Note: The past year has been an almost unbroken chain of some illness or another. Lyme will do that, it seems. I've spent the past few months—figuratively and literally—getting back on my feet, and had to set aside this writing in the process. Happily, I'm now able to draw that hiatus to a close. Welcome back.
Rudy and Viola live in a white steel barn surrounded by Iowa corn. Both are 32. Their six kids—the boys with bowl cuts, the girls in bonnets—play between the clotheslines and the garden. The youngest, covered in dust, a boy no older than two, wanders in umber dress.
I met Rudy and Viola on a walk over the weekend of the Fourth. My girlfriend and I had gone back to her home in Iowa to celebrate and mourn her mother, who died suddenly not long into the pandemic. The memorial—as with so much of our healing these days—was postponed. The weather was cool; cleverer farmers had planted early this year, their fields already high. It was a weekend of consolation and of pot-luck meatballs.
The Amish of my childhood in Missouri lived an hour or so away, and like those in Iowa were met with a mixture of fascination and contempt. They were, above all, a spectacle. In our world but not of it. The buggies hide those most vexing figures for Americans: White People Who Aren’t Like Me. The Amish (and, like them, the Mennonites) have become a novelty. Their Pennsylvania kin enjoy a thriving tourist industry built on handicrafts and the homespun. In nearby Cantril Iowa (pop. 267), the Mennonite-run Dutchman’s Store has swallowed an entire city block and, with its shelves of homesteading goods and local produce, puts any suburban Whole Foods to shame.
But locals are wary. The Amish are no saints, one always hears: they’re quick to use others’ technology when it suits them; they shirk on taxes (scurrilous urban legend has the IRS treating each of their houses as a church); and so on. Those who live in close proximity have none of the affection that drives the tourist trade. But their work ethic is appreciated, and the rest gets tolerated.
All this would have passed my notice had it not been the weekend of the Fourth of July, which of late invites lamentation in place of joy. Friends described how unfitting it felt to fête a country that continues to grind down its women, its immigrants, its gun victims, its ideals. A cheeky Twitter post from the British Embassy reminded us that we could have been Canada.
What, then, can we say for American goodness? Perhaps only this: That amid all our decay, amid the violence and growing distrust, there exists among our neighbors a society within a society, with their own dialect and rules for living, who nevertheless meet with nearly universal toleration. The Amish population has doubled since 2000. It flourishes. And in this, perhaps, we find the best of American liberalism: life as you choose it, with whomever you choose.
We will debate which freedoms to impose on these oft-illiberal communities. We will ask whether a pastoral modus vivendi is any ideal at all. But it is enough to appreciate its mere existence. Toleration is not our default, and the same country folk who fill their home with Amish kitsch extend far less civility to Black Americans with whom they share so much more.
Toleration requires laws and an ethos rarely in coincidence. That these coincide at all; that they’ve coincided here, in a state so ugly in so many respects; that in America one can not only disagree but also withdraw; we do not appreciate these facts enough.
Perhaps other nations have done this better. Perhaps we will do better still. I marvel that we’ve done it at all.