Home > Culture, Film, History, Religion, Television > Preserving and Reconstituting Community: The Interrupters and The Amish

Preserving and Reconstituting Community: The Interrupters and The Amish

A major consequence of our hegemonic post-capitalist order has been the fate of traditionally-constructed communities, which has ranged from gradual erosion to purposeful dismantling to aggressive, restrictive attempts at preservation. The concept of community, always already an amorphously-defined system of interrelations that is constantly reshaped and co-opted to purposes both inspiring and sinister, has not only been deconstructed by widespread corporate commodification, but community has become a commodity in its own right, with its own considerable symbolic value to be exploited by corporate marketing systems. The communities that have survived and thrived in the turbulent past few decades are the ones most inclined to integrate their identities into the dominant models of mass capitalization.

Two recent documentary films explore the highly divergent approaches of two communities that either cannot or will not commodify their collective identities sufficiently to become productive sub-orders in the global capitalist superstructure. Steve James’ The Interrupters was one of last year’s most acclaimed documentaries, and can be watched gratis online on the website of PBS’ venerable sociopolitical newsmagazine program Frontline. It focuses on a Chicago-based organization called CeaseFire, which employs the titular “interrupters” in an effort to curb the endemic violence in the city’s low-income, predominantly-minority communities.

The violence interrupters are mostly former gang members themselves with checkered pasts with crime, substance abuse, and the very pathologies that they are attempting to treat, and there is more than a suggestion of atonement and redemption in their choice of occupation on the streets that brought them low and threaten to do so for subsequent generations as well. Interrupters are sometimes mentors and sometimes something akin to addiction support-group sponsors. Now and then, they’re even direct conflict mediators, which can be dangerous: James’ cameras tail one of CeaseFire’s directors as he visits a staff member who was shot while attempting to defuse a violent conflict on the street.

Mostly, CeaseFire preaches patience and deliberation instead of hotheaded retribution, and the film explores the cases of members of the community that they’ve helped and others that they’ve failed to help. There is a note of bourgeois charity-capitalism in the organization that cannot be wholly dismissed, founded as it is by a white epidemiologist who considers violence to be another virulent phage to be treated with rational dedication and enlightened efforts. But the true role of CeaseFire and its violence interrupters is to reconstitute the sense of interwoven community values that have been so devastated in African-American and Latino neighbourhoods by the pitiless productivity demands of corporate culture. The capital worth of these communities has been so thoroughly drained that interpersonal ties are all that their people have left, and violent crime threatens to undo those ties as well. With touching fair-handedness, The Interrupters portrays a concerted if slightly idealist project to deflate the violence bubble with old-fashioned kindness, and to reconstitute some semblance of eroded communities in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find The Amish, a sober and intimate exploration of the famous German-American anti-modernity Anabaptist sect from PBS’ national history flagship American Experience (whose site also hosts a free streaming video of the film). Although most Amish will not appear on camera, many of them record their thoughts and experiences of their simpler life in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other regions, which form the soundtrack for a series of haunting long-shot images of their homes, farms, and the people themselves.

The simple eloquence of the documentary masks the extreme reaction to the forces of global capitalism represented by these restrictively anachronistic and theocratic Amish communities. Unlike other downtrodden American microsocieties like the decaying urban blocks of The Interrupters or the dilapidated rural spreads of Appalachia and the Ozarks, the Amish have, to some extent, beat back the demons of capitalism by firmly barring their gates to the outside world (which they refer to idiomatically as the “English” world). Their aggressively insular conception of community, where every moment of their everday lives is dedicated in worship to God and even the briefest privacy is an undesirable temptation, limits modernity’s influence and, to the Amish mind, preserves the sacred links of their community, which is, in and of itself, their church.

But even the Amish cannot, by theocratic decree, keep capitalism entirely at bay. Their young men often do not farm as their fathers and grandfathers have for generations, but work in “English” factories with power tools and other modern accoutrements in order to earn a living. In addition, the film opens and then closes with the incursions of busloads of tourists into the Amish heartland in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, bringing with them the attitudes of modernity as well as injections of capital. We see an Amish boy hard-selling quillows (quilts that become pillows, pillows that become quilts) to “English” retirees in a gift shop, then counting out their change at the register. Amateur inadvertent anthropologists come away with bags of indigenous craftwork trinkets, as if they emerged with treasures from a marketplace in Addis Ababa or Bangalore and not a rural stretch of the Keystone State. Anti-corporate counterculturalists may build up these religous dissenters as laudable resisters to the homogenizing imperative of globalization, but even in their purposeful upholding of an edifying archaic lifestyle, the Amish cannot cut capitalism out entirely.

These unique visions of community, of a network of associations worth either working hard and smart to reconsitute or crafting elaborate rules and regulations to preserve, have surprisingly more in common than one would guess. The Interrupters and The Amish are not all that different, ultimately. Both locate a conception of authentic identity in an idea of community that may be imaginary, desultory, or unattainable, but still motivates and animates their collective choices.

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