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The Roots of Exclusion

Garth Brown |

This is the second part of a series I am writing about land ethics, agrarianism, and how we should think about the places we live. You can read part one here.


The most successful agrarian group in contemporary America is without a doubt the Amish. About 90% of children who are born old order Amish will remain so, choosing a life without television, cell phones, personal cars, or computers. Less obvious than the lack of material conveniences but perhaps even more at odds with the modern understanding of what constitutes a meaningful life is their repudiation of self-determination. After marriage Amish women are overwhelmingly wives and mothers, with perhaps part time work as a school teacher. Men have a broader range of potential occupations, but jobs are menial and ideally agricultural. Clothing, hairstyle, schooling, and the eligible pool of marriage partners are all determined by the community.

The extremity of these differences has been heightened by the rapid advances of the past century. Adopting a new technology requires a near unanimous vote by all the adults of the community, which makes it extremely difficult to change the governing rules, or ordnung. One important criteria is the extent to which something novel, whether it’s a hydraulic log splitter or a bedside lamp, will diminish the community as a whole, either by discouraging face to face socializing or by making labor so efficient that there isn’t enough work to go around.

But on a macro level the restrictions as a whole do as much to strengthen the community as the particulars of what they prohibit, and communities of Amish and other plain people have a considerable range of acceptable technologies. What they share is a rule that makes the distinction between them and the larger world crystalline, and this clarity is the foundation for a powerful group identity. The choice is stark and all-encompassing, because being Amish circumscribes every facet of life. It might be possible to move to a community with a laxer rule, but there is no way to be half Amish; members who persistently live in violation of the ordnung will be shunned until they correct their behavior.

All groups are exclusive to an extent. Affiliation to a religion, political party, or even a particular sports team, such as the superbowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, usually fosters feelings of fellowship with other group members. But these are all parts of a large, more or less pluralist society. While they may put some limits on conduct or even occupation, some can overlap and all can coexist. The group identity of the Amish is so robust that it largely precludes such involvement with the broader world, and it derives much of its strength from its preference for the human over the technological, the simple over the complex, for the rural over the urban. In other words, it is a truly agrarian identity.

A central conceit of agrarianism is that a group develops practices suited to itself and to the land by living in one place. People who have not lived on the land as part of the group cannot have the same connection to it. As Wendell Berry says, a farm that a family has owned for three generations is more of a family farm than one like mine, which has changed hands several times in the recent past, and thus lacks hereditary wisdom.

The tension here is obvious. The valuing of personal history in a place and genetic ties to the local community makes for an uneasy relationship with not just new ideas but also with the new people who usually bring them. It can be put as a positive question: how can the preservation of traditional ways of doing things, informed by a place and practices handed down for generations, be squared with a spirit of openness? Of course, this is only a problem when inclusivity is considered important. There’s an uncomfortable coherence to the idea that the best way to preserve the traditions that have developed in a particular place is to exclude anyone who doesn’t share them. Agrarianism is proudly parochial, and while this local-mindedness may not inevitably lead to explicit xenophobia, it certainly can.

Amish aside, there aren’t many people living by and espousing truly agrarian principles in the public discourse, though sentiments with roots in the notion that living close to the land builds good character echo in the claim that rural America is real America and in the perception that city dwellers are universally out of touch, coastal elites. This promotes a loose tribalism, rooted more in a caricature of other people’s failings than in the sort of programmatic prescription for an authentic life offered by agrarianism. But there is one area of modern life where something much closer to it is increasingly prominent.

Like agrarianism, nationalism argues that a healthy society should be organized around the common goals that arise from living in a shared geographical area with a shared history and ancestry. In this broad a form the ideological link is tenuous, but much contemporary nationalism shares a more particular logic with agrarianism. Richard Spencer argues for segregated geographic regions organized around racial and cultural heritage. Renaud Camus follows Berry’s argument about the importance of generational knowledge to an obvious, though troubling conclusion; if people born in Africa can never appreciate the life of a French village as fully as native sons, and if their presence dilutes the essential Frenchness of the place, then there is good reason to keep them out. These men are not the ideologues of explicitly agricultural movements, but their fundamental views of what human value is, how it should develop, and how best to preserve it closely parallel agrarian thought.

The success of the Amish at convincing a huge majority of their young people to choose such an ascetic life speaks to the power of a group identity set against the larger world. With their emphasis on humility, pacifism, and simplicity, they are not interested in founding the sort of ethno-state advocated by contemporary nationalists. Neither is there likely to be a massive flow of nationalists from cities back into the country in search of a more authentic mode of life. But the agrarian argument for the link between people, place, history, and culture is being used to promote a racist movement, and like the Amish this movement's success arises from its exclusivity and its proud divergence from the mainstream.

This is a real challenge to those of us who believe the specific should not always be subordinate to the universal. Even the Amish, who are as accommodating as so extreme a group can be, have several practices that are at odds with a liberal conception of individual rights: women are even more limited in their choices than men and often subordinate to them, children are only educated through eighth grade, members are excommunicated if they fail to adhere to rigorous strictures. When advocating for local governance and the value of traditional ways of living take a hard look at who is included in a particular conception of community and who is left out.

Garth Brown

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