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Being a Dilbert


HAVRE DE GRACE -- One of the great successes of our moment in time is the comic strip Dilbert, which lampoons office life.

Thomas Hobbes said it is the natural condition of human life to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. To cartoonist Scott Adams, creator of the white-collar prole Dilbert, those who toil (or cleverly evade toiling) in the mid-level warrens of big companies are likely to be cynical, dour, lazy, churlish and curt. And their bosses are worse.

As one who has spent probably too much of his life working in offices, not always unhappily, but who doesn't any more, I read Dilbert with a mixture of amazement and nostalgia. The strip perfectly captures the worst aspect of office life -- the sense that your future is ultimately controlled by others. But it also shows the perverse pleasure those in the ranks have always taken in complaining about the idiocy of faceless authority.

Every society, and every institution down to quite small ones, has its Dilberts. Some are meek and obedient. Others may be sour, truculent, two-faced, or otherwise temperamentally challenged people who on occasion make their managers despair.

As individuals they may be expendable, and they know it, but collectively they're indispensable. This should make them want to join unions, and sometimes it does. A Dilbert knows instinctively that a big union is just another big bureaucratic institution, and unlike his employer it will expect him to pay it.

Some people in offices avoid Dilbertitis, or think they can, by rising higher in the pecking order. But eventually they realize that even the executive suites are dilbertized. And so they generally come to accept that, because the only way to escape is either to climb to the very top of the pyramid or to go somewhere else.

In some occupations, though, it's possible to be a Dilbert but still retain at least the illusion of independence. Journalism is one of those. Early in my newspaper career I realized that I was much happier as a reporter than an editor, because reporting kept me out of offices and away from the most oppressive daily reminders of my subordinate status.

A longing for freedom

The farther away from the office I went, the more independent I felt and the better my relations with my superiors became. I finally got promoted to a job halfway around the world, but then had to rethink the process, both because I couldn't get any farther away and also because I was homesick.

What Dilberts mostly miss in their lives is personal freedom, which they have traded away somewhere along the line for other benefits such as a regular paycheck and the pleasure of being able to take time out of the working day to sit in the cafeteria and exchange malicious gossip about the new supervisor.

But freedom, like security, is relative. In one sense, farmers and freelance writers, among others, have quite a lot of it. Nobody regularly tells them what to do. Old friends of mine from the newspaper business, some of them now quite high-level Dilberts, often say they envy me the freedom I must have in the life I've chosen to lead.

But they really wouldn't want to change places. For one thing, they have paid vacations and routinely travel for pleasure to places like Scotland or Nepal, while I'm wondering if there's time to go to Perryville.

Freedom is a major theme in Tom Horton's "An Island Out of Time," the best book to come out of Maryland in a long time.

From his years living in the watermen's village of Tylerton on Smith Island, Horton acquired enormous respect for those who are able to wring a living from the Chesapeake. Storms, oyster-killing diseases, bugs, freeze-ups, capricious seafood market conditions and regulation-minded Dilberts in government jobs on the mainland are all hardships which must be overcome.

It's a struggle to survive, let alone get ahead, in the face of all that, and little by little the island's population is shrinking and the old ways are dying. Those who stay and persevere at this arduous and unforgiving life give various reasons for what they assume will be seen, especially by people from away, as an irrational decision.

They cite tradition, family ties, natural beauty, fear of the unknown. And more than anything else, they talk about freedom. For freedom, which to them means only the chance to go through each working day without having to take anyone's orders, they're willing to endure great hardship and do without comforts others take for granted.

The islanders aren't Dilberts. But because their fate is still often determined by forces beyond their control, Dilbert himself would probably understand them.

Peter Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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