July 26, 2004

Writer's block, Amish Paradise and forshadowing the end of Anglo rule

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 pair of letters pointing me to articles on the web of interest:

First, Henry Farrell points out this amusing example of how turnabout is fair play:

Brazil Internet Craze Angers English Speakers

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil has butted heads with the United States this year on issues ranging from cotton subsidies to the war in Iraq. But perhaps none of the battles has been so personal as the one being fought on the Internet. Thousands of Brazilians have become devotees of Orkut (http://www.orkut.com), a popular new social-networking site from Web search leader Google Inc. [...]

But the rush of Brazilians to join Orkut and rival social networking sites has upset some online users, who complain of a proliferation of messages posted in Portuguese, Brazil's native tongue.

Native English speakers have been outnumbered on the 'Net for some time, and the trend is growing more acute. Increasingly this will mean that the website you want to read may not cater to your linguistic preferences, and the parts of the web that aren't in English will not necessarily get second billing or special marking.

Wikipedia has really been leading the way with this. The English Wikipedia has - for some time now - treated English as just another language. Considering that the German Wikipedia is now more than a third of the size of the English one, the prospect of English losing its status as "first among equals" is not unthinkable. This thing with the Brazilians is more or less the same deal. English may start to actually be the universal second language of the web, not the first.

I have a plan for a larger set of articles on language politics, starting with the recent ICAO decision to actually name English as the international language of aviation, and to impose minimum standards of English on pilots. But, as I pointed out before, I can't seem to write right now.

The other e-mail comes from David Frazer, who directs me to an article in Saturday's Guardian about Manitoba Mennonite novelist Miriam Toews:

The one that got away

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 town called Blumenort, and my father spent his youth one town over from that. They would probably identify with Ms Toews story. From the stories they told me growing up, I suspect they would.

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.

Posted 2004/07/26 12:42 (Mon) | TrackBack

Scott, this was a great post. I'm not spending much time around the blogosphere these days, and it was nice to find this thoughtful piece just waiting to be read when I happened to turn on the computer and look around some this morning. Mormons aren't Mennonites, of course, but I can sympathize with and appreciate a lot of what you've written here. We probably disagree on how one ought to evaluate the cultural worth or relevance of "conservative communities" or "isolationist sects" to modern society, but your description of the costs and complications involved in leaving such is exactly correct. Good stuff.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at July 26, 2004 19:38

Thanks, Russell.

I'm not entirely sure that I want to evaluate communities like the Amish as having a negative value, it's just that as soon as you start down that road, you get accused of being a traitor to feminism. So, someone will say, you support child abuse and the oppression of women? No, but I support tolerance of intolerant and illiberal communities when it isn't clear to me that anyone actually benefits from not tolerating them. I support the prosecution of real crimes against persons without regard to structures of family or community, but not of symbolic acts that someone - an outsider probably - designates as a proxy for some act of oppression. I'm something of a minority on the left in that I have serious problems with hate crime laws that make some crimes more serious because of their symbolic value alone.

I think the old-style Mennonites and the Mennonites that border on Amish in outlook and social structure are not healthy places. However, I will not reject the validity of their right to pursue an alternative lifestyle. I reject their right to do real damage to their children and I reject their right to protect their children from knowledge of the outside world. But, I accept that they have to right to express their values and to expect their children to abide by them until such time as their children can express themselves what they want. I cannot force them to accept people who make different choices, but I can make sure that people are able to choose for themselves and I can try to make sure that they are fully informed when they do.

Posted by: Scott Martens at July 27, 2004 9:48

I have some pet ideas about how the worst thing in modern life is normality. Any family or religious tradition that makes people non-normal and different is good. I don't know of any formal studies, but it seems to me that someone who's been raised in almost any viable exceptional environment is better off. Even though they hate it and leave, and even though they're lonely and depressed at times. (Normal people are lonely and depressed too, but they have to explain it some other way).

Normality is defined today as shopping at malls, watching TV, following fashion, going to theme parks, living in controlled suburbs, etc. Most people who haven't attained that aspire to it. But it's a pretty starved existence, so you end up with "normal" forms of rebellion which are often nihilistic.

I've been told that Mormons and ex-Mormons are a (somewhat hidden) demographic in academia. (In a few areas such as linguistics, geneology, and dam-building and irrigation they're actually "out"). My son's mother and sister are ex-Mormons and their three kids as well as another cousin are very talented. Even my Mormon ex-mother-in-law (peace be upon her even though she cut me no slack) was well-read in American history at the end of her life. In short, the stereotype is erroneous.

Kids from Orthodox families, Chinese families, East Indian families, and Communist families seem to have some of the same advantages (and pain).

This is all completely separated from questions specific to Mormons or Amish, of course. But all the groups I mentioned are disciplined groups.

I recently read some things from Kenneth Rexroth's autobiography. Rexroth was a pre-beatnik radical avant-garde poet, but his background was "German pietist". Here's one of his summaries:

"Schwenkfelders, Mennonites, German revolutionaries of ?48, Abolitionists, suffragists, squaws and Indian traders, octoroons and itinerant horse dealers, farmers in broad hats, full beards, and frogged coats, hard-drinking small-town speculators, all have gone to make a personality that has proved highly resistant to digestion by the mass culture and yet, I think, conservative of the characteristic values of American life rather than the reverse".


Posted by: Zizka at July 30, 2004 6:14

Well, the problem with normal, as Bruce Cockburn says, is that it never gets better.

Okay, just getting my daily Amish fix for the day. By the way, I read inthat there was/is an Amish reality TV show in the States where some Amish youths live with some tempters/temptresses to see how true they are to their beliefs.

Let me guess, this is on Fox, right?

Posted by: jobson at August 1, 2004 13:04

I was surprised you didn't bring up your background during the original squabble over the hajib. I think I may have pointed it out myself at some-point, while yelling at Olivia B.

I grew up in Philadelphia and went to school with a Mennonite girl. She wore a bonnet and dressed plainly and was 'girlish' in a very old fashioned way, but she wasn't uncomfortable with it, and she certainly wasn't isolated. Also, and in an entirely different context, my parents used to go to a Mennonite farmer's market about a mile from our house. The area was pretty rough, and the market was right across the street from one of the toughest high schools in the city, which was about 98% black (my brother was part of the other 2%). Sawdust on the floor, blonds, male and female,in white aprons -women all in white bonnets- and a mixed but still largely black clientele. It was all very neighborly, and not in an artificial way. Proximity has a lot to do with it of course. If you are around outsiders there's less of a need to escape.
For what it's worth I've never thought of Mennonites as isolationist, or I should say I never realized that such a strain existed. The Amish of course are different. But neither Islam nor Judaism have such a thing as the 'wanderjar' (sp?). I remember a couple of years ago some Amish kids in western PA were caught selling drugs, and the community's response was almost to shrug. "The young will be young."
I was impressed by that.

And if this is writer's block. I envy you.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at August 2, 2004 2:40

Zizka, I think you may have a point there. Perhaps there is something to the notion that suffering builds character. :^) Or not. Anyway, identifying yourself as different certainly seems to make a difference.

Jobson, sounds like Fox. I'm the first to say that the Amish are way less innocent of the ways of the world than folks like to believe, but tacky is tacky. I thought that awful reality TV show with Paris Hilton was bad enough.

Seth, I didn't make much of my background then because I simply didn't grow up that way. I am sympathetic to very conservative religious communities because I know some of them, and I know that they are neither fools nor evil, but not because I used to belong to one. There are elements of the Anabaptist community that is deeply isolationist, but the Amish with their Wanderjahr are a bit differenter.

I think that coming down on conservative Muslims is no sounder than punishing the Amish for their displays of faith; and I think that to whatever extent the hijab has become a nationalist symbol for young French men with Maghrebi roots, banning it is the diametric opposite of sound policy. But, I can't really say that I was one of those kinds of people, and that limits my ability to make grand claims on such a basis.

I actually got a call from my mother a few days ago on this topic. It seems Miriam Toews didn't grow up in any more conservative a Mennonite family than I did. She grew up in Steinbach to be sure, but that's about it. Mom is not a fan. I haven't read her, so I can't say much.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 4, 2004 14:20

One thing about being part of a non-normal sect is that it is possible to escape from it to somewhere else, whereas normality is pervasive. But you can still bring whatever strengths the alternative culture had with you, e.g. a work ethic, obsession with detail, detachment from consumption fetishes, etc.

I talk to two kids working at the convenience store I go to a lot. Both have new cars which cost them at least $3-400/ month all told. One of them only earns about $1200 / month. But having a car is normal. That's an example of self-destructive normality.

Posted by: Zizka at August 4, 2004 15:10
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