WASHINGTON POST 11/29/12
By Michael Shank
If anyone thinks that the Discovery Channel is about actual discovery of, say, science, history, space, or tech, as their Web site claims, think again. Or if you think that its sister company, The Learning Channel (TLC), is about learning new insight or information, you are mistaken. After TLC’s first run of the reality television show “Breaking Amish,” with paid persons assuming the roles of rebellious ex-Amish, the Discovery Channel has produced a more scripted “Amish Mafia,” admitting on their site that scenes are reenacted. The show, which airs in early December, brags a behind-the-scenes “first-ever look at the men who protect and maintain peace and order within the Amish.”
They are wrong. The only thing that makes this endeavor a “first-ever” is that it’s perhaps the most offensive production yet from Hollywood regarding Amish people, after a long litany of offenses, from “Kingpin,” “For Richer or Poorer,” “Amish in the City,” “Deadly Blessing” and “Witness” among many others. Unfortunately, this trend of Amish and Mennonite mockery is nothing new.
Since their Christian faith doesn’t support “graven images” (see the Ten Commandments), and since the Amish prioritize humility and view pride as a threat to community harmony, you won’t see Amish spokespersons appearing before the press to defend their culture from a Discovery or Learning Channel attack. For Hollywood, then, they make for easy attack and a prime target.
So who am I to defend them, and why did my blood boil to see “Amish Mafia” on the Discovery docket? The very people that Hollywood continues to heckle — Amish and Mennonite people — helped raised me in an Ohio farming town that “For Richer or Poorer” got all its clothing for the movie. I grew up Mennonite, knowing full well that the nudity scenes in “Witness” were an absolutely unacceptable portrayal. My father was a Mennonite preacher, as were both grandfathers, and the first Amish bishop to ever enter the United States was my sixth great grandfather – a far cry from anything Woody Harrelson cooked up in “Kingpin.”
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to shed light on in any closed religious community, especially those with patriarchal tendencies, like some, but certainly not all, Amish and Mennonite communities. Physical and sexual abuse, mental disabilities, and obsessive-compulsive disorders are not uncommon, for example. Furthermore, I’ve long wondered why America’s touristic and tokenized fascination with Amish-Mennonites prevents scrutiny of the veiling of their women in a way that is not present when scrutinizing women of other faith, notably Muslim women.
There is a deep contradiction in America. Women in Amish Mennonite communities that wear bonnets, coverings, etc., go unnoticed – by the liberal feminist eye – while Muslim women of equal cloth covering get castigated for being oppressed. From Pennsylvania to Pakistan, from cape dresses and coverings to the shalwar kameez and the scarf, there is often little difference.
But this December, American audiences will not discover or learn anything about that. No, they’re learning about a supposed Amish mafia — made up of boys, mind you, just look at the promotional pictures — that are supposedly, according to Discovery’s Web site, protecting vulnerable Lancaster, Pa., after a school shooting in 2006, by a non-Amish milk truck driver, killed five young Amish girls and seriously injured five more.
This is where the show becomes grotesquely offensive because here especially it veers completely off base. After the shootings, which were deplorable and deeply saddening, the community came together in a remarkable show of reconciliation and forgiveness. My mother, who is Mennonite and who lives and works in this community as a counselor to the plain people, can attest to how great the grief was but also to the bigness of heart.
The Amish did not want to respond, as Discovery intimates, by picking up arms against the oppressors, or in revenge. That philosophy is diametrically opposed to the strong and prevailing Amish Mennonite belief in nonviolence. In fact, at the time of the school shooting the national media were confounded at how nonviolently the Amish victims’ families responded. And while there are certainly renegades and outliers in every society, and young Amish and Mennonite boys who are hell-bent on misbehaving (and I count my younger self among these), to suggest that a community would somehow secretively or subversively rely on a “mafia” to keep the peace is a Hollywood producer’s basest pitch to a lowest ethical common denominator.
Discovery was definitely scraping the barrel with this one. Imagine for a moment if the Discovery or Learning channels did a similarly distasteful and disrespectful parody of America’s Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist communities and faith systems.
If Discovery were dedicated to documentaries that plied the painful parameters of these plain people, I might think differently, provided they were done with the intent of healing and not harming. But that is not the Discovery Channel we have here today. And there is nothing in “Amish Mafia” that remotely ranks as redeemable.
What a shame. There’s much to tell about the Amish and Mennonite communities. The stories are voluminous and varied and an American audience would enjoy the telling of them. Too bad Hollywood won’t be there for the discovery of it, nor America for the learning of it.
Michael Shank, who grew up in the Amish-Mennonite town of Kidron, Ohio, is an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and on the board of directors for the National Peace Academy .