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Biden’s Airstrike Still Reliant on Iraq AUMF

Strikes in Syria re-raise old questions of presidential authority.

U.S.-led coalition airstrike in Kobane, Syria, in 2014 (Orlok/Shutterstock)

Thirty-five days after he was sworn into office as President of the United States, Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria, in response to rocket attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. Congress has not declared war against Syria or Iran.

However, Congress never revoked the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which authorized the war in Iraq, despite numerous attempts in multiple legislative sessions to do so.

“There’s no general authority for a president to launch airstrikes, and President Biden hasn’t claimed they were necessary to stop an imminent attack,” commented Michigan’s former Rep. Justin Amash. “Our Constitution demands he get approval from the representatives of the people.”

Some within the Biden administration used to know the constitutional limits of presidential power. Comments from Press Secretary Jen Psaki from April 2017 criticizing former President Trump for launching airstrikes against Syria haven’t aged very well.

Psaki asked what “legal authority for strikes” Trump had in Syria. “Assad is a brutal dictator,” she tweeted, “But Syria is a sovereign country.”

Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (Minn.) resurfaced Psaki’s tweet and asked, “Great question,” while Republican Congressman (Mich.) Peter Meijer added that the question “dovetails nicely with a renewed push for AUMF reform!”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby spun the strike in eastern Syria as “proportionate” and “defensive,” saying they “were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.”

The U.S. strikes killed at least 22 people, London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday. At least 17 killed were members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) a group of mostly Shia Iraqi state-sponsored militias that formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.

Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chief backers, said it was given just four or five minutes’ warning before the strikes. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. operation in Syria was illegal.

The Biden Administration has for weeks emphasized the threat of China and its desire to return to the Iran deal. But these strikes exacerbate the already fractious relationship and dangerous game of nuclear chicken both countries are engaged in.

Critics of the Iran deal on the Hill believe Biden’s decision will show Iran proxies throughout the Middle East that Biden is tough and won’t tolerate attacks on personnel in Iraq. But the other side of this coin is the simple question of why the U.S. has so many targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East for Iran and its proxies to target in the first place?

While this is the first known use of military force by the Biden administration, it will likely not be the last.

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Biden Strikes Syria, as Admin Unexpectedly Hostile to Iran

The U.S. military hit targets in eastern Syria on Thursday as Washington's proxy war with Iran doesn't skip a beat with a new administration. 

The United States carried out an airstrike in eastern Syria on Thursday.

“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.”

“The operation sends an unambiguous message,” Kirby concluded, “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel.” But he made a caveat, “We have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Earlier this month, one U.S. contractor was killed, one U.S. soldier was injured, and eight contractors were injured in a rocket attack in Erbil, Iraq. The attacks were seen as a part of the broader regional proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran.

Thursday’s strikes come a month into Biden’s time in office. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, castigated America’s addiction to “endless wars” and initiated half-formed plans to exit Syria, Afghanistan, and other theaters.

But, alternatively, on one front, Trump was near-uncompromising: Iran.

The 45th president nullified Barack Obama’s nuclear detente with Iran. And Trump’s hawkishness culminated with the assassination of infamous Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man Trump administration officials regarded as a terrorist, classifying his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Before the onset of the pandemic crisis, 2020 looked set to be potentially dominated by a hot war with Iran ahead of the U.S. election.

Under Biden, those seeking a more moderate road have seen their hopes for some restoration dashed in the early going.

“Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” Joe Cirincione wrote in Responsible Statecraft in recent weeks. Now at the related Quincy Institute, Cirincione previously helmed the Ploughshares Fund, a pivotal booster of the JCPOA.

Old line hawks expressed tacit relief Thursday night.

“Credit to the Biden administration for responding,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. FDD is officially non-partisan but was dominant in the Trump era in Washington, and was the most effective, trenchant opponent of the policy of the Obama administration, under which Biden of course served.  “I’m happy to see a kinetic response from the Biden admin,” said Mathew Brodsky of the Gold Institute, a backer of various Trump administration measures on Iran. “Look forward to more details.”

The strike in Syria comes as Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran, is back in the news in the United States. 60 Minutes aired an uncompromising recent report about chemical weapons use in the country, one that did not get into nuance of who Assad has been combatting (often, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), or the murky nature of previous chemical weapons allegations levied against the regime. Syria’s pandemic-era economic woes were also highlighted in recent days in a report in the New York Times.

For its part, the Biden administration, dominated by pragmatic, but hawkish, realists such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, appears intent on standing pat in the region. It is a course Trump, for all his maneuvers against Iran (and Assad), continually floated abandoning altogether.

“While it probably makes sense to retaliate against rocket strikes,” Benjamin Friedman of Defense Priorities said Thursday. “This tit-for-tat underlines the pointless danger we’re running by keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. They can do little now but take fire and risk wider war.”

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The Nuclear Deal Disintegrates While Biden Dawdles

The Biden administration is about to make a serious mistake in its handling of the nuclear issue with Iran:

The U.S. is asking other countries to support a formal censure of Iran over its accelerating nuclear activities, a signal that the Biden administration wants to turn up the diplomatic heat on Tehran as it looks to restore a crumbling 2015 accord.

Biden and his team have squandered too much time already. Moving to censure Iran at the IAEA is the wrong move at the worst time. The Iranian government just went out of its way to show flexibility on continuing to allow international inspections. Just before the February 23 deadline when Iran was supposed to suspend its implementation of the Additional Protocol according to a new law passed by the Majlis (a law that has the support of 73% of Iranians), the Iranian government and the IAEA struck a bargain for the next three months that would permit more inspections than would have been possible otherwise.

Rouhani and his government bought the U.S. time to make good on Biden’s promises, and practically the first thing that Biden is going to do after that is complain to the IAEA about Iran’s supposed intransigence. Whatever the technical justification the administration might offer for this, it is politically and diplomatically tone-deaf. It signals to Iran that their patience and willingness to remain in the JCPOA are not going to be rewarded, and it suggests that the U.S. isn’t serious about honoring its commitments. Salvaging the nuclear deal was bound to be difficult, but the Biden administration has needlessly complicated its own task by taking one misstep after another.

The Iranian government sees little reason to trust Biden at this point. For all intents and purposes, Biden has continued Trump’s Iran policy with a few changes at the margins. Ali Reza Eshragi explains:

So far, Iran has been waiting for moves from the Biden administration that indicate it is serious about rejoining the JCPOA. The measures the US has taken in recent days – such as easing travel restrictions on Iranians diplomats in New York and rescinding the Trump administration’s failed attempt to snap back UN sanctions – are largely viewed in Tehran as symbolic rather than substantive.

Right now, Iran’s leadership has nothing to show for its patience and flexibility on this issue. Iranian public opinion has been squarely behind the government’s actions to reduce compliance with the JCPOA in protest against U.S. violations of the agreement, and the vast majority of Iranians is against making deeper concessions on the nuclear issue or any other issue. In a couple months it will be presidential election season in Iran, and the U.S. is extremely unpopular in Iran right now with an unfavorability rating of 84%. There is greater popular backing for critics of Rouhani and his policies than there is for someone that supports them (64-14%). Come this summer, the Iranian government will most likely be headed by a more hard-line, nationalist president, and the window for successful diplomacy will have narrowed significantly if it hasn’t closed entirely. Biden needs to act now while he still has a potentially cooperative counterpart in Tehran and majorities in both houses of Congress. If he waits until later in his term, he may find that Iran is no longer interested and his hands could be tied by partisan obstructionism in Congress.

Years of economic warfare and relentless hostility against Iran have done their work well: most Iranians don’t trust the U.S. to honor its commitments. 71% of Iranians now conclude that the JCPOA experience shows that it is not worthwhile to make concessions because Iran cannot trust other powers to honor their side of the agreement. Most Iranians support complying with the agreement in the event that the U.S. provides promised sanctions relief, but anyone who thinks that the Iranian government can make more extensive concessions on security issues is deluding himself. “Lengthening and strengthening” the agreement with Iran is not on the table, and the Biden administration would be wise to realize this and accept it.

The Iranian government has already stuck its neck out to preserve the agreement. It has been doing so for almost three years. It has faced a swift backlash in the wake of the deal made with the IAEA earlier this week, and its room for maneuver has been reduced more than ever. The U.S. cannot effectively manipulate Iranian internal politics, but it can take more or less constructive actions over the next few weeks. If Biden wants to be known for salvaging the JCPOA, he should be extending olive branches and goodwill gestures rather than censures and additional demands. There is still time to avoid a diplomatic breakdown, but the Biden administration needs to take the initiative and take a few risks to give Iran the incentive to respond in kind.

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Learning on Solid Ground

Education presents an eternal puzzle and requires an eternal basis.

A Benedict Option classroom? (Stephen Kiers/Shutterstock)

We live in an age of artifice, where everything has a price, and so we seek out irony and see sincerity as something quaint, maybe even for suckers—nice in its own way, but cheap and useless, like a solitary wildflower. Things that are good for their own sake, beautiful in themselves, like the truth, or wildflowers, don’t fit the frameworks built up around us. We are not a society that confused knowledge and credentials so much as one that chose the latter over the former, because it offers status more assuredly, and so one knows what one is paying for. 

The consumption element of education has likely always been the hardest tension to hold for the individuals involved. You are, generally speaking, paying someone to teach you. Both of you have a product and a price in mind. The high political perspective worries about what you are being taught, how you are being formed as a citizen in a population, but the private, personal worry is whether you are being taught something worth it, worthy, at all. At the same time, the aspiration has traditionally been that what you are purchasing is priceless, that your teacher is unlocking chains you didn’t know you wore and opening a door you hadn’t known was right behind you. It’s a lot to expect, so a lot of people don’t. 

Because of this tension within the idea of education, I hold my friend Joseph M. Keegin to be one of the most sincere men I know. No one else I have broken bread with wrestles with these questions with as much honesty or seriousness, and it is a matter he returns to again and again, first as a human being, but then as a writer, a teacher, and a bookseller. Focusing particularly on the problem of institutionalizing what we call education, working out of Ivan Illich’s writing, Joey has a new essay over at a site that’s new to me but made up of familiar faces, Breaking Ground. Read it, “Toward the Renewal of Humanistic Education in America.” In answer to the issue of ossifying institutions of credentialing and bureaucratized “learning,” he finds the life in community given in the confounding persistence of the one institution that truly is permanent, Christ’s church. 

As Illich knew, Christianity is uniquely suited to address this problem of institutionality, and ultimately to reinvigorate humanistic education in America. Christ came into the world not to make us perfect political subjects, compliant employees, or maximally productive contributors to the economy, but to direct us toward holiness and to make us members of a community grounded in divine love, justice, and mercy rather than acquisitiveness and human caprice. Christianity inaugurates a way of being together that is at once individualistic and communitarian: in Christ we are knit into a community of believers, but we are also made responsible for what we say, think, and do. Christian community demands that we be our brother’s keeper, that our concern always be directed toward helping liberate others from the various tethers of this world in order to take on freely the easy yoke of our Lord’s justice and mercy. A Christian approach to education cannot ever take as its chief goal subsuming the student more seamlessly into a political or economic system, helping her maximize her earning potential, or training her to be a more effective political actor. The guidance of the soul toward the good is the only aim; everything else is incidental.

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First As Farce, Then As Tragedy

We should resist the temptation to laugh off the woke brigade's smaller victories, like degendering toy potatoes.

Mr. Potato Head is going gender neutral, Hasbro has announced. The natural response of any sane, healthy, adult human being would be to ignore this altogether. It’s a children’s toy, a trivial thing, and we have far more important concerns to worry about. Besides, as far as we know, potatoes don’t have genders anyway.

But as much as I loathe wading into these more trivial skirmishes of the culture war, I do think we ought to resist the instinctive temptation to steer clear. I think this for much the same reason that I think Joe Biden is more dangerous than any of the Democratic Party’s radicals: The fact that you—conservatives, or any underdogs for that matter—necessarily must pick your battles, makes waging the battles you won’t (unopposed and probably unnoticed) the best possible strategy for the other side. You can lose a war that way.

We might think the people behind the decision to drop the “Mr.” are just silly, that they have become so consumed by politics (and bad politics, at that) that they insist on inserting them into meaningless places that aren’t worth our time or attention. Again, that’s true—but it’s a dangerous truth.

The motives aren’t exactly hidden here. “Culture has evolved,” Hasbro senior vice president Kimberly Boyd tells Fast Company. “Kids want to be able to represent their own experiences. The way the brand currently exists—with the “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—is limiting when it comes to both gender identity and family structure.” What Ms. Boyd ignores (beside the fact that limits are, in fact, a very good thing) is that cultural evolution is not always organic. It can be imposed from the top—in big ways and small.

That’s why it really does matter. Culture is still evolving. What we do now determines the direction of that evolution, including whether we give children toys “designed to break away from traditional gender norms.” You can laugh at the manifest ridiculousness of the pieces in play, but the game itself has high stakes. The generation of kids raised on gender-neutral dolls, agitprop baby books, and militant-woke cartoons are going to grow up someday. Nobody will be laughing then.

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Hold Mohammed bin Salman Accountable for His Crimes

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman believed to have ordered Khashoggi murder (Al Arabiya screenshot)

The Biden administration will be releasing a declassified version of the intelligence report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on Thursday. The report identifies the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as the one ultimately responsible for the grisly killing:

A declassified version of a U.S. intelligence report expected to be released on Thursday finds that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, four U.S. officials familiar with the matter said.

The report’s findings are not really news, but it is good that they are being made public to bring renewed attention to the case. It was all but certain in the fall of 2018 that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death, and subsequent investigations have reached similar conclusions, but between the Trump administration’s obfuscations and the Saudi government’s denials the crown prince has been able to evade accountability for more than two years. With any luck, the crown prince won’t be able to get away with it for much longer. Even if he escapes personal accountability for the foreseeable future, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has to change.

The involvement of so many of the crown prince’s close associates in the murder and the attempted cover-up made it obvious that he was the one giving the orders. The presence of a forensic pathologist as part of the team showed that murder and dismemberment had been the plan from the start. The Saudis staged a farcical trial that let Saud al-Qahtani and many other perpetrators off the hook, and this was done to keep up the pretense that the murder wasn’t authorized at the highest levels.

The decision to release the report is a welcome one, but Biden needs to do more to change the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. As Annelle Sheline points out this week, the Biden administration has been slow to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah as Biden promised he would do during the campaign. It is encouraging that this administration isn’t going to go out of its way to defend the crimes of high-ranking Saudi officials, but the entire relationship needs to be downgraded as long as the crown prince wields such extensive influence in their government. The U.S. cannot control what the Saudi government does or how it treats its own citizens, but it can raise the political costs for the Saudi leadership when they commit crimes and it can reduce U.S. exposure to their wrongdoing. Washington has considerable influence with the Saudi government, and it is time that it began to use it to rein in their abuses both in Yemen and in how they treat their own people.

Mohammed bin Salman is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, but at the moment he is still not the king and does not enjoy the immunity that would typically go with that position. He should not be granted immunity, and he should have to answer for the crimes that he and his agents have committed. Khashoggi is the most well-known of the crown prince’s victims, but he is hardly the only one. The U.S. should do nothing to shield him from accountability, and it should make him persona non grata in this country.

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War in Heaven: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Our Boring Billionaires

The American oligarchy is sad and tasteless, but sometimes Elon Musk is funny.

When a Washington Post reporter came digitally knocking looking for comment at Tesla CEO and sometimes-world’s-richest-man Elon Musk’s door, he did the only right thing you can. He blew them off. 

There are exceptions, of course, and I hope you would consider giving me an interview if I ever asked nicely for one, but in general you should never talk to the press. Tell your local paper about your small business, sure. But when it comes to the national media establishment, there are rarely enough upsides to justify the many potential downsides in giving them a chance. Using words as a weapon is the media’s full-time job. Don’t give them ammunition. 

But Musk is a billionaire, and already a bad boy by press standards. So, he doesn’t have to just ignore a request for comment; he can amuse himself, too. “Give my regards to your puppet master,” the SpaceX founder said. 

War in heaven. The puppet master is, of course, a reference to the other very rich space nerd, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post and rival rocket company Blue Origin—and is a little bit wealthier than Musk. Bezos and Musk have both made clear at various points that their driving dream is to conquer the stars, and has been for years. Often, as I’ve written for the New Atlantis journal, they rationalize that dream in various materialist ways: 

We tell ourselves that in exploring other spheres we will learn more of geology and the origins of life, or will derive new techniques and technologies. We say there are minerals to mine, or new means of energy production to harness. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s middle-aged boy wonder, gives reason of a slightly higher order when he says Mars must be colonized for the survival of the human race — that it will be a citadel in which the torch of our civilization may be kept alight whatever calamities may come here below, in order to, like Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation, shorten future dark ages. Musk’s rival space-bound billionaire, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, believes that, by moving human industry away from here, the colonization of space will save the Earth from its depredations.

This is sad. The only justifiable reason to build rockets, or to be a billionaire at all, is because it’s fun and cool. 

But this is typical of our super-wealthy oligarchic class. The ones that aren’t open to taking rides with Jeff Epstein or “spirit cooking” with the Clinton Foundation crew (but I repeat myself) are usually pretty boring. Their sins are as sordid as those of the poor. Their good works are few. Where are the cloned dinosaurs? Where are the vigilante crime fighters? Where the pirate lords of corporate island nations? Or, looking back to past examples, one might also ask: Where are the magnificent museums, the beautiful cathedrals, or the grand free hospitals? I’m sorry, but Bill Gates making bug burgers and poop water doesn’t count.

There is a lack of spirit on the part of our rich, so much so that Musk’s occasional bouts of juvenile self-amusement come as a relief. In 420 jokes and Joe Rogan appearances, in market-moving tweets and cars shot into orbit and in having six children, and now in a verbal bitten thumb at the only real rival he has, we catch a glimpse of a missing vitality, an alternate history where all our age’s material abundance goes not towards our further immiseration but to making the world a more delightful place.

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Rep. Biggs: Failure to Withdraw from Afghanistan a ‘Slippery Slope’

'I respectfully urge you to continue to remove United States service members from Afghanistan in the coming weeks,' wrote Biggs.

Arizona Republican Congressman Andy Biggs warned President Biden that any delay in keeping the timetable to withdraw in Afghanistan could lead to what he called a “slippery slope.”

“I respectfully urge you to continue to remove United States service members from Afghanistan in the coming weeks, with the goal of ensuring all our brave men and women in uniform return from the theater before May,” Biggs wrote in a letter to Biden.

The U.S. agreed to withdraw all U.S. service men and women from Afghanistan in a deal with the Taliban by May 1 in return for peace talks and a cessation of violence. This would bring an end to America’s longest war, which began in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently refused to say whether the U.S. would keep the May withdrawal deadline.

The Taliban is very likely prepared to resume its campaign of violence against the U.S. and coalition targets if it perceives that coalition forces have stalled or reversed course on the agreed-upon withdraw, according to the Afghanistan Study Group co-chairs who testified to the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security. They testified that U.S. troop levels may have to double their troop presence or more if the U.S. stays beyond May 1.

The calls to delay the withdrawal in order “to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result… is an all-too-familiar slippery slope,” wrote Biggs.

“The war in Afghanistan has already lasted nearly two decades.  Over the course of that conflict, we have lost thousands of our brave warriors and spent trillions of dollars. Staying in Afghanistan any longer will only continue to place the lives of more servicemembers at risk,” said Biggs. “Furthermore, a continued United States presence in the region is unlikely to lessen the threat of terrorism; in fact, it is more likely to heighten the threat.”

Biggs praised Biden’s move to end U.S. support for Saudi-led operations in Yemen as part of an effort to end the conflict in the war-torn country.

“I hope that you will now turn your attention to putting a long-overdue end to America’s longest war,” he said. “I am very confident that an overwhelming majority of Americans across this country — including many mothers and fathers in Mesa, Arizona, and Scranton.”

Defense Secretary Austin said on Friday that “we are mindful of the looming deadlines, but we want to do this methodically and deliberately.”

“We’re focused  on making sure that we make the right decisions, and we’ll go through this process deliberately.”

Austin added that the Taliban violence “must decrease” now for there to be progress in the negotiations.

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The Neocons: Exit Stage Left?

Bill Kristol suggests they should leave the GOP and join up with Joe Biden. Far be it from us to stand in their way.

Before the current realignment but after the one Karl Rove tried to engineer, there was yet another attempt to realign American politics. A small crew of antiwar Republicans wanted to push the neoconservatives out of the party and maybe even over to the Democrats. It made sense in a way. The neocons had always been peripatetics, having migrated away from the left during the 1960s, and with Tea Partiers like Rand Paul questioning the Bush administration foreign policy, a shift in the political tectonics seemed like a real possibility.

Now, perhaps a decade later, have we finally reached that point? Here’s Bill Kristol writing at The Bulwark:

In discussions of the Never Trump future, President Biden is the invisible man.

But why? I suppose that if you’re committed to staying in the Republican party and fighting the forces of Trump for control, Joe Biden is kind of irrelevant to your challenges. And if you’re committed to founding a third party or some kind of trans-party alliance, Biden might not matter much.

But isn’t there another pretty obvious alternative? Mightn’t one consider allying oneself with the Biden wing of the Democratic party?

Donald Trump’s ascendance saw many neocons blanch and join up with the Never Trump movement. Yet most also didn’t go so far afield as to pledge themselves to the Democrats, flirting instead with noted improv comedian Evan McMullin or a possible David French presidential run. Now Kristol is suggesting he might abandon the GOP for good. In fairness, Kristol isn’t the entirety of the Never Trump movement, but he is an influential voice therein and this seems like a telling moment.

Kristol continues:

So why not Biden? Why not Bidenism? That may not turn out to be the end solution. But surely it’s too real a possibility to be ignored. Why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans at least consider becoming a kind-of-Old-Republican wing of Joe Biden’s Democratic party?

Why not indeed? Just a few reasons off the top of my head: Biden is pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-climate action, pro-government-run health care, pro-government-mandated birth control, pro-amnesty, pro-tax hikes, pro-deficit, pro-debt. And fair enough: take your apostasies where you will. But for an ostensible Republican to flirt with long-term Biden support only makes sense if all of that pales in comparison to something else: Biden is an internationalist, while much of the GOP is tilting in a more nationalist direction. If internationalism is your only song, if that’s what gets you up in the morning, then maybe these days you are a Democrat.

As for the rest of us, there can be only one reaction:

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Final Thoughts on Cassettes

A few elaborations on last week's discussion-inducing piece

FabrikaSimf/Shutterstock

My latest piece, on the death, and fascinating afterlife, of the cassette tape, sparked a lot of discussion and some counterpoints. The good folks at Tapeheads, the online cassette enthusiast forum which I perused as part of my research, even noticed it. Who am I kidding—these probably aren’t my final thoughts on this subject. But I’d like to respond to some of the comments.

The first thing I saw was a fair amount of bafflement that anybody still cares about cassette tapes, or that anybody even likes them. Most of the people who’ve moved on from the format seem to think the revival of interest is a less interesting side effect of the vinyl resurgence, merely a nostalgia looking for an object.

This may be partly true, but there are a couple of indications that it may not be the whole story. First of all, much of the interest in cassettes comes from young people, many of whom were not alive during the height of the format’s original run. Second, cassette sales, like vinyl, are seeing a string of year-over-year increases. The efforts of U.S.-based National Audio Company and of the European company Recording the Masters to manufacture brand new tapes suggest that analysts believe there is a real market here.

While physical formats and media will probably be niche from here on out, the years-long trend of increasing sales suggests a real backlash of sorts to the ephemeral nature of the digital download, which dilutes the notion of ownership and reduces the ability to form memories and rituals. Maybe people really like tactile things, and maybe the trade-off between sound fidelity and tactile-ness is worth it for an increasing number of music listeners. (What’s more, even that trade-off wasn’t as stark 30 years ago as it is now; the best tapes and equipment really could get close to CD quality, which makes their disappearance more notable than it would otherwise be.)

The other recurring comment I got was on my claim that the death of the cassette industry raised an argument for industrial protection. I wrote the following:

There are several lessons here. The most politically salient is that in manufacturing, as in cooking, it is possible to “lose the recipe.” And with an accelerating pace of technological progress, it is possible to lose it in an alarmingly short span of time. This is perhaps the strongest argument for some form of industrial policy or trade protection: the recognition that the national value of manufacturing often lies not so much in the end product itself, but in the accumulated knowledge that goes into it, and the possibility of old processes and knowledge sparking new innovation. Of course, innovation is itself what killed the high-end cassette player. But many otherwise viable industries have struggled under the free-trade regime.

I’m arguing not that cassettes were an example of an industry killed by free trade (in any case, Japan had cornered that industry even by the ’80s), but that many much more relevant industries have been diminished in the same way. They still exist, just not on our shores. Whatever deep, embodied knowledge goes into them, and whatever innovation may come out of them, takes place in other countries, and may well be lost in ours. Yes, I’m not a free trader. (For more sophisticated analysis from this point of view, check out commentator and TAC contributor Eamonn Fingleton’s books and articles.)

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