April 8, 1997
by Norman Solomon
Nobody can doubt that "Dilbert" is a smash hit. Dubbed America's "fastest- growing comic strip," it now appears in most daily newspapers. "Dilbert" books are best sellers. Other spin-offs fill store shelves. And a pilot for a network TV series is in production.
"Dilbert" has become a genuine national phenomenon -- a beloved icon of defiant satire and empathy for downtrodden office workers. There's just one problem: "Dilbert" is a fraud.
It turns out that the man behind the cartoon has little solidarity for the multitudes of "Dilbert" fans. His support for those who toil in corporate cubicles is more superficial than real.
Dilbert's cartoonist -- a 39-year-old named Scott Adams -- doesn't object to downsizing. In fact, after years of working for a big phone company, Adams is in favor of firing a lot of employees to boost profits.
Last summer, a Newsweek cover story on "Dilbert" included this cryptic sentence: "Surprisingly, Scott Adams himself thinks that downsizing does make the workplace more efficient -- fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations."
Recently, I asked Adams for clarification.
"I'm not sure how to make that clearer," he replied. "When there are lots of people, they tend to spend all their time doing things that interfere with other people, e.g., setting standards, creating processes, writing vision statements, reorganizing."
He added: "In contrast, small companies don't even consider such things because they don't have the luxury to do anything but important things. I personally experienced a huge decrease in bureaucracy at Pacific Bell that seemed mostly related to the downsizing. It's obviously not an absolute statement, but it's certainly true for many of the white-collar groups in previously bloated companies."
That's it -- the complete and unedited explanation from Scott Adams, hero of long-suffering office workers.
Now we know. Pink slips are good because they allow people who don't get them to experience "a huge decrease in bureaucracy."
Key to deciphering "Dilbert" is a simple but obscured reality: The comic strip is an attack on middle management. Adams avoids taking aim at the highest rungs of corporate ladders -- where CEOs and owners carry on...unseen, unscathed and unquestioned.
Meanwhile, publicists for "The Dilbert Principle" claim that Adams is "ripping aside the flimsy corporate curtain." Media coverage often echoes such hype.
Last July, a front-page spread in USA Today declared that Scott Adams "has tapped a deep vein of disenchantment with the workplace." But it's worth pondering that many in top management view Adams as a tacit ally.
Dilbert is a "cult hero to millions of American workers" at the same time that "CEOs hang him on the wall," Business Week has noted. The magazine reported: "Executives say Dilbert provides an escape valve."
Perhaps the most astute critique has come from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. A few months ago, the talkative penguin in his "This Modern World" comic delivered a lecture to Dilbert and sidekick Dogbert: "You poke constant fun at stupid corporate behavior -- but never examine the underlying reasons for that behavior."
The penguin went on: "I'm beginning to think you're providing a valuable service for all those idiotic bosses you parody -- by giving their employees a safety valve that's just edgy enough to ring true, without inspiring anyone to actually question the fundamental assumptions of corporate America."
Ironically, "Dilbert" is confined by the mental cubicle that belongs to its creator. The main characters never stop acting out the equivalent of corporate gallows humor. After bouncing off the walls for so long, their bruises have festered into chronic self-loathing.
"Dilbert" marketers are promoting it as "the comic strip for anyone surrounded by idiots" -- a concept that Adams has eagerly pushed.
But if, as Adams never tires of asserting, "we're all idiots," then we can't really expect much from ourselves or each other. Like old battery acid, the spillover of contempt becomes corrosive.
In his introduction to "The Dilbert Principle," Adams tells readers: "I don't underestimate your intelligence. I mean, how could I?"
Maybe we've overestimated "Dilbert."