pulling the wool over 2015: the return of the zombie sheep

01Jan17

life insuranceThe first bit of this post about the Year of the Sheep dates from two years ago. I was trying to get back to posting regularly, but in the end the work/life overload interfered with that idea, just as it always seems to do. In any case, I’ve wanted to return to this post for ages and somehow finish it out. The first day of the Year of the Fire Chicken seems as good a day as any to do that.

Here’s what I already had written, two years ago:

Japan, which switched from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, has been celebrating the Year of the Sheep since January first, but for those countries that continue to clock the new year based on the cycles of the moon the Year of the Sheep officially began yesterday, on February 19th.

I’ve been away from this blog for awhile now, but the new year seems like a good time to start all over again.  I still haven’t finished any of the major projects I’ve been working on, but who can resist posting images of sheep dressed as barristers who are trying to sell you life insurance?  I’ve written before about the Japanese propensity for puns, and this set of roly-poly sheep are entirely representative of the genre. The writing at the bottom of the pink inflatables says 「あんしんセイメイ」(pronounced “anshin-say-may”) and the translation in a life insurance context would be something like “safe life.” But there’s a pun hidden in there as well, because in Japanese sheep don’t say “bah” — instead they say “may.”  “Say” is an English word that many Japanese will be familiar with, so in this case the セイメイ section of the advertisement can be read as “say ‘may'” or “say ‘bah.'” Since sheep are the animals that say “may,” then surely the only logical thing to do is to use images of sheep dressed as barristers in an effort to convince people to purchase life insurance.  Obviously.

Sheep get a bad rap, metaphorically. Viewed as the embodiment of complacency and the “herd mentality,” being a sheep is looked down upon as the epitome of weakness.  Perhaps no one is more popularly associated with disdain for the herd than Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously placed his Übermensch (the ‘Overhuman’) on a plane of existence somewhere far above that of the rest of us.

I was going to finish up this blog post by showing how Nietzsche’s dictum could be reversed, how in fact there are immense social strengths to the ‘herd mentality,’ not the least being the success of herd immunity when it comes to such awful deadly things as diseases like smallpox. I was going to point out that all knowledge is social knowledge, developed en masse, and that the distinctly individualistic sense that the Übermensch may have about his own thinking is irrevocably dependent on the thinking of all the others that the Übermensch so blithely assumes he’s risen above. I was hoping that 2015 would be the year of the sheep rebellion, the year when the sheep would rise up against oppression as in the brilliant video mashup above in which scenes from the 2006 zombie sheep movie Black Sheep have been soundtracked with Pink Floyd’s famous woolly tune, “Sheep”: “Have you heard the news? The dogs are dead!”

So all very fun and tongue-in-cheek, in a way. But 2015 was not the year of the sheep rebellion. Instead, it was another year in a seemingly endless train of wars and militarist expansionism: 2015 saw the rapid growth of the Islamic State, the cementing of the Assad/Putin alliance (leading eventually to the destruction of Aleppo), the beginning of the civil war in Yemen which has resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths at the hands of the Saudi Arabian air force (supplied with both weapons and intelligence by the US), and that’s only the start of what has become a very long list. This violence has helped to bolster already existing authoritarian regimes and the effects of this violence – especially the refugee crisis in Europe – have been used by right wing ideologues to gain tremendous amounts of power, including within the United States.

In the 2014 movie American Sniper, the protagonist – Wayne Kyle – famously, and controversially, says this: “There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.” This analogy is clearly troubled. There may truly be wolves who are out to prey on sheep, but the role of the sheepdog is misunderstood here. The sheepdog doesn’t work for the sheep: sheepdogs work for shepherds, and shepherds fleece their flocks for profit. What sheep need isn’t a sheepdog to protect them, but rather the herd power to fight for themselves.

If the last few years have seen the rise of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps it’s time to offer the idea of the sheep in human’s clothing as an antidote. We are neither predators, nor prey, but rather a civil body that needs to act, en masse, to reverse the rightward tilt of the political axis and make sure that the green commons are still around to produce that shared bounty of grassy roughage that is the power source of all great ruminant societies.

a sheep in wolf's clothing

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