Beardless in Barnesville

Getting Plain at the Second Luddite Congress


| July-August 1996



As I pulled up in my rented car to the historic red brick house in Barnesville, Ohio, on April 13 for the portentously titled Second Luddite Congress, my expectations weren’t very high. After all, the only neo-Luddites I’d ever run across were either publicity-seeking intellectuals who typed their pro-simplicity manifestos on laptop computers as they jetted from one conference to the next or fumble-fingered technophobes enraged by the complexity of their digital watches. And, of course, seeing the mug of Unabomber suspect and neo-Luddite legend Ted Kaczynski plastered on newspapers everywhere and having to listen endlessly to Weird Al Yankovic’s spoof “Amish Paradise,” which was in heavy rotation on the radio, wasn’t helping. Every stinky back-to-the-lander in the country is going to be here I thought as I rounded the corner of the building . . . and froze, stymied by a vista that confirmed my worst fears.

My God, what an unruly collection of beards! Ratty Quest for Fire beards, free-flowing Deadhead beards, tousled Walt Whitman beards, kooky Kaczynski beards, hipster goatees circa San Francisco 1958, and dozens of untrimmed, Quaker “peace” beards affected by the most studiously “plain” folk in the crowd. Also, everyone—from the punk who was so pierced he seemed perforated to the serenely bonneted Quaker women—was wearing those little round John Lennon glasses, not to mention a depressingly practical assortment of hike-the-Appalachian-Trail-and-construct-a-cow-barn-in-your-spare-time shoes. My own urban-chic, hopelessly ironic look—smooth chin, Malcolm X tortoise-shell glasses, bilious maroon suede Converse All-Stars—was out of place here. I had seen neo-Luddite utopia, and it was sensibly shod, nearsighted, and hirsute.

All the beards had gathered in Barnesville to lay the framework for the congress itself, which would convene two days later—exactly 184 years to the day after the original Luddites, a ragtag band of weavers and artisans who tried unsuccessfully to undermine the Industrial Revolution, held their first and only convention in Nottinghamshire, England. The purpose of the second congress, which was being sponsored by the publishers of the pro-simplicity Plain magazine, was to come up with the neo-Luddite Statement of Means, a manifesto on how to reduce the overwhelming power of technology over our lives.

In general, I was surprised by how commonsensical and moving the opening session’s speeches were, but as the participants began to respond, it seemed that everybody had an ax to grind. The audience grilled self-appointed neo-Luddite spokesman Kirkpatrick Sale about which machines he’d used to write and publish his books, challenged bioregionalist author Stephanie Mills and Thoreauvian farmer-essayist Gene Logsdon on whether just living off one’s own land is enough, and excoriated writers David Kline and Art Gish, who live in “plain” Christian communities, for the perceived sexism and exclusivity of their lifestyles. Agnostics grumbled at the Christian rhetoric of some of the speakers (mild though it was); political activists mocked do-it-yourselfers; and city dwellers scoffed at farmers. Only midwife Judy Luce, publisher Bill Henderson, and the Internet-skeptical physicist Clifford Stoll escaped attack, but that may have been because they all spoke just before the breaks. The fact that four of the morning session’s five male speakers wore beards—three of them peace beards—left me wondering whether I was just being brainwashed.

At dinner that evening, after chatting with a Philadelphia man who encourages religious congregations to “anoint the boiler” of their place of worship (in an effort to promote energy consciousness), I decided that, despite some obvious ideological differences, there was one thing that united everyone in the building: fear of hypocrisy. Apparently, we had all internalized the prevailing cultural attitude that it is selling out to voice even the slightest concern about the encroachment of technology without simultaneously having your electricity shut off. (This point of view is eloquently demonstrated by the mainstream media coverage of the congress, by the way.) Everybody seemed to be eyeing his or her neighbor’s Simple® brand clogs and thinking, “Well, how did you get here, Mister Luddier-than-Thou? Walk? I don’t think so!”

But a mutual edginess about the H-word is not enough to unite a movement. How on earth were all these prickly individualists supposed to arrive at a single Statement of Means? The congress, like almost every other activist event I’ve ever attended, seemed futile, and I began to long for my hotel room back in Wheeling, West Virginia, and the TV with unlimited cable channels.