Dirty Work by Eyal Press: A Review
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Note: I recently had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Eyal Press on his new book, Dirty Work. The book was recently very favorably reviewed in the New York Times. Mr Press, who had previously authored two books, has been published in the The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and is the recipient of many awards including a Puffin Fellowship.
I have written my own review of Dirty Work, which appears below. I hope you find it of interest. -JC
Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press is a hard book to read. But that's its point. Press's aim is to unearth the underside of American society by shining a light on those jobs that we don't want to see or ever think about.
Just as we turn away from refuse and waste with disgust, so we assign to people at the lower end of the economic ladder work that society requires but no one would do if not compelled by necessity. Press defines “dirty work” as work that “causes harm to others or non-human animals, often through the infliction of violence.” It is work that “we the 'good people' see as dirty and morally compromised.” It leaves those who do it “feeling devalued and feeling that they have betrayed their own beliefs and core values.” And lastly, dirty work is assigned through a tacit mandate of us “good people” who see this work as necessary but don't explicitly assent to. Consequently, it is work that necessarily falls to other people, with a collective understanding that someone else will shoulder the drudgery.
Morality lies at the center of the book. Press's thesis presents a powerful moral critique that touches upon three sets of actors. Through the existence of dirty work harm is suffered directly by other people, or in the case of slaughterhouses, non-human animals. Those who perform this work, and whose stories are the prime focus of Press's research, are oppressed from multiple directions by jobs that place them in inescapably miserable circumstances. And finally, there is the implicit harm done to society as a whole that persists and thrives on the labor that the rest of us choose not to know about.
The author focuses primarily on three venues and those who labor in them: Mental health workers assigned to prisons that have become de facto warehouses for the mentally ill; drone warriors who manipulate a joy stick and kill people thousands of miles away; and laborers in slaughterhouses, who dismember and dispatch animals, primarily chickens. There is also a chapter on the oil workers who experienced and died in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and descriptions of the hi-tech dirty workers in Silicon Valley who feel morally compromised by the social harm caused by their professions.
Press elaborates his thesis by narrating the lives and circumstances of individual dirty workers. The first is Harriet Krzykowski, a 30-year old mental health worker at the Dade Correction Institution, a prison forty miles south of Miami. Harriet has a bachelor's degree in psychology. She has two children, and a husband who was unemployed. Her job at the prison paid twelve dollars an hour.
What Harriet witnessed in the prison can only be described as horrifying. The facility was understaffed. The mental health unit was filthy, run down with mildewed walls and a kitchen rampant with cockroaches. Prisoners with mental health problems were kept in prolonged solitary confinement for arbitrary reasons, were routinely beaten by sadistic guards, and even food was withheld to the point of near starvation. One gets the sense that Harriet was caught in the maw of an impossible work assignment augmented by personal problems and a lack of resources.
Desirous of doing the right thing and helping those she was employed to serve, she at the same time feared that reporting abuse would bring retaliation from the guards whom she needed to protect her from the inmates. Given public sentiment, punishment, not rehabilitation, has become normative. A culminating event was the death of an inmate, Darren Rainey. Rainey, who had suffered from severe schizophrenia, had defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. He was taken by guards to the shower. Rainy was dowsed with water at180 degrees, and scalded to death. His murder was deemed accidental and his killers eluded accountability.
But corrections officers with a conscience often felt themselves caught in the middle as well. Press documents the added pressure on Black guards. Often working at the prison was the only employment available. Yet they found themselves accused by the inmates, most of whom were Black, of betraying their own community while working for the Man. At the same time, Black guards had to endure the racism and disrespect of other racist officers as well as police they encountered.
Press reports that Harriet left her position at Dade, but remained haunted by it. She felt like a “nobody” at Dade prison, and was caught in a moral haze, not being sure whether she was an instrument or a victim of the system.
A much different environment is that of drone warriors. Yet the emotional impact of killing far removed from the dangers to oneself on the battlefield is not what one might initially conclude.
This chapter perhaps has the greatest political relevance at the moment. The appeal of drone warfare at a time when Americans are weary of “endless wars” fought with little compelling purpose and without victory, makes warfare without risking American lives increasingly attractive – and also relatively shielded from public view. Barack Obama liberally employed drone attacks in Afghanistan, which were escalated by Donald Trump in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Joe Biden, no doubt, will continue that policy.
Functionally, killing by drone is often imprecise. Rather than the targeted enemy, thousands of civilians have been killed in recent wars. Far from being bloodless, drone warriors witnessed destroyed homes and villages and bodies burned alive. Perhaps among most graphic images Press reports is of a drone warrior targeting an enemy with his son nearby witnessing the assassination. After the killing, the boy was seen attempting to reassemble the body parts of his slain father.
While those who kill remotely don't experience roadside bombing, or the horrendous injuries that maim them on the battlefield, they do suffer psychological scars,- “grief, sadness, remorse,” related to killing - as well as guilt. Some of the emotional consequences were subtle. Because those controlling drones fight with physical impunity, killing people who could not fight back, such warriors were converted into murderers. Thereby they were depleted of any honor that comes on the battlefield. As Albert Camus observed, “You can't kill unless you are prepared to die.”
The most brutal scenarios Press depicts are those of the slaughterhouses. People, and I include myself here, when contemplating the ethics of meat eating, what often comes foremost to mind is the brutalization and slaughter of the animals. I have long been a vegetarian for many reasons, first among them is the basic ethical principle that it is simply wrong to cause gratuitous pain to sentient creatures. Factory farming, especially, causes agony to billions of suffering animals, more in the grotesque ways they are raised, in which they serve no purpose than to satisfy the end of human taste, - and exact profits for the producers - than in the slaughter.
But Eyal Press is to be commended by turning our gaze to the brutalization that human beings,the “shadow people,” as he calls them, endure under conditions that should not be found in any society that strives to pride itself on being civilized.
The brutalization of the animals is mirrored in the physical effects and the assault on the dignity of the workers who labor in these plants. He focuses on the plight of Flor Hernandez. I quote from the text:
(Flor) was assigned to “live hang” where workers hoisted live chickens out of crates and hooked them by their feet onto metal shackles that were fastened to the conveyor belt that circulated through the plant. Once attached to the belts, the birds passed through an electric current (which stunned them), an automated throat slitter (which sliced their necks), and a tank of scalding water (which loosened their feathers)...The first time Flor saw this, she cried and vowed never to eat chicken again. Most of the time, though, she was in too much agony to think about the chickens. Live hangers had to put sixty-five birds on the belt per minute, a frenetic pace that required lifting the chickens up two at a time, one in each hand, and then immediately reaching down to grab the next pair. For the larger men on the shift, repeating this movement for hours on end was grueling. For Flor, a petite woman with small hands, it was excruciating. After a few days, she could no longer feel her forearms, which were numb with pain. At night, she devoured painkillers to soothe her throbbing neck and shoulders.
The most humiliating ordeal of all was was requesting to go to the bathroom, which required stepping away from the lines...Because they were afraid of the supervisors, Flor learned, some of her female coworkers wore an extra pair of pants beneath their work uniforms and, when desperate, wet themselves on the production line.
The overwhelming number of slaughterhouse workers are immigrants and it's estimated one fourth are undocumented. It should not be hard to conclude that their life circumstance would cause them to not stand up for their rights or even know them. Such work has been identified as immigrant work. And since the work is itself so dirty that identity is transposed onto the workers themselves. Dirty work done by dirty people. The result is systemic degradation.
A central theme of the book is “moral injury” done to the workers themselves. Not only do they suffer economic oppression, but moral oppression as well. As Press notes, “Moral injuries were an occupational hazard for anyone whose job involved 'perpetuating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.'” Such moral injury can can inflict “stigma, self-reproach, corroded dignity, shattered self-esteem. In some cases, they include post-traumatic.. stress disorder...” Some of the workers Press describe suffered severely.
Reflecting on moral injury caused by carrying out work or witnessing abuse that violates one's core moral beliefs, I thought of the concept of a “divided conscience,” described by the philosopher, Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Movement. In private life we hold to one set of values, which we are often forced to deny in the public arena of work.
The largest question the book leaves us with is what does the persistence of dirty work say about society, about us? Clearly society is not a neat collectivity, a monolith.
Most disturbingly, Press includes discussion of Primo Levi, among the most eloquent and morally sensitive survivors to write about the Holocaust. Levi recounted that the Nazis in the extermination camps assigned the most degrading tasks such as cleaning up the ashes and participation in the selections of prisoners themselves in exchange for special privileges, such as an extra scrap of bread or the hope that they may be spared. The purpose was not solely to conserve manpower. It was to further degrade and burden the victims with guilt, and compromise them as much as possible. In Levi's view, those who took part in these acts of complicity should be treated not with judgment but with pity, given their extraordinary circumstances.
Press notes that the dirty workers, such as Harriet Flor and the drone warriors, however oppressed by economic necessity, unlike concentration camp inmates, had some moral discretion. They could complain, or quit. But as Press points out, this gray zone of choice might have heightened their sense of complicity and self-reproach. Their oppressive circumstances raised self-doubt, which in some cases may have aggravated their moral injury.
I came away feeling that the invocation of Nazism was illuminating but very disturbing. The Nazi extermination of the Jews and others was fueled by sadism. The gas chambers were the site of industrialized killing, killing factories. To be sent to the death camps was de facto torture. But the Nazis carried out additional torture within that torturing environment. And I recall a late colleague of mine, who survived Auschwitz, recounting that Nazi guards sustained erections as they herded Jews into the gas chambers.
While one should never invoke facile analogies between Nazism and our own society, even as many rightly feel we are on the precipice of losing our democracy to some form of authoritarianism, I cannot escape the speculation that the persistence of an underclass in American society – out of view and out of mind yet a reality the fruits of which the rest of us enjoy - is a form of sublimated societal sadism writ large. We are witnessing very disturbing outbreaks of sadism in the hate exhibited by previously marginalized groups that have become ominously normative. Perhaps more lies beneath. Much seems gray.
Press does not go there. Yet, in conversation with him I posed the question as to whether some degree of hierarchy is built into our existential condition. He replied that it might be, and he knows of no society free of social and economic inequality, and those that have attempted to make it so, have met disastrous ends. But he concluded that despite the pervasive power of capitalism, the conditions of dirty work and those who suffer its oppressions are not inevitable. They are a function of laws and policies, funding decisions and other choices that we have made. And different choices can be made. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to make those choices.
The first step is for us to know about the harm done to our fellow human beings whom society consigns to do our dirty work. And Eyal Press's powerful book has shined a bright light on those dark corners where we prefer not to look, but must.