Go ahead and cut out that “Dilbert” cartoon. Pin it to the wall of your claustrophobic cubicle. Laugh at it around the water cooler, remarking how similar it is to the incomprehensible memos and ludicrous management strategies at your own company.
You may think you’re thumbing your nose at corporate culture, but you could be doing just what the evil CEOs want.
At least that’s what Norman Solomon thinks. Solomon has written “The Trouble With Dilbert,” a heavy-handed, 100-page leftist attack on the “Dilbert” phenomenon. His chief claim: While “Dilbert” and its creator, Scott Adams, might trumpet the woes of the common worker, they actually bolster the corporate status quo.
“Dilbert,” for those who’ve been locked inside the boardroom lately, has grown from a small daily comic strip in 1989 to a multimedia, multinational, multimillion-dollar success. The strip, which chronicles the frustrations of a nerdy employee in a nameless, absurdly run company, appears in more than 1,700 papers. There are “Dilbert” books, dolls, shirts, CD-ROMs, ulcer medications, magnets, mouse pads and more. (OK, maybe not ulcer medications, but just wait.)
“It seemed like I couldn’t avoid the Dilbertized world,” says Solomon, a media critic and syndicated columnist who finds the omnipresent comics deeply troubling. Newsweek has called the strip “the worst PR for corporate America since the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” but Solomon begs to differ. “ ‘Dilbert’ masquerades as the ultimate response to our predicament in a corporatized workplace and world, but it’s a counterfeit kind of rebellion.
“It marks the supposed outer boundary of opposition to corporate machinery, but in fact what ‘Dilbert’ teaches through example is that the best we can hope for is a cynical aside and an acid quip.”
Adams, a former Pacific Bell engineer who says he has not read Solomon’s book, laughs at the accusations. “I can’t tell you how amusing this has all been for me. I make my own living by being a demagogue, and I think it’s funny that someone else is making his living demagoguing me. I fully support his effort.
“ ‘Dilbert’ is just a way to make people laugh so they will transfer their money to me,” says Adams, who has become rich beyond hapless Dilbert’s wildest dreams. “I’m in the business of writing funny little things that fill up space in the newspaper and, when I get away with it, writing funny little books that people will buy.”
Solomon, who lives half an hour away from Adams in Northern California, says, “Scott Adams, the purported advocate for human values in the face of a corporate juggernaut, is a role model for amoral self-advancement.”
In his book--inspired by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s 1971 anti-Disney tract, “How to Read Donald Duck"--Solomon cites Adams’ dealings with the kind of multibillion-dollar firms, such as Xerox and Intel, that he lampoons in his strips.
“What would be wrong with working for a company?” responds Adams. “Isn’t that like criticizing me for breathing air?”
Though they are the subject of its mockery, office managers and CEOs appear to love “Dilbert.” Solomon maintains they see the strip as an escape valve for their stressed-out cubicle drones, an opium of the people, providing levity but not actually questioning corporate authority. “You don’t strengthen unions or organize them through cynical mutterings, nor by degrading co-workers,” Solomon says.
Of course, by publishing his book Solomon opens himself up to criticism. Says Lisa Berkowitz, the director of marketing for HarperBusiness, Adams’ publisher, “Everybody’s trying to make a buck off ‘Dilbert,’ even the anti-'Dilbert’ people.”