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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.]

Bolivarian Process (cont’d): There Is Not Enough Functioning Equipment To Convert The Gas Into Fuel

What I’m Reading: A long article and photo spread, this Sunday, in the New York Times.

Shared Article from nytimes.com

Venezuela’s Oil Industry Is Broken. Now It’s Breaking the En…

Gas flares and leaking pipelines from Venezuela’s once-booming oil industry, hobbled by U.S. sanctions and mismanagement, are polluting towns and a …

By Isayen Herrera, Sheyla Urdaneta and Adriana Loureiro Fernandez @ nytimes.com

Venezuela’s Oil Industry is Broken. Now It’s Breaking the Environment

Venezuela’s oil industry, which helped transform the country’s fortunes, has been decimated by mismanagement and several years of U.S. sanctions imposed on the country’s authoritarian government, leaving behind a ravaged economy and a devastated environment.

The state-owned oil company has struggled to maintain minimal production for export to other countries, as well as domestic consumption. But to do so it has sacrificed basic maintenance and relied on increasingly shoddy equipment that has led to a growing environmental toll, environmental activists say.

. . . Mr. Aguilera lives in El Tejero, a town nearly 300 miles east of Caracas, the capital, in an oil-rich region known for towns that never see the darkness of night. Gas flares from oil wells light up at all hours with a roaring thunder, their vibrations causing the walls of rickety houses to crack.

Many residents complain of having respiratory diseases like asthma, which scientists say can be aggravated by emissions from gas flares. Rain brings down an oily film that corrodes car engines, turns white clothes dark and stains notebooks that children carry to school.

And yet, paradoxically, widespread fuel shortages in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves mean virtually no one in this region has cooking gas at home.

Soon after President Hugo Chávez rose to power in the 1990s with promises to use the country’s oil wealth to lift up the poor, he fired thousands of oil workers, including engineers and geologists, and replaced them with political supporters, took control of foreign-owned oil assets, and neglected safety and environmental standards.

Then, in 2019, the United States accused Mr. Chavez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, of election fraud and imposed economic sanctions, including a ban on Venezuelan oil imports, to try to force him from power.

The country’s economy collapsed, helping to fuel a mass exodus of Venezuelans who could not afford to feed their families even as Mr. Maduro has managed to maintain his repressive hold on power.

— Isayen Herrera and Sheyla Urdaneta, “Venezuela’s Oil Industry is Broken. Now It’s Breaking the Environment.”
New York Times, 22 Quintilis 2023.

I’m going to interrupt the reporting here for a minute to say that one of this story’s weaknesses, like many reported in U.S. press, comes from its diplomatic attempt to apportion blame and avoid putting too much on the Bolivarian regime. This has some cautious and good-hearted motives behind it; in any case it doesn’t lead to stating any concrete falsehoods about the development of Venezuela’s catastrophic economic and political crises. But leaping from Chavez’s strike-breaking purge and reorganization of PDVSA — in February 2003! — to Then, in 2019… is telescoping an awful lot of extremely eventful time in between. This bookending leaves the misleading impression that something may have been going wrong from the early 2000s, but things didn’t really get so obviously, unbearably bad until — boom! — the U.S. sanctions came along in 2019. That’s not at all what happened. The ongoing train-wreck demolition of Venezuelan industry, consumer economies, standards of living, political liberties, physical security, and the most basic necessities of everyday life, were being widely reported in Venezuelan and international press from 2013-2014 and went on and on for years prior to 2019. U.S. sanctions made this catastrophically awful situation even worse, but it was overwhelmingly due to the foreseeable economic results of the Venezuelan government’s own policies and increasingly violent, extraconstitutional rule.[1] Be that as it may, whatever weakness it may have in contextualizing these disasters, I think the reporting in this story is really important and heartbreaking. And behind story after story is this:

In eastern Venezuela, rusting refineries burn off methane gases that are part of the fossil fuel industry’s operations and are important drivers of global warming.

Even though Venezuela produces far less oil than it once did, it ranks third in the world in methane emissions per barrel of oil produced, according to the International Energy Agency.[2]

Cabimas, a city about 400 miles northwest of Caracas on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, is another center of regional oil production. There, the state oil company, PDVSA, built hospitals and schools, set up summer camps and provided residents with Christmas toys.

Now oil seeps from deteriorating underwater pipelines in the lake, coating the shores and turning the water a neon green that can be seen from space. Broken pipes float on the surface, and oil drills are rusting and sinking into the water. Birds coated in oil struggle to fly.

The collapse of the oil industry has left Cabimas, once one of the richest communities in Venezuela, in extreme poverty. . . .

The poor maintenance of the fuel production machinery in Lake Maracaibo has led to an increase in oil spills, which have contaminated Cabimas and other communities along its shoreline, according to local organizations focusing on the issue.

The gas flares that burn across parts of Venezuela also point to the enfeeblement of the country’s fossil fuel industry: So much gas spews into the atmosphere because there is not enough functioning equipment to convert it into fuel, experts say.

— Isayen Herrera and Sheyla Urdaneta, “Venezuela’s Oil Industry is Broken. Now It’s Breaking the Environment.”
New York Times, 22 Quintilis 2023.

So it goes, and so it goes, onward while the Maduro government continues to look at the wrecked machines and ruined livelihoods, the violence and filth and pestilence and famine that decades of its policies have left on what had been one of the world’s richest natural landscapes. And they open their mouths and say that the fault for this decade and more of grueling man-made disaster lies, entirely and as always, not with the party in power since the turn of the century, but with their political enemies. The Bolivarian Process must, if anything, continue, and deepen.

At a U.N. climate change summit last year, Mr. Maduro did not address the environmental damage resulting from his country’s hobbled oil industry.

Instead, he claimed that Venezuela was responsible for less than 0.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and blamed wealthier countries for causing environmental harm. (Experts say that figure is accurate and note that the country’s emissions have decreased as its oil industry has cratered.)

The Venezuelan people must pay the consequences of an imbalance caused by the world’s leading capitalist economies, Mr. Maduro said in a speech at the summit.

A top government minister, Josué Alejandro Lorca, said in 2021 that oil spills were not a big deal because, historically, all oil companies have had them. He added that the government did not have the resources to address the problem.

— Isayen Herrera and Sheyla Urdaneta, “Venezuela’s Oil Industry is Broken. Now It’s Breaking the Environment.”
New York Times, 22 Quintilis 2023.

Que se vayan todos.

  1. [1]In more detail: In my view the main effect of writing down the timeline in this sort of tightly bookended way, is to strategically and dramatically overemphasize the role that U.S. sanctions could possibly have played in the catastrophic collapse of the Venezuelan economy. Really this is not only the main effect but also one of the purposes of writing it up like that, in the interest of spreading some blame around in such a high-stakes, politically sensitive international story. And the U.S. government certainly deserves a lot of blame for its actions. The broad sanctions that the U.S. state imposed in 2019 are an awful policy that have produced predictably terrible effects and failed utterly even to produce anything like their intended effects; they should never have been considered and should be scrapped immediately and completely. That said, they are not the original or the chief cause of any of the disasters that have befallen the Venezuelan oil economy; they’ve just made an already awful and worsening situation even worse, even more rapidly. But mass protests over hyperinflation, crippling shortages and the collapsing economic situation — and violently repressive responses by the Maduro government’s formal and informal security apparatus — were already widespread back in the winter of 2013-2014 (2, 3, …). The situation had deteriorated into a heartbreaking humanitarian catastrophe of ever-greater proportions by 2016, and it just got worse and worse and ever more unbearably worse for years — a deterioration which the U.S.’s hostility only ever exacerbated and accelerated, but which had been going on for years and as a direct, foreseeable result of the actions that the Venezuelan government inflicted on Venezuelan workers, consumers and industry for years before the U.S. government added harsh general sanctions in 2019.
  2. [2][R.G. I checked; according to the IEA report, Venezuela comes in third after Turkmenistan and Algeria.]

We Took The “Copy” Out Of “Copyright”

Shared Article from the Guardian

Authors file a lawsuit against OpenAI for unlawfully â??ingesti…

Mona Awad and Paul Tremblay allege that their books, which are copyrighted, were ‘used to train’ ChatGPT because the chatbot generated ‘very acc…

Ella Creamer @ theguardian.com

The entire principle of copyright, and so-called intellectual property broadly, is and always has been basically obscene, censorious, tyrannical and absurd. But nearly the entire press discussion of generative Artificial Intelligence systems in connection with the arts and literature has been characterized by a really loopy disconnection from anything approaching even the real (if awful) state of copyright law or the principles behind it. This is partly because of the usual computers are magic, this changes everything! thoughtlessness of a great deal of tech journalism. It’s also partly because the entitled holders of copyrights have a really strong tendency, wherever there is someone to indulge their flights of fancy, towards the most ludicrous exercises of copyright maximalism. To be clear, this lawsuit would be bad and absurd enough if it were a normal assertion of copyright against, say, internet book pirates, or an attempt to police the boundaries of what’s allowed as fair use of copyrighted material quoted for a transformative purpose.[1] But this lawsuit is ludicrous even if taken on copyright’s own terms, even if you stipulate to the whole ridiculous pseudo-propertarian structure of intellectual and literary monopoly rights.

ChatGPT does not copy books. Nobody alleges that it’s producing a copy of anything. The system reads a whole lot of books (as well as a whole lot of other English text) and it analyzes how words are used in them. It uses this to prime a system which is, among other things, good at producing original content in the same language that summarizes those books, reports on them, imitates their style, or what have you, without reproducing the original text. Maybe some authors don’t like that the AI system has read their books. Tough luck; no law of copyright, whatever their other flaws, could be possibly read to imply a unilateral right to forbid people from reading books or from running computerized statistical analyses on their contents. Some copyright holders may be anxious or scared about what the ability of automated systems to create good summaries or reports or stylistic imitations and parodies of their work will imply about their social or economic prospects in the future, or the compensation schemes they have come to depend on. But that doesn’t make their anxieties a concern of copyright law. Copyright law was supposedly about controlling copying, not an open-ended prerogative to forbid, punish or shake down anyone who consumes the works they produce and to demand a veto over who can produces distinct, original summaries or analyses based on their contents. That’s bananas.

Reading: Emily Wilson, on Translations of the Iliad Book VI

Shared Article from nytimes.com

Exit Hector, Again and Again: How Different Translators Reveal t…

Over the years, some 100 people have translated the entire “Iliad” into English. The latest of them, Emily Wilson, explains what different approac…

By Emily Wilson @ nytimes.com

Anticopyright. All pages written 1996–2024 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.