, and the college that educated the air traffic controller who made a safe landing posible for you. You benifit from the integrity and competence of all these things and countless others, and it all is made possible by a phenomenon called critical thought. I have little interest in airing the Amish peoples dirty laundry, but I also don’t intend to sit by idly while the poverty that is intrinsically a part of Amish life is glossed over or paraded like a pig in an evening gown and make up.
      Kraybill does a lot of things right, but he does it under the auspices of higher education which lends a credibility that only increases the damage when he gets it wrong.

      Here’s a previous attempt of mine to elucidate on this.
      Donald Kraybill, a prominent scholar of the Amish is widely accepted and respected as the preeminent authority on Amish life, but I couldn’t fully address my concerns without questioning the impact of his work on the community he studies and the perception it fosters in his readers.
      Kraybill showcases the communal values of the Amish and juxtaposes them with western cultures individualism, which is a worthy effort for a social scientist, but he fails to ask whether there is a cost to conforming to those values. Since the Amish are a closed authoritarian society, there is a poverty around self-reflective activities that normally enable societies to work through social issues and moral dilemmas. Kraybill is an outside agent that could at a minimum create language for the issues that need to be wrestled with.
      Labeling a problem is the first step towards determining a response. Kraybill’s consistent rose colored view of Amish life colludes with the Amish leaders efforts to portray, any acknowledgment of problems within the church, as heresy. This squelches dissent or identification of problems and consequently any solutions. Because of this collusion Kraybill’s legacy in the end, may be one of having harmed the community he studied.
      Kraybill’s contribution to how the rest of the world sees the Amish is also problematic. There is a real danger if the general public’s perception of the Amish is too simple or rose colored. Our relationship with the Amish is going to demand practical real life solutions. Romanticism will hinder that effort. One of the problems affecting Kraybills work is a lack of aggressive peer review. Because the Amish are a closed society it is hard for anyone else to obtain information so they can test or refute Kraybills conclusions. After the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines Kraybill was reported to have given over one hundred interviews. It doesn’t matter how accurate he is on ninety percent of his work, with that kind of coverage if ten percent of his work is flawed, with no other works to serve as an emollient for his errors, the damage can be enormous.

    14. Amish as authoritarian culture

      Hey easy I appreciate your concern for the welfare of the Amish as a whole, and I think I am aware of the benefits of critical thought and innovation, but I guess we disagree on the idea that Kraybill does more harm than good. And then I’m unclear specifically on which problems problems need correcting, or if we as outsiders should even be worried about the majority of the flaws of the Amish that do not infringe on others’ rights in a legal manner.

      As you say the Amish are an authoritarian culture. There is an inherent trade-off. There are things some might call benefits and also aspects that some would see as drawbacks in Amish society. Less critical thought, limited choice, less formal education, true, and there are undoubtedly some others, but on the other hand, more security, community strength, a degree of insulation from harmful influences of society, knowing that each individual has a role to fulfill through into old age, sense of identity, and so on.

      Where exactly do you see a problem that needs correcting? Is it the entire group, or is it a localized thing? There are congregations and communities where church leaders take the authoritarian approach and go too far with it, but I also know numerous bishops and ministers who I’m fairly certain do not–and I base this on talking with them and with churchmembers and observing among other things. But perhaps I’m off on that.

      Every culture and society has its flaws. Is the idea that the Amish are generally content within their society a falsehood in your opinion? I’m sure in some communities, in some families, numbers of Amish are unhappy with their lot. But maybe I’m being suckered by the people themselves and their observers, but I tend to think the Amish live pretty contented, satisfying lives on the whole.

      Again, I’m not and never have been a member of any Amish group. So I base what I know on what the Amish themselves tell me, what they write, and what outside observers say about them. Perhaps what I’ve ingested is in fact flawed information.

      But I don’t really see Kraybill painting the Amish in such a rose-colored manner, unless I am reading the wrong Kraybill. For example, concluding Amish Enterprise (co-written with Steven Nolt of Goshen College), he outlines the dangers and possible threats to the Amish caused by their large-scale entry into private industry. In fact he and Nolt seem pretty even-handed throughout the work, looking at threats to Amish ideals caused by business ownership, such as the blurring of community boundaries, the threat of individual greed and pride, and the potential destabilizing hierarchical imbalance caused by business owners growing in power and influence within their churches and communities. He and Nolt don’t condemn the change due to small enterprise, they just raise the idea that it may do the Amish harm. I’d imagine that certain Amish have read this work and taken note of these ideas. Perhaps that could be what you mean by creating a language for these issues to be wrestled with. Many Amish are certainly aware of the problems inherent in business ownership, in this example.

      Anyway, Kraybill does have at least one or two works aimed at the popular market that I have not looked at however, so cannot say I am fully aware of everything he’s written. I think you are knocking him a bit hard though on this.

      As far as peer review and other works, there are numerous others who research the Amish (Nolt, Meyers, Weaver-Zercher, Paton Yoder, etc.), as well as an existing canon of information that was around before Kraybill, most notably the work of the deceased John A. Hostetler, who grew up Amish.

      I am curious though, what are the main things you feel Kraybill has gotten wrong? What has he portrayed as rose-colored? I’m sure there is something as I don’t think he would devote his life to the study of them and related peoples without having some affinity for them. Maintaining that distance must be a challenge for anyone with an interest in a particular subject. But I think he gets a heck of a lot more right than wrong, and I think you overestimate the damage that can be done by what he might not get correct. People who read him at least have a more accurate view of the Amish as real people. This seems to me that it can only help their relations with the outside world.

    15. What does Kraybill do wrong?
      His work is like that of a political advocate. He does the positive in great detail and glosses over the controversial and the problematic. I’m aware that his role as a social scientist isn’t to stir the pot, but my critique of his work is that it promotes the status quo inside the community. (which, by the way, violates his detached observer role)
      If that analysis is correct, what Kraybill is doing is like a privileged American espousing the virtues of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
      As for the even handedness of Amish Bishops.

      One of the chapters in Pauline Stevick’s “Beyond the Plain and Simple” is titled “An Amish Intellectual”. In it she writes;

      “Reuben is unusual in that he is more perceptive than most human beings,
      English or Amish, and I often find myself challenged by his intellect. His
      education has obviously not terminated with his eight years of formal

      “he can’t resist reading what is being written about his people. Sometimes
      he responds in writing himself. When he does, the average reader may find it
      difficult to discern that the critique has not been drafted by a person with
      advanced degrees.”

      “Reuben is often more adept at evaluating our way of life than we are at
      understanding his.”

      “Reuben demonstrates remarkable ability to communicate to groups as
      well as individuals. He has been a speaker on at least two occasions to
      assemblages at a local college. Once he addressed the behavioral science
      department at a dinner, and another time he served on a panel with a lawyer and
      a businessman, speaking to a group of over 250 students on lifestyle issues. A
      professor who attended the session remarked afterward that his was easily
      the most organized and articulate presentation of the three.”

      He sounds like a sharp dude. Stevick writes that Reuben is now a bishop. I wonder if he will give his congregants the liberty to pursue the development of their intellects, or will they experience the “arbitrary, iron-fisted, and totalitarian control” of which the existence of, Reuben dismissed in his letter to the producers of ABC’s 20/20 “The Secret of the Amish.”

      Stevick excerpts the letter.

      “With perfect aplomb, the reporter tells us that 20/20’s search for truth has
      revealed a dark side of Amish culture that heretofore has been hidden behind a
      facade of quaint, pastoral tranquility. And now, for the first time in the
      history of journalism, the true, correct, and completely honest account of Amish
      culture has finally been revealed for all the world to see: Amish bishops rule
      with an arbitrary, iron-fisted, and totalitarian control, which leaves their
      constituency with no meaningful choices in life; and Amish parents habitually
      abuse their children.”

      His use of the word “constituency,” is certainly not a fair way to describe the relationship between Amish leadership and their congregants. It is, representative of the “political spin meister” nature of Reuben’s writings.

      As for the Amish who know that they’re not perfect, once they are willing to use the same level of intellectual rigor and critical thought in examining themselves spiritually and morally, as they do in running their businesses, then we’ll talk. Until then they can shut the #%*@! up.

    16. Do the Amish live contented, satisfied lives?
      Do you as an outsider understand that the ultimate heresy for an Amish person is to be unsatisfied? You will need to find an alternate method of assessment for that one, because they cultivate it like they cultivate their fields. Is the average person in Cuba unhappy?
      I would think the viability of a society depends on how it handles dissent. Kraybill’s take on this is that decisions are made by consent. Under what conditions? Agree with me or you’re going to hell? The democratic nature of Amish Society is a myth and it’s not just a hot headed bishop here or there, It is fundamentally totalitarian at its core and to suggest otherwise is deception or political spin. The Amish are very aware that western culture sees arbitrary rule as a bad thing, so they put their best foot forward, big deal, who cares. The issue for me is, why is a priveleged beneficiary of a free society carrying their water for them.

    17. Easy, “totalitarian” may not be the most accurate word to use. If Amish society was truly totalitarian, in the way the word is normally used, you wouldn’t have been able to leave without fearing for your life.

    18. A good arguement John, maybe.
      My use of totalitarian is based on the threat of a doomed after life. Since they are a closed society and their members are indoctrinated from birth, the power they exert is equivalent to your “fearing for your life” qualifier.

    19. My accusation that the Amish are a totalitarian society is based on the idea that their acquiescence to their authoritarian leadership deprives them of the organic social evolution that is such a rich and indispensable part of western culture.In a recent column, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt wrote the following, “oped pages should be open especially to controversial ideas, because that’s the way a free society decides what’s right and wrong for itself, Good ideas prosper in the sunshine of healthy debate, and bad ones wither. Left hidden out of sight and unchallenged, the bad ones can grow like poisonous mushrooms.”
      The concept Hoyt refers to is useful in examining the idealized portrayals of the Amish so common currently in the media and academia for their ignorance of the realities that exist in a closed authoritarian society. The credible and established works on the Amish unfortunately are the most egregious. Inspite of their otherwise accurate portrayals they unanimously gloss over or omit referring to the benifits of a free society versus a closed, rigidly authoritarian one.
      The Amish aren’t privy to the benefits of the artistic expression found in books and movies,at least, in the sense that their issues aren’t explored and illuminated in the way the rest of western cultures’ issues are.

      Imagine what your life would be like, if all of your favorite books and movies, were never written or filmed. And then, try to imagine what western culture would have amounted to if all the great works of art, music and literature were never produced.
      My reference to Cuba is relevant not as an exact match for the Amish, but to point out that the same things are present in both peoples, (ridged authoritarian control) yet we are horrified by one and gush and coo about the other.
      Could Kraybill have studied the Amish all this time and not have come across this poverty I speak of? My beef with Kraybill is that I believe he has come across it, but has chosen to omit it. Having been the victim of that poverty colors my view of Kraybill.
      When I stumbled across Kraybill’s “the Riddle of Amish Culture” I was astonished at his accuracy and familiarity of the Amish.So I devoured it, practically in one sitting. I can still feel myself sitting at the kitchen table. (it’s the most practical area for everyone to utilize one light source) Even after everyone else had gone to bed I didn’t move to a comfortable chair or sofa. As the night wore on the sinking feeling in my stomach sank lower and lower. In spite of his intimacy with Amish life and his skilled observer role, Kraybill was only going to address certain issues, like a politician who can talk at great length and in great detail, but intentionally leaves something unaddressed.
      After having endured my entire life with only the most ridiculous, ignorant garbage being written about the Amish, the one guy who finally knows what he is talking about, does a white wash. Can I be more specific? Yeah, if I take each subject apart step by step. Ultimately I believe it will take another acedemic to expose the flaws of Kraybill’s work.

      The heresy of being unsatisfied is connected to the social control exerted by the specter of what the Anabaptist martyers sacrificed, ie; it’s unthinkable that any problems could exist after what they endured.

      So you think you know Rueben? Only if he was visiting Ohio, because I’m 99% sure I know him and he lives in Pa. Do you think he will give his congregants the freedom to develope their intellects? I think Rueben devoted an enormous amount of time and energy nurturing his intellect. Will he treat that achievement with a robber baron mentality ( I’ve got mine, too bad you didn’t get yours) or will work to promote the development of equal access?

    20. Totalitarian Amish?

      Easy I’m having a little trouble following, that may be more a reflection on me than on what you’ve written here…

      You still really haven’t gotten specific on your beef with Kraybill. I never said you’re totally wrong, I just said give me this evidence that he is carrying the status quo and is non-critical and ignores the critical viewpoint and so on.

      Okay, Stevick book. I’m 90% sure I know this bishop presented under the Reuben pseudonym. A couple months back I sat for a couple hours and spoke with him in Ohio. Description fits him to a T, and we spoke about this book and author Stevick, whom he knows personally.

      And to be honest, I also know members in a very closely affiliated church, and spoke in depth with at least a couple of them on a wide variety of books covering a variety of subjects, as well as other topics, with bishop and other ministers around. There was no sense that we were ever speaking of some taboo topic. No ‘hush-hush there’s the bishop’.

      And, the letter: Reuben was right on in his criticism. Going from semantics over ‘constituency’ to Reuben being a ‘political spin meister’ is a stretch, easy. The 20/20 piece was a hit job, or something along those lines. It played up the ‘deep dark side’ of the Amish that some reporters like to go after now and again, and it made no distinction between orders or ever really suggested it may be a localized occurrence.

      As far as I can tell, 20/20 was based upon the Swartzentrubers. What you are harping on over and over would perhaps most closely apply to that relatively small group of Amish (3-5% of the total?) and some related stricter groups. My posts from Feb 8th and Feb 7th of this year go into the 20/20 story and the Swartzentrubers.

      All I’m wondering is, is what you are basing your totalitarian depiction of the Amish on. An individual church district? Your experience of your own? I just would avoid the wide brush as I’m sure you are aware of the variety and spectrum of thinking. Fidel and Cuba…maybe in some churches it seems that way, but really, it seems a bit of a stretch to pull that one out, easy.

      I’m just an outsider, but I think I’ve experienced, however superficially, both ends of the spectrum and what lies between and unless I’ve had the wool totally pulled over my eyes by a lot, lot of people, then I think that the Amish have generally got it a lot better than your average Cuban.

      Also could you elaborate on your ultimate heresy comment. I’m not totally with you. Again, patience with me, I’m just an outsider here.

    21. Hey easy, I just got around to reading your latest comment…to be honest I did not want to for a while because they usually raise my blood pressure a notch (smile)…as perhaps mine do for you…anyway, look I hear what you are saying on a certain level with authoritarianism…and I would probably approach it differently had I grown up Amish, at least depending on which particular congregation I grew up in. I just have the impression that a lot of one’s impressions can depend on local conditions. I do find myself wondering if there are not significant differences between ‘typical’ Lancaster and Holmes County Amish…

      As for Reuben, sounds like you may be right and I may be wrong, in any case I know at least one ‘Reubenesque’ bishop and he and his relative seem to give a good bit of freedom to their respective congregations; I would just go back to the diversity idea. There are definitely Amish congregations whom I’ve encountered, where in some sort of temporarily romanticized vision of life I could definitely see myself becoming a part of; while on the other hand there have been those I’ve encountered which I would run from as fast as possible.