Thursday, June 19, 2008

We Like Sheep

The message in Georg Friedrich Händel's oratorio Messiah is slightly different ("All we like sheep have gone astray") but to the listener, those three words stick in memory. For an Englishman it might create a craving for a dinner of mutton, and when sung by one of the many truly excellent gay men's choruses, someone's wild imagination might bring produce other mental images. Nevertheless it is a great song, a catchy tune indeed.

Countries of sheep fall in two different categories. There are lands where the animals far outnumber people, such New Zealand (1 to 12) and Australia, with a slightly smaller ratio. I like to think a sheep farmer takes care of his flock for the wool, a great insulator, and not the meat, but unfortunately many young lambs end up on our dinner table. For instance, in Iceland meat production is the main purpose for keeping sheep, and perhaps that explains why the animals there are not very docile as, for a good reason, they don't trust the people. However, in a similar climate in the sparsely populated Falkland Islands, in the Southern Hemisphere, fine wool is their pride. Personally, I don't have a problem of having a domestic animal such as a cow ending up slaughtered when she gets old and her life is more pain than pleasure on the pasture and the farmer no longer gets milk from her. The same is true with an old hen which doesn't lay any more eggs. We are so spoiled in our quest for tender meat that we insist on growing animals in conditions where they cannot move and thus prevent their meat from becoming tough, more like that of a game animal. A Russian delicacy is to rip open a pregnant mother sow and cook the unborn piglets. I'm sure they are succulent but I'd rather put a tough old hen in a pressure cooker and enjoy the delicious soup, unless I decided to stick to a vegetarian diet.

The other category of sheep nations is the kind Händel had in mind where people end up behaving like sheep with their scared herd mentality. Countries differ a lot in this respect. America lives up to its reputation as "Sheep Country USA". Although at one point we were very much of a worker's nation, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley bill in 1947 (which President Truman tried to veto), unions and their members lost much of their power in the American society. Of course, those were difficult times with all the military men coming home from two fronts and not finding work as much of the industrial output had been geared towards making weapons and other supplies for the war. Socialism and communism seemed frightening with the Soviet Union flexing its muscle and conquering and occupying Eastern Europe as well as a third of Germany. Union leaders had to file affidavits with the U.S. Department of Labor declaring they were not Communist Party members or sympathizers. The U.S. Supreme court finally overturned that requirement as unconstitutional in 1965.

The independent, too-smart-for-us presidential candidate Ralph Nader stated in 2002: "Taft-Hartley entrenched significant executive tyranny in the workplace, with ramifications that are more severe today than ever. – It is past time for the repeal of Taft-Hartley". Most of us have experienced such tyranny in one form or another. Our unions have become weak and much of the work force isn't taking part in organized labor. Since Ronald Reagan delivered the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization a severe blow in 1981, most unions have been reluctant to go to that extent with their labor disputes, one exception being the Teamsters. We thought of the striking Hollywood writers as a big deal recently, although it only meant more reruns or perhaps presenting the viewers with older treasures they had never seen before. I had just immigrated to Los Angeles when studio musicians went on strike as their demands were not met. A new Local 47 member, I had to go and picket in front of the Paramount Studios many times during early hours of the day. Of course, no one honored the picket line and all the studios had their music produced overseas, in another city or even locally, in secrecy, by greedy union members themselves. I remember the studio scene upon my arrival in 1977 when one concertmaster X would say that if I ever worked for concertmaster Y, he would never hire me again. They were perhaps six of these people seemingly hating each others' guts. But then came the strike and all these individuals formed a wolf pack, playing three sessions of illegal gigs together almost every day. That taught me a lot about people and their principles, or lack of, in this business. After six months or so, the union had to accept an offer that was lower than the studios' initial one.

Much of the sheep mentality comes out of fear. Having been threatened by a cruel and inept manager that if a lawful grievance wasn't withdrawn, one's benefits and salary would be cut off immediately, very few employees have the backbone to stand for their rights. It is a well-known fact that most people are unhappy at their place of employment and they would leave if it didn't endanger their health insurance or income at least short-term. There have been enough horror stories of people and their dependents getting sick while the person in question has been between jobs. Fortunes can disappear in medical expenses and no private insurance is going to accept an application from a seriously ill individual. If we finally become like the rest of the civilized world and start offering people universal health care, perhaps we start acting more like our European, Australian or even Canadian counterparts. Just last week France was paralyzed by striking teachers whose jobs are threatened by President Sarkozy's proposed budget cuts. My first memory of a general strike in Finland was when I was just seven and had to learn to drink black coffee as no milk or cream was available for a month. Yes, strikes can be a nuisance and should only be used as a last resort, but at least everyone in other industrialized nations knows that such an option exists. If the seemingly powerful American Federation of Musicians couldn't help their Los Angeles local with labor issues, what makes a little "Prayers Organization" think that they have any say? Come contract negotiations, their wishes and demands are like prayers indeed.

There are ordinary sheep, some black sheep, and a number of rams, but also goats and stubborn Billy-goats that don't give wool and in the latter case even milk. They are all surrounded by sheep-dogs, which often enjoy their seemingly powerful status as the flocks' middle managers. On the top you have the humans, herds' CEOs and executives, who decide whether you will live or die, but also a powerful pack of wolves, coyotes and other blood-thirsty wild carnivores. We all know many of the latter surrounding the human sheep.

"The Flock" by Millie Ballance