As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain
I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain
But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me
You know, I shun fancy things like electricity
At 4:30 in the morning I’m milkin’ cows
Jebediah feeds the chickens and Jacob plows… fool
And I’ve been milkin’ and plowin’ so long that
Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone
I’m a man of the land, I’m into discipline
Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin
But if I finish all of my chores and you finish thine
Then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699
We been spending most our lives
Living in an Amish paradise
We’re all crazy Mennonites
Living in an Amish paradise
There’s no cops or traffic lights
Living in an Amish paradise
But you’d probably think it bites
Living in an Amish paradise
— Amish Paradise, “Weird Al” Yankovic
Belgium is hell in July.
The Belgians, of course, know this instinctively. I don’t quite understand how a nation can continue to function when the entire population is on vacation at the same time for a whole month. The trams get cut back to the point where they’re useless out in the eastern suburbs of Brussels and the weather isn’t much to write home about either. I still have to wear a jacket in the morning in late July.
Of course, I have this extra problem: allergies. Something in Belgium sprays its pollen in July. Something that just about kills me every time. And every summer, I tell myself, next year. Next year, don’t forget to take your goddamn vacation in July like every one else, and get as far from Belgium as you can! And every year – this is my third year here – I have to be in Belgium in July for some reason.
This year, it’s the final report for my research in translation automation. The work is done. The results are excellent, spectacular even. In another year, under other circumstances, I would feel tempted to find some venture capital and see if I can revolutionise the language industry. Instead, I’ve spent the last week wheezing in bed, taking hits off my Duovent bong, popping Tylenol and Claratin, and snorting this foul-smellng shit my doctor gave me for hay fever.
I’m suffering from the most profound writer’s block I think I’ve ever had. I can’t remember ever having felt so unable to organise or express my thoughts. I have tons to blog, and vast quantities of material on how to profit from the statistical properties of the lexicon, but I can barely bring myself to read my e-mail. Writing this paper is like having acute constipation. I push and I push and it hurts like hell, and all that comes out is a little bit of crap.
But, I’m back at work today and that brings me to my e-mail, specifically a letter pointing me to an article in Saturday’s Guardian about Manitoba Mennonite novelist Miriam Toews:
A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi, a brilliantly acute, confused, generous-spirited 16-year-old growing up in a Mennonite community some miles from Winnipeg. Its author, Miriam Toews, was raised in just such a place, and got out as fast as she humanly could (the day after graduating from high school). The narrative voice is so strong, it could carry the least eventful, least weird adolescence in the world and still be as transfixing, but the fact is, this community is compellingly strange. The shorthand for Mennonite is “like Amish, only in Canada” (there’s a large Mennonite community in the US, too, but that rather spoils the analogy) […]
Mennonite diktats express a deeply-held horror of almost all aspects of modern life. Emphasis on “plain” dress means that, in some households, even buttons and zips are a sign of inadequate faith. Ownership of a Janis Joplin record is the most direct known route to hell, apart from all those millions of other routes. Literature is an irreligious diversion; indeed, the life of the mind outside worship is utterly abrogated. Toews’s experience was by no means the full Mennonite monty. “My parents both had masters degrees, they were educated, so it was a very tolerant, liberal family within the grander scheme of things. We were allowed to read.” Yet she recalls, in all the time she grew up, going to see only one film (Tom Sawyer): “I remember us all sitting there, sitting up really straight. And nearly fainting when the lights went down.”
Miriam Toews is from Steinbach – a small, overwhelmingly Mennonite city not far from Winnipeg. Since my great-grandfather was one of the town founders, the odds that we’re related is not bad. However, I can’t claim to know her. My mother grew up in the next villiage over – a wee speedbump of a place called Blumenort, and my father spent his youth one town over from that. From the stories they told me growing up, I suspect they would probably identify with Ms Toews’ story.
You can read a longer extract from her novel over at the Globe and Mail website. The best bit is this:
We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Ironically, they named this place East Village, which, I have learned, is the name of the area in New York City that I would most love to inhabit. Others ran away to a giant dust bowl called the Chaco, in Paraguay, the hottest place in the world. My friend Lydia moved here from Paraguay and has told me stories about heat-induced madness. She had an uncle who regularly sat on an overturned feed bucket in the village square and screamed for his brain to be returned to him. At night it was easier to have a conversation with him. We are supposed to be cheerfully yearning for death and in the meantime, until that blessed day, our lives are meant to be facsimiles of death or at least the dying process.
The teenaged embarassment of coming from as explicitly anti-social a movement as the traditional Mennonites is, however, something I can identify with. I didn’t grow up in Manitoba, I spent my teens in the States, first in Colorado, then in New Jersey, and then in a Mennonite college in Indiana after I turned 16. My parents watched TV, read trashy novels and watched movies. We were not plain. However, just having a no-drinking, no-smoking, no-sex background is hard when you’re a teenager.
Some Mennonites take 1st Corinthians 11:5-10 literally, and require women to wear a hat in church, or even at all times. They aren’t the kinds of Mennonites who always send their daughters to college – in fact they usually don’t. There was one in my college, however. She wore her little bonnet for a couple semesters, then lost it. The next year, she stopped wearing “plain” clothes. The year after that, she hit me up for a cigarette.
What makes isolationist faiths so appealing is how self-justifying they are. People who’ve never been involved with those kinds of societies don’t realise how tempting the world can seem when you are cut off from it. The very features people most deplore about the modern world – its impersonality, anonymity, and laxity – are the very virtues people who actually live in pre-modern societies see in it. Small, closed communities are places where your life is laid open like a book to everyone around you, where you police your own life, afraid of doing anything out of the ordinary because everyone would immediately know. Somewhere where your neighbours don’t know you and don’t care if you smoke and drink and aren’t interested in who you have sex with can quickly start to sound like paradise.
The stronger the temptation to leave, the easier it gets to justify excessive pressure and even threats to prevent people from “falling into temptation.” The more people feel drawn to leave, the more certain you become that everyone else is out to get you, and the easier it is to justify the sort of inflexibilty and outright oppression that makes the alternatives so tempting. This is quite common human behaviour. I could tell the same story about Israel or the Republican Party. Once upon a time, it applied to a lot of the left too, but not so much nowadays.
One of the things I’m going to get to, when I get back to Grandpa’s autobiography, is how things were changing in the Mennonite world. Already before he went to Africa, you could see the tension between the kinds of Mennonites for whom their culture and faith form a wall to separate them from the heathen outside, and the Mennonites who have decided that they have to live in the world, and try to bring their church into the world with them. This tension dates back to the “revival” era in the US, in the period just after the Civil War. Even here in the 21st century, this foundational conflict over who owns “Mennonite” has not been fully resolved.
It is the flip side of what happened to Judaism over the last two centuries. As long as the Mennonites and Jews lived segregated lives – usually by some form of legal prohibition or social contract enforcing segregation – their ethnic, cultural and religious identies always correlated. A Jew was always born a Jew, believed in Judaism and adhered to Jewish culture. The same was true of Mennonites. Once the prohibitions were lifted, this identity became more problematic. Judaism has, in some sense, decided that the ethnic and cultural elements of Judaism are essential to being a Jew. Mennonites have done the opposite. And in both cases, there are dissidents from this new consensus.
I suspect being an ultra-orthodox Jew has to be just as embarassing to a teenager as being an old fashioned Mennonite.
The thing is, these kinds of isolationist sects – Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and no doubt others – have remarkable staying potential. They persist. They survive massacres, deportations and even genocides. Abolishing them because they are oppressive is just another version of destroying the villiage in order to save it. The only just, decent, dignified way to deal with these sorts of communities is to hold the door open for people who want to leave and to make sure that their lives once they’re out are more like their fondest hopes than like their worst nightmares. Walking away from everything you know is more than hard, it’s terrifying. Having someone else take it away is not easier or less terrifying.
This is why I’m still so angry about the French government’s anti-headscarf law. I imagine conservative Muslim communities are not terribly different from conservative Mennonite ones. Most of the Mennonite population of Canada nowadays is urban and integrated. The public school law that ended German education had little to do with it. Manitoba’s rural public schools can easily be more religious than American religious schools. The girl who wore a bonnet in my college gave it up quite quickly, even though she was attending a Mennonite college. Young Amish are given a couple of years to do what they want and see the outside world. Most of them come back, but far from all of them do. There is a tourist trap in Indiana, near my college, Amish Acres, that used to specialise in hiring young Amish who were either experiementing with life outside the community, or had already left it. I suspect it’s not too different for conservative French Muslim girls. Given an open door and a real prospect for a better life on the other side of it, many will walk away from intolerant cultures. Close the door and offer no real alternative to poverty in the cités, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see oppressive communities spread.
Of course, this kind of approach never provides a final solution. Just as some will leave, some will stay. But somehow, history’s many final solutions never really are that final. Eradicating one intolerable social division always seems to lead to another one.