Saturday, 18 February 2012
The prosecution of Vernon Hershberger has resulted in us being able to see a change in Amish culture happening before our very eyes.
It's often thought that the Amish live like they did 200 years ago, when in actuality most Amish don't even live like they did 20 years ago. Increasing government regulation and a growing tax burden make it virtually impossible to stave off starvation following 19th century farming methods--and totally impossible were one to attempt a reprise of the 18th century. So the Amish continue to adapt to the changes that modern life demands--they just do it carefully, as a congregation, under the guidance and mutual consultation of their bishops.
Thus it is that we now see Vernon Hershberger, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, posting videos of himself and his Amish leaders on the Internet. It's all part of a desperate attempt to keep the government from shutting down his livelihood, and the Amish in general are all for it. If it takes overturning a 150-year-old ban on allowing oneself to be recognizably photographed, so be it--when the only alternative is starvation. It's just one more in a long string of concessions that the Amish have had to make to keep their family farms in the face of an encroaching and increasingly unfriendly government.
For centuries, Amish dealt with the heavy hand of government by moving away; this trend continued up until 1946, when the Reformed Amish fled Adams County, Indiana to avoid forced public education. But hardly 20 years later, we see the Amish running out of places to run to. The watershed moment seems to have come in 1969, when the Ontario Milk Marketing Board required all dairy farms in the province to sell their milk from bulk tanks cooled by electricity. Some Amish moved back across Ontario's porous southern border to states where Grade B milk could still be sold for cheese; this is a major reason why every sizable Amish community in the US contains a cheese factory. But some were tired of moving, and didn't want the hassle of registering for America's Vietnam-era draft. So they stayed put, and purchased generators to power their new bulk tanks. Had they seen what the future would hold 40 years down the road, they may have taken their stand then, and refused to comply with the new law.
For now, in addition to using their generators in the milk barn, Amish use them to power washing machines, electric shavers, photocopiers, and even cell-phone battery chargers. Electric lights, powered by car batteries, are even replacing the kerosine lamps of yesteryear. And operating a dairy farm by generator is hardly feasible in today's factory-farm economy. This is why Amish like Vernon Hershberger have turned to the direct-to-consumer market, which craves small-farm raw milk. But alas, though it be economically profitable, it is as illegal as ever. If the Amish in Wisconsin can't get this law overturned, at least some of them are going to move to a state where they will be free to practice their religion. Those who stay will increasingly lose the distinctions that make them Amish.
See this later post for more on the topic.