Can I Still Enjoy ‘Dilbert’ If My Values Collide With its Artist?
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
Is it possible to enjoy a TV show, or a movie or even a comic strip if you know the creators held or hold opinions and values that you despise.
I addressed that question in a column this time last year. But it has been on my mind more than usual this past few weeks. And the controversy generated by Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” brings it front and center yet again.
In recent months, I have been introducing my favorite westerns to a good family friend. She joins us for Duck football games, and in return, I introduce her to great movies she has not seen, often westerns.
This last weekend she came over for lunch and a showing of “Rio Bravo,” consistently listed as one of the 10-best westerns ever made. Director Howard Hawks tells the story of a frontier sheriff trapped in his own town by an evil rancher intent on freeing his brother from jail.
The story is straightforward, told with deliberation. And the cast is superb. The film was so good and the story so compelling that Hawks remade it twice within a few years.
But here is the problem: “Rio Bravo” stars John Wayne, Ward Bond and Walter Brennan. Most of us are now familiar with Wayne’s casual racism, misogyny and right-wing politics. But Bond and Brennan were fellow travelers, Brennan, in particular, holding the most extreme views. And all three were active supporters of the Hollywood blacklist in the early 1950s. They named names.
As we were watching “Rio Bravo,” my dear Carla asked how I could enjoy the movie knowing what I do of the three stars.
The bigger question she asked: How can I enjoy western films at all when so many were based on racist depictions of Native Americans or Mexicans? In fact, I have gravitated away from such old films for that very reason.
But “Rio Bravo” does not involve either Native Americans or Mexicans and I still felt the twinge of conscience.
Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
In the past, I argued that it was possible, particularly if the artists are long dead. But times have changed in so many ways. And forgiving artists their egregious trespasses is no longer possible, no longer responsible I think.
The issue was raised again this last week in the starkest of terms when “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams went on a racist diatribe as offensive as any I have ever seen from a major public figure.
On his regular YouTube show, “Real Coffee with Scott Adams, “the cartoonist said, among other things, that Black people are members of a ‘hate group’ or a ‘racist hate group’ and said he would no longer ‘help Black Americans.’ Based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people.”
There was more. There was worse.
In defending himself, Adams did not apologize or back away from his views. Instead, he fell back on the “cancel culture” assertion. A critic of so-called woke culture, he now claims to be a victim of wokeness.
By Sunday, Adams had been dropped by nearly all his newspaper clients, including The Spokesman-Review and The Seattle Times. In explaining the decision to drop “Dilbert,” Oregonian Editor Therese Bottomly acknowledged Adams’ popularity but said “we will not extend his reach and we will not support him.”
Said Bottomly, one of the country’s best editors, “Some readers no doubt will deride my decision as an example of overly ‘woke’ culture or as a knee-jerk ‘politically correct’ response. What about free speech, they might ask? Isn’t this censorship? No one is taking Adams’ free speech rights away. He is free to share his abhorrent comments on YouTube and Twitter so long as those companies allow them. This also isn’t censorship; it’s editing.”
In my 24 years as a senior newspaper editor, comics were often the cause of great controversy. In Wichita, I dropped one Sunday “Doonesbury” strip because of content that I believed ridiculed the first Iraq war and the soldiers fighting it, clearly offensive in a military town and state. I once dropped an editorial cartoonist whose cartoons had turned anti-Mormon in ways I believed inappropriate.
Like Bottomly, I would have dropped “Dilbert” in a heartbeat and never looked back.
So, if Scott Adams’ views are reprehensible, how do I justify my enjoyment of John Wayne movies or even westerns in general?
Last year I wrote, “Time and death are my line. Wayne, dead for 42 years, is no longer in a position to move opinion or affect events. All that is left is his entertainment value.”
I wrote then that I cannot support offensive celebrities who are still alive. Of course, that would now include Adams.
But I am not sure that is still my line.
Maybe it is time to retire John Wayne and move forward without so many westerns.
Maybe I will send all my DVDs and Blu-rays to Scott Adams.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.