A few months before the 2016 election, the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Paul Noth that has become iconic. It shows a wolf in a suit on a campaign billboard over the words “I am going to eat you,” while nearby one grazing sheep says approvingly to another, “He tells it like it is.”
What’s interesting about that cartoon beyond its prophecy is that it came from the left. For more than a generation, charging Democrats with being “sheeple” to the lockstep of political correctness has been a core tactic of conservatives and their libertarian apologists. The first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell was, after all, a fluffy thing named Dolly, prone to being herded and led, not a vicious lone carnivore howling in front of a full moon. The cultural implantation of the sheep/wolf metaphor gained traction with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and hoofed along to the Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 blockbuster for which Donald Trump supposedly requested a role that wasn’t just a walk-on.
And it’s not just that sheeple can be easily overcome by force that so enrages the right. No, say the Red Pill-ers serving as the “intellectual” precursors to QAnon: it’s that they allow themselves to be gullibly fooled (like lambs to the slaughter). Sitting beside a Biden/Harris campaign poster last December, Tucker Carlson had this to say before Starbucks released its holiday cups: “These people seek absolute sameness, total uniformity. You’re happy with your corner coffee shop? They want to make you drink Starbucks every day from now until forever, no matter how it tastes. That’s the future they promise: everyone doing the same thing.”
Does that mean the millions of Americans who religiously buy their coffee from McDonald’s or Dunkin are not all doing the same thing every morning? What about the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of bros buying mushroom coffee online because of Joe Rogan? That’s how to be your own man? The many millions who constitute Trump and Fox Nation are avid followers who loathe and attack the very idea of following. Propaganda gets no more successful than this: inculcate within your lock-steppers a hatred for anything that looks like lock-stepping among anyone they can otherize.
America’s sheep aversion is not surprising given that the story of western civilization is the story of sheep. With few ways for individuals to protect themselves, these gregarious animals who stay close together have adapted to humans exceptionally well. But for white settlers to the new frontier nation, sheep were yesterday’s metaphor. Jefferson’s yeoman land-grabbers were shopping for something new. Sure, their democracy promised fairness for the many, but more so it promised “freedom” for the individual—freedom to grab first and be unlike anyone else. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, coastal elite of the first order, despaired of a life where he’d do nothing more than “plod along with the multitudes.”
The “all that” to which the colonists said goodbye was basically a shattered history of sharing. Enclosure—Parliament’s elimination of open fields and common land in England between 1604 and 1914—denied commoners access to 6.8 million acres of public lands that they had used to survive. Grazing flocks of sheep on the common field was the heart and soul of the English pastoral identity.
The Sheep Wars in the American West were a sad echo of this commoner legacy. Between 1870 and 1920, cattle men fought sheep herders over public grazing rights in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and other states. All parties were supposed to “share” on a first-come, first-served basis this land that their democratic nation had stolen from native inhabitants. But sharing wasn’t acceptable to the white cattle owners and the cowboys they hired, who charged the mostly Native American, Hispanic, and Basque immigrant sheep herders with destroying vegetation. John Muir famously called sheep “hoofed locusts.”
Cattle-ranching was the investor-driven stock market of its day; sheep-herding was the labor-intensive work of subsistence: we all know how this story had to end. The cowboys’ attacks resulted in the slaughter of over 100,000 sheep and the toxic legacy of winner-take-all—white male aggression as progenitor of four-chamber, ozone-destroying methane machines. This fighting legacy lives on not in the unsustainability of longhorns but in the unsustainability of fossil-fuel-powered riding mowers keeping hundreds of thousands of square miles of empty lawns shorn of grass. Its poster cowboy is Rand Paul and his six broken ribs. If it’s true that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” it’s the earth of August 2021—ravaged, pillaged, and left for dead by the Trumpian winners.
It’s quite the irony that these sheep-hating winners of the right put wolves in their sites just as mercilessly as they do sheep—hunting them with assault rifles from the cowardly distance of a helicopter. Perhaps it’s because wolves, too, need their packs for survival. A better spirit animal for any human of the Don Junior caliber is a hyena or a jackal—the solitary figures skulking on the margins after the full deployment of “American Carnage.”
I think the real reason haters of progressivism seem to hate sheep is the animal’s symbolism for loving kindness in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus Christ is the proverbial “Good Shepherd” on all those Christian-themed plumbing calendars, holding the lost lamb he’s just found under the briars. But the humility of the faith dictates that Christ is also “the lamb of God”—both precious possession and something to be “sacrificed” (i.e., slaughtered) for the good of all people. Jesus would certainly give you the shirt off his back just like sheep give you the wool off theirs. This duality of strength and vulnerability confounds the Trumpian world to no end.
Growing up Catholic, I always hated the biblical connotations of sheep because their role in any narrative was getting killed. They were a commodity, a form a currency. I hated seeing their noble little forms depicted on stained glass. Instead, I loved the bucolic secular renditions—the cotton balls glued to colored construction paper. I loved that the sheep cloned in 1996 was named after Dolly Parton. I loved Nick Park’s A Close Shave, where Shaun the sheep wears a sweater made of his own wool. And I love the Twitter feed maintained by the family of Dick King-Smith, the Babe author, who share things like this.
I thought it an apt coincidence that the unveiling of one of the restored panels of the famous Altarpiece at St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium—thought to have been designed and executed by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the early 1400s—occurred on January 24, 2020, right before COVID took off. This central panel—“The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”—caused a stir on Twitter among people with no expertise in art restoration. They didn’t like that the restored face of the Lamb now had large frontal eyes gazing directly at the viewer—human eyes.
At some point in the 1500s, a painter or painters had reworked many of the Altarpiece panels, giving the Mystic Lamb—whose heart spews a stream of blood into a chalice— the look of the demure animal we know from nativity scenes. The panel unveiled on January 24th restored the van Eycks’ Lamb of God, the loving yet piercing gaze of Jesus Christ, aware of his sacrifice, of the violence done to him, asking a world on the cusp of a deadly pandemic, “So what have you done for humanity lately?” §