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In The Walrus Deborah Campbell has a fascinating essay about Dubai. Noticeably, it’s true capitalism journalism: The journalist spends her time asking rich professionals and their servants what they think about Dubai while at the same time pondering how she can talk to the man who started it all, Sheikh Mohammed. When he does arrive in the story, he’s a desert mirage that disappears in the flash of a camera; what’s left in his place is some disgust at the ostentation and a more poignant awareness that the shadow of Dubai’s modernity is exploitation of poor laborers and the threat of terrorism. The better essay would never have allowed the laborers to remain nameless, voiceless gazers upon Ferrari-driving Arabs. She does mention that Dubai has legalized the deportation of union organizers, so it’s possible that voicelessness exists out of fear of retribution; however, eliding the poor is a classic trait of the genre of the travel portrait, and something about Campbell’s willingness to portray herself partying with the young and the wealthy makes me suspect her interest in the laborers is more an affect of social consciousness than social consciousness itself. That said, the essay’s still interesting.

And Marty, you’ve driven jet skis off the coast of Dubai. What say you?



I’ve been thinking about the workers in Dubai for a few months now. I’m really curious what would happen if there were widespread riots and protests.

By the sound of that essay, it seems like they’d be deported and replaced. Isn’t Saudi Arabia’s labor force similarly exploitative?—multinational, impoverished, working in the oil fields for slightly more than they can make at home?

Not if they organized and did it at once. They outnumber everyone else by a longshot.

Yeah, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, pretty much all the Arab oil monarchies are set up like this. Dubai is the most extreme though, I think. That’s more or less what pure capitalism looks like.

What really caught my attention was this:

“Now I understand we are all just part of the system. It’s not luck or goodness, but power that decides.”

The article, as you suggest I think, is full of this happy-go-lucky Tom Friedman “the world is flat!” attitude. It only hints at the seedy underbelly of such flatness, that the flattening out of the world as a global marketplace is the result of massive networks of coersive power.

This is all making me want to read Planet of Slums.

Thing is, it’s not like Friedman’s flat world or the young professionals Campbell follows and the architect parties she attends are illegitimate topics of essay writing or journalism. I mean, that stuff is happening, and there’s nothing gained in ignoring it. But there’s a legitimate question whether anything new is in fact being learned about the way the world is shaping up to be when those points be the sole foci of the essays and journalism out there. I mean, Campbell’s essay could be summarized as “rich people are doing some crazy expensive shit in the desert, and a lot of other people want some of that.”

I’m still reading Henry James—I’m on The Wings of the Dove now (having decided mostly to read his novels in reverse order of publication)—and sometimes it bugs me that so much of what he writes is gossip about wealthy people trying to live out the wealth they have. At the same time, I realize that much of the richness of revealed experience and awareness that James creates exists (so he would argue, anyway) precisely because his characters (mostly) have the freedom to do what they want. And James is a smart enough observer to recognize the rules—often, little more than elaborate social structures—that restrict their freedoms more than perhaps they should given the wealth they have. (Indeed, that’s pretty much the sum of Amerigo’s character in The Golden Bowl.) It’s probably unfair to compare Campbell to James, but surely there are limits to what the wealthy people of Dubai can accomplish, imposed by the tightrope of exploitation they walk, by their nominal identities as Muslims—something—that she could draw out more readily. Hers seems to be a wonder at wealth, not an understanding of it.

Well said re: Campbell’s marvelling at wealth. Indeed, one get’s a sense of inevitablility from her article rather than the sense that Dubai’s success may be built on some pretty tenuous political and economic foundations. Aside from the references to a terrorist attack, which don’t address why such attacks haven’t happened or why they might have the disastrous consequences Campbell assumes they would, there is little to suggest that this is simply the natural order of capitalism if only we’ll stop meddling with it.

Marty has created in me lots of disappointment, BTW.

I was wandering around a book store a bit tipsy a few weeks back, and bought The Golden Bowl on an impulse. I’m planning on getting through much of it on the flights home and back.

It’s dense, but worth the time & effort, I think. Bear in mind that the older couple, Mr. & Mrs. Assingham, are characters there to see & interpret the interactions of the other, primary characters. They’re funny, too, but their function in the narrative is hermeneutic.

Reading it is sometimes exhausting, though. It may be worth having another book to switch off between.

I’m about 20 pgs into it, and I can already see what you mean.

I’ll have computer games for when I need a break.

Surely I’ve mentioned this before, but maybe not: My mother once saw me pick up a copy of that book and said, “No! No! Don’t do it!”

She went through a phase where she was going to read all of James, but I guess that’s the one that did her in.

The project will probably do me in, too, (though I survived TGB) but I’m glad I am no longer being insane about it: I’m allowing myself to read other books simultaneously/in between.

one day i will set myself these kinds of projects. as it is, it is books for courses and essays, and the snuck-in read that makes me feel oh so guilty.

Get back to work, lazy!