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Richard J. Mouw

Dogbert v. Machiavelli

Who is more Machiavellian? A new book argues that Niccolo is actually virtuous—so Dilbert's sidekick wins again.

I often find Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strip a good source for laughs. I also enjoy Adams's books, where he provides commentaries on his cartoons; that material too is usually very funny. Here, for example, is his summary of the theory of evolution: "First, there were some amoebas. Deviant amoebas adapted better to the environment, thus becoming monkeys. Then came Total Quality Management." And this one: "Maybe we should learn something from nature. In the wild, the weakest moose is hunted down and killed by dingo dogs, thus ensuring survival of the fittest. This is a harsh system—especially for the dingo dogs, who have to fly all the way from Australia."

Scott Adams is obviously a gifted humorist adept at exposing the foibles of corporate life. His jokes at the expense of both leaders and followers struck me as innocent fun, with perhaps a gentle hint in the direction of some sort of moral message. I haven't thought it necessary to try to get clear about the exact content of the message. That task I have been willing to leave to some young theologian who is probably right now working on a little book to be called "The Gospel According to Dilbert."

I was caught short, then, by the tone of something Adams said when I heard him interviewed recently on National Public Radio. It was one of those call-in shows where he was the expert guest on the day's topic, "Office Politics." There was a good deal of vintage Adams banter on the program, and I laughed out loud a few times as I drove along the highway. But then a woman called in with this question:

"The management of our company recently announced some plans to make the place into a more humane work environment. Do you think anything good can come of this?"

"Not really," Adams replied. "I don't believe that organizations really can be made into humane places to work. When leaders promise that kind of thing, they are either hopelessly na•ve or deviously clever."

This struck me as an unusually cynical comment. To be ...

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