Here is a NY Times photo of the children of the Mullets—the Amish clan in Ohio where 16 members, led by charismatic elder Samuel Mullet Sr., went on a tonsorial rampage, cutting off the hair of many of their neighbors, whom they claimed were deviating from the true path. This has nothing to do with the hair style often referred to as the mullet. At least I don’t think so.
The photo above looks to me like a Bruegel painting.
Part of that is the similar dress, but a big part is the composition and POV, which seems to be a slightly elevated, psychologically objective view. Whether the photographer or editor was aware of this coincidence—consciously or subconsciously—and chose the picture and cropped it accordingly, is a puzzle. The prevalence of these similarities makes me think that there might be archetypical visual compositions we unconsciously gravitate towards. It’s not a new idea. John Berger, the writer and art critic, wrote about this phenomenon many years ago, noting the striking similarity between this picture of the murdered Che and the Rembrandt painting of an anatomy lesson:
Do we have artwork pre-existing in our brains? Have we evolved to find certain patterns and images more resonant than others? It sounds ridiculous when I put it that way, but these similarities occur over and over—the images are powerful, memorable, and iconographic.
Oliver Sacks, in his new book, Hallucinations, goes further. Sacks suggests that religious imagery and popular, powerful iconography come from neurological processes which are sometimes the result of damage or injuries or other phenomena that happen fairly frequently. The kinds of images the brain creates—sometimes abstract shapes and sometimes emotionally evocative scenes—fall into recognizable patterns. Angels, spiders, doppelgangers (some of whom are imagined to be bent on replacing oneself), witches and their cats, tunnels with light at the end, out of body experiences, fractured stained glass-type patterns, and cubist fragmented reality—they all, Sacks implies, have natural, though sometimes extraordinary, explanations. We often ascribe spiritual explanations to these phenomena, as they are so peculiar and moving—no other explanation is available.
Does this explain the similar composition in the photo of Che and Rembrandt’s Lesson? What about the seemingly elevated out of body POV in the photo of the Mullet children and the Bruegel painting? Are there neurological explanations as to why we find ourselves drawn to these images?
But back to the haircuts.
The folks who were inspired (but not directed, Mullet Sr. claims) by their elder all belong to the extended Mullet family, who live in a rural area of Eastern Ohio. They felt that some of their neighbors were straying from the path, getting too influenced by the “English” (their word for American mainstream culture), and needed to be punished as a way of getting them to straighten up. In Amish culture, as in some other religious groups, one’s hair and beard are sacred. They are not just hairstyles but symbols of one’s faith, and they are an important part of one’s personal standing in the community. To have them violated is a grave and profound humiliation, a disfigurement, a mark of shame. So, to make their point these enforcers kidnapped their victims and cut their hair and beards.
Obviously, as with the recent child molesting issues in the Brooklyn Hasidic community, they wanted to keep these matters within their community. They hoped that their system of justice would handle it quietly and no outsiders would catch wind what was going on.
Something went wrong in Ohio, though, and the haircutters got arrested.
Because of the profound effect these attacks had on the victims, they were considered hate crimes, and these people are facing serious jail sentences. As outsiders, we can understand punishing someone for kidnapping—that seems to be accepted as a serious social infraction—but haircutting? Look at those haircuts! In another context one might think that having an acceptable Amish haircut would be humiliating all by itself! One is asked to imagine the damage the hair and beard cuts did to those within the community and not just consider what they would mean to us.
A friend wonders what will happen to those dancing children. If all of the accused go to jail, then the whole community is not only left without moms and dads, they are left without caretakers and breadwinners—no sources of income. Won’t the communities then collapse, and are the children therefore being punished for the misbehavior of their parents?
Well, yeah, and my thought is “That’s what happens when a parent goes to jail.” The difference here is that this is a whole community that is being gutted, while we assume that other parents in jail result in isolated cases of families being destroyed, not a whole community. But that’s not true—the majority of dads in jail in the U.S. are black and Hispanic. One could certainly say that those communities have been similarly gutted, and that their children have been forced to grow up in extraordinary circumstances.
I tend to believe that one has to live in a way that doesn’t harm others, and that if harm is done then the society can be empowered to deal with it. That means that—in my view—gay sex, plural marriage, punk songs sung in church, and bad haircuts don’t really do any harm—probably none at all if both parties are consenting adults. But the kidnapping and lack of consent regarding the haircuts does indeed cross a line.
My friend, who is a mother, might see things from a mother’s point of view, and automatically think “What will happen to the children?” She might think that the long-term damage done to them is possibly worse than the damage inflicted by the kidnappings and haircuts. That’s probably true, but only because they were just—in our “English” eyes—haircuts. If these guys had physically maimed their victims or worse, then we’d feel that justice must be served to preserve the greater welfare and order of society—and possibly that the destruction of their community is justified as collateral damage.
Now we get into a really sticky issue—is the charismatic elder, Sam Mullet Sr., who didn’t participate and (he claims) didn’t encourage the kidnappings and haircuts, also guilty? The court says he helped plan the crimes, so he’s guilty of telling someone else to do something.
The fact that, like Charles Manson, he didn’t actually participate in the crimes, raises, for me, the question of free will. In its verdict, the court believes that the perps were obliged in some way to obey the suggestions of Mr. Mullet, and that they were therefore not in full possession of their moral and reasoning facilities. They are excused, in some sense, as it is accepted that they somehow felt that they had to commit these acts—they had no choice. It is assumed that our leaders have us hypnotized.
There it is. Do we have a choice as individuals? Could these guys have said, “Hold on a minute, we could get in serious trouble for this.” Or “Those guys are blasphemers, but disfiguring them isn’t going to help.” Could the Manson girls have similarly said, “No, we might be outlaws and outsiders, but we don’t kill innocents.” Do soldiers have a similar responsibility? We don’t hold soldiers on either side responsible for the murders they commit—we tend to hold their leaders, the Sam Mullet’s of their nations, responsible. (The exceptions are when the war crimes are committed by our side, as with My Lai or Abu Ghraib—then the little soldiers become the fall guys.)
I would like to believe that we all as individuals have the power to step back, examine our actions, and determine whether or not they adhere to, not just the laws of the land, but to a moral code that allows a society to function. What if, as John and Yoko suggested, our soldiers in Afghanistan said to themselves “Hell, they don’t want us here. We’re not doing any good, not really. Let’s put down our guns and go home.” Granted we might not know whether a product we buy is produced by child labor, but we certainly know when we’re kidnapping or killing someone.
Well, it’s not a soldier’s job to see the big picture and make individual decisions. If they did there’d be chaos and endless discussions on the battlefield or in the drone control centers. Like a sports team, the only way there can be success on the battlefield is if everyone pulls together and refrains from questioning the action. Cooperation absolves one of responsibility, it seems. If one wins a game, the whole team wins; if the team loses, it’s not one player’s fault.
Likewise, the overly strict Mr. Mullet assumes that he is helping the Amish community cohere, survive, and achieve spiritual unity by punishing strays. In his view, only by cooperation can the team “win,” and sometimes that cooperation needs to be coerced—as it does in the military (where deserters are often shot).