NONFICTION: Looking at jobs that are outwardly condemned by a privileged class that subtly encourages the work.
"Dirty Work" by Eyal Press; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (320 pages, $28)
Journalist Eyal Press' latest book, "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America," will sully many readers' consciences.
In this study of jobs connected to the prison industry, drone warfare and slaughterhouses, Press examines the moral compromises demanded of employees who witness and participate in a slew of horrors.
A prison mental health counselor suspects inmates are purposely starved and beaten, but does nothing to stop it. A drone operator participates in a strike that mistakenly targets a woman holding a baby. In slaughterhouses, supervisors treat employees like machines "that became disposable the minute their bodies started breaking down."
Through interviews with workers in these industries, Press unveils environments that are deliberately hidden from public view. He also highlights the mental toll such work has on employees such as drone warriors who bounce across psychological boundaries daily, where "one minute they were at war; the next they were at church or picking up their kids from school."
As the subtitle of Press' book makes clear, though, his purpose goes beyond explaining the physical and psychological dangers of these jobs. Press wants readers to see the link between economic inequality and other "structural disadvantages that shape who ends up doing this work." More important, he wants to close the gap that allows the privileged to separate themselves morally from people who perpetrate our dirty work.
Press takes his book's title from sociologist Everett Hughes, who used "dirty work" to describe Nazi Germany's atrocities, "unethical activity that was delegated to certain agents and then conveniently disavowed" by the general public. To Hughes, Germans who had allowed the horrors of the Nazi regime to unfold "refrained from asking too many questions about the persecution of the Jews because, at some level, they were not entirely displeased." Rather than being "rogue actors, the perpetrators to whom this work was allotted had an 'unconscious mandate' from society."
Pulling information from sociological and economic studies, sometimes moving between sources at a dizzying pace, Press constructs a fascinating through-line that caries Hughes' analogy to our dirty work today.
We bemoan the state of overcrowded prisons, but as a society, we choose to understaff and underfund them. Drone warfare allows the rest of us to avoid thinking about war. With per capita chicken consumption tripling between 1960 and 2019, we now label the conditions in which chickens are raised, but we give little attention to the conditions of laborers who slaughter them.
The idea of shared sacrifice is embedded in this country's history, going at least as far back as the colonial era, when Thomas Paine wrote, "It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike."