Tag Archives: sociology

Last glimpse of the Shakers

On Sunday I visited the last active Shaker colony in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After 271 years, the sect has two remaining members. I figured this was close to my last chance.


I first heard about the Shakers when I was about 13, on a radio program about their music. You’ve heard “Simple Gifts” in one form or another, but they have a rich body of thousands of songs. They range from slow meditations on humility:

I will not be like the stubborn oak
But I will be like the willow tree
I’ll bow and bend unto God’s will
And I will seek his mercy still.

to upbeat depictions to their namesake “shaking” worship through ecstatic dance and song:

Who will drink the wine of power
Dropping down like a shower?
Oh, oh, I will have it!
I will bow and bend to get it
I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting
Shake out all the starch and stiff’ning!

I wrote to the last colony of Shakers, and one Sister Frances wrote back to me. She sent me postcards of their sheep, and a copy of her memoir Growing Up Shaker. After I lost my religion, she was one of the few moral authorities I trusted. In high school I asked her how to handle the fact that a lot of the nice things I did for my friends and classmates were more intended to signal that I was a good person than out of deep desire to serve them. She said to keep doing good things, and the true desire would grow.

It was her death last year that made me realize it was time to go see the last colony.


The Shakers were a branch of the Quakers who split off and moved to America in 1774. They were known for their vigorous worship style and celibacy. The leader, Ann Lee, had been married against her will and had seen all four of her children die as infants. Lee reasoned that if “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), why not start living like angels here on earth?

A lot of the early stuff, especially their treatment of “Mother Ann” as the second coming of Christ, was culty and weird. They were just one of the radical political and religious movements that sprang up in England around the same time (the Levelers, the Diggers, the Quakers, the Ranters — catchy, right?) plus the various American utopian movements. For a while, every radical in New England seemed to be writing a manifesto and founding a communal farm. Between financial mismanagement, fires, scandals, impractical farming arrangements, and inability to pass leadership on to a second generation, the track record of communes is not really encouraging.

But history bore this one out. Ann Lee’s successors developed an organizational structure that would last the next two centuries (“villages” divided into “families” of 30-100 people, each led by a team of two male and two female Shakers). The ecstatic shaking and whirling became a marching dance, more suited to a society that had lasted long enough to include a geriatric population. In the 1780s they were meeting in the woods and living wherever they wouldn’t be beaten or jailed. By 1821 they had financial agreements for sharing property, a written covenant that members signed, organized division of labor, rules about how soon to leave your room after waking up, and standards for architecture down to what color the meeting house should be painted.


When I was 15, my family visited the Pleasant Hill Shaker colony (now a museum) in Kentucky. It’s a particularly beautiful set of buildings, and as we walked around the grounds my father was clearly worried that my enthusiasm for the Shakers would cause me to convert. He didn’t mention this worry overtly, but told me that when he’d interned at a methadone clinic, one of the clients told him that the best things in life were sex and heroin. “I haven’t tried heroin and don’t recommend that you try it, but I do think you should try sex when you’re older,” Dad advised me. (….thanks, Dad?)

This conversation didn’t exactly strike at the crux of my decision — it wasn’t the idea of celibacy that bothered me, but childlessness, the snows of Maine, and isolationism. In any case, I never seriously considered it.

I’ve always found the public’s emphasis on the Shakers’ celibacy rather than their communitarianism a bit odd. If anything, at least during the 19th century it seems like they may have been less sex-obsessed than typical Americans. Obviously there was some selection effect in who chose to join, and I’m sure there was some rule-breaking. A few years ago, the numbers fell from four to three when one convert left after 26 years to marry a reporter who’d come to interview members of the colony.

Pleasant Hill colony. There is another identical staircase on the other side of the hall so men and women each have their own.


The event at the Sabbathday Lake village this week, part of a Maine statewide “open farm day,” was essentially similar to any other day aimed at historical farm enthusiasts. There were people doing woodcarving, blacksmithing, and rug-hooking. There were tours of the barn, its huge dimness full of politely listening people. It felt strange to see the last vestiges of Ann Lee’s radical vision come down to antiquarianism.

It being Sunday, as far as I could tell, the two Shakers (Brother Arnold Hadd, age 58 and Sister June Carpenter, 77) were nowhere to be seen. I assume they were observing their day of rest inside their dwelling house.

I wonder what life is like for these two people, living in a colony that once housed 150. Shaker buildings were designed with symmetric doors and staircases so men and women wouldn’t touch each other, but also wouldn’t take precedence over the other — they could enter a room simultaneously instead of one group waiting for the other. I wonder if Arnold and June still walk each through their own doorway, if they still sit at separate women’s and men’s tables in the dining hall. They’re not married, but must share a kind of intimacy like that of any two people who expect to spend the rest of their lives together.

I hope they like each other.


Especially touching was the Boys’ Shop, where children’s dormitories and schoolbooks are preserved. Thousands of children were raised by the Shakers, either because their parents had joined the sect or, more commonly, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them. In the time before welfare and the foster system, if times got too hard you knew your child would be fed and educated with the Shakers. They’d live there until age 21, when they would either depart (with skills in woodworking, herbalism, orchardry, and the other Shaker industries) or sign the covenant and become a full member of the community.

In one room, a recording played narrating the childhood of Sister Mildred Barker, who was the spiritual and executive leader of the colony from 1950 to her death in 1990. When her newly widowed mother left her with the Shakers at age 5, Mildred contemplated running away home but was won over by the community and particularly an elderly sister she was assigned to help. By the time her mother returned eight years later, Mildred refused to go with her.

After Mildred reached adulthood and signed the Shaker covenant, she became a collector of the Shaker traditional songs. In the boys’ dormitory, one was going through my mind:

Little children, says Holy Mother
Soothe and comfort one another.

I left the colony with a few of the chamomile flowers from their herb garden in my pocket, and drove back home to Jeff, and to this one and her sister.

We made chamomile tea, admiring the yellow-green color the flowers left in the water. Jeff and I put the kids to bed. My heart ached for Ann Lee and her four dead children, and for all the children who had slept in Shaker dormitories missing their families, and for Mildred Barker’s mother losing her daughter not once but twice. I was grateful for antibiotics, and for welfare, that now prevent families from being broken apart quite so often.

And also warmed that these thousands of people over 271 years found a way to fight scarcity and injustice. They looked at a deeply unfair and imperfect world and shaped their reality to be more like the heaven they envisioned.


Grocery delivery in old kids’ books

I think of grocery delivery services as kind of a posh Silicon Valley thing, but old kids’ books and housekeeping manuals have made me think differently about it. Here’s a scene from Curious George Rides a Bike, 1952.

People are delivering mail, newspapers, groceries, and baked goods. The milkman has presumably already been by. In an era when 78% of households had one or no cars, compared to 42% now, this made perfect sense.

Given that our house has nine people and no cars, I think we can feel fine and even historically accurate about using Peapod.

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice

Thoughts on “I am Hutterite”

I just finished “I am Hutterite,” Mary-Ann Kirkby’s memoir of her childhood on a Hutterite colony in Canada and her parents’ decision to leave. It illustrated some points of Moral Foundations Theory for me: cultures really do value different things, and my culture’s values aren’t ubiquitous. Loyalty, authority, sanctity, and care are much bigger there than in my culture, and I think the resulting social cohesion makes them come out ahead in a lot of ways.

The big question of the book for  me was why the family would ever leave. The colony ran like clockwork, taking care of you from birth until death. New mothers have three meals a day delivered to them and are assigned an older woman and a teenager to help watch the baby. Children run in packs among adults who have known them their whole lives. Old and sick people have their needs provided and live in constant contact with their grandchildren and other family. Everyone has a job and three meals a day cranked out by the communal kitchen. New colonies split off when they reach about 150 people, so your social group is always below Dunbar’s number. The whole system has operated more or less like this for 450 years.

After the family leaves to live among “English” people, things seem a lot worse. They’re materially poor because they weren’t allowed to take anything with them. The father works grueling hours to try to earn money and social capital. The mother is isolated in a farmhouse taking care of seven children alone, rather than among her sisters and cousins. Coming from a society where everyone is assigned the same goods, the children have to learn to signal status to avoid their classmates’ torment (like by bringing home saran wrap from the trash to wash and re-use it so their sandwiches will look like the other children’s sandwiches).

The main reason for leaving seems to have been the father’s longstanding conflict with the colony’s leader, the worst effect of which was that the parents weren’t allowed to take a colony vehicle to the hospital where their two-year-old was awaiting emergency surgery, and the delay likely caused the child’s death. But weirdly, this doesn’t seem to have been the last straw for the family. It’s instead conflict about the colony finances, and the leader’s refusal to treat the father as competent to make business decisions, that seems to have been the main problem. (This article theorizes that the transition from unmechanized agriculture to modern methods where you only need one manager to run a large cattle or hog operation has raised attrition from Hutterite colonies, as most of the men are left without much to do.)

In some ways, this illuminates an additional reason to leave a very traditional, closed society: everything seems to have been the father’s choice. Even though leaving was pretty clearly worse for the other eight people in the family, his dignity seems to have been valued above their wellbeing.

I was expecting there to be an online community of ex-Hutterites decrying the sexism and authoritarianism of the system, like there is for the Bruderhof and other similar groups, but there basically doesn’t seem to be one. The most prominent ex-Hutterites‘ main criticism seems to have been that it wasn’t Biblical enough(!) and didn’t emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus.

Even if I knew I’d have better quality of life there, I can imagine it would be really hard to handle a sense of unfairness. I imagine the conformity is difficult or impossible for people with a strong wish for autonomy, queer people, and/or people with an intellectual drive that can’t be satisfied with education that ends at age 15. And I’m sure there’s abuse that goes more or less unchecked. The author mentions a bunch of other people who left, but the Hutterite birthrate seems to be high enough that they can lose a lot of people who don’t like living there and still have plenty of numbers.

The descriptions of the parents’ courtship and marriage also made me think about another way of life that’s unthinkable to those who don’t grow up with it: arranged marriage. The marriage wasn’t actually arranged — the mother chose the father over the man her family was pressuring her to marry. But because dating didn’t exist on the colony, they’d had only a couple of conversations and one letter when she made the decision. The fact that people in such marriages usually make it work, and often seem very happy together, seems to be testimony for the advice that marriage is largely about cooperating as a team rather than finding the one-in-a-million person that’s just right for you and hoping you always feel like going in the same direction.

Sociology of Morris dancing

I saw a post on an Effective Altruism board recently about group dynamics and how groups form and continue. Shortly afterward I was talking with a friend about how Morris dancing works, and thinking that Morris is actually a really interesting sort of social group.

In many ways, it functions like a sports team (members gather for practice on local teams to do an organized physical activity, then gather with other teams at larger events). Except most people only do sports in school, leading to constant turnover on sports teams. Whereas many Morris teams have the same team members for decades.

So I wrote up some things about how Morris teams work, because it may be interesting to people thinking about how groups “gel” in the first place and how they survive long-term.

This is about Morris in the US; I don’t know much about how it works in England or other countries.


Age of teams:

Morris was taught to American schoolchildren in the early 20th century, disappeared for a while, and then was re-introduced in the 1960s. The first men’s teams started in the 60s and the first mixed and women’s teams in the 70s. So most teams are between 40-0 years old. All the teams I’ve danced on have at least one member who was there at or near the beginning of the team.

Number of members:

I’ve seen teams ranging from 2 people (who danced jigs together after splitting from a larger team) to my current team which has maybe 35 people that sometimes come to practice and 15-20 people at any given practice.


There are single-gender and mixed-gender adult teams, with a few teens’ and children’s teams. Some adult teams have one or two children on them. American teams tend to attract college-educated white people with hippie-ish tendencies. The quip about contra dancers applies fairly well: “The women are all social workers, and the men are all computer programmers named Dave.” At an event when my mother was pregnant with me, she did a skit speculating which of the Bluemont Morris men might be the father: “I know he was about this tall and had dark hair and a beard . . . ” (describing my father and virtually all the other men on the team).

Teams tend to be bi-generational, with some baby boomers who have been dancing since the 70s or 80s and other members in their teens or twenties, often the children of folk dancers. I have always liked having a multi-generational group of friends; as a teenager it was refreshing to know adults who treated me as a peer.

I think most adults of my demographic don’t have a same-sex social group, and a single-sex team seems to be something that a lot of people enjoy. I heard one man describe his team as his fraternity (which, as a gay pagan hippie, he was unlikely to have had in college).


Most teams meet weekly for at least part of the year (often taking summers off). Practice usually lasts about 2 hours, with time for stretching and kvetching. Team members often gather for beer or ice cream after practice. A few teams are geographically scattered and only practice occasionally but mostly just perform a few times a year.

Teams may perform several times a year with just their team, often at festivals or events that will pay them. They likely also dance at larger gatherings of Morris dancers, called ales, several times a year. (This won’t interest non-Morris people, but I found Tony Barrand’s piece on the invention of the ale to be fascinating reading.)

Ales are celebratory weekends of performing, eating, drinking, and often camping outdoors. They aren’t officially competitive in nature, and there are no winners or prizes, but teams do make an effort to show off for each other. People who don’t come to practice all year will show up in the spring season in order to get ready for ales and other events where they’ll dance with other teams. More on why ales are fun.

Socializing outside dance events:

Teams may gather for social events (potlucks, “drinking practice” at a bar) aside from usual practices. They may host parties, baby showers, etc. for members. If a person wants Morris dancing at their wedding or funeral, their team or other dance friends will usually do so.

I’ll just say that when I was pregnant, I did not let my relatives throw a baby shower because that seemed like it would be awkward and weird. I did let my Morris team do a potluck dinner/shower because it sounded like fun. And it was.

How people join

People join either because they have friends who dance, they saw the team performing, or they grew up around Morris. Of the young women on my team, at least half of us have parents who were active in folk dancing.

Smaller teams that are desperate for able bodies will probably take just about anyone. Larger teams may have some sort of admission process, but I’ve never seen this actually followed.

Why people leave

Reasons I know people have left teams:

  • They broke up with their partner who was on the team
  • They were told their dancing wasn’t good enough and asked to leave
  • They didn’t want to be on a team where other people were kicked off for not dancing well enough
  • Strict attendance policies (being told off for visiting one’s mother in the hospital rather than coming to practice. Supposedly this is why the person left to found a new team altogether.)
  • Favorite team member left, feeling the team won’t be fun without them
  • Difficult to take young children with them to events (including one reportedly quit because no one would hold her baby while she went to the bathroom.)
  • Children don’t want to go to events (this is why my parents quit from when I was about 5 to about 13, at which point I wanted to dance)
  • Knee and ankle problems

And reasons for conflict within teams, even if not leading to people quitting:

  • Artistic differences (e.g. if one dancer is not dressed like the others at a performance, should we all not dance, or just go ahead? Should less-apt dancers dance at performances or be sidelined?)
  • Conflict about teaching/managing style, feeling that the leader is too controlling
  • Taking sides in conflicts between couples
  • Generally getting on each other’s nerves

Morris is physically demanding, and teams often dwindle more due to decline of physical ability to jump around than from lack of interest. But members may continue as a social unit even if they’re not dancing together. One team had enough people for seperate men’s and women’s sides in the 1980s, combined into a mixed side in the 90s, and is currently a supper club because they don’t have enough people who are well enough to dance. Another team has a rule that you never actually leave the team, and even members who no longer dance at all still join the others for beer after practice.

Schisms within a team can be very painful. People have known each other for years, and feelings get very strong. My home team splintered when I was 14, and I remember it feeling like a miniature divorce, with people not speaking to each other and long tense meetings about what to do.

Starting new teams

Reasons for founding new teams:

  • There was no team in the area
  • Existing team wouldn’t let you on it (because they had too many people, or you were of a gender/gender identity they didn’t accept)
  • Starting a mixed team because you did not like the idea of single-sex teams
  • Left your old team for some reason and still wanted to dance

Who founds new teams?

  • People who have danced on other established teams before
  • People who have gone to workshops at summer camps, etc.


A team’s leadership consists of a foreman (who teaches dances and is the arbiter of style points), a squire (who organizes events), and a bagman (treasurer). Women’s or mixed teams may call these roles “fore,” “squire”, and “bag,” rather than gendered terms. Some teams have more than one fore, each teaching different kinds of dances (e.g. Catherine teaches Adderbury dances and Cora teaches Fieldtown).


Team members usually pay dues to cover the cost of practice space.  Events such as ales charge for food and lodging. Musicians are not normally paid unless a team’s usual musician is unavailable and they need the services of another musician – in which case the musician’s travel, food, and drink costs would be covered by the team.

Relationships outside the team

Most Morris dancers do not have partners who are also Morris dancers. More often partners either aren’t interested at all, or come along for social events such as ales. In the early days of American Morris, it was still very much a men’s event and women and children were sometimes made to feel unwelcome. I no longer find this to be the case; particularly as they’ve now seen a second generation of dancers join, I find people are excited about me bringing my daughter to events (often with stories about their child’s first night camping at an ale, or the cute Morris imitations their three-year-old used to do).

early morris

My parents preparing to dance, early 90s



Why don’t poor people move to somewhere cheaper?

Sometimes I hear friends speculate about why poor people continue to live in expensive places like Boston, rather than moving to the country or another city where cost of living is lower.

Some speculations:

Less experience with travel. By the time I was 18, I had visited much of the Eastern US, plus England. My family could afford to do things like drive to Disney World, stopping in towns along the way. I visited colleges all over the northeast. My children’s choir had done a trip to New York City. I had an idea of what those places were like, and I knew some people in other places. Whereas I get the impression that most of my clients have rarely, if ever, left the Boston area.

More localized social networks. I went to a magnet high school, so I knew people from all around the metro area of my city. Then I went to a liberal arts college that drew from all over the world, with the result that I now have classmates everywhere from Pittsburgh to Karachi. If I wanted to start over in a new city, I would lots of people who could help connect me with jobs, put me up while I looked for an apartment, etc. If I had gone to neighborhood schools and not gone to college, I imagine I would have fewer friends in other places.

Some of my clients grew up in “street affiliations,” which is sometimes like a small gang but sometimes just more of a social affiliation. I didn’t even know people had groups based on the actual street they live on. I knew a worker at a community center in West Philadelphia who said she ran into a lot of resistance because she grew up several streets away rather than on the actual street where she worked. So even moving neighborhoods can be a big deal.

More dependence on family. Most of my clients describe e.g. staying on their aunt’s couch when they have nowhere else to go.  If they moved to a place where they didn’t have family, they’d lose a major resource. So moving to a place where you don’t know anyone, and particularly where you don’t have family, is a non-starter.

Transportation. If you can’t afford a car, living in a rural area (or most suburban areas) is not viable. You need to live somewhere with public transit.

Moving costs. Moving to a new area requires transporting yourself and your family, transporting your belongings or acquiring new ones, staying someplace while you look for an apartment, paying a deposit and a month’s rent for an apartment, time unemployed while you look for a job, and finding someone to watch your children before you even have a job so you can go to job interviews.

Legal requirements. Poor people are disproportionately likely to be involved with the legal system. Moving probation or parole to a new state is difficult.

Children. My impression is that a lot of low-income parents depend on their parents or other relatives to help with childcare, which makes perfect sense. Childcare costs around $200/week (the cheapest I’ve seen listed in the Boston area, on a sketchy-looking Craigslist post) and take-home pay working 40 hours at minimum wage is $293/week. Moving away from free childcare would be crazy.

If you share custody with an ex-partner, how will visits work? Can you afford to drive the kids from Western Mass to Boston each weekend to visit the other parent? Or shuttle them back and forth to the other parent for summer vacations? Maybe not.

Also, uprooting children from their school and neighborhood is never easy, regardless of class.

More reliance on word-of-mouth rather than internet. If I moved to a new place, I’d be pretty confident finding my way around with Yelp, Google Maps, Meetup, job search sites, etc. I have the impression that my clients use the internet mostly to stay in touch with people they already know in real life, and that they wouldn’t be very familiar with how to use it to navigate a new social environment.  This one is just a guess.

Feeling safe

Kim Brooks’ “The Day I Left My Child in the Car” describes her experience being charged with a crime for leaving her four-year-old in her car for a few minutes on a cool day.  She quotes Lenore Skenazy, who was hailed as “the worst mother in the world” after writing a piece about allowing her nine-year-old to go home on the New York subway alone:

“Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger.

It’s not like this everywhere.  In Denmark it’s common to see babies in prams left on the sidewalk while parents are inside a store (partly because the buildings are old and often have steps going up, not exactly stroller-friendly.)  A Danish couple found out the hard way that this is not a normal American practice after they were jailed for child endangerment after leaving their baby in a stroller outside the New York restaurant where they were dining.

Americans who spend time in other cultures often comment on how much more communal child-rearing is in some places.  In many places, if you bring your child to a family gathering or community event, many adults there (perhaps mostly the women) function as caregivers.  A child running around such a gathering can expect to be comforted, fed, and disciplined by any nearby adult and not only by her own parents.

Attachment theory suggests that children who have a secure attachment to a parent or other familiar caregiver will feel safe and confident enough to explore a new environment and interact with strangers.  The theory deals only with the child’s feelings and behavior, but I wonder about the ways a culture affects mothers’ feelings of safety.

At a group for new mothers, I heard another woman say she had spent months almost constantly in her baby’s presence.  “I didn’t even want to be on a different floor of the house from her to use the bathroom.”  I was amazed.  While I spend much of the day in close contact with Lily — sleeping beside her, nursing her, carrying her — I didn’t feel a need to personally supervise her every moment.  I had been leaving her with her father, aunts, grandparents, family friends, etc. since the first weeks of her life.  It seemed the only sensible way to wash my hair, get a nap, or go to a doctor’s appointment.  And it was easy for me because I felt part of a tribe of competent adults.

Like a child who feels safe enough to explore rather than clinging to mother, I felt safe enough in my family to lengthen my baby’s tether.  When other people are holding her I actually supervise her more than I feel a need to, because I don’t want people to think I’m a bad mother.

I don’t think Americans’ fears are serving us well here.  (When I say “Americans” I guess I mean the WASPy culture I grew up in — I’m aware that there are cultures within the US where parenting is more communal.)  Parenting is crazy-making enough.

Old-fashioned pleasures

I spent the weekend at a gathering of 200 or so Morris dancers doing English folkdance in the Vermont countryside. It rained and snowed. We had a great time.

And it had me thinking about why Morris is such a delightful occupation, because it doesn’t sound that fun. It’s hard to explain to people: “We wear costumes and jump up and down. We have sticks and bells.” At times during the weekend I heard dancers joking, “Why do we do this? What a stupid hobby!”

sword dancing in the rainIMG_5277

But Morris is also significantly about hedonism. At a Morris ale (a gathering) people spend perhaps 1/3 the time actually doing or watching Morris dance. The other time is spent catching up with old friends, drinking beer, eating, singing, social dancing, playing tunes, and enjoying the countryside.  People stay up until dawn singing and playing music with their friends.  (Sex is perhaps the only primal pleasure that’s underrepresented at Morris ales, due to physical exhaustion and lack of privacy. But also that ales are about large group interaction, and isolating with one other person would feel kind of wasteful.)

dancing for fun after dinnerIMG_5236

I notice a conflict between two lines of thought that I often hear: the reactionary strain says human life is pretty much as it has always been, and we’d better glean the best from the past rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The other, progressive strain says that we can do better, and that change is good.

In some ways, progress has clearly made Morris better than it was.  The dance itself may be medieval,  but I’m very glad to be living in the 21st century.  Women weren’t really welcome in certain styles of Morris dance until the 1980s, and there was significant conflict over what their role could be. That dispute is largely past, and it’s hard for me to believe there was a time when women and children weren’t welcome at events like the one I just went to.

Toronto Women’s Sword performs in a pubIMG_5265

But it also seems that a Morris gathering taps into some things that run very deep in our mammalian heritage.  It combines things that have made people happy for a long time – socializing, showing off for their friends, physical exertion, alcohol, good food, and song.  It’s hard to beat the old-fashioned pleasures.

In the words of one favorite pub song:

Eating and drinking are so charming,
Piping and dancing there’s no harm in.
All these things we take delight in,
While we are together.

Let union be in all our hearts,
Let all our hearts be joined as one.
We’ll end the day as we begun,
We’ll end it all in pleasure.

On ostracism

Today I heard a radio story about the Amish and was thinking how well their community functions. They’ve very deliberately chosen family and social cohesion over convenience. They have low rates of crime, substance abuse, and obvious discord. Crime or drug use by Amish is likely to make the news precisely because it is so rare.

They’re not a dying breed – quite the opposite; their population is constantly growing. I can’t find research on whether the Amish are happier than other people – part of me wonders if the pressure to conform affects their quality of life. But given that social connection is strongly correlated with happiness, I’m guessing they’re at least as happy as other Americans.

But what happens if you’re bad at being Amish? You are shunned, temporarily or permanently. Part of how the community does so well is sampling bias – bad Amish stop being Amish.  And some stop being Amish voluntarily – supposedly 15% of young people leave the community.

I was also reading an insightful list of Geek Social Fallacies and was struck by the one about how geeks hate to ostracize people like they have been ostracized.  “Nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate.”  Or, as Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, well-kept gardens die by pacifism.  He recommends ostracism for keeping a community in good order: “It’s a large world out there and there are literally hundreds of millions of people whom you do not want in your community, at least relative to your current ability to improve them.  I’m sorry but it has to be done.”

And yet it feels so yucky.  It makes my community better, but what happens to those people after they’re expelled?

But maybe I’m worrying too much.  You might be bad at being Amish, but maybe you’d be good at city life.  Maybe you drive everyone at Less Wrong crazy and you might fit in better at the local meetup for tango dancers or organic food enthusiasts.

Of course, there are people who are actually really bad at fitting into any kind of civilization, and some of those people are my clients at the jail.  It’s not pretty.

(Returning to the topic of therapy for niche cultures, there is a therapist for Amish people!  But he’s not Amish.)