Prisoners abound in this tour de force, but few are criminals. They are simply hapless men and women trapped in a system that counts on them to carry out tasks most of us cannot imagine doing ourselves, in places as varied as slaughterhouses, military drone-operating offices, and the control units of America’s grimmest prisons.
Eyal Press, a reporter who combines hard data and analysis with unsettling anecdotes, is a storyteller in the tradition of the best muckrakers. What makes his book especially urgent is the fact that the beleaguered people he profiles belong to a largely invisible and therefore forgotten workforce.
While an ongoing pandemic has highlighted the contributions of “essential” workers and given them a brief (and bittersweet) taste of fame, no one will ever celebrate the people in Dirty Work. There are no unsung heroes here – no teachers, nurses, or first responders. What little we know of their work makes us look at them askance, if not treat them with opprobrium. And yet, as Press shows, their jobs are vital to the running of our economy.
Press’s subjects are not self-pitying victims, but they do find their jobs demeaning and even morally compromising. Guilt often haunts them. One, a prison psychologist named Harriet, personally witnesses the degradation of inmates – and spends sleepless nights wondering whether she is another casualty of the system or its enabler. Why doesn’t she blow the whistle on what’s happening? Like many who subsist on lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, she lives in fear of being fired, and so does her best to suppress her conflicted emotions. Given the financial insecurity that forced her into accepting her position in the first place, she sees few other options for employment.
So, are people like Harriet guilty or not? It’s a question most of us never have to ask, relying as we do on the sacrifices others make so that we can breathe easy at night: violent criminals safely locked away, steaks at the ready in every supermarket, terrorists taken down in some high-stakes intelligence operation overseas.
For most of us, the dirty work others do is a necessary evil, apt to elicit little more than a passing thought. After all, when it is hidden behind institutional walls, it’s easier to rationalize or ignore. We expect prisons and sweatshops to be places of despair. And if the people who work there weren’t willing to carry out their tasks, wouldn’t others have to?
In a 1927 essay titled “The Individual and World Need,” Eberhard Arnold argues that collective guilt is an “inevitability” and proposes that “confessing” our personal co-responsibility for what is wrong in the world is a crucial step to becoming fully human. Eyal Press invites us to do precisely that: not just to educate ourselves, but to move from apathy toward compassion – the word means “to suffer with.” Dirty Work shows how our fortunes are inextricably linked with others’ fates. As long as we continue to turn a blind eye to their lot, we do so at their expense and our own.