In which I attempt to psychoanalyze Scott Adams

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed Scott Adams, the author and artist behind the comic strip Dilbert. Scott has been in the news, or perhaps I should say in the blogosphere, because in addition to his comic strip he also has a blog. And back in March, Scott penned an entry called Men’s Rights. When I read it in my news reader, I immediately thought, “Scott’s going to have to take that one down” which in fact he did less than a day later.

I feel Scott’s pain because some years back I also wrote not exactly on the topic of men’s rights, but on the stereotypes that men assume, particularly here in the United States. I argued that it is hard for us men to be human beings because of the expectations that come with being a man. I caught some grief on that post, but it is nothing like the grief that Scott got for his Men’s Rights entry, a copy of which he posted in his belated response to the controversy. America’s feminists were all over Scott and in their critiques the world misogynist came up a lot. Perhaps it was for paragraphs like this:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don’t punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

I have wondered for years if Scott was a misogynist. Why? Well, I have virtually all of his Dilbert comic books, not to mention most of his books and I have read them repeatedly. I confess I enjoy Dilbert and I often find Scott amusing. I could be wrong but in all his published material I cannot come across anything in which a woman comes across in a complementary manner. Every woman Dilbert dates, for example, comes across as self-centered and shallow. Dilbert rarely makes it to a second date and when he does his girlfriend likes to treat him like a fly caught in a spider’s web. All of his recurring female characters are at best annoying. Carol the secretary hates everyone and love being malicious. Alice lets her temper fly regularly and likes throwing things off or out of buildings. Tina the Tech Writer feels persecuted for being an English major and earning a fraction of the engineers’ salaries. If through one’s writings one could be convicted of misogyny, Scott would be easily convicted as women are never shown as admirable creatures. Alice comes the closest to having a good point. She at least is a Type A overachiever, but somehow never learned how to be tactful.

And that’s basically how it goes in the land of Dilbert. Its humor mainly comes from its characters and their entire lack of tact, not to mention the constant victimization that goes on at all levels. Dilbert’s world is a wholly nihilist one. The real world of white collar tech people is not quite that bad, but there are places that are nearly as bad as Dilbert’s company. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a fascinating now defunct site called NetSlaves.com where various Dilberts and Alices conveyed real life stories of impossible deadlines and overtime as technology companies pushed for dominance, profits and market share. It made fascinating and quite frankly horrifying reading. There but for the grace of God go I, I thought. While overall they were a small sliver of the technology market, they did exist and some of them closely resembled Dilbert’s company. I am sure there are companies like this still out there, burning through series of dispirited and overworked employees. I know they exist in retail. Visit any Wal-Mart store.

Most of us have to be concerned what other people think and consider that before opening our mouths. Scott is literally a one in a million person who now usually doesn’t have to care what other people think, because Dilbert has made him independently wealthy. Twenty years of reading Scott has also convinced me that he is Dilbert. Granted, he is not an engineer, but he hung around them. At least in print or on the web he has freedom that the rest of us can only dream about: the freedom to express himself fully and without restraints, to basically just be who he is. And so he does. Readers of his blog, however, are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions who read his comic strip every day. Scott argues that they are their own peculiar community, and when he wrote Men’s Rights it was for that community, not the world at large. Men’s Rights was, however, a bridge too far. I bet his wife Shelley beat him up about it too, because it’s the only entry on his blog that I’ve seen withdrawn in the six months or so I’ve been reading his blog.

Is Scott a misogynist? If he is, does it matter? When I first read Men’s Rights, it cemented the idea in my mind that he was one, perhaps not explicitly but implicitly. I could find zero evidence to suggest otherwise and twenty years of reading the guy made me feel I knew him pretty well. I have since reconsidered myself. I don’t think Scott is a misogynist, I just think he largely lacks the empathy gene. If he were alive, his biggest fan would be Niccolò Machiavelli, the famously dispassionate political scientist who wrote The Prince back in the 16th century. What Scott really is is supremely dispassionate. There are likely a few things he is passionate about, including tennis, but he has an excessive engineering and scientific outlook to life. He sees things as they are, or as he thinks they are if you could remove these annoying feelings from the human equation. Then he has the audacity to write or blog about them. Moreover, lacking much in the way of self-restraint and sanctions for speaking his mind, he speaks his mind.

Feminists and others can rail against Scott’s heretical thoughts and opinions, but I’d suggest they just save their breath. I don’t think Scott is a misogynist. I think he likes women just fine, but is not tuned into their feelings, and probably isn’t tuned into anyone’s feelings in particular, except maybe his wife’s. For the most part he is not hurt when they attack him; he just sort of shrugs his shoulders. He does his best to explain himself from his point of view, and it largely doesn’t work, but if it doesn’t, it mostly doesn’t matter to him. He is who he is. And he is largely Dilbert. Read him if you find him amusing, or don’t. It won’t bother Scott at all. Even if Dilbert never earned him another dime, he is set for life. He has the freedom most of us can only dream about: to be who he is on the inside on the outside. And for him it works, because it is consistent with whom he is. It is the rest of us who must live dual lives. We must be one person on the inside but project something of a façade to the rest of the world. We do this so we can get harmoniously through another day. We have learned painfully to keep our lips buttoned in polite society. Much of the rage against Scott may be that he has the resources not to have to live this duality, and just be who he is, warts and all.

I might have turned out that way if I had Scott’s money and talent too. My empathy gene is also somewhat recessive. This blog allows me to speak my mind about lots of things, but even so there are topics I will not discuss, or have learned not to discuss anymore. For example, I learned not to discuss much about where I work or people I know personally, because some of them have discovered my blog and as a result it has made my life difficult. So I obscure my real name and am circumspect discussing certain topics, like pornography, because I might say something that some friend of my spouse will come after me with.

The fact is that Scott could be a whole lot more annoying than he is. For the most part he is civilized, weird but civilized. His example of living an authentic life suggests to me though that maybe I am healthier and happier being somewhat inauthentic. I suspect I am, but I also suspect Scott never was wholly authentic until money gave him the freedom and opportunity to be publicly the flawed person he so clearly is. It’s just easier to see it in him than in the rest of us.

Review: The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior

The Thinker by Rodin

I think it was pure coincidence that my Kindle came loaded with The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern then a few months later The Borgias appeared as a nine episode miniseries on Showtime. For once I could sit down and enjoy a miniseries feeling like I had some idea of whether it was reasonably authentic (Short answer: yes)

Alas, this is not a review of the miniseries, except to say the series is exceptionally well done and I look forward to a continuation of it planned for next year. Yet the book and the miniseries definitely overlap. The miniseries concentrates on Pope Alexander VI, a Renaissance pope of Rome and his corrupt family. It was during a time when priests were still allowed to marry. The book is about the intersection of one of the principle characters of the Borgia family, Cesare Borgia, the eldest son of Pope Alexander and two other prominent people of the time: the artist Leonardo da Vinci and the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for his groundbreaking book on leaders and politics, The Prince.

If you followed the miniseries, you get an extended encounter with Cesare Borgia at a time when he was not only the son of a pope, but a cardinal in the Catholic Church as well, promoted and installed by his father. In the book, Cesare Borgia’s time as a cardinal is relatively brief. Religious life did not agree with Cesare and he soon convinced his father to let him be what he really wanted to be: more Caesar than Cesare. A passionate, wildly diabolical and cunningly ruthless man, Cesare turns out to be a great leader of men. He was bent on acquiring more power and hoped to do something to Italy not seen since Roman times: unite Italy into a single country. At the time, Italy was divided into a series of kingdoms, dukedoms, and independent states. It is in the Republic of Florence that Strathern introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. For a time, the lives of these three pivotal men intersected in and around Florence. The eldest, Leonardo da Vinci was a helplessly gentle gay vegetarian, gifted as an artist but with a heart that overflowed more with passion for invention and a fascination for engineering. Both da Vinci and Machiavelli would be pulled into the young Cesare Borgia’s orbit (he died at age 31) by his power and influence.

Both da Vinci and Machiavelli were citizens of the Republic of Florence. da Vinci was for a time employed by the powerful Cesare Borgia as his military engineer where the peaceful man oversaw the construction of innovative devices designed to kill armies. Machiavelli acted as a Florentine envoy to Borgia, and spent many months hanging around him while sending intelligence back to the Signoria (government) of the Republic of Florence. Simultaneously he earned something like a doctorate in political philosophy through observing Borgia’s amoral excellence at acquiring and wielding political power, and arguably was the founder of what we now call political science. When not observing Borgia, he worked for the Signoria of the Republic of Florence, doing his best to help keep various external forces from overrunning his city.

Certainly the men knew each other, but there is little direct evidence that Machiavelli and da Vinci had a close relationship. Each though was uniquely gifted. The Renaissance, unfolding in particular in Republic of Florence, was an exciting time for gifted men like these to be alive. Strathern reveals the real da Vinci mainly through extensive reading and research into his remaining notebooks. Not only do his notebooks reveal an expansive imagination and engineer centuries ahead of himself, but also a gentle pedophile of boys in a time when it didn’t matter. He was a man who started many projects but completed few of them. His masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, for example, was tweaked periodically throughout his life. It was never officially finished. It hangs today in the Louvre because he spent his last years in France, a patron of its young king, and he took the unfinished painting with his many notebooks with him.

Machiavelli’s seminal book on power and politics, The Prince, was written after he had fallen from power and into disgrace. Cesare Borgia though was his unwitting teacher. While Strathern’s book is about all three men, it is principally about Cesare Borgia, a fast climber whose mini empire devolved on the death of his father. In the miniseries, despite the killings that he commits or orders, Cesare comes across as reasonably civilized. Strathern’s book though reveals a much more powerful and devious side of this Borgia than can be squeezed into the miniseries. Perhaps subsequent seasons will reveal his darker and ambitious side. For a while, it looked like he would succeed in his quest for power, despite periodic invasions by both the French and the Spanish, who claimed titles to lands in Italy and whose forces were vastly superior.

The Italy revealed in this book is a far cry from its current manifestation. It seemed overrun by regular wars as republics and dukedoms expanded and contracted, and as invading armies and shifting allegiances continually altered the political landscape. Even the pope was not beyond having his own armies and states. It was a practical necessity for a pope to have an army. Italy’s invaders were typically Catholic but few of them saw any need to spare Rome from sacking and conquest.

Mostly, Strathern chooses to make this book be a study of Cesare Borgia. One cannot be drawn into his world without being drawn into the eternal conflicts between the many states within it. You may find, as I did, that the politics of the period are a bit overwhelming. So many alliances changed so often it’s a wonder anyone trusted anyone at all, and perhaps they never did. Borgia though did learn how to rule through a combination of ruthlessness and earned loyalty. The latter was earned through treating his subjects with respect and making sure they were governed by just men who shared his philosophy.

While rich in history, this book won’t make you feel like you are seeing historical Italy through the eyes of these characters. This is history that is largely complete, but with significant gaps, so the picture Strathern draws of these men and this time is still incomplete. Frankly, the miniseries is more compelling than this book, but the miniseries can only hint at the complexity of living and governing in this chaotic time. Along the way, you will meet many other interesting characters, some of which appear in the miniseries, including Borgia’s sister Lucrezia (for whom Cesare is overly protective and possibly had an incestuous affair) and the pope’s enemy Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, both of whom appear prominently in the miniseries.

If you were drawn to the miniseries, you may appreciate this book for filling in the many details the miniseries cannot, as well as come away for an appreciation for all these prominent people, now lost in a time some half a millennium in our past.