As we find ourselves pseudo-celebrating this year’s phantom Fiesta — kinda-sorta called off because of the Delta variant — the above-mentioned question, normally debated only by those in the animal husbandry biz, takes on a new and urgent resonance. Masks are becoming mandatory again; vaccinations can only be a few steps behind. With herd immunity for the new Delta variant now defined as 90 percent compliance, as opposed to the 70 percent its predecessor required, how else are we supposed to get there?
This being America — where inside out has become upside down — this has generated a level of soul searching that can only be described as gratuitously self-destructive.
Earlier this week, I heard from a union leader opposed to the school district’s imposition of a vaccine mandate. It constituted an infringement upon our inalienable rights, he argued. But the American people, he lamented, were sheep, and they would be led by the lying media.
A word he did not use — but easily could have when throwing down over our collective “sheep-ness” — was “sheeple.” To be honest, I’m sorry he didn’t. It’s clever. It’s clear. And it packs a punch. In two simple syllables, it makes its argument. You don’t get much more economic than that.
Since the days of George Washington, we’ve been told how sheep are forever being led to slaughter. They go so quietly and obediently into someone else’s long good night. At the time, Washington was expressing concerns about the fragility of the First Amendment.
In this rich tradition, who in their right mind would want to be seen as a sheep? In war of words and rhetoric raging over COVID, this stuff matters.
I would like to point out two things: First, sheep get a bad rap. They’re a lot more interesting than that. Second, the alternative to the sheep is the lemming. Lemmings are those tiny little arctic rodents that in the popular imagination are forever hurling themselves off cliffs in mass suicidal stampedes.
If “sheeple” like myself who mindlessly support mask mandates and vaccine requirements can be tagged with the label “sheep,” then the people doing the tagging need to be known for what they truly are: lemmings.
Like many of the live-free-and-die anti-vaxxers I know, the lemming has selected a peculiar survival mechanism: the art of being loud, garishly colored, and foolishly aggressive in the face of predators. By contrast, sheep — who, it turns out, can actually see what’s behind them — tend to trot quickly off to higher, inaccessible ground when threatened by a predator. Failing that, they band together into tight clusters of wool and mutton and let the big-horned rams take care of business.
In the world of rodents, most species take great pains to blend quietly into their surrounding as a defense mechanism.
Lemmings, by contrast, take great pains to do just the opposite. In fact, they look like a quilt your drunk, blind grandmother might have sewn together late at night. Their backs are a reddish brown. The hindquarters are bright yellow, better to aid sexual ingress and egress. Only their breasts are a snowy white. All the rest of the body is covered in a loud black-and-white motif.
A lemming, when confronted by a possible predator, barks loudly and angrily rather than running away and hiding. In fact, it will attack, even though doing so typically spells curtains for certain. Given their forbidding environment, lemming behavior is not as well understood as perhaps it should be. Back in the 1500s, scientists thought lemmings originated by falling out of the sky during stormy weather. Then, as science evolved, it was held that lemmings were delivered by the wind. How they got here was never as compelling, however, as how they left. For many centuries, it was believed that lemmings got so angry, they would literally explode. That, it turns out, is not technically accurate. But a lemming trying to scare off a potential threat looks a lot like an explosion of fur.
Mostly, lemmings are most famous for the long, forced suicide marches they allegedly take. According to popular science — and Walt Disney nature movies made in the 1950s — lemmings were forever hurling themselves off cliffs in mass ritualistic suicide; it was Jonestown in all ways, but without the Kool-Aid.
Scientists have since refined their understanding. It turns out lemmings don’t hibernate but live underground to stay warm. Having nothing else to do, they while away the hours mating up a storm. This gives rise to violent population fluctuations. When the carrying capacity of their underground bunkers are exceeded, the surplus lemming populations are evicted and sent off to find new territory. Sometimes this quest involves jumping into bodies of water, and often these bodies are too wide, and the lemmings never make it to the other side.
It should be noted that in the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness, the filmmakers hurled lemmings off a cliff from the back of the truck so they could shoot their “mass suicide” from down below.
No wonder people don’t trust the media, least of all lemmings.
The sheep, by contrast, are a different kettle of fish. They were domesticated about 9,000 years ago — just about the same time as cows. The untold history of the United States has been, in large measure, the class struggle waged between sheep and cows, or more precisely, between the industrial interests that propelled these two industries. It’s fairly obvious that the cattle barons won, hence the endurance of the ridiculous myth of the cowboy, the celluloid personification of American individualism. The victory of the cattle barons was so total — their cultural hegemony so sweeping — that even today, lamb is something most people eat but once a year, and then only slathered to death with mint jelly.
In the cow versus sheep contest for the American soul, it should be noted that 90 percent of bovine reproduction takes place through the interventional artificial insemination. Sheep, by contrast, still do it the old-fashioned way. Those in the sheep husbandry biz are not content, however, to simply let nature take its course; they meticulously track the comings and goings of their male sheep to make sure there’s no delay in their dalliances.
It gets pretty intense.
It turns out a male sheep that has four orgasms or less in a half hour is considered a reproductive slacker. Five or six is what the industry wants. Animal rights activists have, of course, objected, noting that this accelerated time frame leaves little opportunity for the requisite sniffing and foreleg pawing of the flank area, not to mention licking and nibbling that passes as foreplay in the world of sheep. For a male sheep to get properly amorous, he must also engage in something called “flehmen,” in which he retracts his upper lip to properly experience the taste and smell of the object of his affection’s urine. And then there’s the low-pitched “gargling” vocalization the male makes. Be advised: If you can hear it, you are officially standing too close.
Not that you asked, but it’s also the case that 8 percent of all domesticated male sheep prefer the sexual companionship of other male sheep. This, it turns out, is not just the case of sexual opportunism and loving the one you’re with. Researchers have determined such preferences last lifetimes. It’s more the case of “Brokeback Mutton.” The research giving rise to this revelation, predictably, generated a firestorm of controversy. Gay rights and animal rights advocates expressed grave concern that the research would be deployed as part of a broader effort to do away with ram-on-ram love by an industry intent on maximizing profits. And if they could “convert” sheep, people would be next.
In the context of this conversation, we learned the sheep are much smarter than supposed — they can distinguish the faces of up to 50 other sheep over a two-year period. They’re much feistier — they will kick, bite, and headbutt if need be, but they would rather avoid conflict if possible. And they are much more emotionally complex than supposed, experiencing the A to Z of emotions, running from joy to despair.
So it comes down to this: Would you rather be a sheep or a lemming?
To all you lemmings out there — the ones refusing to get vaccinated — the sheep have just one thing to say.