News & Politics

Dilbert: Just a Cartoon?

Author Norman Solomon takes a serious look at "Dilbert," arguing that the cartoon is really on the side of big corporations, and is relentlessly contemptuous of workers, if not resigned to the status quo. Does Solomon miss the joke, or is Dilbert bad news for the rank-and-file? A Q&A with Solomon accompanies the article.
Do you tack "Dilbert" cartoons to your bulletin board to illustrate the everyday aggravations of your work life -- the meaninglessness of your tasks, the fact that you're smarter than your boss but will never be as powerful, your lack of job security, the "appreciation awards," t-shirts and donuts that are supposed to console you for the raise you'll never get? Do you consider this colorless, eyeball-less drone an ally in your daily struggles? Think again, says Norman Solomon. In "The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh" (Common Courage Press), Solomon, a syndicated columnist who writes primarily about the news media, argues that "Dilbert is a fraud:" the cartoon is really on the side of big corporations, and is relentlessly contemptuous of workers. Aspects of this argument are convincing: "Dilbert" does have a vicious -- and not very funny -- vendetta against the average person: Bosses and workers alike are portrayed as suckers who deserve their dead-end lives. As Solomon writes:[Ital] The sharp "Dilbert" tone that routinely slices into middle management ... is a double-edged blade that cuts deeply against the rank-and-file office worker. And against the lowly human being in general. The Dilbert tenor is often contemptuous of garden variety people -- mockingly dubbed "Individuals" in The Dilbert Future ... Ha ha. Get it? Most people are so dense that "duh" might as well be their middle names.[ital]And Solomon is quite right that "Dilbert" is resigned to the status quo: [Ital]Dilbert's mockery of office workers, couched in pretenses of universality, insists that stupidity and selfishness are central to who we are -- and must be. So, readers are encouraged to believe, there's little need to explore how we ought to be relating to each other in more ideal circumstances that can never really exist ... Dilbert cartoons calcify the essence of the repressive workplace.[ital]Just as, say, "Cathy," shrugs at women's problems, and implies that things will never get any better for them, "Dilbert" contributes to a kind of pop hopelessness that Solomon aptly dubs "The Culture of Eye-Rolling Capitulation."But sometimes Solomon seems to miss the joke. For instance, bothered that Dilbert and his cohorts aspire to be entrepreneurs, he correctly points out that, for most people, this wouldn't be a realistic ambition: [Ital] [Dilbert creator Scott Adams] digs his readers into a deepening trough. In his estimation, the only way out is an individual escape ... But few people will strike it rich on their own ... and most will find the go-it-alone dream to be as disappointing as a mirage. For each successful entrepreneur, many more will fail ... [ital]Here Solomon needs a better irony-detector. The self-employment schemes the "Dilbert" cubicle-dwellers dream up actually provide a wry -- even a little tragic -- comment on the odds against succeeding in today's business world. When one character, Wally, says he wants to quit and become a contract worker, he asks his co-worker Alice if she has any advice; she tells him, "Sleep in doorways so it doesn't rain on you. The best shopping carts are at 'Lucky' ... Despite the name, Food Stamps aren't edible."Solomon overstates his case, castigating "Dilbert" as a "continuous series of riffs about how middle-management stupidity and severe employee deficiencies are depriving the Corp of its appropriate level of profits." It's true that "Dilbert" often shows employees goofing off right under oblivious bosses' noses -- playing computer games, looking at Internet porn. Yet one of "Dilbert's" most pervasive themes is: Why work hard when you're being exploited? Solomon argues that "Dilbert" perpetuates "the notion that what's good for the Big Corp is somehow good for us," but actually the cartoon is a constant reminder that workers and companies' interests aren't the same -- and mocks Corporate America's absurd rhetorical attempts to camouflage this fact of capitalist life. In one series, the Boss announces at a board meeting: "We're poised for success -- we expect huge earnings and increased market share. Next on the agenda: There will be no raises because it will be a difficult year ... Carol, I thought I told you to put the United Way update between those two agenda items." "Oopsie," says his secretary. Consider, too, the following conversation between Dilbert and Wally: Dilbert: Where are you going with all that office equipment? Wally: I'm having a garage sale. Our new company slogan is 'act like you own the company'. So I've been selling the stuff I don't use and keeping the money.Dilbert: Is that my new computer monitor? Wally: Yeah, I never used that thing.Later, when Wally fires the marketing department, the higher-ups say, "That's not what we meant." It goes without saying that Wally doesn't own the company; the slogan is b.s.The trouble with "The Trouble with Dilbert" is that Solomon doesn't seem to get what makes "Dilbert" funny. We laugh at "Dilbert" because Dogbert, Wally, Ratbert and those dumb managers are so distressingly familiar -- we see them every day at work. You have to have a sense of humor to do battle with a popular cartoon character, and Solomon's seriousness puts him at a disadvantage.To support his thesis that "Dilbert" is bad news for the rank-and-file, he points out the endless corporate uses -- in ads, management handbooks, etc. -- of Dilbert's Beaker-like visage. "Labor unions haven't adopted "Dilbert" characters as insignia," Solomon writes. "But corporations in droves have rushed to link themselves with 'Dilbert.'" To me, the fact that labor unions don't use it says more about the left's mistrust of mass culture than about this particular cartoon. Why can't unions use, say, the above exchange between the boss and Carol? Companies have no trouble exploiting the parts of a popular icon that support their message and ignoring the rest -- perhaps progressives should learn to do the same. ***Q&A With Norman SolomonQ: What's the response been so far to "The Trouble with Dilbert?" A: Well, I've written seven books, and I've never gotten so much negative print media coverage before. I'm kind of shocked actually -- I'm being attacked as some kind of Red. It really shows that the Cold War may be over but the class war is still going strong. The Orlando Sentinel quoted Karl Marx -- religion is the opiate of the masses, and wrote that I think "Dilbert" is the opiate of the masses.Q: Why all the hostility, do you think? A: It's hitting all kinds of nerves. I'm amazed at the intensity of the response, though I have gotten some positive e-mail. Some people think I'm trying to tell them to stop laughing at "Dilbert," which I'm not. There's also this indignant attitude that if you're a progressive you should stay away from the mainstream icons; a theme of the criticism is that I'm trying to cash in on "Dilbert's" popularity. Whenever you attack a mass culture icon you're accused of riding its coattails. I see this as fascinating, that everything has to be tarred with the zeal for profit. Of course, if you stay away from subjects of mainstream interest you're accused of being too marginal and ineffective. Q: I thought your argument was right-on in many ways. But obviously "Dilbert" resonates. People are frustrated at work, and "Dilbert" really does a good job of articulating that.A: I think you have to put that in the context of the "Dilbert" [merchandising] empire and Scott Adams' comments ["Dilbert" creator Scott Adams has gone on the record as saying, for instance, that downsizing is good because it reduces bureaucracy and makes companies more efficient]. Another part of the context is, part of the nature of propaganda is that there are elements that ring true. But that resonance, rather than being exculpatory, makes it more effective.Q: But people will interpret a mass culture icon in a lot of different ways. "Dilbert's" meanings are kind of ambiguous -- that's partly why it's so popular. Isn't it possible that the pro-business uses of "Dilbert" have more to do with corporate America's ability to hijack images than with the content of the cartoon?A: Well, that's complicated, the Rorschach qualities of cultural products. As progressives I think sometimes we have a tendency to project things onto the mass media, to see our messages reflected where they really aren't. In cultural studies there is this notion that people will read mass culture in different ways, re-interpret it from their own standpoint. But I think it has effects on us that we don't even acknowledge, that we're not even aware of.Q: Were you nervous about taking on a cartoon? I'm surprised about the red-baiting, but something like this certainly can expose you to charges of being a humorless leftist, attacking something that so many people find funny.A: I did feel that no matter what I said I would be an easy target for misinterpretation or distortion. There's a hazard with something like this that people won't judge you on the basis of what you've written, but on what they already think. I tried to anticipate that [the "lighten up" response] by titling one of the chapters, "It's Just a Cartoon."