Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Amish and Hollywood

I was deeply disturbed last week at the news of the shootings in the Amish school in Pennsylvania. When I turned on the television that morning and caught the headline, I immediately thought it some sort of tasteless joke. A shooting in an Amish school? This is carrying mock-journalism too far.

Then, as I continued to watch, I became increasingly dismayed. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and the Amish were never far from my youth. I was fascinated by them as a boy, and came to admire them greatly as an adult. I made several trips out to Lancaster County in an effort to make their acquaintance and understand their values. I met with bishops and common farmers, and read and wrote about the culture. I had planned to make a documentary film about them, but I took to heart the lesson urged on me in my last visit: To respect them and leave them alone.

I never viewed the Amish as quaint or picturesque, or even as odd. I saw them instead as people engaged in an enormous struggle - a struggle against the encroachment of modernity into the world of faith. 'I can resist anything but temptation,’ Oscar Wilde said; well, the Amish have chosen to insulate themselves as far as possible from temptation, understanding that few of us - themselves included - can resist it.

To be left alone by what they call the 'English' world is all that the Amish have ever really asked. Recent reports of abuse within the community only served to remind me that they are, after all, merely human like ourselves. But unlike ourselves, they have chosen, generation after generation, to live 'the way we believe God wants us to,' as one bishop said simply to me.

But finally, it appears, the world came crashing into their isolation, in the form of an angry little man with a score to settle, and guns to settle it with. The product of violence himself (as it appears from the accounts), he transported that violence into the most peaceful precinct of America. In the midst of a private nightmare, he invaded a communal dream, and the victims, as they so often are, were children. Amish children, brought up from birth to love God and practice peace, were gunned down execution-style in a school the existence of which was mandated by the state. We did not leave them alone. We cannot leave them alone. Because we cannot stop hurting ourselves.

What do I mean by this? That the culture outside the Amish world is sick and bloated with violence. And much of that violence, oddly enough, appears in the form of entertainment. Violence as entertainment; brutality as diversion; killing as fun: these are the very kinds of values which the Amish seek to exile from their lives, and from which they struggle against great odds to protect their children.

But it is not enough to isolate yourself, not enough to withdraw from the general culture, not enough to put your faith in God. The bogey men of popular culture will hunt you down and find you and devour you as surely as Michael Meyers does, even after he has been killed and burned and buried. On he comes, in movie after movie, and not even death can stop him. For he is more than death, greater than death – he is entertainment.

For this I feel ashamed, and for my part in it, as a screenwriter, I feel a brine of guilt adhering to my flanks as it would to a rivet in a cruise ship hull. For I am one of the fastenings in the ironplate of popular culture that enables the vast engine to steam on. I am helping to make this sort of thing possible, by modeling violence and cruelty and unkindness in my work. I and the industry for which I write are debasing the behavior of Americans just as surely as the penitentiary hardens criminals.

The captive audience of popular culture emerges from years of media brutality believing in the efficacy of violence, and accepting the inevitability of it in their lives. The capacity for shock is beaten out of us on our screens; the dismay reflex is blunted; shame becomes as quaint to us as an Amish buggy. The only real emotion that we feel is relief when we reflect that we have not yet been mugged, we have not yet been murdered. We do not expect to be safe in this society; we hope only to be lucky. And when that luck runs out, as it usually does, we are not in the least surprised.

In entertainment, the gun is portrayed as the solution, if not in the long run, then certainly in the short. It has become our nickel-plated God, the final arbiter of all discord, the one friend upon whom we can always rely. In violence we trust, and as a result, we are changed. To be human means to act inhumanely. To be a man means to become an animal. To be alive means to kill.

In the days of the temperance movement, early in the last century, when our culture awakened from its habitual daze long enough to understand that alcohol was the most dangerous drug of all precisely because it was so commonplace and so widely accepted, it was popular for people to ‘take the pledge.’ That meant making a solemn promise to refrain forever from its use, for the sake of oneself, one’s family, and the larger society. And people did take the pledge, and wore symbols to show it to others, and to encourage them to do likewise.

I want to take the pledge now: That in my work, I will not model or glorify inhuman behavior so far as it is possible to do so. Granted, we must write violence, even grave violence, when the subject matter calls for it. Neither ‘Hamlet’ nor ‘War and Peace’ could exist otherwise. But I want solemnly to pledge that I will not seek out violence and inhumanity for the sake of their impact alone, and that I will never display them in my work simply to make a buck. And I want to ask my colleagues in the entertainment business to do likewise.

I want those people who make films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ and ‘Saw,’ and ‘Hostel' to stop doing what they are doing, because they are doing it to the culture, and, worse, they are doing it to our children. They are teaching a lesson about the validity of violence for its entertainment value, about the fun aspects of inhumanity, about the primacy of death, which is degrading our way of life, and endangering us all. For if even Amish children are not immune from its effects, then who among us can put a head on a pillow at night, or tuck in our little ones, with anything like tranquility of heart?