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Super Markets (or: Read It Monsieur and Learn Something About America)

Here’s a recent post of a book excerpt on the Ex Bird Site — brought to my attention thanks to Jesse Walker.

@petrifiedegg, Jul. 8

When Yeltsin saw a Texas supermarket, his worldview was revolutionised and he wept;[1] when Ceausescu saw Macy’s he just thought it was a fake.[2]

The attached page images from the post are an excerpt from Red Horizons, an expose written by Ion Mihai Pacepa (formerly acting head of the foreign intelligence service in the Romanian Securitate), after he defected to the United States:

Ceausescu has never received a penny of wages during his entire adult life. Before World War II he was an apprentice to a shoemaker, who paid him with room and board and Marxist indoctrination. During the war Ceausescu was in and out of jail as a Communist and became a Party activist immediately after its end. Since he has been Romania’s supreme leader,[3] it has been a matter of pride for him to emphasize that he has never been paid for what he has done. My whole life has been devoted to the World Revolution of the Proletariat, is Ceausescu’s favorite definition of himself.

Ceausescu is also proud of the fact that he has never purchased anything for himself from a store. In fact, it was not until October 1970 that Ceausescu, mainly under pressure from Elena,[4] set foot in a department store for the first time. This happened on an official visit to New York, when he accepted an invitation from the management of Macy’s to visit their main store at Herald Square. Ceausescu was astonished.

How long did it take them to set up that show? he asked, when he got back to the Romanian Mission to the United Nations.

Macy’s is the largest department store in the world, hedged a puzzled ambassador.

I mean, to fill up the store with all that stuff we saw there?

It finally dawned on the ambassador that Ceausescu believed the whole store had been stocked just as a show for him, and the ambassador started to explain what he knew about Macy’s.

Do you subscribe to Scinteia, monsieur? Elena interrupted.

Of course, comrade. Everybody does.[5]

[pg]78[/pg] Then you ought to read it. Read it, monsieur, and learn something about America. It’s written there in black and white that American stores are nothing but window dressing, that Americans can’t buy anything unless they borrow money. And that after they buy something they get laid off and everything is taken away from them again. Show, monsieur. Everything is show, to cover up the poverty, to hide how people are sleeping in the streets. Read Scinteia, you peasant, you mascalzone![6]

Everything I know is from Scinteia, the ambssador said, trying to expiate himself.

When you’re talking with me, keep your mouth shut!

Let him speak, Elena. He lives here.

Don’t listen to his garbage, Nick. He ought to be sent back to Bucharest and enrolled in a political course.

The next morning Ceausescu told me to check Macy’s out and report back to him with the truth. A year later he opened the first–and only–department store in Bucharest. On the day of its inauguration by Ceausescu himself, the store was chock full of merchandise gathered from all around the country. A few days later, its shelves were virtually empty. Periodically the store was prepared for visits by high-level foreigners or by Ceausescu himself. It would be closed off to the public and stuffed with merchandise. For his part, Ceausescu has never really believed that Macy’s was not especially stocked for his visits.

— Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa (1987), Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption, pp. 77-78.

  1. [1]
    [The poster is referring to a famous photograph of Boris Yeltsin’s 1989 visit to a Randalls supermarket in Clear Lake, Texas in 1989. Yeltsin was a Member of Parliament in the USSR, and he was making a diplomatic visit to the United States that included a tour of NASA in Houston. The stop at Randalls was an unscheduled side-trip at Yeltsin’s request; his handlers had to arrange an impromptu visit and the store’s managers found out that a VIP was coming about 15 minutes before Yeltsin arrived. During the visit, Yeltsin exclaimed to his interpreter, Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev. Later in his memoirs, Yeltsin wrote When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it. —R.G.]
  2. [2][Many such cases. When my father was studying for his Ph.D., one of the things he did for the Department was to help pick up the visiting scholars who were coming from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to give talks on campus. He’d pick them up from the airport in San Francisco, show them around for the afternoon and then get them settled in their hotel or get them to campus for their talk. What Dad would say is that every visiting scholar would ask him for the same two things during the afternoon: (1) they’d ask him to take them to see a genuine American ghetto, and (2) they’d ask to see an American grocery store. He’d try to beg off the first, but if they insisted enough, he’d drive through some of the rough neighborhoods in Oakland. These were a lot rougher in the 1960s and 1970s than they are now, but scholars from Communist countries typically were shocked, or they simply did not believe that the people in the neighborhood actually lived in the inner city apartment buildings that they were driving by, because they looked like the nicest apartment buildings you could get back home. For the second, he’d stop by a Safeway or a similar store that was convenient to get to. Most of them were amazed by what they saw in the store. Some refused to believe that he’d taken them to a real, ordinary grocery store; they insisted that these must be the fancy stores only for the fabulously wealthy, or even that they must be some kind of special Potemkin stores that the Americans kept to show off to visiting Communists for propaganda purposes. —R.G.]
  3. [3][Ceausescu took power after Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965. This book was published in 1987, two years before the Christmas Revolution in Romania, which led to the downfall and execution of the Ceausescus. —R.G.]
  4. [4][Elena Ceausescu, née Lenuța Petrescu — the dictator’s Party comrade and wife. During the 1970s she was at the beginning of an ambitious effort to involve herself more actively alongside her husband in the regime’s propaganda and took an active role in the most powerful offices on the executive committee of the Communist Party. By the 1980s she had become a First Deputy Prime Minister and developed her own cult of personality. She was widely regarded as the second most powerful person in the state, and gained a widespread reputation in Romania as vain and rapaciously greedy. In 1989, she was arrested and executed alongside her husband in the downfall of the regime. —R.G.]
  5. [5][Scînteia (The Spark) was the official party newspaper of the Communist Party of Romania, modeled on the Bolshevik revolutionary paper Iskra and the Soviet Communist Party organ Pravda. —R.G.]
  6. [6][Italian; roughly, rascal! —R.G.]

Stop the War on Mail-Order Abortion Drugs

Shared Article from Chron

Why Texans won't benefit from FDA's new abortion pill rules

The federal government's recent decision to increase general access to abortive...


The headline here is somewhat more pessimistic than the content of the article justifies. The FDA’s decision to remove restrictions on mail-order medical abortion drugs is an unambiguously positive development, especially for women in states in the South with bad, overly restrictive abortion regulation regimes. The problem for Texas specifically is the recently-enacted Texas SB 4, a repressive and stupid law that Greg Abbot believes to make it so that Mail-order abortion drugs are now prohibited in Texas. Really it is not obvious that this prohibitionist strategy will succeed, even on its own terms — the law does not make it illegal for anyone in Texas to take a mail-order abortifacient, and what the article states (more or less accurately) is that there are thorny legal questions involved in Texas’s ability to enforce Texas state laws (so-called) on out-of-state doctors or pharmacies who ship mail-order abortifacients from outside of Texas. It’s possible that Texas SB 4 effectively limits the availability of abortifacients; it’s also possible it gets struck down as overreach, or simply violated openly or covertly by providers who are willing to take the risk for the sake of their clients. But in either case, like all drug prohibitions, Texas SB 4 is tyrannical, as stupid as it is impudent, and ought to be ignored wherever possible, evaded wherever feasible, resisted wherever necessary, and repealed immediately, completely, and forever.

Stop the War on Drugs. Abortion on demand, and without apology.

Maybe It’s Even Easier for Us To Think That

This episode of Reply All is really an insightful and deeply humane effort to understand what is going on within a fairly wild and hostile political scene that is nevertheless full of real human beings.

Shared Article from Gimlet Media: Reply All

#182. State of Panic

A mystery roils Florida political Twitter: could it be that the governor’s new press secretary is running bots against her political opponents? Emma…

Emmanuel Dzotsi @ gimletmedia.com

EMMANUEL: Darius told me that the surefire way to know if an account is a bot or not is to just DM the account. So I DMed good ol’ DeepThroat, asked them, Are you a bot? And they got back me, told me they were real. . . . I was feeling a little bit like an idiot. But Darius said it totally made sense that really anyone — me, the people in Florida, you — might think accounts like DeepThroat’s were bots.

Maybe it’s even easier for us to think that.

Like we’ve all been hearing for years about how our elections have been impacted by foreign interference, about how disinformation is spreading like wildfire on the internet and ensnaring seemingly reasonable people, and to Darius, that’s exactly why bots have become the perfect boogieman.

DARIUS: I mean, I think it’s a classic moral panic. Just like people think that there’s a massive increase in crime all the time, even when you look at the numbers and the crime numbers have been going down in many places. It’s an easy out. It’s an easy way to point at some nefarious Other, like the bot makers and like, oh–they’re the reason democracy is failing.

EMMANUEL: Obviously, I can’t definitively rule out whether Christina is using bots. But the more I looked into Christina Pushaw herself, the more I became convinced that bots don’t explain her effectiveness in Florida. . . . Here’s my theory — I think Christina is someone with a very specific skill, a skill that any natural politician has. She has this knack for noticing people who otherwise are invisible to the rest of us on Twitter. . . .

— Ep. 182, State of Panic
Reply All, 16 December 2021.

“Is shopping a recipe for the city?” (Wade Graham, DREAM CITIES, 2016)

From a generally very interesting chapter on Idea 6, Malls, in Wade Graham’s Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World (a book on architecture and urban forms):

If the world is becoming a mall, has shopping become the driver of urban form? In most educated circles this suggestion elicits a [pg]196[/pg] collective shudder. Shopping is sub-serious, as Cicero insisted: All retail dealing may be described as dishonest and base.[1] Architecture, always zealous in defense of its claim to be a high art, wants nothing to do with it. Except, on rare occasions, to pay the bills. Louis Sullivan did a department store, Frank Lloyd Wright a boutique, Rudolf Schindler a store or two, and I. M. Pei’s first major project was a mall, but these are rarely mentioned along with their canonical masterpieces. And yet a case can be made that shopping, in the form of trade, gave birth to the city, that shopping has been and remains the lifeblood coursing through its heart, that the design of shopping is inseparable from the design of cities since time immemorial and is an indispensable guide to the urban future.

The largest neolithic settlement known, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, was founded in 7000 BCE, probably as a trading center.[2] The market at the center of Thebes has been dated to 1500 BCE. The Greek agora, or gathering place, the acknowledged birthplace of Western civilization and democratic society, was both a marketplace for shopping and a civic center for discussion, sociality, and politics. The Greek words for I shop and I speak in public are both derived from the same root; in modern Greek agora still means marketplace. The agora became the Roman forum, the medieval fair and market town, the Eastern bazaar and souk. Is shopping a recipe for the city? Consider the evidence. In the exchange of goods is gathering, and in gathering is society; meeting, trading information, gossiping, haggling, freedom of movement for women, and people-watching — the original theater is the theater of customers as participants in a perennial ritual and unpredictable drama. Done right, shopping can define space in ways that are fundamentally urban: the shopping space is a space apart, inside, separate from other distracting activities, and essentially pedestrian, but also connected to the outside. [pg]197[/pg] Shopping generates movement and density; it mixes and connects people, and disconnected or disparate parts of the city. If this is the case, then maximizing shopping equals maximizing urbanism. . . .

. . . [pg]236[/pg] We can only hope that shopping design’s evolution toward more inclusion and integration continues. Regardless, as long as it is profitable, it will continue to be a major contributor to the environments we inhabit, as it has been for centuries, if not more. Time will tell. In an essay on the firm’s influence, the L.A. architect and critic Craig Hodgetts asked whether Jerde’s artificial cosmos may, in time, attain the dignity of the truly cosmopolitan… with the scars and patina of age. Yet age and familiarity are not what make a place truly urban, but its integration into the fabric of the city around it. The question is then, will Jerde’s places become, as some previous forms of shopping architecture have, public places as much as private ones–places integral to urban vitality?

— Wade Graham, #6. Malls.
In Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World (2016).

See also:

  1. [1][Sordidi etiam putandi, qui mercantur a mercatoribus, quod statim vendant…. Cic., De officiis i. 150, here lightly paraphrased by the translator that Graham quotes. More literally: And again — they are to be reckoned sordid, who buy from merchants what they turn around and sell. In the passage, Cicero is listing off a series of working-class trades and lines of business that we (Roman noblemen) understand to be sordid (dirty) or illiberal (unfit for or unbecoming of a free gentleman) — among them toll-taking, money-lending, all hired work that is purchased for labor rather than for artistic or skillful quality, buying from merchants to resell, manufacturing in a workshop, and trades that minister to immediate enjoyment, like fishing and fish-selling, butchery, cooking, poultry-stuffing, cosmetics, dancing and performing in variety shows. –RG.]
  2. [2][This is contested; some confidently assert it was founded for trade, some assert just as confidently that all the evidence now points to it being founded as a religious center, etc. etc. –RG.]

What I’m Reading: Lefts’ Party Like It’s 2014

  1. [1][18-Jun-2020: Formerly moral painc; typographical error corrected. –RG]
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