The Amish Bernie Madoff

Monday morning, Nora Flaherty reports on a new PBS film that explores the lives of modern Amish communities, including the growing network of families here in the North Country.

I’m fascinated by the Amish because they seem in many ways to be living out the dream that many Americans cherish, that of maintaining their lives in the model of a 19th or early 20th century small town.

This is the sort of Christian agrarian society that serves as the touchstone for many of our traditions and values.

The Amish don’t just yack about that way of life on the campaign trail, or make corny movies about it.  They actually walk the walk, standing deliberately apart from the rest of us in our onrushing, pell-mell, multicultural urban society.

Which is why it’s so fascinating to catch glimpses of where the Amish world matches — and where it defies — our ideals of America’s golden age.

This morning, the New York Times is reporting on an Amish businessman in Ohio who allegedly created a Ponzi scheme to defraud his neighbors that was every bit as pernicious as the one created by New York City sophisticate Bernie Madoff.

This postcard from a gentler and simpler America is about as unlikely a place imaginable for the news that broke in September: one of Sugarcreek’s own, a prominent member of what some people here call the Plain Community, was under arrest, accused by federal prosecutors of running a Ponzi scheme that betrayed his neighbors’ trust and wiped out more than $16 million of their savings.

The news media made the obvious comparisons.  The elderly defendant, Monroe L. Beachy, had been a respected financial figure in his community for decades — just like Bernard L. Madoff, the master swindler.

Mr.  Beachy is innocent until and unless he is proven guilty.  And obviously the dollar amounts are much smaller.  This is, after all, rural Ohio, not Manhattan.

But I think stories like this one remind us to tread carefully when we think about our rural cultural roots.  When we idolize, we forget the complexities.

When we romanticize, we forget that human temptation and frailty is a universal phenomenon, not an urban one.

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10 Comments on “The Amish Bernie Madoff”

  1. Jim Bullard says:

    When people (of all political and religious stripes) wax poetic about ‘taking back our country’ they are romanticizing the past. We have never lived up to the ideals of our founders. The founders didn’t manage that even as individuals. We are a country in the making, not one that was once perfect and somehow lost our way. The best homage we can give the founders is to keep progressing toward the ideals they espoused in our founding documents knowing that human frailties need government to keep them in check.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    Let the Amish live the way they want. Personally, I wouldn’t want it. If I want to romanticize the past, I’ll pick Matt Dillon and Gun Smoke.

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  3. Mervel says:

    It is fascinating because many Amish in the North country are here because of the worldiness of Amish “cities” such as exist in Ohio.

    They are human beings and they are sinful and will have problems like all of us do, I don’t think that changes their unique nature and importance and witness of the importance of rejecting much of what we English think is so important and vital.

    We should not idolize them or make them into cartoons, they are humans just like us, and that is what makes them interesting.

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  4. Mervel says:

    I do think certain groups salivate at trying to knock them down a notch ( not Brian in this article), just like we like to find problems with priests or monks or ministers or Orthodox Jews, or people who live in communes; or any group that rejects modern American materialism; it makes us feel better to say see see, its all a scam.

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Mervel, I don’t know about you but I am not English.
    Primarily I regard myself as an American but will admit to having 100% German ancestry Bavarian to be exact.Tomorrow night I’ll be watching NCIS having been in the best military branch, the Navy.

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  6. Dan3583 says:

    Right, Jim The wife and I watched Grapes of Wrath again the other night. Gee, I’d like to get back to the good ole days.

    You, know…when Newt was a moderate. See todays watertown Times for an interesting read.

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  7. Paul says:

    I always like that Billy Joel lyric:

    “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”.

    “maintaining their lives in the model of a 19th or early 20th century small town.”

    No thanks. These were terrible times on many levels.

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  8. Paul says:

    The Amish benefit greatly from the “modern” society around them so they really live in a kind of special bubble.

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  9. Ken Hall says:

    I live cheek by jowl with a number of Amish and find them pleasant enough as neighbors; however, I do have a few qualms concerning their right to live the way they desire sans interference from the English, as we are known to them:

    I have discovered that the Amish are very prejudiced especially toward African Americans.

    They are literally living the conservative ideal of keeping their women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen with an additional detail to the garden.

    They brain wash their children to an extent that if it were so practiced in public or private school systems I believe the courts would be awash in lawsuits to stop it.

    They are woefully undereducated as children.

    The children, by and large, are prevented from ever entering other than physical labor occupations by their minimal education.

    The shunning technique utilized to keep Amish in the fold is amazingly effective because it restricts contact not only with the Amish clique but with family members as well.

    My perception is that men are likely far more satisfied with the status quo in the Amish cliques than are the children and women.

    I personally understand not, why the Amish are excused from schooling requirements comparable to the other inhabitants of the States within which they live. In reality I comprehend that truly educated Amish would cause discontent in the community if the youngsters started arguing with the elders. Might be a good thing.

    I am sorrowful that these children are not allowed to become all they are capable of. No US Army “be all you can be” motto for them; all because they happen to be born Amish!

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  10. mervel says:

    I think they do fullfill the legal obligations for primary education in the US. I think they go through 8th grade, plus of course they learn a variety of skills that are actually far more advanced than we teach our kids who take vo-tech.

    However I also think we should not idolize them or set them on a pedestal, they are humans who are trying to live differently, but also have addicts and drug addicts and domestic violence and theft and sexual abuse and all of the other crazy stuff all human societies have, no more no less.

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