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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.

“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]

No Decency

Donald John Trump, 45th and current president of the United States of America, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, speaking to the press:

Q. Does the photo of the drowned immigrants[1] cause you to rethink any of your policies?

[Donald John Trump]: Well, that's like I've been saying. If they fixed the laws, you wouldn't have that. People are coming up; they're running through the Rio Grande. It's a rough — it can be a very rough river of sorts. I mean, there are times when going across the Rio Grande is very, very dangerous, depending on the time of year and the conditions and the rapidity of the water. And we know that.

And we have many, many guards there, but people go through the guards. If we had the right laws that the Democrats are not letting us have, those people, they wouldn't be coming up. They wouldn't be trying.

We're building the wall. It's under construction. It's — a lot of it is under construction. We'll have over 400 miles next year, by the end of the year.

But it's very important. They can change it very easily so people don't come up. And people won't get killed. Women are being raped on the journey up. You have these caravans. Women are being raped. And one of the terrible things: Children are actually being brought into slavedom [sic]. If you look at what's happening — the cartels and the coyotes, they're getting rich because the Democrats refuse to change the loopholes. They refuse to change the asylum. In one hour, we could have it done.

They want to have open borders, and open borders mean crime. And open borders mean people drowning in the rivers. And it's a very dangerous thing.

— Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure (2019/06/26, 1:30 PM)

On the face of it, this is one of the most lunatic statements, one of the most wildly inhuman political responses, and one the most obscene instances of talking with a corpse in your mouth that I have seen to date from a man and a governmental administration that have spent their time in the White House doing little other than cranking a built-to-purpose outrageous political palaver garbage machine generator.

Perhaps it does not need saying that open borders mean precisely that no little girl ever dies drowning in a river again. Because open borders mean that people could and obviously would cross over rivers openly, on bridges or ferries, in cars or boats or machines flying safely through the air. Open borders means breezing past long-abandoned checkpoints without fear of criminalization, arrest, internment or deportation. Blaming the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter Valeria, on open borders is like blaming the Tiananmen Square Massacre on freedom of assembly — it is insane, because if you had the latter there wouldn’t be any particular reason for the former; and it is obscene, because it is blaming the victim for a situation that is entirely and only created by Power’s choice to keep on relentlessly pursuing repressive force. Open borders mean safe and open crossings; they don’t mean drowning, any more than an open swimming pool does.

Perhaps it does not need saying that it is precisely the relentless, maniacal insistence on walling off frontiers and choking off border-crossing that sends families out into the most dangerous, most inaccessible places in order to try with cartels, coyotes, smugglers and the roughest passages that remain. The great crime and the great shame of the Democratic Party is that they have never once called for open borders, and when in control of the presidency they have — over and over again — played the leading role in building up the machinery of overregulated immigration, paramilitary border policing, closed crossings and mass deportation that we unhappily live with — or die at the hands of — today. Democrats don’t want to have open borders. I desperately wish they did. I desperately wish they ever had done even one little thing to move in that direction. But they haven’t, and they don’t, and they probably never will. So much the shame of Democrats.

Bordercrats know this, of course — they know that if borders actually were open, then people would cross safely, openly and frequently. They know that if borders actually were open, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, and their daughter Valeria would be safe in Texas today, starting out in a new town and looking for work. It is precisely for that reason that they politically oppose open borders — because they don’t want that many people crossing the border, or they don’t want those specific people crossing the border, or they don’t want some of the people who would cross the border, if the Ramirezes could cross the border, to cross it. That’s precisely what it means to close or control the border; there is no third alternative. You might openly embrace the misery, suffering and death that results. Or you might acknowledge it, regretfully, as the necessary human cost of your political policy, and of its rigorous enforcement. Perhaps there is a sense in which the desire to shift the blame instead of doing either represents a certain sort of vestigial, suffering sense of decency that even Mr. Trump, at long last, still has left. Perhaps there is a sense. But if so, it doesn’t matter very much.

See also.

  1. [1]Their names were Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter Valeria. They came from El Salvador. He was 25. She was a little girl, only 1 year, 11 months old. She died trying to reach her father again. He died trying to save his daughter’s life. They are survived by Tania Vanessa Ávalos, Óscar’s wife and the little girl’s mother.
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