Dirty Work, No Clean Hands.

AuthorLueders, Bill
PositionBOOKS - Eyal Press' "Dirty Work"

In October 1978, The Progressive ran a cover story by Sam Day, then the magazines associate editor, under the headline, "The Nicest People Make the Bomb."

It was about Day's guided tour of U.S. factories that built components for nuclear weapons. The people he met along the way confounded his expectations: They were friendly, outgoing, often holding liberal views, "as innovative and flexible as any you will find in business or government."

Not monsters at all.

And yet, the people Day encountered were doing something monstrous: building weapons that could cause unfathomable devastation and misery.

Eyal Press, a former contributor to The Progressive who now writes for outlets including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Nation, explores this paradox in his new book, Dirty Work, about the people whose jobs the rest of us would rather not even think about. They include a prison mental health worker and a prison guard, a Border Patrol agent, drone operators who deliver death remotely, workers in slaughterhouses, and those engaged in defiling the environment and infringing on individual liberty.

These people, he stresses, are working on our behalf.

Dirty work, he explains, "is contingent on a tacit mandate from the good people,' who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don't explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it." Such work is "chiefly reserved for less privileged people who lack the skills and credentials, and the social mobility and power, that wealthier, more educated citizens possess." And, to literally add insult to injury, they are then "stigmatized and shamed for doing low-status jobs of last resort."

Press, a good reporter and even better writer, introduces us to people who have worked these jobs, without the harsh judgment they have encountered elsewhere. We meet Harriet Krzykowski, a former worker for a private contractor providing mental health services at a prison in Florida where, in 2012, guards killed a mentally ill incarcerated Black man by spraying him with scalding water until his skin fell off. (None of them were ever charged.) Harriet's efforts to flag abuses were met with shrugs; years later, she still cries about not having done more to intervene.

We meet Christopher Aaron, a U.S. drone program...

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