Modernity, Capitalism, and Nostalgia in Ohio’s Amish Country

Berlin, Ohio

If there’s one thing Americans embrace and reject in equal measure, it’s modernity. In the world’s most mega-capitalist society, modernity has always accelerated at an absurd pace, as the demands of the profit-driven marketplace have continually spurred ever-more complex technological innovations that have repeatedly caused massive social and political disruptions in American society — all in the name of efficiency, of course.

There’s a place in north-central Ohio, however, where the pace of modernity — at least on the surface — seems to have slowed down a bit, if not ceased altogether. Holmes County is the heart Ohio’s Amish Country. The most notable residents of Holmes and the surrounding counties are the various factions of Amish and Mennonite peoples. In fact, Holmes County contains the largest contiguous Amish settlement in the world. Depending on their doctrinal and cultural traditions, Ohio’s Amish people seem to reject the trappings of modernity — with its endless work, slave-like reliance on technological gadgetry, and soul-melting stress.*

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Faith, Nostalgia, and Hurricane Capitalism

Battle Creek, Michigan used to have factories. It doesn’t have many of them anymore. As The Guardian’s Chris Arnade writes in his profile of Battle Creek’s disenchanted voters, “with the economic backbone broken, with hope in the future dimming, faith has become more central as a source of community, solace and hope.”

American society has reached a very real tipping point. Capitalism’s creative destruction has left millions of people with nothing more than amorphous notions of “faith” to lead them through the penury-stricken Land of the Free. Those just retiring are hoping to scrounge together what little benefits they have left, while those just starting out are facing the bleak reality of a future without any retirement at all. If you were a betting person, however, you’d know that rolling the dice on faith usually means giving away your chips to the House.

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Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

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Christmas is for Capitalists: The Bourgeois History of American Yuletide Ideology

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise fumes stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

Christmas has always been excessively commercial. Sorry, Charlie Brown.

The middle class is a big deal in American society. Last year, America’s ever-observant punditocracy, including southern-fried campaign guru and Gollum look-alike James Carville, harped endlessly about how corporate Democrat Barack Obama and Montgomery Burns stand-in Mitt Romney waged their electoral battle royal in the name of the American middle class. President Obama dived head-first into this quadrennial tradition of bourgeois boot-licking, blowing past Romney in terms of the number of times he mentioned the phrase “middle class” in campaign speeches.

American politicians universally exist as servants/toadies for the country’s oligarchs, but they nonetheless pepper their campaign rhetoric with appeals to the middle class because bourgeois identity may as well be considered “American identity.” Want proof of this? Look no further than Christmas.

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Tricks, Treats, and Shopping: America’s Halloween History

Americans have turned Halloween into a consumerist golieth.

Halloween allows Americans to do two things they love: shop and break Puritanical taboos.

Halloween. It’s a holiday anticipated and embraced with equal fervor by kids craving an unmitigated sugar rush, by adults looking for an excuse to dress up like creepily-eroticized pop-culture characters, and by dentists craving sugar-induced high insurance deductibles.

Halloween is a big deal in America today. For a hyper-materialistic society that long ago replaced agricultural rhythms with consumer totems as markers of the seasonal cycles, the first appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in shopping centers signals the transition from summer to fall. Moreover, American society is rife with contradictions created by major disconnects between ideals and reality on issues ranging from marriage, to sex education, to economic mobility. Halloween’s emphasis on duality and the inversion of traditional social customs appeals to Americans caught up in these webs of contradictions because it effectively sanctions misbehavior and the inversion of “traditional” norms. In this respect, Halloween — at least temporarily — validates Milton’s famous line that “it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

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Of Foliage and Farms: The History of Fall in American Culture

The Fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. Its also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

The fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. It also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

Americans love the fall season. Every year when September rolls around, a cavalcade of autumnal objects invades every facet of the landscape, filling up cities, towns, villages and farmhouses like so many occupying corncob cossacks, and we welcome them with open arms — and wallets. The symbols of the fall harvest include pumpkins, apples, corn stalks, hay stacks, squashes, scarecrows, and deciduous foliage lighting up the countryside like timber sparklers; flashing copper, orange, gold, and yellow flares to the bemusement of camera-armed Sunday drivers.

As a people seemingly born with an innate need to shamelessly commodify absolutely anything, Americans have turned fall into a multi-million dollar industry. Each year, they celebrate fall by spending piles of cash at orchards, farms, harvest festivals, and at businesses situated along the foliage-lined byways. Even the booze industry has reaped the rewards of Americans’ love affair with autumn, as fall-themed hard ciders have experienced a mini-renaissance alongside the already exploding craft beer market.

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Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the 19th century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

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“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

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The Battle of Canfield That Wasn’t

Union Army Civil War Reenactors Prepare an Infantry Assault at Argus Park, Canfield, Ohio

Union Army Civil War Reenactors Prepare an Infantry Assault at Argus Park, Canfield, Ohio

A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.

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