Utopias do not exist. PBS’s documentary, The Amish: A People of Preservation, released back in 1975, was supposed to be an investigative piece into the realities of Amish society. The project, instead, was a fixture of the decades-long public relations campaign covering up abuse and a lack of freedom of choice within the practicing Amish population.
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The documentary’s obvious purpose is to brand Amish life as a resort or a sheltered paradise amidst a tortured, modern world. The narrator’s voice is laden with disgust as he highlights what American society at the time lacked in comparison to the Amish. Technology is the scapegoat for distraction, less social connection and interaction, and preoccupation with material things. The Amish are viewed as symbols of a forgotten past, when everyone supposedly got along in peace and harmony.
The past in and of itself is not a virtuous entity. The PBS film demonizes advanced technology, as if the modern world is somehow . . .
. . . burdened by these advances. It is important to note that how technology is used determines the benefits society reaps, as opposed to any innate attribute of it. There is no denying that inventions like the computer, electrical light, and tractor simplify once-grueling tasks. If the Amish conscientiously decide to forgo certain innovations, then there is no need to deride them. But to deride those who live the exact opposite ignores those who utilize technology for good.
The documentary discounts any individual Amish’s possible dissatisfaction with their surroundings. There is more focus on gardening and recreational activities than the psychological state of the documentary’s subjects. It would have lent more value to the film if the Amish were able to speak for themselves, even if getting the truth would mean keeping certain members anonymous. For a PBS documentary, the bar of objectivity is set pretty low.
No one is condemning Amish culture. Painting it as the Promised Land, however, is overtly biased and ignorant of facts proving otherwise. Glorifying a certain way of life, only because it seems exotic compared to the norm, is denigrating the real experiences of Amish men, women, and children. Of course, there are great lessons to be obtained from observing Amish society, but believing that this is all there is exhibits a lack of critical thinking. It is as if the documentary were looking at the Amish as a set of dolls, fitted with a dollhouse and toy carriages. This toy set exists for outer society to gaze at and admire, as they only feel nostalgia from children’s books and Biblical tales. Removing raw humanity from the Amish is both condescending and cruel.
The Amish: A People of Preservation is hardly a proper investigative piece. If this is the standard for examining a social issue and presenting it in front of a mass audience, then Americans as a whole are sorely misled. There is a lack of thoroughness and journalistic responsibility, not reflecting well on PBS’s pristine reputation. It is also disenfranchising the Amish, the exact opposite result of the documentary’s ostensible goal. The Amish should be able to speak for themselves, but the religion renders this possibility rare. They are prohibited from appearing on film. In addition, the religion forbids them from attending school past the 8th grade, they speak English as a second language, and the average Amish adult is at a 5th-grade literacy level.
Is there a solution? Until the Amish decide to endorse more expression amongst themselves, outsiders will continue to take advantage of their silence to garner high television ratings.
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