Warning: Some listeners may find the sensitive content discussed in this episode disturbing.
Who is complicit in some of society’s dirtiest work? If you grill a steak, someone somewhere had to butcher the cow under brutal working conditions. Our 20-year war on terror has been fought much the same way, with a relatively small group of our fellow Americans doing difficult, morally fraught work that allows huge majorities of Americans to live in blissful ignorance. In “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America,” Eyal Press explores the nature of our implicit social contract around dirty work: who does the work itself and what story does it allow society to tell about itself?
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Just a heads up for listeners, there's a number of pretty intense sensitive topics we discuss in this episode. Just so you know ahead of time.
Eyal Press: My interest as a reporter is not just individuals navigating treacherous situations, but social inequality and the sort of larger structural forces that bear down on individuals when they're having to make these choices, that lead some people to dirty their hands, and others not to. Or, to think of it another way, who sleeps well at night and who doesn't?
Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening with me, your host Chris Hayes. I've been thinking and I think a lot of people have been thinking around this time about the war in Afghanistan as this multi-decade project that has now come to an end.
At least in one phase as Spencer Ackerman warned, we can't be sure it's the final phase of the war on terror and in fact we can imagine there will be continued air strikes and drone strikes in Afghanistan. But as you're thinking about it, one of the things that has been so striking is hearing veterans that served in Afghanistan and then reading some of the journalism that's come out of Afghanistan including an incredible piece in The New Yorker by Anand Gophal, which I can't recommend highly enough.
Which is about the sort of experience of folks in rural Afghanistan of the war. And what you realize is how removed the vast majority of Americans have been from this war we've waged. People were compiling this data to show that the evening news networks had spent more time on Afghanistan in a week than they had on the war in the previous five or 10 years or something like that.
And I have to say I have a show myself, I'm guilty of the same. We did more Afghanistan coverage in the week of the pull out than we had done probably in the previous year. That the war had been effectively outsourced to a relatively small group of people that served in it, and contractors.
Those include people that were operating drones remotely and people that were actually there, and contractors were actually there, and then of course, the people that live in Afghanistan, the 50 million folks who have had to deal with the repercussions of our violence, of the violence of the Taliban, of the incredible depredations of the government there.
But you really do get the sense of there was this job that we as a people said had to be done over the course of four administrations that we told the people that signed up for the U.S. Armed Services to do, and then just kind of washed our hand sort of.
We just didn't really do a lot about it. We didn't really think about it. I felt this palpable frustration from veterans about precisely this, and some of whom have been on WITHpod about the fact that they come back having been traumatized or sometimes not.
But have had these experiences, these incredibly profound experiences, sometimes beautiful moments of camaraderie, sometimes unbearable tragedy, sometimes what we call moral injury which is the intense guilt that comes from being the person who commits an act of violence.
It's something we'll talk about a little bit in this hour. And they come back to a society where it's, like, "Oh, Afghanistan, are we still there?" And that dynamic where there are things being done in our name, or to our putative benefit, by our government, or by the institutions of modern American capitalism that essentially produce the goods and services we use, but are morally treacherous, or at least morally fraught, brutal to do, and not really high status or celebrated.
That's an entire category of work that happens in society. And the name of the category that today's guest, Eyal Press, gives it is dirty work. And he's going to talk a little bit about what that term means and where it originated. But his new book is called, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.
It's out this year. It's an incredible book, Eyal's just a phenomenal writer and reporter, he's also a sociologist, and storyteller. It's kind of a genre-defying piece of work. It tells primarily three interwoven stories, and we'll talk about those.
But it leaves you with this expansive new sense of what our moral obligations are, and all of the moral treachery involved in the kind of corrupt bargains we make both through the market and through governments about who does what work. And Eyal's someone I've known and is a friend, and I have admired him for a very long time. So it's a great occasion to have Eyal on the program. Welcome, Eyal.
Eyal Press: Thank you so much, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.
Chris Hayes: I want to start with something personal if that's okay, can we do that?
Eyal Press: Sure.
Chris Hayes: Tell me about where you grew up and your mom and dad.
Eyal Press: Sure. So I grew up in Buffalo, New York and I was part of an immigrant family that came from Israel. My father's Israeli, my mother's Romanian. And we came to Buffalo in the early '70s, actually in 1973. And that's significant because my father came to do his medical training.
And as I wrote about in my first book, Absolute Convictions, he ended up becoming both an OBGYN and an abortion provider, and unexpectedly found himself on the front lines of probably the most volatile and violent social conflict in the United States, or at least in Buffalo, during the time that I grew up.
I grew up totally unable to understand it. It was something that I only kind of went back to to kind of try to figure out. But I think in a way seeing my father go through what he went through, death threats, patients who sometimes thanked him in tears, and other times protesters who screamed at him as he was going to work, made me want to write about, you know, how do we navigate those situations? What would I do? What would anyone do? What should you do, and how do we think about principles versus convenience in a way.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, Buffalo at that time is basically the epicenter of the most intense fight over abortion with the most kind of, like, radicalized Operation Rescue forces, right, deployed there. I know Michelle Goldberg who's a friend of ours, this was very formative for her.
She also grew up in Buffalo around a sort of similar time period and this was kind of her formative political experience, but I can imagine, you know, well, I don't have to imagine, I read your first book. But, you know, living through that with your father as a target of that, it just must have been an incredibly intense experience.
Eyal Press: It was incredibly intense. And actually I never really wanted to write about it because it felt dangerous, it felt painful, it felt like every immigrant family is sort of trying to fit in in some ways. And yet here was my father doing his job and standing out because of what he was doing.
But the turning point was 1998 when a colleague of his, Barnett Slepian was murdered, was shot by a sniper, after he'd come home from Temple, standing in the kitchen of his home. He had three sons and I heard that news the next day. And the only thing I heard at first was that an abortion provider in Buffalo had been shot.
And so the initial sort of holding my breath and wondering, "Wait a minute, who? Where?" And the fact that it was so close to home, someone my father worked with and knew, made me just feel like, I have to go there as a reporter and write about it, and think about why did this particular thing become so volatile?
Chris Hayes: And your mother, if I'm not mistaken, is a Holocaust survivor?
Eyal Press: Yes. Her parents were taken to a camp in Transnistria where the Romanian Jews were taken during World War II. And my mother, according to family lore, as far as we can tell, was the first child born in that camp. And so the--
Chris Hayes: My god.
Eyal Press: --again, just questions of how did they survive? Who helped them? Who took risks to help them? These were stories that me, and my cousins, and other people in my family have kind of collected, and that have kind of obsessed me for a long time.
Chris Hayes: And your last book kind of grows out of this. The reason I'm asking you about this is because I think there's a trajectory here. Your last book is about people who in the face of tremendous pressure to do the wrong thing stand up and say "no" and do the right thing.
And, you know, Schindler's List is a sort of Hollywood example of that, but your book talks about a whole variety of folks, some well known, some not, who kind of have this incredible moral calling to reject the kind of banality of institutional evil they might find themselves embedded in.
Eyal Press: Yeah. The second book, Beautiful Souls was about people who defy unjust orders in these sort of gradation of situations starting with the Holocaust, actually. I look at a Swiss border captain who's told, "Don't let Jews into the country," and he does let them in, all the way to a financial whistleblower in the United States, kind of trying to bring it much closer to home.
Eyal Press: But I think that through that book and maybe in this new one as well, I think we all kind of live versions of these dilemmas in less intense forms, right? It's hard to think of anyone who at some point isn't at that moment thinking, "Hmm, the convenient thing, or the principled thing?" I certainly know that as a reporter and as a writer I've been at that crossroads many, many times.
Chris Hayes: I mean, every run down I make is a battle in my head about that. (LAUGHTER)
Eyal Press: Right.
Chris Hayes: I think I'm sort of a little neurotically and excessively tortured on this front. I think there's very little escaping it in anything you do, and in some ways I think that's one of the - that brings us to this book, which is a little bit of the flipside of Beautiful Souls, kind of.
I mean, which is not to say that the people that you profile are ugly souls. But these are people who are, I don't know what the right word, I think morally treacherous is what I would say. Morally complicated, morally fraught work that is not particularly valued monetarily, and not particularly valued in terms of society or status, is needed work for the people that are doing it. And is done outside of our eyes, we don't see this work. It happens largely in dark corners in the background. And can be very brutal and dehumanizing.
Eyal Press: Yeah, so the origins of the book I now realize came when I was writing Beautiful Souls and really focusing on the people who kept their hands clean and took enormous risks to do so. But as I was talking to those people, I kept coming in contact with the folks who hadn't managed to do that, right, who had dirtied their hands to some extent.
Whether it was in the financial industry, or I think in particular, of a night I spent in The Balkans, because one chapter of Beautiful Souls is set in The Balkans, talking to veterans of the ethnic cleansing campaigns that sort of just tore apart the entire former Yugoslavia.
And the people who I was talking to where 18, and 19, and 20 years old when that had happened. And they went along with it. And you could see the imprint of it, right, the brokenness, in a sense, the moral injury. I mean, I didn't know that term at that time.
And honestly I felt at that time some impulse to judge them, you know, like, "How could you have done this?" You know, "How could neighbors turn on neighbors, right?" But as I sort of got away from the immediacy of that, I kept thinking, "How different am I?" And, you know, "What would any of us do under pressure?" And so this new book is really kind of taking that question to an American context.
Chris Hayes: Is this something, I mean, maybe I'm disclosing something about myself that I shouldn't, but, like, I feel like from a very young age this is a question I was obsessed with. But I can't tell if it's a universal thing with all kids. I feel like my first learning about the Holocaust, whenever that was, which was probably, you know, 7, 8, 9, somewhere in there probably, or, you know, The Diary of Anne Frank, and knowing that there were people that stood up.
Like, would I do that, would I be brave enough to do that and stand up to the Nazis and do the right thing or would I not? That question always seems, like, so haunting and front of mind about everything. I always project myself into these situations. I guess that's sort of universal, right? We all do that.
Eyal Press: Well, you mentioned being particularly obsessed with it, I think given my family history, whatever level of neurosis you attribute to yourself on this question, I would multiply it by five. (LAUGH)
Chris Hayes: Well, you've got a special case.
Eyal Press: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, I mean, you come by it very honestly.
Eyal Press: But, you know, I guess the other pull in sort of my interest as a reporter is not just kind of individuals navigating those treacherous situations, but social inequality and larger structural forces that bear down on individuals when they're having to make these choices, that lead some people to dirty their hands, and others not to.
Or to think of it another way, who sleeps well at night, and who doesn't, right? You mention this 20 year war we've had, and there were kind of these moments of, as a country, oh, this is the flicker of conscience sort of nationally, right? Abu Ghraib, for example. The sort of moment when--
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Eyal Press: --those photographs appear and the whole country says, "Wait, what has this led us to do? And to sanction?" But what's so interesting about that, and it's sort of a metaphor for Dirty Work I think is, "Who got blamed?"
Chris Hayes: Lynndie England.
Eyal Press: Right.
Chris Hayes: And everyone else walked.
Eyal Press: Right. (LAUGH) Everyone else walked, and no senior officials. And it's not different with Mỹ Lai, it's not different with other sort of famous historical cases in the United States. So that just got me thinking, like, who dirties their hands in the society and who doesn't? And how does that map out given the extreme inequality--
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Eyal Press: --you know, along class lines, along racial lines, et cetera.
Chris Hayes: So I think there's two really interesting kind of foundational sociological ideas, maybe we start with them. We could talk about the stories of the people in the book. There's the phrase "dirty work" and its origins in an American sociologist who's actually in Germany right after the war, tell me about that.
Eyal Press: Yeah. So that sociologist, Everett Hughes, taught at the University of Chicago, had hugely influential and famous students, among them Howard Becker, and Erving Goffman, but Hughes himself is kind of forgotten. But he wrote this essay based on the time he spent in post-war Germany.
And the essay's called "Good People and Dirty Work," and it was published in 1962. And in it, Hughes talks about the conversations he had during that time he spent in post-war Germany with, you know, in a sense these what he calls "good people," though maybe there should be air-quotes around that, cosmopolitan intellectuals, journalists, people who see themselves as having nothing to do with the Nazi project.
And in fact, when he brings up the Nazi project, what they tell him is exactly what you would expect which is, "I'm ashamed of this. I feel nothing but shame." But then he hears this sort of second, you know, one evening he sort of crystallizes this, he spends at an architect's house. And the architect says, "Yeah, I'm ashamed of this. But you know, the Jews, they were a problem. And something had to be done to settle that problem. They were taking all the good jobs, they were," you know.
Chris Hayes: I mean, the quote that he has in there is unreal. He says they were, "lice-ridden, around with their caftans. You have to understand, they were poor, and they were dirty, but also they were making all this money. They were ten to one in doctors." I mean, it's literally, he just unspools Nazism, straight Nazi propaganda about the Jews.
Eyal Press: Exactly. And yet he's a person who sees himself as not having anything to do with it. And so out of that conversation, and Hughes kind of had a genius for this, he would take these little snippets of conversation and turn it into a larger theory.
And so the larger theory in this essay is the good people and the dirty work are connected, right? We like to think they're not. But actually there's what he calls an "unconscious mandate" going on here. So the deal is, it's not that the good people, it's not that that architect, you know, sort of explicitly says, "Yes, I'm for the Nazi program."
It's more that he doesn't want to hear what's being done to solve what he himself says is a problem, and exactly in the horrible language you just described, right? And so Hughes is basically saying he's accountable here, right? All these good people who didn't want to ask questions and didn't want to know, they're part of the story.
And what to me is so interesting about this essay is not what it says about Nazi Germany, but what it says about a democratic society, at least on paper a democratic society. (LAUGH) We can talk about whether America at this point is trending in other directions.
But in a country where people actually can vote people out of office, right, can actually have some say over what is being done in their name, the questions he's raising are even more relevant, right? And he actually says that afterwards, right? He has these exchanges with other sociologists who talk about the Nazi case and he says, "You know, I wasn't actually addressing that essay to that audience. This was intended for North Americans, for my fellow citizens."
Chris Hayes: I have to say, the unconscious mandate hit me intensely and the three examples in the book, again, we'll get to it, it's a drone operator, and a psychiatric nurse, and someone who works in a slaughterhouse. The last one to me, the unconscious mandate, I mean, in that case, it's just, like, not even tenuous or uncomplicated.
It's abhorrent what we do to animals, I know that, I like to eat meat. I shouldn't, but I do. And I just want someone there to make the animal turn into, like, a nice little pretty steak that then I can put on the grill. I don't want to have anything to do with it, the times in my life when I've gone to countries that have butcher markets, I've been, like, wildly queasy in them. (LAUGH)
And it's, like, "Please do not show me." And I thought to myself, like, "That's weak, dude. If you're gonna do it, you should be able to just look at this carcass." And it is. And in that case, in the case of the slaughterhouse it's, like, it's just not even a hidden or subtle thing. It is explicitly a mandate of, "Please, you do this so I don't have to and I can eat it."
Eyal Press: Yeah. And by the way, I share in that hypocrisy, and that's one of the reasons I focused on it. Because I think that with some of the examples in the book, there will be people who read it, like, when we talk about drone operators, people will say, "Well, wait a minute, I'm not for that." "I'm against forever wars," or, "I'm against, you know, prisons.
Chris Hayes: Right, "They're not doing it on my behalf."
Eyal Press: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Directly.
Eyal Press: That's not in my name. But then I think when we get into the slaughterhouse case and eating meat, and for that matter, putting gasoline in your car, we burn about a quarter of the earth's fossil fuels in this country, and again, there's an unconscious mandate. You know, "I don't want to pay too much for this." "And I want it done, but I know it's horrible. And I know it's destructive. And I know that someone else is doing it on my behalf." So I think the consumer relationship really brings out this.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. There's another concept, sociological concept, from I believe the student of Freud's, that I was really interested in about the civilizing process. Which also I think fits in here. Actually, that has really made its mark on me, thinking about that in the aftermath of this book. Explain that.
Eyal Press: Yeah. So I'm going to mispronounce the name of the theorist, but I believe it's Norbert Elias, E-L-I-A-S, wrote this incredibly strange and interesting two-volume book called The Civilizing Process. And it's mostly about table manners, the evolution of sort of, you know, how sneezing became something that was considered uncivilized, right, or picking your nose.
He spends pages on this. There's also though, a section about the carving of animals at table which used to be done in elite, wealthy manners, and then came to be seen as repugnant. You know, "Please, don't show us the dead animal. Don't show us the carving of what had been alive, 'cause that's a barbaric thing."
"Bring us," as you say, you know, "the clean steak that is unrecognizable as a living thing, but that I can eat." And in this book, he calls this the civilizational curve, the curve from the carving of the animal at the table to in a sense, the packaging of the bloodless steak, right, in a supermarket, is the process he's describing.
And at the core of it is not that we get less violence, or not that we get less cruelty, but that the cruelty and the violence is hidden, as he puts it, "behind the scenes of social life." Right? So you don't sneeze at the table, you don't pick your nose at the table, you also don't show the dead, you know, the killing of the animal.
You don't engage in corporeal punishment. I talk about this in the section of the book on prisons. That would be considered barbaric to flog someone in public, that's a barbaric practice. But to isolate someone in a solitary unit that no one sees, behind the scenes of social life, behind the walls of a prison or a jail, that's civilized in the context of the book. And so, again, sort of air-quotes belong around "civilized," because he's not saying, "this is moral progress," he's saying--
Chris Hayes: No. That's--
Eyal Press: Yeah, exactly.
Chris Hayes: --precisely why it's an extremely subversive theory, because it basically says the civilizing process is not a process of moral improvement. It's just a process of essentially segregation of segregating out the dirty and the clean. And that's, you know, there's real deep Freud stuff there.
I mean, Freud is really obsessed with this. He's obsessed with dirt and cleanliness as both sort of psychoanalytic concepts of development, but also as social, civilizational, processes. And, yeah. It's extremely subversive. It says that what we consider civilized is really just more determinedly masked activities that are no different than the sort of barbarism that we think that it's separated from.
Eyal Press: Absolutely. And if we think of the example you started with, a drone strike, you know, in a sense the essence of civilized warfare, right? It's precision, it's also hidden, hidden from the public. The violent imagery does not circulate. We don't show it on television, we don't see it, even if you visit a drone base as a journalist you will not be shown it.
And yet is this just the separation you just described, and the hiding, right? So a big part of the book is I lean on that theory and Hughes' theory to try to talk about how concealment is really central to the way dirty work is kind of organized and delegated.
Chris Hayes: Tell me about the three characters in your book that are the sort of main characters.
Eyal Press: Sure. So maybe we could start with Harriet Kriskofsky. (PH) She is a mental health aide who gets a job at a prison in Florida called the Dade Correctional Institution. This is post-recession Florida. She's looking for a job, she really doesn't want to work in a prison, but it's the only job she gets.
And when she first begins, she is scared. It's an all-male prison, she does not want to work there. But she's thinking, "Okay, I'm going to be working with people with real needs. Let's see how I do in this environment." By the way, she's paid $12 an hour to do this job. And what--
Chris Hayes: And she's not a nurse, right? She's, like, a psychiatric counselor essentially?
Eyal Press: Correct, yes. She is not a nurse. There is a nursing staff there. And she works in the mental health ward of this prison. And again, just to think about the sort of larger architecture of dirty work, what are the largest mental health institutions in the United States? They are jails and prisons. So this is sort of a typical story in many ways.
Chris Hayes: You make a great point and actually this is something I once saw represented in a graph, which is that actually the total percentage of institutionalized people in the U.S. has essentially remained constant through what we call mass incarceration.
And in fact, when you look at it, we just de-institutionalized the mentally ill and moved them into the criminal justice system. If you take that as a total set of institutionalized populations, it's been remarkably consistent. And basically what we call mass incarceration was a mass transfer of folks in mental health institutionalized care, which itself was often Gothic, and horrific, and terrible, and who advocates wanted to get rid of for completely good reasons. But what ended up happening is we transferred them into the criminal justice system.
Eyal Press: Yeah. And so Harriet just walks right into this transfer that you just described, right? And she's in this prison and she quickly learns that there's a lot of abuse going on. And some of it is not shocking, it's verbal sort of, you know, a guard yelling at a guy. But then she hears--
Chris Hayes: No one cares if you kill yourself.
Eyal Press: Yeah. I mean, horrible things being said, but, okay. You know, not so shocking. Then she hears some of the guys in the mental health ward say they're not getting meals, that they're being given empty food trays. And this disturbs her enough that she brings it up with her supervisor.
And the supervisor tells her, "Listen, prisoners make up stories. And by the way, our job is to get along with security." Right? That's the message. And that actually is the tension that runs through that section of the book and Harriet's whole story.
Because she, at that point, has to decide, "Am I gonna challenge the guards? And if I do, what's gonna happen to me?" And when she tries, and she tries in a very limited way, she just sort of sends an email one time saying, "Hey, they're not letting guys out in the rec yard on Sundays," which is part of her job, is to take them out there.
The guards start disappearing from her group sessions, right, in a sense leaving her alone. "We're not gonna protect you. If you call us out, you're on your own here." They leave her alone in the rec yard one day and she's nearly physically assaulted.
So she learns the lesson that really everyone on that staff learned, which is, "Don't be a witness to what's going on, and don't say anything about it." And that lesson is learned just before she then learns of a truly shocking case of basically torture that was happening at the prison, which is that there was--
Chris Hayes: Wait, stop for one second if you're listening with kids in the car or anything like that, this would probably be a good time to pause. This is a very brutal story that Eyal's about to tell.
Eyal Press: Thank you. So, yeah. She comes to work one day and hears that a prisoner named Darren Rainey has been locked in a shower and collapsed from the heat of the shower. The first thing she thinks is, "So he had a heart attack." And a nurse tells her, no.
He was locked in there intentionally by guards who were controlling the water temperature and the water flow. And the water temperature was 180 degrees which is basically a cup of tea. And Rainey dies in that shower suffering burns on 90% of his body. And Harriet is speechless, and horrified, and wants to quit. But she also needs her job, right? So she keeps working.
Chris Hayes: This is now the reality, her lived moral reality is going to work every day with these people who're also responsible for her security.
Eyal Press: Right. And not only she knows this, but a bunch of other staffers also know it. No one says anything. No one reports this. The only reason we know what happened to Rainey is because a prisoner, a guy named Harold Hempstead, actually leaked the story to Julie Brown at The Miami Herald who did a fantastic piece of reporting to expose it.
But Harriet stays silent and it's a decision that to this day I think she sort of turns over and wrestles with. Because how can you stay silent in the face of that, right, how can you? And yet, how different would any of us have acted in her shoes, in her situation?
Chris Hayes: Well, to me the deeper question, there's a question of how would you act in her shoes. The other question is, like, who has to do that job and who doesn't? Why are you not in the position where you have to make that call? Which I think is part of what the book's thesis is, that there are some people that society puts in that role. And then there are people that host podcasts which is preposterously dilettantish. I wanna talk about the drone operator and the slaughterhouse worker but I want to take first a very quick break.
Chris Hayes: So that's the story of Harriet which, by the way, it's incredibly well-reported and also just I gotta say, that is a bleak chapter. (LAUGHTER)
Eyal Press: Thank you.
Chris Hayes: That is bleak. I mean, like, that was a rough world. And again, its bleakness managed to kind of re-conjure precisely the kind of sense of, like, visceral civilizing process, like, "I don't want to know what happens in the--"
Eyal Press: Right.
Chris Hayes: "--psych ward of the jail." Like, I could feel myself pushing it away mentally.
Eyal Press: Yes.
Chris Hayes: You know, precisely because I don't want to know this. Because it's awful to contemplate, it's awful to contemplate in a million directions. It's awful to contemplate in the moral injury of the folks who have to work there, of the men who are incarcerated in this specific place, and people who have mental health issues that are not being addressed.
Honestly, the brutality of the lives of the guards, and their inner lives and moral lives, which I think is also, like, rough. And, like, it's a tough place to find a lot of sunshine or hope. But in some ways that's the thesis of the book is, like, right, that's what we do. This is behind walls that we don't look at.
Eyal Press: So I think that to go back to your point about who does this, the interesting thing is that the psychiatric profession knows that we rely in a sense on jails and prisons to provide health care, mental health care, for many of the sickest people in our society.
But elite psychiatrists are not the folks doing this work, not confronting it, not being put in those dilemmas. And I genuinely believe that if they were, there would be an outcry, right? There would be a change. Harriet did not have a voice to stand up and say, "This is intolerable."
None of the other staffers did either. It's a division of labor that sort of mirrors, you know, and this is throughout the book, where because you have people at the bottom of the social ladder doing this work, it perpetuates it, right? It makes it easier to ignore. It's not just that it's behind walls, it's also that it's delegated to people who don't have voices, right, who don't have the social capital in a sense to say, "Come on, we can't do this."
Chris Hayes: Tell me about the drone operator.
Eyal Press: So the drone operator, Christopher Heron, (PH) actually has a story that when I was writing the book I was thinking, "How am I gonna keep this timely?"
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Eyal Press: He enters after 9/11, right, in this sort of burst of idealism, wanting to serve his country. And he becomes an analyst in this center, this counter-terrorism center, that is really pioneering the use of drones, these strikes that these unmanned aerial vehicles make.
And as I was writing it I was thinking, "Okay, this is a story that's set 15/17 years ago, how is it relevant?" Well, it's relevant because as you mentioned, we just pulled out of Afghanistan, and by the way, we pull out with a drone strike that makes the news because it turns out it wasn't as precise as we've been told, and a family is hit, and there are civilian victims.
But Chris' story is that the idealism first wanes when he goes to Afghanistan on a mission and he sees that things actually aren't as rosy as he thought, right? He thought he was hitting the bad guys, he was protecting his country, these strikes were basically eliminating enemy.
When he goes to Afghanistan he sees that they can't even go to provinces that had been under U.S. control before because things are going backwards, right? And so he starts to have these doubts. And then he comes back and he's thinking about kind of re-upping for basically another stint of being a kind of analyst in a sort of drone with a military contractor.
And he has a physical breakdown. And Chris is, like, this very fit guy and was a star wrestler in high school. He can't get out of bed. And his digestive system breaks down, and he's just, like, "What is going on with me?" And I sort of narrate how his disillusionment takes this form of he starts to replay the strikes.
And he starts to think about, "Wait a minute, did I really know who was in that building?" Like, and when they asked us, "So, no one else entered, right?" There's this pressure to say, "Did you see or not?" But did you really see? Because at the time he was there, it was not as advanced, the imagery was not as advanced.
So he starts to have this moral reckoning with his own role in a war he's come to question. And a war he sees going on, and on, and on, not least because of drones, right? And that's a story that is unfortunately a bipartisan story. And to me the most striking thing about it is not really even the violence of drones, right, because war is violent.
Drones are arguably less destructive in their impact and capacity than, you know, the kind of strafing and bombing that occurs in most other wars. But it's the total lack of conversation. As I was writing that chapter and thinking about Chris' story and thinking about the other drone operator I write about, there were presidential elections and presidential debates that went on.
And I kept wondering, "Is there gonna be one question, just one question?" Nothing. So again, it's that theme of concealment and kind of pulling this behind the scenes, right? And Chris' story is, he would arguably say, "I can't say my story is representative."
But it's striking to me that this form of warfare that has been sort of portrayed as antiseptic and bloodless has extremely high rates of burnout, right? That the military itself is finding they've gotta put these teams of psychologists and chaplains, right, on these drone bases.
And when I went to visit one of them, they were pretty open about the fact that guys were coming to them saying, "What's god gonna say about all the killing that I've seen, and all the decisions I made that might have taken a life." And those are our killings.
The other piece of it that fascinates me endlessly is this whole idea of, there's a quote in the book from Ashura McGinn (PH) who's a VA psychologist. And she got interested in basically what connection there might be between P.T.S.D. and the trauma that soldiers go through and the fact that they were involved in killing in any form, right? And what she's concluded, and what she says, is that so much of it depends on the story you tell about what happened and why, right? So if you were involved in a battle and you--
Chris Hayes: And there's someone shooting at you to try to kill you with someone that is your comrade at arms there, and you're dragging them, and you're firing back, the level of psychological trauma, moral injury, is in a different place than, right.
Eyal Press: Yeah. I mean, you saved your buddy's life. You did something that was either gonna mean you are gonna die, or someone else does, right? And so it's kill or be killed. And she actually starts these group sessions with a video in which a commander says that, right, "War is a dirty business in a sense." "It's out there in the battle field, it's either kill or be killed." But what happens when you take soldiers out of that and it's not actually kill or be killed.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Eyal Press: It's completely one-sided, right?
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Eyal Press: You are playing they will survive or they won't. What kind of story do you tell yourself afterwards, and how does that story change when there doesn't seem to be much progress in this war you've been told has been launched in the name of one thing, and morphs into this interminable struggle?
And for Chris, and I think for many others, that question becomes so hard to answer. And yet, the society he lives in has actually, you know, chosen this, right? We've said, if there was a sort of correction after Iraq, and resources expended, and all this, it was "We're exhausted by these ground invasions."
"As a society, it's too costly to us. It's too costly in lives, it's too costly in P.T.S.D., and it's too costly in dollars. So let's do it this way because we don't have those costs." But there's a moral cost. And that's kind of what I zero in on.
Chris Hayes: And then there's the slaughterhouse which is so, almost iconic, right? I mean, (LAUGH) this job as being a brutal and dirty job, this is something that has been documented through the years, Upton Sinclair, and The Jungle, and all that stuff. I mean, it's not new, and yet at some level, like, it's the same thing.
I mean, it's gotten better, I think, that the creation of the FDA and modern systems of food safety regulation, et cetera. But that was what was so striking to me about that chapter, too. It's, like, right, I know this, the slaughterhouse grizzly, brutal work. The immigrants that came to Chicago and had to work in it and they didn't make (LAUGH) a lot of money and the, you know, Green Bay Packers, but, like, 2021, not that different.
Eyal Press: Yeah. And arguably there was this, just as people talk about the sort of golden age of American capitalism, the sort of post-war bargain between capital and labor where unions were strong, wages and factories enabled people to kind of rise into the middle class, I think that very much is reflected in the history of meatpacking.
There was also a very progressive union in meatpacking that integrated the workforce and actually led desegregation efforts in many cases to bring black and white workers in the industry. 'Cause in the beginning, black workers were given the worst jobs, and the most dangerous jobs, and the least paying jobs.
A lot of that changed, and yet, you're right. At a certain level it's still slaughterhouse work, right? It's still something that is bloody, and to some extent, something that society wants to hide from view. But I think what's really striking about where it is today, is that we're back to The Jungle, right?
We actually have regressed significantly, and I think part of that is a story of very large companies having their way with the government, with agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, we don't have an ergonomic standard, which is a story I tell at one point.
It passed actually, and then Congress got rid of it, it hasn't come back. And the repetitive strain injuries that people who work on what they call the disassembly lines in these slaughterhouses are so common. I didn't meet a single worker who didn't have an injury.
You know, and not one. Like, they would say, like, "Oh, yeah, well you really wanna know? Okay. My elbow, my wrist, my shoulder, my back," and these were mostly women, mostly working in a poultry slaughterhouse. And so what's happened is the work has become so demeaning, and the line speeds have gotten faster and faster, that fewer and fewer native born Americans will actually do it.
And some of the immigrant workers that interviewed and spoke to kind of laughed about this. One guy in North Carolina was, like, "Yeah, you know, we occasionally get a white guy who comes in and it's, like, he does a shift. And then we do the lunch break. He's not back." (LAUGHTER) You know, because they're not crazy enough to do this, right?
Chris Hayes: Or desperate, or, right.
Eyal Press: But talk about off-loading a form of dirty work to a vulnerable population, right? Many of the workers I spoke to were undocumented. I should say by the way, I wrote about one slaughterhouse, but I spent a lot of time trying to interview workers at another, and I couldn't find a single one, even under a pseudonym, and of course this was during the Trump era. There were raids on plants. But just the level of fear that you're talking about in this workforce is really, really high.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And what the slaughterhouse chapter makes me think of, there's this question that kind of lingers over the book a little bit, which is: is there work that's inherently dirty work and cannot be made otherwise? At some point in the book you sort of draw this analogy, you use untouchables.
And of course, the caste system in India is a way of, like, rigidly enforcing precisely this dirty work, like, the untouchables, like, literally, you know, deal with the impure things. They are the lowest level of the caste system, dead bodies, sewage, street sweeping, these things that are unclean and impure.
And their caste level corresponds to that, it's the system. So there's this question of, like, are there things that are dirty because of the nature of the work, or the nature plays different in society, or is there work that is dirty work now that could be not dirty work with a union, right?
The thing I think about a lot is this care conversation we're having right now, particularly things like elder care, working in nursing homes. Which in some ways is a little bit I think in the same category. Now, you know, it's not completely out of sight, out of mind, people visit their relatives.
But it's not high wage work, it is not high status work, it is huge immigrant communities that are doing that kind of care work. But it feels to me like work that under conditions of good employment could be work that is good, satisfying, good work, middle class, sustainable work.
It's hard work. And I guess, I don't know, like, where you're on in that question? I guess, drone operator's in its own category. But it's, like, is there a world in which being the psychiatrist at a jail is not dirty work? Or does that depend on the society, like.
Eyal Press: I think, I mean, it's a great question. And I don't think I distinguished it sharply enough, maybe I chose not to because it's really hard to sort that out. But I would say is that in the case of Harriet, the mental health aide, there's nothing inherently dirty about what she does.
Chris Hayes: Right, yes. Right.
Eyal Press: You know, she--
Chris Hayes: That's sort of the point I'm driving. Like--
Eyal Press: Yeah, in fact, you could argue--
Chris Hayes: Whereas, like, taking animals apart all day. Like, I don't know. It's, like, different. (LAUGH)
Eyal Press: Or to give an even more stark example, 'cause there are various historical examples in the book, it is absolutely inherently dirty to be a slave trader. And yet I talk about slave traders in this section of the book because it fascinates me how the slave trader was this notorious and hated figure in the south, right, during the antebellum era, right?
There are accounts of defenders of slavery, I quote one of them, Daniel Hundley's book, in which he calls them soul-drivers, right? And he says, "These people are despicable, they have no consciences," right? "Who would auction off a slave?"
Hundley is the son of a plantation owner. He is the defender of slavery, right? And this is not uncommon if you sort of read about the literature of what one historian calls a troublesome commerce, right. And so that's inherently dirty and yet we do see there the same dynamic, right? In a sense it becomes convenient to stigmatize--
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Eyal Press: --the people who do the ugliest form of this so that you don't question the larger system that supports it, right? And to me that's such a disturbing thought. Because we can take that idea and apply it to other things and see a similar pattern. So there definitely is a difference. There are some forms of work I describe that it's the social conditions and the cultural context that makes it dirty, not the inherent work.
Chris Hayes: Right. Yes. And I think that's also true when you go out the next concentric circle to the entire global supply chain, cobalt mining, which you talk about. And I mean, then we're talking about, again, work that could be done in better conditions for higher wages with better labor standards, or could be automated.
Like, there's nothing inherently dirty about making socks, there's all sorts of conditions under which that can be made. But basically the same conceit applies to essentially the entirety of the global supply chain which is, like, "I don't know, man, it just shows up at the store or an Amazon box, someone made it somewhere."
Eyal Press: But that's a great example because so cobalt, right, is crucial to all the electronic devices we spend so much of our time looking at. So there is a story of dirty work there, not because it's inherently dirty, but because of the way it happens to be hidden, and brutal, and exploitative due to this global supply chain.
And yet cobalt is also crucial to electric cars, right? And to getting out of the climate crisis. So if you're gonna say that we shouldn't do that at all, I wouldn't sign on to that, right? Because it's arguably the only hope we have to really make a shift away from fossil fuels. And yet the conditions of it conceal this violence and this brutality.
Chris Hayes: I mean, part of the big theme here that I wrestle with that your book left me thinking about is just how to Hughes' point, when he was writing the essay on dirty work about using this German example to try to pin an American audience a little bit, or put them on edge to answer this question for themselves, which is that: is it a fact of every society? Does every society have dirty work and the forms of society determine what that dirty work is? Or can we imagine a society without dirty work?
Eyal Press: That's another great question. And I personally think you would be hard-pressed to find a society ever that lacked it. But I think the more interesting question is who ends up doing it, I'm really parroting Hughes, right? What is the nature of the unconscious mandate with give?
How do we hide it? Why are we hiding it? What would not hiding it change? Because to me, again just to go back, it's this this question of integrity as a society. Maybe we, I mean the majority of Americans, are fine with continuing these wars, continuing to have drone strikes.
I personally am not, but maybe there is this sort of decision collectively that has been made that it's better than all the alternatives and we want to continue to project our power, et cetera. So at least have it out, right? Have it in the open. Be able to say as a society, "We as a society believe we should have the right to conduct targeted assassination on a globally limitless scale pretty much whenever we want without much accountability if someone is accidentally struck on their way to a wedding or whatever it is." It's the fact that we don't actually have the conversations around that.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Eyal Press: We just find a way to organize it so that it's really behind the scenes, right? It's not part of our national conversation, it doesn't weigh on our consciences, and it ends up only really sullying the people directly involved.
Chris Hayes: Eyal Press is a writer, journalist, and now officially a sociologist. Is that true, do you have your Ph.D.?
Eyal Press: I did get a Ph.D. in sociology, yes. So.
Chris Hayes: Congratulations.
Eyal Press: Thank you.
Chris Hayes: That's great. So he's actually been credentialized for (LAUGHTER) his thinking. He contributes to The New Yorker, The New York Times, other publications, has written a bunch for The Nation. He's author of Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, out this year. Eyal, that was great. Thank you.
Eyal Press: Thank you so much, Chris. Really appreciate the conversation and you went places that no other conversation I've had has which is not a surprise to me.
Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Eyal Press. You can find his work in The New Yorker, New York Times, other publications, his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America is out this year. You can always Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com, we love to hear from you.
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to NBCnews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.