Published January 1, 2007
On the question of whether it is better to be feared than loved, Machiavelli notoriously advised his Prince to choose the former, and the Great American Boss — at least as we have come to know him in popular entertainments — has generally tended to agree. The boss has always occupied a very special position in American culture because he could not rely on the habits of deference to social superiors that were taken for granted in Europe until relatively recent times. At some level, we Americans have always known what the Marxists were later to teach us, namely that the boss occupied his superior position and exercised his right to tell us what to do on the strength of his economic clout alone and not because of any innate superiority or divine entitlement of the sort which the mystique of honor and rank in the Old Country often allowed to cling to him. This, by the way, may be one reason why America proved to be more resistant to Marxian revolution than Europe: because we had already been inoculated with a milder strain of it in the form of a demystification of economic power.
This does not mean that the boss is generally beloved in America any more than he is in the rest of the world. At best he is like Mr Dithers in the comic strip “Blondie” who terrifies Dagwood with his frequent threats to fire him — and occasional kicks in the pants — but whose threats never come to anything and who is humanized by the fact that he himself lives in terror of his much larger wife, Cora. Also terrifying is C. Montgomery Burns of “The Simpsons,” who is represented as being an embodiment of evil but whose capriciousness and inattention to the doings of his underlings make him generally harmless in spite of the frequent hints of his nameless acts of wickedness. He is even beloved by his sycophantic assistant, Waylon Smithers. In one episode of “The Simpsons,” Mr Burns is inspired by a Richard Branson-like celebrity billionaire to seek popularity and love, but of course it comes to nothing, and Mr Burns remains a lonely bulwark against the encroachments of the celebrity culture by demanding fear and respect rather than love.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the boss in the NBC television series “The Office” asks himself a similar question. “Would I rather be feared or loved? Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Michael is the Scranton regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin paper company and as stupid as these words would suggest. Not only does he miss the point completely, but in doing so he illustrates why the boss, like the Prince, should choose to be feared rather than loved. For it is his pathetic need to be loved that makes him contemptible in our eyes as well as those of his employees. In spite of his Gordon Gecko haircut and his fine conceit of himself as a masterful businessman, he says he wants his employees to think of him “as a friend first, a boss second — probably an entertainer third.” Of course, he is hopeless in all three roles. The office is kept in a constant state of forced hilarity because of Michael’s manic attempts at jokey camaraderie, but everybody dislikes him except for own version of Mr Smithers, the even more stupid and insensitive Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson).
“The main difference between me and Donald Trump is that I get no pleasure from saying, ‘You’re fired’,” he says. And when he has to fire someone, he asks an employee he’s not firing: “If you were getting fired, how would you want to be fired so that you could still be friends with the person firing you.” Of course he has no real friends anyway, and his inability to understand that makes his eagerness to please even more contemptible. Yet in spite of his dislike of being ordered by “corporate” to fire anyone, he also imagines that it will be a joke and “a kind of a morale booster thing” to pretend to fire his sweet receptionist, Pam (Jenna Fischer), on a false charge of theft. “You’re a jerk,” says Pam in tears, stating what to anyone else would be the obvious.
“I don’t know about that,” says Michael with a wink, as if even now he thinks that he has simply made a joke.
Such an extreme of stupidity and insensitivity beggars belief. Nevertheless, we find at work in the show the sitcom imperative to make even the most vile character lovable. At one point in the second season Michael even appeared to induce his own scary boss from “corporate,” Jan (Melora Hardin), to sleep with him. This was a creative mistake, I think, in spite of Jan’s repudiating all connection with him the next day. No amount of alcohol could explain such a turn of events without a change in Michael’s character for which there was no independent evidence. Similarly confusing was the running theme of Michael’s possible homosexual interest in the office intern and business school student, Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak). Generally, as in “Dilbert,” there are too many independent sources of interest in the intrigues and jealousies of the other characters for the focus on the boss-as-jerk to be as pitiless as it is in the British series, also called “The Office,” on which this one was based. There, Ricky Gervais in the Steve Carrel role, was in some ways even more of a jerk, but he was also a more complex and interesting character. As Dave Brent, he was not merely a fool but a fool desperate to prove he’s not one.
Indeed, his desire to be thought “an entertainer” and a man of sophistication and intelligence was not based on mere ignorance, but on some degree of recognition of what those qualities are without the ability to grasp them himself. He almost rises to the level of a tragic figure, as his buffoonish American counterpart does not. This becomes apparent in a hilarious but also rather touching exercise in literary criticism when Dave attempts to take apart Sir John Betjeman’s poem “Slough.” Slough is the town where Dave’s company is situated and a long-standing joke in Britain largely because of this poem, which begins, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough.” The point of it is to convey an aristocratic contempt for the suburban and commercial classes who, in the 1930s, tended to ape the manners and tastes of their social betters. “The stinking cad” whose “profits” were part of what Betjeman’s bombs would have targeted was presumably a businessman, like Dave, but a man “who’ll always cheat and always win” and who is thus hated for being too good at his job, however wrongly conceived, and not hopeless at it like Dave.
Thus when Dave goes through the poem line by line, missing every nuance, every irony, every allusion, and proceeds to pronounce the poet to be “over-rated,” there is a triple failure: first, a failure to understand that it is he and his kind who are the objects of such snobbish contempt; second, a failure to understand the terms in which that contempt is conveyed; and, third, a failure in some sense to be worthy of that contempt by losing instead of winning. He is equally uncomprehending of the civil, business and professional culture of which, as boss, he is presumably meant to be some kind of leader. In one episode, for instance, he made a mention of the classic World War II film The Dam Busters in which the hero has a dog named “Nigger.” But, adds Dave hastily, “it’s not racist. That was before racism was bad.” There was a sort of magnificence to such obliviousness, and the show constantly appealed to us like this over Dave’s head, flattering us with the assumption of our familiarity with a culture from which Dave was shut out, as much by breeding and education as by stupidity.
Mr Carrel’s Michael is personally insensitive and oblivious to his own boorishness, but this element of cultural background scarcely arises. He will never have heard of Sir John Betjeman — or possibly of poetry itself — and would have no interest in the fact if he were told that someone had written an insulting poem about Scranton. In his self-delusions as a boss, a friend, a comedian and a man of the world , he is so far isolated from reality that we lose any of the sympathy with him that might otherwise arise from his falling short of his self-defined standard. But Dave Brent is always seen, by himself as much as by us, against the backdrop of the culture he tries and fails so utterly to live up to. As a result, Mr Gervais reminds us that the British boss is still being compared to a quasi-aristocratic forbear whom the American boss has never been expected to measure up to. The point for both shows is the debunking of the authority of the boss, but where that of the American boss is undermined by his insensitivity and abuse of power, that of his British counterpart takes an extra blow from being socially and culturally maladroit in a world where manners can still be more important than power and wealth.