I must say it is very striking to be living in a place where bearded men seated on buggies drive horses by at all hours of the day and night. We are now situated in one of the Amish districts of Ohio, the state which, in fact, has more Amish people than any other state. The area is by no means uniformly Amish: the Amish own many of the local farms and houses, but not so many as half, and the rest of the population probably resembles the population of any other rural district of the Midwest. I use the term “Amish” inexactly, as it would be used in New York City, to refer to the farming peoples of America, of Germanic ancestry, who speak German, practice a pacifist Christianity, and strictly limit their use of modern technologies. But the broader term is probably “Mennonites”: the Amish are a breakaway group of Mennonites, and are stricter in certain ways. From the outside the resemblances are more striking; I am told, however, that greater familiarity exposes the diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, and dress.
As a whole, they do not appear to have principled objections to all technological innovation per se: but neither do they believe, as we generally practice, that all technological innovations are good and to be adopted. And so they drive horses and buggies, but the buggies have electric taillights and headlights. There are certainly excellent reasons to reject the use of automobiles, not only for communitarian reasons but also for ecological ones. But those reasons apply less forcefully to the plastic taillights, and so the taillights are permitted. I presume that this is because it is legally required to have them in order to use the roads — and probably safer when you are in a slow vehicle sharing the road with cars. The Amish houses show a similar difficult-to-predict patchwork of technologies. Most do not have electricity, but many have vinyl siding.
I have been told that the predominant factor in their decision-making is the effect the new technology would have on their community. They are willing to put headlights on their buggies, but not rubber tires. Using rubber tires would put their own wheel-makers out of business, while they never had any tail-light makers; they can come up with no compelling reason to adopt rubber tires; and they are apparently happy with their wheels as they are.
All kinds of prudential exceptions are made for people in special circumstances: midwives, for instance, are permitted the use of cars, and also cellphones, because their line of work requires speedy travel and fast communication.
I might have thought that the Amish would be “early to bed” types, but buggies go by our house at all hours of the night. The hooves of the well-shod horses clatter on the roadway, and the metal-rimmed wheels make quite a roar coming up the hill. It’s a sound I know primarily from movies: and sometimes, sitting in the house, looking at the fire, hearing the clatter of hooves on the road, I think I could by force of will move time backwards a dozen decades: but then I turn to watch the buggy go past, and see the red taillights in the darkness, and at the edge of the horizon, the orange glow of a fracking platform. It’s 2015 all right. But there is something strangely beautiful about the existence of these people, who in their communities have really gone their own way, and tried to stay out of everyone else’s business. They all practice pacifism and reject military service: during World War II their men were drafted nevertheless, and put to non-military domestic tasks, but their pacifism was respected. They farm, make food for market, and log and build for money: but otherwise they wish mostly to be left alone, and in this country they mostly have been. In Europe they were long persecuted; but here they have long been mostly let alone. They now number in the hundreds of thousands, mostly in the Midwest.