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Dirty Work

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This book is a difficult read due to the descriptions of working conditions of society's undervalued, underpaid, "essential workers" who are doing the jobs needed to keep society going but are often viewed with disdain by average Americans.  Yet we have a co-dependent, complicit relationship with these jobs -- we just avert our eyes to what the working conditions are really like and shamefully blame the individuals in these jobs as having a lesser value on life or a different morality than others have -- all untrue and extremely harmful.  There is also a theme of corruption of power throughout the book that further compounds the lack of agency of individuals in these jobs.  I had to read through some of the sections fairly quickly due to the graphic descriptions of violence.  A very important read to shine a light on the "dirty work" we are unwilling to admit we as a society ultimately (and those in power) benefit from.
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To say this powerful book is eye opening is such an understatement. Author Eyal Press has put together a comprehensive collection of illustrative evidence that America runs on "dirty work" and moral inequity. From prisons, drone warfare, meat and poultry plants and farms and hotel housekeeping, to offshore drilling, so much of what virtuous consumers think they aren't abiding, they are actually complicit in sustaining. Released today, this research encompasses the historical and the up to date. Several subjects include COVID-19 impact.

Floggings, beheadings and hangings have been outlawed, as elites came to regard them as repellent, uncivilized... finding execution by lethal injection much tidier. And caging inmates (mainly black and mentally infirm) in hidden, segregated "isolation units," limiting medical care, clean linens, and access to food and water proves profitable. Meanwhile prison guards are made to feel devalued, so embarrassed about what they do for a living that they avoid talking about it. Workers killed on the Deepwater Horizon got less attention than images of wildlife covered in oil. The cheapness of American meat masks an array of hidden costs to the environment, to public health, to living animals, and to the industry's "dirty" workers. Virtuous consumption creates a virtue divide that all too often mirrors class divide. As political correctness ramps up, the obfuscation of suffering and greed intensifies. Virtue correlates with privilege.
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"Dirty Work" is a deeply harrowing, thought-provoking, and incisive indictment of the choices we make as a society to relegate morally dubious work to some of the least privileged and most disadvantaged groups among us. Buttressed with various case studies from select industries, Press argues that Americans have long disposed of the morally objectionable work to the less fortunate through an "unconscious mandate" while deflecting the blame and burden associated with engaging in such heinous work by quite literally reducing it to the shadowy corners of our world. In exposing the veins of hypocrisy that run through American society (or any society for that matter), Press sheds light on how using our proxy moral agents as scapegoats belies the classist/racist power dynamics that lead said agents to volunteer for such tasks in the first place. The illusion of choice, and the resulting shame, societal ejection, and accusatory branding that take place, all illuminate the ways in which the presence and tacit importance of dirty work speak more about us than about the workers who carry them out. 

Press does a splendid job introducing and applying various sociological concepts/terms and weaving them into the stories he's telling about the people he met and interviewed. All of the people he introduces have heartbreaking stories that raise consequential questions about the unspoken moral consensuses we've reached as it relates to the food we eat, the wars we wage, the people we (don't) let in our borders, the punishments we mete out to the most vulnerable populations, and other morally grey issues that make us squirm in our seats. Press skilfully calls out the privilege that underlies our ability to stand on some imagined moral high ground and spew judgment at ICE agents, all in the name of fighting forced separations of families, or at COs in the name of fighting mass incarceration, or at drone soldiers in the name of protecting peace, or at oil rig workers in the name of protecting the environment. Having such scapegoats obfuscates the reality and hard truth that these systems and institutions are in place because Americans chose to have it this way, and the people who are bearing the brunt of the morally injurious work are ironically the ones who can't afford to leave it behind. More importantly, our myopic focus on individuals who commit objectionable acts within such broken systems hinders our collective ability to question, expose, and hold accountable the systemic issues that are often the root cause. 

A horrifying pattern that Press observes is that calls around labor rights and conditions, such as the lethal working conditions in the meatpacking industry or the oil industry, often don't get the attention they deserve while ancillary issues surrounding the quality of our meat or the harmful effects of the oil industry on the environment do. Press aptly describes this as the more privileged class using virtue as a currency, "buying their way out of feeling complicit in the impure, dirty practices" of the industries they dare not look at for fear of seeing/knowing too much.

An essential, timely, and unequivocally illuminating book that I would recommend to anyone. If you enjoyed the journalistic rigor, informative observations, and perhaps shock value of books like "Evicted," you won't be disappointed with "Dirty Work."
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Disclaimer: I received this book as an ARC. No compensation was received other than the chance to read this work.

Dirty Work focuses on the jobs that society needs to keep certain things working, but society doesn't respect or value. Jobs like prison therapists, meat floor production workers, etc.

This book does a good job of looking into the psychological aspects of each job, using anecdotal evidence to show the impact this work has on those in the field, and positions each job within the political and sociological context in America.

Recommended for those who enjoy works such as The Sum of Us and  works that discuss behind-the-scenes at various jobs.
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Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This book is a deep dive into the demanding, and damaging, work that most Americans realize needs to be done, but ultimately doesn’t want to think about and certainly doesn’t want to hear about. The author focuses on prisons, not just the inmates, but specifically the guards and other workers who have to defer to the guards for their very safety. Also the ever increasing drone program and what that does to people who watch and recommend these strikes from miles, and sometimes several countries, away. The third focus is on the kill floors of meat packing plants. This is all such eye opening reporting as the author takes you back in time and moves to the present to show you how we got here. He also finds so many workers from the frontlines today who have fascinating and heartbreaking stories to share. Powerful reporting throughout.
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"Dirty Work" by Eyal Press is a nonfiction book comprised of descriptions about different sectors of employment in America that are unsafe, underpaid, and undervalued. The first section of the book, which is about mental health clinicians and the care of mentally ill people in prison, is basically an extension of Press's 2016 New Yorker article. It was interesting, and sad, to get a closer look into how impossible it is for people committed to helping mentally ill incarcerated people to actually do their jobs, not to mention that prisoners are tortured. The next section is about the people, a large percentage of whom are immigrant, working in the meatpacking industry. The "dirtiness" of this job in terms of the everyday nature of this occupation has only been exacerbated by the huge risks that employees were forced to take as essential workers during the pandemic. Many workers give up the already low wages earned in this job to take even lower wage jobs because of how brutal working in meatpacking plants is.  There is also a section of "Dirty Work" on drone operators working in the United States, an occupation that is often buried beneath our idea about who works in defense. The final section of the book highlights the emotional and physical hardships faced by people working in the energy and tech industries, and while these jobs tend to be much higher paying than those discussed in previous sections of the book, they are just as harmful. "Dirty Work" showcases the overall mistreatment, often allowed by shoddy laws, blind eyes, and corporate greed that is the standard in so many jobs in the United States. This book is really powerful and should open up many discussions about how we can create a healthier, sustainable environment for all workers.
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