Gold Digging

To relieve the mangled up snarl of sadness, fear, and loneliness where my internal organs used to be after dropping my daughter off at college, I’ve been watching television. When I can see the screen. Despite this feeling that the world is ending, I just don’t have the tolerance for much of the drivel that passes for entertainment these days. After a night of Amish Mafia on Discovery, I tuned in again for an escapist viewing of Gold Rush: South America. Those who don’t know me personally (and some of those who do) may be surprised to learn that I have panned for gold myself—not religiously or regularly, but with occasional serious hopes of solving my financial woes. Watching Todd and his group of guys setting up sluice boxes in the remote Andes and equatorial jungles has almost a pornographic attraction. The earth gives us what we need. Of course, gold’s main function in antiquity was being used in religious settings—whether making gods or decorating their priests—and that gives capitalism its drive for precious metal even today.

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Mining is not so simple as it seems. You do have to research claims and find out who has the “rights” to property before you begin prospecting. There is a kind of wild-west feel to it, and claim jumping is still a crime. While watching the Gold Rush guys run into disappointment after disappointment, it still bothered me a bit how quickly the solution seemed to involve destroying the ecosystem to find the shiny rocks. Excavators had to be driven through the jungle, trees knocked over, and when the camera longingly lingers over a huge gash in the ground for an industrial gold operation, all the crew can say is what an impressive sight such a deep hole is. When they mention gaping holes, however, I feel there is something missing deep inside my own soul, and I wish they’d just stick to panning.

After many trials and tribulations, they find gold worth $50 a yard. They locate the claim holder and negotiate a deal. Todd’ll move his operation from the frozen Klondike to the sunnier climes of Guyana. As the camera pulls back, the guys gather into a little knot for a word of prayer. Yes, this crew of tough outdoorsmen bow their heads and ask the Almighty to help them find gold. If only it were so simple. The prosperity gospelers would have us believe that the divine wants us to be wealthy. If it was that easy, though, reality television shows would never last more than one season. And besides, some of us would trade every material thing we have to turn the clock back just a few hours or days to live them all over again just to fill in the great void that follows the inevitability of growing up.

Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.