Mari Cohen (associate editor): In the stories I hear from the incarcerated writers and sources I work with, the prison guard is a ubiquitous figure: As the representative of the carceral complex who most frequently confronts prisoners, the guard’s abusive actions exemplify the arbitrary cruelty that defines incarceration. It’s a delicate task, then, to argue that the plight of the low-paid and overworked correctional officer also deserves our consideration.
The investigative journalist Eyal Press takes on such a task with care in his 2021 book Dirty Work. In an intrepidly reported study, Press argues that the task of guarding prisons, like other morally compromised occupations from meat slaughtering to oil rigging, tends to fall to America’s marginalized populations. Working class people of color with limited job prospects bear the brunt of society’s moral disapproval, while the bourgeois consume the oil, eat the chicken, and vote to build new prisons, keeping their hands clean all the while. Press effectively contrasts the position of dirty workers—who often hail from small towns where the prison, the chicken plant, the military base, or the oil rig are the primary economic engines—with that of those in comparably compromised white collar industries, like tech or finance. These white collar workers, we come to see, have the economic leeway to quit in protest of invasive surveillance or financial corruption, but even if they don’t, they’re rewarded with social status for their work, not opprobrium.
Press takes the concept of “dirty work” from the sociologist Everett Hughes, who, after an impactful trip to postwar Germany, noted in a 1948 lecture that many well-heeled members of German society had publicly disavowed the shameful work of Nazi soldiers while remaining quietly grateful that someone was on hand to take care of the “Jewish problem.” Today’s dirty work, Press argues, also has an “unconscious mandate” from society’s “good people” who prefer not to have to know too much about the unpleasant tasks carried out in their name—tasks that are “necessary to the prevailing social order, solving various ‘problems’ that many Americans want taken care of but don’t want to have to think too much about, much less handle themselves.” The dirty workers, meanwhile, are left to experience “moral injury,” a term coined to describe combat soldiers’ trauma from committing acts they believe to be deeply unjust. A fitting rejoinder to the way that such work has been shielded from public view, Press’s book shines as a feat of reporting, entering the lives of the workers with novelistic detail and drawing the reader into the reality of the ethical binds they face, not to mention the illness and trauma they suffer from their workplaces.
At times, Press’s concept of “dirty work” feels a bit broad, straining under its imprecision. To what extent can the position of an undocumented immigrant who takes a meatpacking job after fleeing her abusive stepfather be compared to that of a young intelligence worker whose idealistic motivations for abetting the “War on Terror” fall away during his time as a drone operator? Press’s book highlights both stories, and successfully describes the real suffering both have experienced due to moral injury, but Flor, the slaughterhouse worker, appears to have been far more materially constrained into her position than Chris, the college-grad drone operator—not to mention that the factory farm slaughter of chickens, while appropriately condemned by animal rights activists, is a different matter than the extrajudicial assassination of humans. The story of Heather, another drone operator who joined the military as a way of escaping her economically depressed hometown, mirrors Flor’s a bit more closely. Nonetheless, such questions only illuminate the ethical challenges of determining individual accountability for harm for structural ills. (Could we go so far to say, for example, that cops are dirty workers? Press doesn’t take up the question directly, but I think he’d say no, given their high wages and historically high social status.)
The labor journalist Alex Press (no relation), in a thoughtful review in Jacobin, makes a fair point that by focusing on the “unconscious mandate” that society gives dirty workers, Eyal Press is too vague about the specific perpetrators of injustice: powerful bosses and politicians who often don’t represent the public will. Still, his framework does provide a hopeful jumping off point for broad solidarity. The many people implicated in the day-to-day operation of violent systems might be considered potential partners in dismantling them, rather than automatic gatekeepers of the status quo. And those of us observing such work while typing comfortably on our laptops ought to consider who in the system should bear the brunt of our political energies.
Josh Lambert (contributor): Part of what it means to be an American, lately, is to be a subject of curiosity and concern for people from elsewhere. Friends in Canada and Europe often ask me how I live under the threat of gun violence or accept the loss of what they consider basic human rights. Louis-Phillippe Dalembert’s 2021 novel Milwaukee Blues, out this week in Marjolijn de Jager’s English translation, makes me feel the same way those inquiries do. Dalembert is a Haitian writer who has lived all over the world; his novel—which circles an act of police brutality against an African American man in Wisconsin, modeled explicitly on the killing of George Floyd—strikes me as his attempt to explain to a Francophone reading public what the hell has been going on here.
The novel’s primary subject is Emmett, a former college football star, father of three, and Whole Foods security guard who has been murdered by the police outside of a convenience store. (Yes, Emmett like Emmett Till: His parents, Dalmbert writes, “must have been activists.”) To tell his story, the novel shifts perspectives, chapter to chapter, from the Pakistani Muslim clerk who regrets calling the police over a counterfeit bill, to various people, white and Black, who knew Emmett as a child and in college—a teacher, friends, ex-girlfriends, a coach. These sections deliberately swing from precise observation to cliché, reflecting the way that people’s profound experiences get flattened into hollow slogans as they circulate on social media.
The last third of the book swerves in an unexpected direction, focusing on two activists—a young Haitian American woman, Marie-Hélène, and a dreadlocked white American Jew, Dan—who work together with a local religious leader to organize a march in Milwaukee in Emmett’s memory. Dalembert spends a striking amount of time on Dan: “a vegetarian like many true Rastas, and an Ashkenazi Jew,” with grandparents who were “civil rights activists” and “early members of the local NAACP” who now decry “those fascist wheeler-dealers leading Israel today.” Dan is more comfortable with radical protest actions than Marie-Hélène; when she calls him “Ogou Feray with kosher sauce,” referencing “the Vodou spirit of war,” he’s delighted: “That’s brilliant, it suits me.” The novel ends by imagining Dan and Marie-Hélène, many decades in the future, each telling the story of the march and protests they led to “their grandchildren . . . who would be human beings first before being Americans, Jews, Haitians, Blacks, Whites.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Two terrific political films are opening this weekend in New York, both at Lincoln Center.
Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest is as radical a film as has been released in many years. It follows revolutionary writer Pyotr Kropotkin’s 1876 visit to the anarchist watchmakers of Saint-Imier, a Swiss town in the Jura Mountains. (The title refers not to political turbulence, but to the heart of a watch, the unrest wheel.) It was among these workmen that Kropotkin first saw the benefits of mutual aid and found proof of people’s ability to organize themselves outside all relations of power and authority, and became convinced of the justice of anarchism. Schäublin’s film depicts all of this, showing the workers’ support for each other, their internationalism, and their organizations, including a collective that refuses to produce timepieces for the military.
But Unrest’s radicalism goes far beyond the doctrines expressed on screen. Borrowing a page from filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Schäublin has made a movie in which every element is an expression of its politics. Saint-Imier had four time zones in this era, and this fact is never far from the forefront, as the film highlights the question of who controls time. Language, too, is contested; there is no dominant tongue in Unrest, which slips between French and German and Russian. The cast is made up of non-professionals, most of them friends of Schäublin, who bring their own life experiences to their roles. Even the camera placement and shot framing are political: By putting a tree in the center and the people off to the side, for instance, Schäublin demonstrates the unfreedom of most cinema. Unrest is a film about anarchism that is itself proof of anarchism’s viability.
In Manuela Martelli’s debut, Chile ’76, Augusto Pinochet’s murderous military dictatorship is three years old. If life goes on as normal for Carmen, the film’s protagonist, it’s a fragile normalcy. As the film opens, she is having paint custom blended for the redesign of her family’s summer home when paint falls on her shoe; some activity on the street has distracted her and the shop owner. While the commotion is kept from our view, it’s clearly an opponent of the regime being disappeared, as he shouts his name and ID number to all who can hear him.
Carmen—chain-smoking, well-dressed, the wife of a successful surgeon in Santiago—does charity work with her family priest, reading stories to the blind. Though she has no medical training, she has worked with the Red Cross in the past, and the priest asks her to treat a common criminal he’s sheltering who was wounded by the police. But she soon realizes that the criminal, Elias, is actually a member of the resistance. Carmen agrees to assist him in contacting his comrades, and this elegant, bourgeois grandmother is soon walking the streets of poor parts of the region, holding a loaf of bread or a lightbulb, signs to Elias’s comrades that she is carrying a message.
Chile ’76 is dominated by an atmosphere of dread. Carmen is ever on the alert, worried she is being followed—and when her car is broken into, she knows she is. And yet she continues. At the film’s end, we’re left to think that the fear engulfing Chile has finally gotten to Carmen, and that her journey out of her own world is over. Perhaps it is. But perhaps not.