Baltimore City Paper

Bad Guys Finish First

In his 2013 book, "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)," Chuck Klosterman starts one chapter suggesting, "Let's pretend Batman is real." Nerd that he is, Klosterman clarifies lots of particulars, such as that this is a world where no one has heard of a fictional Batman and it's a world where "supervillains don't exist." Soon Batman is trending on Twitter and "media bloggers are convinced this is all an advertising campaign for a yet-to-be-released sports drink." Klosterman comes to one possible outcome: We might see Batman as a villain.

"Because he wears a ridiculous costume and cannot be captured, most informed citizens come to a collection of related conclusions: This so-called 'Batman'—whoever he is and whatever he hopes to achieve—is brilliant, brutal, insane, capricious, unwilling to compromise, and obsessed with the criminal underworld . . . Do you root for this person or do you want him arrested?"


Since his first book, 2001's "Fargo Rock City," Klosterman (who, full disclosure, I hung out with at a wedding once because I used to work with his wife, Melissa Maerz) has posed thoughtful scenarios like this through the lens of popular culture, especially music, movies, and sports. It made him an ideal candidate to take over the New York Times' "The Ethicist" column, which he did in 2012, answering modern-day moral quandaries submitted by readers, and bringing it to a new generation of readers.

Among the potential villains Klosterman deconstructs in "I Wear the Black Hat" are Kanye West, New York City subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, The Eagles, and Muhammad Ali, who, as he details, is regarded as a hero despite his vicious racial stereotypes of Joe Frazier. He's an engaging, discursive speaker and he'll be at the Literary Salon of Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday at 6:30.


City Paper: You have this sort of unifying idea in the book, which says that "the villain is the person that knows the most but cares the least," which leads to some sort of counterintuitive conclusions, like that Joe Paterno is a bigger villain in the Penn State scandal than Gerry Sandusky, right?

Chuck Klosterman: Well, a villain to me has a specific connotation, whereas Sandusky is more like a monster. He's totally operating outside of the rules of society. His psychology is totally alien from that of the average person. Paterno is different. Paterno is still working within all the guidelines of society. I don't write a lot about serial killers in this book, for example, because, yeah, a serial killer is a villain, but it's a totally different kind of a thing. Their entire worldview is abberrant. What I'm more interested in is the way individuals are sort of framed by the media and pushed into the idea of a narrative.

In America, and really all of the Western world, I guess, we've sort of been conditioned to believe that the only way to understand things is through narrative and through storytelling. So when we watch the news, it's presented to us the way a story is presented or a film is presented. When people talk about sports now they have to talk about the narrative of the game and the narrative of the season. So because that seems to be how we've decided that we're going to understand everything, there have to be a protagonist and an antagonist. And we tend to try to fabricate that to make it work and that's kind of what I'm interested in.

CP: And also how the narrative changes over time, like in the case of Bernie Goetz, which you talk about. I moved to New York in 1992 and had no idea he was initially hailed so highly.

CK: I had a real memory of that when I was a kid around that time, when I was just starting to become conscious of news, and I think that he really clearly represents the inherent confusion people have with the idea of vigilantes, and that we all, as a sort of intellectual sophisticated person, you know that vigilantes cannot be accepted, that we cannot let people take justice into their own hands. And yet when it happens, when a real-world situation like that occurs, our natural inclination is to side with them, almost as if they are like a Batman-type figure. But over time, we have to figure out a way to re-explain ourselves back to our original belief, because it's unacceptable. And the way we did that with Bernhard Goetz is through the weirdness of his personality. And instead of looking at him as someone who was acting on behalf of society, it had to be that he was acting only on behalf of himself. And that he was this strange, selfish person motivated by silly racist ideas.

CP: Who are the villains in the recent stories from the NFL, including that of Ray Rice?

CK: In a conventional sense, of course, Ray Rice is the villain. Or Adrian Peterson is a villain here. In the way that I say that we have to understand these things through narrative, it's pretty clear here they'd be the bad guys in these situation.

The main thing to me though is the general confusion people have when dealing with any circumstance that they haven't really previously considered. Look at somebody like Ray Rice. So Ray Rice admits he hit his fiancee. It was in the police report, we saw the first tape. He goes into the elevator and she's upright and the doors open and she's kinda dragged out. So, no confusion over what happened, and he got suspended for two games. And there are some people who were upset about that, but no more than generally they are with the way Roger Goodell handles anything, like the way he handles Josh Gordon's suspension for pot, whatever the case may be. But then the second videotape comes out and now his career is pretty much over and it's almost as though it's not that people can't accept the wrong he committed, it's that they can't accept seeing it in reality. And Adrian Peterson now. He gets suspended a game, he gets reinstated and now he's not going to play again, but the fact of the matter is, if there had been a neighbor taping him spanking his kid, his career would be over, because people saw something like this, they couldn't accept it. I find myself very disturbed by how the reaction to news now, as collated by the internet, sort of creates this strange—it's no longer enough to disagree with something. Now the objective seems to be collecting enough people in a mass collective to change the person's life, it's just a weird thing.


CP: And the omnipresence of video. How many cases of domestic violence have there been in the NFL in the last 10 years? A lot, but none of them got attention like this.

CK: Yeah. It just sort of shows that, in not just sports but in all aspects of life, there are now two worlds. The world that happens and the world that is recorded. Donald Sterling no longer owns the Clippers because his conversation was recorded. Who knows how many conversations like that happen every day? But there's like a split now. It's not even the action, it's whether or not you have enough sense to keep the action private.

CP: Yeah, there was an Onion story recently, “NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence.”

CK: [laughs]

CP: How long have you been doing the Ethicist?

CK: About two and a half years.

CP: I wondered how much doing that, and fielding those kind questions week-in and week-out got your mind into this mode of thinking about villainy. 


CK: I'm sure it's not a coincidence.

CP: [laughs]

CK: It's not like I planned it to happen that way, but it's gotta be. All I can do is right about what's interesting to me. One thing I have found over the 15 years of doing this is you can't predict what people will be interested in. Any attempt to try to anticipate what people want to read or what is commercial will inevitably fail and it will seem forced. It's never worked. You also can't try to be controversial on purpose because if you are, that's one thing readers can see straight through. In some ways, audiences are oddly sophisticated, and that's one way. They can tell when someone is constructing controversy. So, all I do now is, I write about what's interesting to me and I just hope that other people are likewise interested. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. It seems like a real inexact science.

CP: Well you're lucky because you started before blogs were what they are, because that's kinda what everybody does now, write whatever's interesting to them.

CK: I was really lucky in that I got into this just before—like, when I wrote "Fargo Rock City," I was writing that in 1999, and the internet existed but its effect on culture was really marginal. It was almost no help writing that book. I don't ever remember using the internet to write any part of "Fargo Rock City."

CP: [laughs] Yeah, like on Alta Vista.


CK: Yeah, but you could only find what people put up. Now, I'm now sure somebody put up every issue of Hit Parade and Circus, I'm sure they're all there. So, my first two books came out and then, that's when blogging and that sorta became the main way young writers with different ideas basically entered the discourse. So I was already kinda of established by that point. In some ways I really wish that all this had happened 10 years earlier. I think it would have been a much better experience to be a writer in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. I think it just would've been a much more pleasurable experience. Somebody could say, "Well, because of the internet, everybody has a higher profile and things are more read," and it's true, but it does sort of amplify the worst parts of celebrity. Now, people know who I am who don't read my books. There are people who have opinions on me who don't read anything that I write. What the fuck? I don't want that. I would prefer if the only people who cared about me were the people reading the books, but that's not how it is at all now. I look at Twitter and whatever number of Twitter followers I have [Ed.: 161,319 as of press time], it's a lot bigger than the number of books I'm selling. So, in other words, there are a bunch of people who are interested in what I have to say, as long as they don't have to pay for it.

CP: In the book, you preemptively mention when readers might get upset about something, like in the Ali section. Were there things that people did get upset about when it came out?

CK: That one. [laughs]

CP: From Ali fans?

CK: I don't think it upset many people who read the whole book. There are certainly people who didn't like the book. But I think it would be rare for someone to read the whole book and be like "I'm upset that it references Ali in this situation" or "I'm upset that you wrote about Hitler at all," but that's not how it works now. Now it's so easy to see an excerpt or a part of a book. . .

It's now acceptable to be offended by anything. That's one thing that's changed in my lifetime. When I was younger, if somebody was offended by something, the initial response by culture would be, "Maybe you're being too sensitive, prove to me this is a valid thing to be offended about. We're not going to consider this collectively offensive, unless you justify that." Now that has swapped. Now, if you are personally offended, that means it is collectively offensive and that's enough. It's enough for one person to feel discomfort in order to make it a collective problem.


CP: I really liked the section where you documented your history of hating bands. I know you've sort of stopped hating bands, but I wonder if there are any around now that you're tempted to hate?

CK: No, because now it's absolutely easy to avoid it in totality. It was a little more understandable to hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1994, '95 because if I wanted to watch MTV, I was going to constantly see the "Under the Bridge" video or when I was in my car, listening to the radio, there were certain songs that I felt like I was being subjected to and there was no way to get away from them, but it's really rare for that to happen now.

The thing that annoys me more is the coverage of events, because that's more pervasive. For example, I think Beyoncé makes decent records, but the way she is covered by the media is what's suffocating me. But I'm not gonna hate Beyoncé for that. I don't have any animus to what she's creating, it's only the way people perceive it. Now, there's only one rock magazine left and yet there is absolutely limitless music coverage. There has never been a point in history where there was this much writing about culture or sports or politics or anything. Taylor Swift comes out with 'Shake It Off.' That song probably got more media attention than every Beatles record prior to 'Sgt. Pepper.' There's just no way around it. There just weren't that many places that were gonna write about 'Help.'

CP: But doesn't that mean you see it everywhere?

CK: I did that day and the next day. Have you really seen it put upon you that often since then?

CP: Only the parodies.

CK: [laughs] Yes. Like, the cycle of these songs is so short now. Like ‘Call Me Maybe’ for example, I feel like that was a song that had the long tail or whatever. But if it happens now, it’s because you’re seeing it in commercials. I have heard the U2 song about Joey Ramone [‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”] quite a bit because I watch football. And if I watch football, that means I’m watching live events. And if I’m watching live events, it means I’m seeing commercials and that fucking commercial is on all the time. But that’s a different thing. Because it’s a commercial, I’m viewing it differently. I inherently understand that it’s goal is to be evasive. That’s why they’re doin’ it. The way I used to not like the Eagles, which I now realize was a philosophical thing I was doing, like “I’m into music, I’m into culture, therefore music and culture must be important. Therefore, I have to read things in to the meaning of these songs of these bands, and the Eagles represent something that I’m going to be against. I don’t even know if this is how they feel, but I’ve made this decision, so therefore I have to hate these songs.” And it worked. It actually happened, I actually hated the songs. I think sometimes people think that I’m suggesting that people lie, that they like something and they pretend not to. I legitimately didn’t like them, but it’s mostly because I really wasn’t listening to them. I was just using it.