Tag Archives: inequality

First Thoughts on Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”

I just cracked Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, open a few days ago. (I read Ann Goldstein’s translation from Italian.) It’s the first of four novels in a series. I tore through it. The last paragraph ends in a cliffhanger of the best type, and I’ve already put a hold request in at the library to get the second one. The book is beautifully written and the narrative engrossed me. It’s narrated by one character looking back on her friendship with another character as they grow up. The setting is in Naples, Italy. Most of the book is set in just one neighborhood.

Although the themes and symbolism are still percolating, I can say at this point that I loved the parallels between the two friends, the symbolism that the two of them expressed to one another knowingly (as well as other symbolism in the narrative), the cast of characters, and the inequalities discussed. One of the most important topics in the book is the connection between social class, education, mentorship, and relationships. The book interrogates both the broader societal conditions and relationships with other people, as well as the personal characteristics and traits that it takes to get an education. Until I finish the series, I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions. I highly recommend picking up the first book.



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“The Goblin Emperor:” An Optimistic Look at Incremental Social Change with Intrigue, Swashbucking, and Airships

[These spoilers are bigger than airships.]

As a part of my reading of the 2014 Nebula Award nominees, I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The award has already been given and went to Annilation, which I reviewed here earlier this year. Both books were gripping in strikingly different ways.  I don’t personally care much for horror so I got more pleasure out of reading The Goblin Emperor. At it’s core, The Goblin Emperor is an optimistic book.

Although I haven’t read them in years, I love the swashbuckling and courtly intrigue in the novels of Alexandre Dumas.  The story opens with Maia, the protagonist, receiving the news that his father, the emperor, as well as his brothers, were killed in an airship crash. He returns to court to become Emperor. There are many barriers to Maia becoming a successful Emperor: some internal and many external.

Addison does a great job of using the language of the book itself to give the reader a sense of how overwhelmed Maia feels at court. Name after name is introduced, and as a reader, I began to feel a bit bogged down. However, I feel that this was an intentional choice as it actually demonstrates how challenging it is to come to court ignorant of all the courtiers and various factions. Over time, as Maia (and the reader) become more familiar with the characters, it’s easier to understand.  Maia is ignorant, not unintelligent, which other characters in the book begin to realize. (There’s also stereotypes about goblins by the elves that lead to assumptions that Maia is unintelligent, among other things.)

The book explores inequality and shows how Maia was treated by elves due to his goblin heritage, including stereotyping and discrimination. I also like the fact that Maia, although he is a young man, treats women as equals with their own interests. He is a good ally to his sister for example, when he allows her to study the stars instead of forcing her to immediately marry for political reasons. His repeated and supportive actions of women allow other women to begin trusting him, including his fiancé, a swordswoman. It’s a lovely look at how being disadvantaged in one category should allow for empathy towards other disadvantaged groups. Certainly, this empathy doesn’t always develop, and individual’s in one oppressed group may oppress another.

The book also deals with the inherent problems of monarchy.  It’s quite easy to see in their society how the particular personality of the ruler combined with the ultimate power of the position could lead to negative outcomes for people in their society.

In a storytelling sense, the novel couldn’t end with the “success” of those who wanted to depose him because the reader is likely rooting for Maia, the underdog, even though he is the emperor.  However, one of the people who masterminded the attack on the monarchy points out that they actually did change things for the better for the people.  While some of those behind the attack wanted to end monarchy altogether, their actions placed Maia on the throne, who had already shown himself to be more liberal and caring in his policies than many of his predecessors. He is concerned with workers’ rights, for example. Change is incremental, as this books illustrates. Even if democracy exists as a theory, it takes time to change the structure of the society, as well as the culture and beliefs of the individuals in the culture. (I think that this is an important point to remember when countries invade other countries to “free” them. If the people of the invaded country aren’t yet ready culturally or structurally for the change, it becomes challenging to make changes.)

All in all, this was a delightful read about power, in-groups and out-groups, stigma, stereotypes, social change, and more. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes tales of diplomacy, swashbuckling, and a more optimistic look at the future of society’s social change. It’s refreshing to see a novel about a character who isn’t perfect but tries to be morally good.

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Warsan Shire’s “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” and Refugees

A dear friend gave me a copy of Warsan Shire’s “teaching my mother how to give birth” over the holidays, and I’ve been savoring the book, published in 2011. In fact, I just finished it tonight. Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet who currently resides in London. The poems and essays deal with many topics surrounding women’s lives and experiences. She has powerful things to say about refugees and immigration in Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre.) The first part of this amazing piece is read by Warsan Shire here. It gave me shivers.

I found the last part, not included in the recording, particularly powerful, and potentially useful in my social diversity class:

I hear them say go home. I hear them say fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this ignorant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency, waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side (Shire 27).

Although I teach about immigration in class, I don’t know much about refugees.  According to this piece from the Guardian, the number of people forced to flee their homes has crossed 50 million last year. This is the first time the number has crossed this threshold since World War II. While there are various reasons people are forced to abandon their homes, the solutions need to be political. The solutions also need to address women and children’s needs, as they are at a particular disadvantage as refugees.  Furthermore, human traffickers take advantage of displaced persons for their own ends, and this needs to be addressed. Once people arrive in a new country like the United States or Germany, they face many barriers, as is discussed in this article from the American Sociological Association about refugees in the city of Dayton.

Until we address topics like global inequality, war, and climate change, millions of people will continue to suffer, year after year. As Warsan Shire points out with her line “escaping the mouth of the shark,” refugees escape dire situations only to arrive in places where they don’t fit in and often aren’t welcome.  It’s our jobs both as individuals and collectively to decide how we can help the refugees in our communities. I want to investigate this organization in Raleigh to see if there are opportunities to help in my own city. 

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Naming, Race, and Gender in the “Stuff You Missed in History Class” Podcast: A Focus on Ballerina Maria Tallchief

I often listen to podcasts during my commute, and today, I listened to a podcast from “Stuff You Missed in History Class” that I’m planning to use as material for my social diversity class.  Before getting into the specifics, I want to note that many of these podcasts supplement undergraduate sociology classes fabulously because they are relatively short, as well as covering fascinating historical figures. Often, these figures face, and sometimes overcome, adversity relating to inequality in their societies.  Many of the podcasts also work well for illustrating how norms and values change depending on both location and time period. The podcasts allow for students to connect the individual experiences of these figures to the societal context that influenced their lives. They’re great for illustrating C. Wright Mill’s concept of sociological imagination.  (I also listen to these podcasts to get story ideas for my creative writing, although that is less relevant to this post.  I recommend that writers listen to these for character and setting ideas.)

A recent episode covered Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in the United States, who happened to be Native American, a part of the Osage Nation.  She traveled the world and won many awards.  I find that it helps when teaching concepts to my students to bring in people’s narratives.  One of the concepts that I cover is that of naming.  We discuss naming at an individual, personal level, as well as at a societal level. For example, my students discuss times when they’ve had difficulties with their first or last names due to ethnicity (e.g. teachers refusing to learn to pronounce their names).  Others will discuss family tensions over whether or not to change a her last name when she marries.  Then, we discuss how categories of people choose to change their names over time, often to avoid stigma.  For example, today, we often use persons with disabilities instead of a term like handicapped. This will likely change in the future.

Although named Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, according to the podcast, children (and others) had a difficult time with her last name. They constantly wanted to know which one was really her last name.  Although she was not an immigrant, her experience reflected one that many immigrants to the U.S. face. Many immigrants would shorten or change their last names to fit into the racial hierarchy in the U.S. Her choice likely related to her performing career. This podcast would also work in terms of showing the story of a relatively recent minority woman’s success in her career field. Her family was wealthy so it’d also be interesting to discuss how that may have impacted their ability to have her in dance schools from such an early age. (This blogpost will tell you more so you can decide if you want to listen to the podcast.)

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Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett

“Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain Kirk

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” Neil Gaiman

My spouse has always liked the sentiment behind the above quote by Captain Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’d argue that we don’t just need our pain; we need our anger, too.  Our anger is valuable and should be respected. Yet, it also needs to be tempered.

One of the points that Arlie Hochschild makes in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling, is that societies have rules for feeling. In certain situations, we’re expected to feel a particular way and, at times, our feelings actually violate those rules. In the case of the workplace, the expectation is that we ignore (and express) certain emotions for our wages. This is called emotional labor.

Hochschild studied flight attendants, who were expected to express emotions like happiness, even when they were being treated poorly. They were supposed to ignore their real feelings of anger or sadness. Hochschild posits that this can lead to negative outcomes for people like alienation, or estrangement. (The last time I researched this topic, researchers had found support both for and against various harms relating to emotional labor.)

Often, people fear anger because they view it as inherently destructive. We’re told to repress or not display it, especially if we’re women in the United States. Women who fail to follow the norm are often seen as deviant and are often subjected to name calling or worse.

People often misunderstand and blame the emotion itself instead of the action a person takes. Our society teaches men, as a part of masculinity, for example, that they should act out violently when they experience anger. There is a great video from 2001 called Tough Guise that looks at how the media has played a role in intensifying violent masculinity in the United States. (There is a sequel that I haven’t seen yet called Tough Guise 2.)

This blog post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s article in The Guardian yesterday called “Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly.  He’s angry.’” According to Gaiman, Terry Pratchett is well aware of his anger. And he chooses to channel it into something constructive.

Anger just is.  When we’re angry, we have choices about how to act (or not act.) When we experience certain emotions, we can turn to our tool box of skills to decide how to proceed.  Perhaps, in some moments, the right response is to sit with our anger and not act. But when it comes to social justice, I believe the correct response is to learn more about inequality, to teach others about inequality, and to protest inequality, by whatever skills we possess. A fantastic fiction writer like Terry Pratchett uses his anger and writing skills to expose the problems of his society through fantasy. A social activist like Martin Luther King, Jr. used his anger for speech writing and leading protest to gain equality. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls out the people and institutions he found infuriating and disappointing.

Yet, sometimes, our anger can be misleading. Often, privileged individuals feel a sense of anger or indignation when they learn about the point of view of disadvantaged individuals, or when the disadvantaged are fighting for their rights. It’s really important as an actor who cares about equality to ask ourselves, is my anger justified?  Am I angry because of injustice?  Or am I angry because my own privilege is being challenged? Am I angry because I think that someone from the disadvantaged category doesn’t like me, instead of actively listening to the other person?

Of course, this position assumes that equality is an worthy goal as a cultural value. Anger on the behalf of the less powerful can be a great motivator to raise awareness and advocate for equality. The reason why I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that he actually takes time to explore stratification. I’ve been slowly savoring the series, and I’m about half way through it. His art helps me to reflect on identity and inequality. Both his Guards series and his Witches series cover these important topics.

One of my favorite Discworld characters is Granny Weatherwax, who is angry about injustice. (I even named my car after the character years ago.) She states: “And sin, young man is when we treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Although I read this book years ago, I’m still using this quote when chatting with people about materialism and inequality. This is the power of literature. This is the power of the author, in this case Terry Pratchett. Although I have no personal connection to Terry Pratchett, I will miss his insightful commentary and his great wit. (I wrote a blog post on “Maskerade” and identity back in 2013, if you want to read it.)

One of the reasons that I value art of all kinds so much is that it allows us to engage our emotions, even the ones seen as less “valuable” by society. It allows us to experience the world through many different lenses. We need writers like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and so many others to help us feel the emotions that our society might tell us to keep locked away. We need researchers, journalists, and social activists like Naomi Klein, Sarah Jaffe, and Jackson Katz using their anger to push for structural social change.

Yet, the efforts public figures are not enough. We need individuals to challenge their family, friends, students, and others when injustice is occurring.

How will you best use your anger?

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The Exploration of Social Class Privilege in “Valour and Vanity” by Mary Robinette Kowal

[Huge spoilers.  Beware.]

Mary Robinette Kowal’s most recent work, “Valour and Vanity” dazzled me with its insightful exploration of privilege, social class, and social stratification through a heist plot. This fourth book in her series of Glamourist Histories follows her protagonists, Jane and Vincent, who can create magical illusions called glamour.  Throughout the series, they push the boundaries of their craft, which is relevant to the plot of this book, as they have developed a technology that criminals want to steal to sell. Jane and Vincent are artists but privileged artists. Sir Vincent is the Prince Regents’s official glamourist and is privileged due to this superior connection. All societies have a socially constructed hierarchy called stratification, in which some people have more power, wealth, or other privileges. Kowal pays meticulous attention to the historical time period in which she writes, the Regency, and her characters visit different European nations throughout the series.

The privilege of Jane and Vincent is established at the beginning of the novel. The types of problems they encounter are certainly important to Jane, but are “of the prosaic sort: which carriage to take, how to arrange their party’s quarters, and, most of all, how to manage her mother’s nerves” (11). Jane begins the novel ready to leave her family and travel alone with Vincent to work on a Glamour project in Murano. They are beset by pirates (or so they think) en route, and they lose all their valuables and are threatened with slavery. A banker onboard offers to help them by paying a ransom for them.

At the port office in Venice, it becomes apparent that their slide down the social classes has begun. They have lost some of their privilege, as no one believes that Vincent is the Prince Regent’s glamourist. For example, they can’t enter the city due to an entry fee, nor do they have a change of clothes, food, or shelter. A rich banker, Signor Sanuto, was aboard the ship when they were boarded by the pirates and offers to help them. On his charity, they are allowed to leave. He helps them establish a line of credit through his bank, loans them clothes, and allows them to stay at his palazzo. For a time, Jane and Vincent seem stable: they replace their clothes and even buy a replacement cane for the one that Sanuto lost during the pirate raid. They begin to work on their glamour project with the glassmakers, and time passes. Eventually, they truly plummet down the social classes when they are victims of a heist. The glasses that they make containing called Verre Obscuri are stolen, and Sanuto disappears.

Jane and Vincent are left destitute, and their friend, Lord Byron is out of town. They are forbidden from leaving Murano with no shelter, clothes, or food. Kowal does an excellent job showing the emotions that Jane and Vincent experience like anger, anxiety, and depression. They are treated in a stigmatizing way in the first church that they visit: the priest assumes that Vincenet lost all their money gambling.  He then proceeds to act as if they are the guilty parties.  The priest offers Jane a place to stay, but Vincent would not have had one.  The priest  states: “‘Venice’s charities are intended to provide means for those who cannot fend for themselves. Women, children, and the lame or ill’” (165). Jane refuses. They decide to pawn Jane’s wedding ring, although Vincent was loathe to do it because he felt he was failing at their marriage vows. They are able to rent a tiny room above a grocer, although they go to sleep with no food. Part of Jane’s privilege is revealed; she has never made more than toast and tea. Nor does she know how to launder clothes.

At this juncture, Kowal explores the intersection of gender and social class in occupation. Although ladies like Jane do not have a profession, lower class women did have professions like dressmakers and cooks.  Furthermore, the point is made that while glamour is considered a woman’s art, the only professionals in the field are men. Vincent comments that it is more “natural” for women to stay in the home to which Jane ponders giving him a copy of a book on “The Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft, which is an actual book you can read through the Gutenberg press online for free. Vincent plans to demonstrate his glamour abilities door to door, and they happen upon a church that the swindler had mentioned to them earlier. Jane manages to gain employment there.  It turns into a fulfilling experience for her over time.  The nuns teach her many skills including bread making, and eventually, she starts teaching the young pupils glamour in relation to their music lessons. This work, for Jane, is the opposite of alienating work.  She feels pride and gets to work on the whole product. Furthermore, she discovers a passion for teaching.

Contrastingly, Vincent has trouble finding employment. This line by Vincent is the experience of many educated people today in a stagnant United States economy: “‘Today, I attempted to acquire a job hauling bricks for a mason.  I was declined.  Apparently, I have the hands of a gentleman and am unsuited for ‘real work’’” (192).  This relates to the fact that many people in the United States (and elsewhere) are unable to find work relating to their educations or are underemployed.

When Vincent finds a job doing glamour and is reticent to discuss it, Jane fears that he is working as a coldmonger, which is dangerous work, established in a previous book. Often, the most dangerous and dirty work of a society is given to those in the lower social classes because they don’t have many options.  The dangerous work done in coal mines and textile mills are great examples of work that has immediate or long term dangers.

One poignant scene getting at the differences in social class is when “the more wealthy simply rode through the rain in sedan chairs or upon the water in gondolas, leaving the task of getting wet to their drivers.  In that moment, Jane would have been happy just to be able to afford an umbrella.” (215)  In another scene, a store clerk stereotypes Jane and states “no credit.” Jane buys a bar of lavender soap due to this interaction.When Jane begins to question the clerk about her assumptions, the clerk admits that they often get thieves in the store. The clerk apologizes and asks Jane if she used to be a lady.  Jane feels as if the woman was blaming her for her poverty.  (This reminds me of this short video, “Cracking the Code,” that is on race but relates how to how store clerks stereotype certain categories of people.)

Vincent and Jane fight over the purchase of the lavender soap.  It has been established earlier in the book that the couple had a warm, friendly relationship with calm conflict resolution.  Their change in circumstances (e.g., the stress) leads into more heated conflict.  One problem is that Vincent is upset that Jane is bringing in more money. Jane and Vincent fight about who does the household chores, quite reminiscent of many modern conversations. In fact, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, looked at these topics in “The Second Shift” originally published in 1989. This book is an easy read and still relevant to modern issues. The second shift is the idea that when (usually) women get home from their paid work, they have to do the household and care work in the home. Interviews were conducted with dual career couples. While “The Second Shift” is about a later time period and a different place, it is relevant to the conflict faced in the book.

There were three different ideologies: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. Before their downward social mobility, Jane and Vincent were essentially both working as elite professionals and would likely fit into the egalitarian mode. They shared similar power in their relationship in terms of decision making and did similar work. (Although due to her gender, Jane is not recognized for her contributions by society.) They could afford to employ others to do the second shift. Today, many professionals hire maids to compensate for not having a spouse in the home.  However, Vincent’s comment that women were more naturally suited for the home would fit in with a traditional ideology, in which the man works outside the home and the woman works inside the home.  Usually, women have less power in these relationships over major decisions.  Transitional ideology occurs when it assumed that women will both work outside of the home and fulfill the housework and childcare.

At the end of the book, after Jane and Vincent complete a dazzling heist of their own, they return to their previous station and social class.  They realize how privileged they were and things that had seemed normal to them at the beginning of the book seem like luxuries: eating pastries, enjoying lavender soap, and the return of Jane’s wedding ring.  I love this line of Kowal: “Jane…knew that she would always love him, for richer, for poorer.  With and without soap” (382). In the final chapter, they pay off their debts, restore their clothes, etc.

As they walked along in their new clothes, Jane notes “Today the other passers-bye saw her, but as a fitting part of Murano rather than as a bit of refuse that they would prefer not to acknowledge” (384).  Kowal is spot on in her analysis of how people treat the poor and homeless.  People often look past these groups as if they are invisible. They are stigmatized and often blamed for situations created by the larger political and historical changes happening around them.

Kowal’s book is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. It is my favorite so far. I highly recommend it and the entire series.


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Art, Inequality, and “Dirty Work” in “Wasteland”

“The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.”

Vic Muniz

Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors.  The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.

Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.

As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied.  Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment.  They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill.  These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.

On the other hand, some seemed ashamed.  More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes.  This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology.  The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes.  Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty.  This concept is about more than just physical dirt.  It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect.  Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work.  Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others.  (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)

While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.

For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho.  Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity.  One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.

In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas.  Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill.  The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one.  They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores.  Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video.  Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.

I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video.  In 2012, the landfill was closed.  The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.  For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling.  However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.

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