In Minneapolis, a group of neighbors started what they dubbed the “Amish Envy Club” to help them tackle tiresome house projects. Inspired by the idea of a barn raising or a quilting party, they get together to rip out carpets or till a garden. A large group works, a smaller group takes care of the kids, and dinner is potluck. They have since inspired others to form A.E. clubs. And elsewhere in America, somebody somewhere is picking up a new Amish romance novel to read since in 2013, one is being released about every four days.
Everybody loves the Amish. They love them so much, in fact, that well-known Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio receive millions of visitors a year and generate hundreds of millions in tourist revenues. Their Amish populations each number about 30,000. On a per-Amish person basis, that’s an amazingly high productivity rate.
Not many things say “pastpersistent” louder than does Amish envy. Scholars tell us that we’re casting a nostalgic gaze back to the past when we take a weekend trip to Amish country, read a “bonnet ripper” as Amish-themed chick-lit is known, or buy a handcrafted piece of furniture or shoe-fly pie. Why? Because the Amish are living in the past, right now. Yes, they are so much realer than those Civil War re-enactor guys who are always a little too old and a little too chubby to make the illusion convincing. And unlike living history interpreters (that is, those people who pretend to be Ben Franklin or some anonymous colonial-era milkmaid), the Amish don’t speechify about the Revolution or give you overly long explanations about how cheese is made. No, the Amish actually live like people used to do in the American past of covered wagons and homesteading. They churn butter by hand, go to one-room school houses, wear clothes without zippers, and—best of all—travel by horse and buggy not just from 9 to 5 or on odd weekends, but every single day, year after year.
We look beyond the fact that we’re just day trippers in Amish land and focus on all the uplifting reminders of the values of how things used to be. It’s the simple life versus the complicated life. No movie got it better than Peter Weir’s Witness in which Harrison Ford’s cynical cop has to flee the corrupt Philadelphia police force for Lancaster County Amish country. The beautifully lyrical barn raising scene is enough to give anyone Amish envy. The plot toys with the idea that he might stay or that his Amish love interest might leave, but go back he must. And she has to stay or the rural fantasy of a superior past would be tarnished. Since Hollywood loves a happy ending, that just wouldn’t do.
It’s easy to forget that envy was traditionally counted among the seven deadly sins (for which you would not burn, but rather freeze in hell). Perhaps this explains the rather darker undertone of Witness when the “present” intrudes on the “past” and Ford punches out a local thug who was getting his kicks taunting the Amish. Even more does it explain the current reality shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (reality television motto: leave no sub-culture unturned!). The relentless commodification of the Amish as a wholesome source of traditional values makes the thought of seeing an Amish kid walk through Times Square fiendishly attractive and visits to night clubs and strip joints aren’t far behind. That the moral superiority attributed to the Amish way of life (regardless of whether they claim it) can be turned on its head by a short trip to the temptations of the Big Apple surely has something to do with a kind of sour grapes. Envy isn’t admiration for the achievements of others, it’s resentment of them. It pays to remember that the line between them is thin.