Month: March 2018

How To Avoid Seeing The Amish

I highly recommend this recent NBC segment on the Amish and their ever-evolving stance towards mainstream (or as they call it, “English”) technology. As much as any such short piece can do, it serves as a master class in propaganda as it is really carried out. Here we see propaganda not as brightly-highlighted howlers from officially acknowledged evildoers—as in certain selections of Pravda or Völkischer Beobachter that students are taught to look at in smug incredulity, with the purpose of reassuring us that propaganda as such will always announce itself as laughable absurdity to astute and balanced citizens like ourselves. Instead, here we have propaganda in its natural form, subtle and perfectly workaday—the art, first and foremost, of presenting and building up, as innocuously as possible, unspoken assumptions.

In the case in question, it’s fascinating to watch the ubiquitous narrative of “breakneck technological progress”, of our own cultural superiority through connectedness and virtuality, of the inevitability of these things, as if governed by natural laws—here represented by the scripting of the voiceover and by the reporter—as it crashes headlong into a culture that has found remarkable success and fulfillment, in large part, precisely by being skeptical of this narrative.

At the outset, we hear the motto, on voiceover: “Like it or not, this is a technological world“, says a woman from the Mennonite Order. Note that this Order, though related to the Amish Orders, is in fact distinct and typically far more permissive on technological usage. But this vital difference is not mentioned, immediately giving the impression that the Amish as a whole have already bought into the motto, and that now, slowly but surely like a child making first steps, they will begin to “come to their senses”; in short, to be more like us. The world is, and must be, a technological one only; no other conceptualization is valid, no other direction is possible.

Again, with the telltale assumptiveness of propaganda, the announcer pronounces the Amish to be “stuck” in the 1850s. Stuck! Pity the poor souls—one thinks of a lame horse “stuck” in the barn, or a genetically ill child with withered legs “stuck” in a wheelchair—victims of fate, needing our enlightened help! Yet this characterization in fact says far more about the announcer’s ignorance or deception than about the Amish themselves, as the Amish restriction of certain technologies is, on the one hand, very much a conscious and deliberate choice—made with full awareness of the gadgetry available among the “English”—and on the other, is not and never has been anywhere near an absolute rejection, within or across the Orders. This wide variation in technological usage also renders the segment’s title, “Amish opening up to modern tech in some communities”, almost as empty as saying “Iowans opening up to soybeans in some communities”.

“In our lives, it can feel like technological change is inexorable,” continues the narrator, “There’s always more and more, and more is always better. But here’s this community that says ‘no, we’re going to take this, but not that.’ And I wonder if we don’t all crave that kind of control sometimes.” Here the mood seems charitable—as if the writers of the segment were willing, for a moment, to entertain that heterodox idea that the Amish may have things to teach us. But this would be to miss the subtext of tongue-in-cheek parental forebearance: “if only we did not have to be so grown up in our wholesale subjection to the technological; if only we could be picky about it, like these sentimental anachronists in their sweet little mouse-holes!”

“Is the boundary between Amish and not-Amish kind of blurring?” is the closing (and leading) question. Let us leave that question aside to ponder the next time we see the sober black horse-drawn buggy being drawn along the roadside. Ask then: Have they added a turbocharger yet? GPS? Are the children in back watching Surprise Egg videos all the way home? Does this look like an “inexorable” caving to an exclusively “technological world”?

Most of all though, media phenomena such as this suggest how the triumphal parade of Faustian progress—the “march towards infinity” that dominates our own world-view and expectations—has begun to clash with the perceived reality of our experience. Notwithstanding the many believers who will reverentially look at an iPhone X and swear it is as far removed from an iPhone 4 as the iPhone 4 was removed from a rotary phone, the reality over the last few decades seems to be that life has not changed very much for the better for those under the sway of the technological faith. The cataract of wonderments has become a trickle. Exactly because of this, the vision of breakneck progress must all the more be maintained in thought as obligatory slogans and propaganda; at the very least, this drowns out the anxiety of having to consider that there may be equally trenchant alternative points of view. A more penetrating and serious journalist, then, whether or not s/he agreed with every aspect of Amish culture, would strive to see in the Amish a quite sincerely held instance of such points of view, and one that has done quite well for centuries—not a quaint case of delusion whose demise can safely be timed to the arrival of 5G connectivity.

But this is part and parcel with a not-too-subtly condescending evangelism of our technocentric way of life. For it is the peculiar fate of the West that this way of life, this continual demanding of new accelerants and stimulants, is the only thing we widely put faith or hope in now—and so it must be defended with all the delusionality of those fundamentalists we love to scorn. Here arises the superb overarching irony of the segment, missed by both sides: the irony of watching one fundamentalism squint across at another, while at least one (guess which) denies it is a fundamentalism at all.

In his classic study “When Prophecy Fails”, Leon Festinger recounted in detail the arc of a UFO cult that became convinced that a great disaster was imminent and that true believers would be evacuated beforehand by a flying saucer. When the apocalypse failed to occur, the members of the group shifted from self-contained self-assurance to aggressive attempts to gain publicity and converts. Festinger saw this shift to the goal of conversion as a way of managing the cognitive dissonance of the failed prophecy: after all, if I can convince others to join in my discredited belief, then maybe I was still right to believe in it.

In a similar way, as the technological prophecy of unbounded progress and unlimited wonders through science and machinery falls conspicuously shy of its (undeniably immense) past accomplishments, and particularly as the environmental and social side-effects of this prophecy become more dire, the Faustian peoples’ need to believe will have to be compensated more and more not just by hyping so-so or disappointing technologies, but by a perceived longing for conversion on the part of outsiders.

It is true that in the past the West became a focus for the aspirations of much of the rest of the world, and that these huge populations often eagerly embraced Western technologies, techniques and artifacts. But their motives were never what we told ourselves: what these peoples saw was not the Western (and especially American) creed of infinity-seeking, or even a world of ever more intricate and invasive gadgetry, but simply abundant food, fast rides, entertainments, sexy pictures—and above all wealth, copious, fulsome, glutting, undreamt-of wealth, the kind a man might slaver after for a lifetime and never tire of. Now, we see this wealth has been to a great degree transmitted already, and with that, the prestige of the West has entered a slow dive. The Amish double our cognitive dissonance over this, for not only do they not care a whit for the infinity-seeking creed (at least in this world), but they tend to eye with a half-bored skepticism even the wealth-accumulating offspring of that creed. After all, their very ethic emphasizes an entirely different kind of wealth—the wealth of the community, of physical heartiness, of simplicity, of satiety, of justice to family, God, and fellow men. To think that propaganda would spare them for that blasphemy is to think naively.

Four Poems

// 1
The farther out,
the more contingent, more illusory:
Society bobs and rises. Smiles all around.
(A handshake, while we finish these documents.)

The closer,
the more empty, and the clearer too,
a demonic clearness, tautology’s looking-glass.
(Alphabets, lookup-tables, and just-because.)

Where lies the teacher
of the perfect world? Where is his army
sundering the deep, O mystic column?

He has won many battles—too many—
and so, full of goodness, retires to his academy;
so now let him rest, in that endless middle distance.

// 2
Bethany, wildwood, barrier islands:
People are drawn to haunting, floating places,
Waiting half-naked in the sun, as if possessed
By a taming, or a brave covering-up,
Projections of a play-acted life.

In the quiet cumuli of years
Thoughts of here keep turning, piling up.
Underfoot I see white shores,
Sea-foam, sea-creatures, clear as lenses,
Dredged-up epithets from the primordial;
I recall joy, aging friends, simmering shrimp,
Dinners amidst faces drawn tight, keen as a syringe-tip.

I remember madness
In the mirror:
A me who was not me, the still ocean
In the window calling us down to its edge
With visions of a parallel time, new selves,

And out there, past the little hill, the sand
That spoke crisply of all things burning:
Of passions lost
and caught midair,
But mostly of life, rigged out
In all its solitary beauty,

Like the sail
Of some coast-hugging ship,
Tacking carefully, yet almost lost, all but plunging
Full tilt into a blue infinity.

// 3
In the winter’s dark sanctum, I see
Parts returning of me.
A heavy black snow is falling on everything.
Where now is the secret fire?
She has left everything in a pile,
In these ashes at my feet.

Truly, the nightmare begins
When we cease dreaming
That we share the same dream.

// 4
Mathematics
Is nothing but the gift
Of painting with rules:
Peeking through the symbols, suckling-faced, the new cosmos beams.

Governance
Is a powerful magic fife:
Well-played, it soothes man’s madness,
Ill-played, it dances him towards death.

But engrossed in canvas,
Wrestling a verse,
Or lip curled in thought
Over the keyboard:
The artist’s distant look
Is like the child humanity,
Straining to descry
Some truer calling.