When In Doubt, More Cowbell

1. Baby It’s Cold Outside

Punch “more cowbell” into The Urban Dictionary. and you’ll get:

“1. Something everything needs more of.
2. A remedy.”

And then you’ll come across the immortal words of The Bruce Dickinson:

“I got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell!”

The reference is from one of the great SNL skits, a parody of the recording session of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper”:

“In the skit, [Will ]Farrell portrayed a member of the [70s] rock band Blue Oyster Cult as they recorded their classic hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in the studio. Farrell played the cowbell quite forcefully on that track, much to the dismay of the rest of the band. Yet surprisingly, the studio producer loved Farrell’s cowbell playing, and demanded:

That was brilliant, man, the track needs more cowbell!”

The idea at the heart of this skit—the remedy that everything needs more of—is a prime example of ideology[1] revealed (or exposed) through popular culture.[2] Likewise, the idea that the ultimate cure for an ailment or problem is necessarily more of what has already been tried (with unclear results, or, sometimes, plain failure) has evolved into an essential facet of post-Cold War cultural values.

Years before Bruce Dickinson got immortalized, in 1994 the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand also opened with “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” But the setting was violently different—this time a secret underground military facility, “C’mon baby, I’m your man” sounding so eerie and chilling as the camera lingers over dozens of dead bodies in crisp white lab coats.

We, the good guys, had amassed enough chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to destroy our species several times over, yet we kept constructing these horrible devices as if one more germ or hydrogen bomb would tip the balance in our favor, would win a war that in many ways was already over.

Surely America’s Cold War mindset and ideology followed the logic of more cowbell.

A generation after the collapse of The Soviet Union, the logic of more cowbell propels the kind of overdrive that only the shamelessly triumphant can celebrate without thinking critically about what’s being celebrated.

“More cowbell” is part of our way of life now, and our way of seeing our way as the best and only way, so much so that I seem to hear cowbell a lot more often than I’d like.

2. The Phantom Victory

In this analysis, we can make out a few features that are common to ideologies and actions to which “more cowbell” applies:

1) When a solution to a problem isn’t working as well as expected, such that more of the same solution is ordered, instead of less, or a completely different solution.

2) The nature of the solution is an expression of a particular set of unscrutinized beliefs—an ideology—such that only a narrow range of options or solutions are possible. Though some potential solutions are “thinkable” and others are “unthinkable,” the difference between them has little to do with their merits. Rather, extreme solutions that fit a particular “more cowbell” ideology are thinkable (“bombing the shit out of them,” for instance), whereas less extreme solutions from different or opposing ideologies aren’t considered.

3) The stakes are always high for the more cowbell approach and its proposed solutions, yet elites who implement them rarely pay high prices for failure. Indeed, in these cases, acknowledging failure is worse than failure itself, as it bursts the protective bubble around ideologies that can’t justify themselves and elites that can no longer make compelling cases for their status and privilege.

There’s a real phenomenon here, so I’m starting a new project code-named “More Cowbell,” because I’m becoming more and more aware in public affairs of “doubling down” as seemingly the only coping mechanism possible, even when one’s plan has been exposed as an abject failure.

My first example is the War On Terror:

3. The Shadows In The Cave

We Are at War


“Some 24 hours after the massacre in Nice, France, as families and friends mourned, and security officials scratched their heads, we heard something surprising and necessary: agreement. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each said, “We are at war.” “– Observer

The Observer’s editors agree with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s sentiments. But they go further, chastising other leaders who don’t rattle their own sabers so loudly:

“Many Americans and Europeans may not want to hear, much less believe, that we are war; President Obama has done his best to minimize that perception. And France’s prime minister, in the immediate aftermath of the Nice attack, said, “We will not give in to the terrorist threat.” But then added, “The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism.”

We choose not to live with terrorism. The time has come to take on this challenge to modernity, to democracy, to pluralism with everything we have. That means intelligence, force, diplomacy, and yes, perhaps even nation building.”

The editors go on to state that terrorism poses an existential threat to our culture, immediately forcing one to question whether The War On Terror really means that “we” are “at war.”

Saying that our civilization, the same civilization that defeated both the German Reich and the Japanese Empire, is threatened by terrorism is like saying that barbarians were an existential threat to Rome. What’s certainly not said is that Rome collapsed under the weight of an empire it could no longer sustain. Likewise, in our time, with so many challenges ahead that we can only dimly comprehend, western civilization is a greater threat to itself than Middle East terrorism ever could be.

So “We are at war” is nothing but cowbell. A lot of it.

Currently conceived, there’s no way that this war on terrorism can be won. We’ve set the circumstances of this particular kind of war up that way, with impossible goals and success conditions such as “the terrorists only have to get it right once; we have to get it right 100% of the time.” And we’ve put a system of global capitalism in place that generates unprecedented prosperity for The West while it alienates large swaths of young, angry men throughout the Middle East, many of whom can be easily radicalized by a book, and then a bomb.

Leaders have presented no clear idea of what the end of the War on Terror looks like, or how to get there. The end of this war is thus a meaningless idea, evidenced by how we don’t even challenge politicians and generals on how it will be achieved, or even conceived.

Subsequently, part of the terror of terrorism is that we can only think of the War On Terror as a perpetual war. And because we simply can’t imagine the end of the War On Terrorism, we go cowbell crazy over such frivolous topics as “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Worst of all, our leaders refuse to acknowledge that a destabilized Middle East is in our interest. Imagine the shots that a stable, even somewhat unified Middle East could call. What if that possibility were the sine qua non of the War On Terrorism, and terrorism itself were the price we’ve accepted (however tacitly) is worth paying for keeping the party that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union going?

Deeper, what if Western elites understand that the War On Terrorism is really a war on order and stability itself? That terror itself is worth it because it keeps regular citizens focused on killing terrorists but distracted from wondering why terrorism never dies?

Suddenly, the cowbell falls quiet from the shock of it all, but not before we realize that we now need even more cowbell, not less, simply so that we can enjoy the silence.


IMAGE SOURCE: Samuel Huntington DDC_8763


[1] Which can be thought of as: 1) the things we think without actually thinking about them, or 2) beliefs that are resistant to rational revision and are not amenable to argument (h/t Irami Osei-Frimpong, Review: How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley)

[2] Everything we don’t have to do. (h/t Brian Eno)


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