In recent months, a recurring theme in conversations at New City Commons has been those aspects of contemporary American life that allow, or even encourage, exploitation of the vulnerable. These conversations have been based on two essential premises: first, that we are all, in fact, vulnerable in some form or fashion; and second, that ours is a decadent culture, by which we mean that our technological and economic advances are offset by our chronic inability to address fundamental injustices within our shared life.
This week we bring you the story surrounding the largest civil judgment the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ever won: the case of Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa, Iowa and the men with intellectual disabilities—known as the “bunkhouse boys”—who spent most of their adult lives working there without remotely adequate pay or living conditions. These men were part of an experimental program, considered progressive when it began in the late 1960s, intended to reduce the distance between people with intellectual disabilities and the rest of society by providing them with daily work in a poultry processing plant. As the New York Times revealed in 2014, however, the thirty-two men in the program were exploited and abused, seemingly in plain sight, for more than thirty years. Hence our title this week: “On Everyday Contempt.”
We bring you this story in three forms. The first is the original New York Times article (which author Dan Barry has now extended into a book entitled The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland). In addition to in-depth reporting on the bunkhouse and the program it depended upon, Barry’s account gives much-needed texture to the social life of Atalissa, which he calls a “dot of a place.” Dot of a place or not, Barry reports that the “boys,” as they were called, were welcomed into Atalissa, included in the working, worshipping, and commercial life of the town. As he puts it:
True, some local residents cringed when the “boys” walked in, reeking of turkey, interrupting conversations. Sometimes you just did not want to hear again about Willie Levi’s birthday, or Gene Berg’s fascination with John Deere tractors, or how much beer Henry Wilkins planned to drink at the county fair. Sometimes you just did not want a hug.
Then again, you might welcome a hug, or even a dance. “And if you danced with one of them, you danced with all of them,” says Vada Baker, of the Atalissa Betterment Committee, who learned the Texas two-step from the men.
The story comes into even greater focus in a half-hour documentary produced by the New York Times called The Men of Atalissa. Video journalists Kassie Bracken and John Woo explore the cultural and physical landscape within Atalissa, as well as broader cultural and political trends regarding how we treat people with disabilities. Crucially, because so much of the short film centers on interviews with the men themselves, their method grants some of these men the dignity of their own voice.
Without the skills of attention and the courage of our convictions, everyday cruelties thrive.
Finally, Barry recently gave a brief podcast interview with ProPublica in advance of the publication of his book. In this interview, Barry concentrates on the practice of investigative journalism and the keys to humanizing this particular story. In doing so, however, he illustrates the crucial point we can and should take from the story as a whole: without the skills of attention and the courage of our convictions, everyday cruelties can—and all too often do—thrive. In the haunting words of Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, commenting on the Atalissa case: “This is what happens when we don’t pay attention.” Vigilance, in this way, is a form of neighborliness, a commitment to the pursuit of a genuinely common life among equals.
The need for this kind of vigilance is all the more pressing a world that seems increasingly incapable of recognizing the vulnerabilities of others as anything other than a competitive advantage. In such a world, exploitation and domination become familiar—so familiar, in fact, that stories like the one Dan Barry has told can and should serve to educate us anew, and to provoke us toward empathy.