Trouble in paradise

Sept. 1, 2007
Two of the largest Amish communities in the world are within a couple of hours of where I live. I developed an attraction to one of those areas in the

Two of the largest Amish communities in the world are within a couple of hours of where I live. I developed an attraction to one of those areas in the early 1990s and I try to visit — picturesque Holmes County — a few times each year.

On my last visit this spring, I stayed in one of the more remote parts of the region, hoping to spend more time along creeks and trails than on sidewalks in the touristy shopping areas. It is amazing how the encroachment of civilization (i.e., commercialization) has so quickly transformed this unspoiled land, especially along the main thoroughfares. Traffic jams and charter buses are now as common as the horse-drawn buggies that symbolize the Amish lifestyle, a continuation of an earlier time that keeps me, and an endless parade of others, coming back.

Staying in the boonies wasn't entirely a bad idea. It allowed me to get in some fishing as well as an evening walk highlighted by a close encounter with a wild turkey sitting in a clearing. I also had an encounter, unfortunately, with standstill traffic — driving to one of the nearby towns — and with throngs of shoppers marching like ants, store to store, in the hot sun.

It was in one of those stores, perusing the craftwork on the shelves, when I began to notice that the changes taking place in Ohio's heartland bear the destructive mark of globalization. When I first visited Holmes County in 1992, stores were few and far apart, and they predominantly carried Amish made goods. Now, gift shops are everywhere and although many have a rural or country theme, the connection to the area and its people often ends there.

Even in some of the original stores, I noticed that many “Amish” goods are now produced, of all places, in China. The merchandisers behind this are quite deceptive, too. In one case, a line of ladies apparel, the clothing tags deliver an elaborate story about the designer, a Kentucky mountain woman who's carrying on a family tradition of Appalachian fabrics and styles. The rest of the story — on tiny tags sewn inside — is that the Appalachian dresses, aprons, and bonnets are actually made nearer the Himalayas, in the textile mills of India.

A few of the shop owners — junk peddlers, to be more precise — don't even bother to cover their tracks. I walked into one of their stands, finding display cases filled with rub-on tattoos and bins overflowing with imported plastic toys. What's especially frustrating is knowing that, other than taxes, whatever these bottom feeders collect is forever lost to the local economy and, unless something changes, a portion of the profit is very likely to help fund another round of plundering.

America has a self-inflicted trade problem, and when it reaches the craft shops of Holmes County, Ohio, it has gone too far. If ever there was a canary in the U.S. coal mine, it is the Amish. When they can't sell their own products in their own towns, something must be done — and fast. Trade laws that favor the undermining of the greater good for the benefit of a few must go.

My startling epiphany in rural America reminds me of the scene in the movie, Dances with Wolves, where the Indian Chief asks Kevin Costner's Lt. John Dunbar, “How many are coming?” Prior to that, the old leader believed his people could accommodate the influx of settlers by simply moving to more remote regions. But Costner's response, “Like the stars,” halted his wishful thinking. In that moment, the Chief knew that the Native American way of life would soon end.

It's time we all wake up to the damage being caused by the influx of cheap products. You know it, I know it, even the Amish know it. We now need a leader who knows it, and who loves America enough to stop accommodating and start confronting the forces that put us in this situation in the first place.

If you have any ideas on this you'd like to share, please pass them along.

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