Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dashing: Chuck Klosterman's "I Wear the Black Hat"

My interactions with Chuck Klosterman's writings have been pretty up and down, and upon review, I'm amazed to discover that I've never written about any of his books. When I was in my early twenties, I was completely blown away by Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his breakout collection. On the surface, the essay seemed like standard deconstructions of culture, but were infused with terrific humor, fantastic connections between seemingly random ideas, and the realization that Klosterman wasn't a pseudo-intellectual: his fascinations and knowledge did run in fantastically different directions. Since 2003, I've admired him, even if his occasional forays haven't held much meaning for me. One of my long-standing assessments has been: I love Klosterman, but hate him for spawning dozens, if not hundreds of writers who try to emulate his style. I was disappointed by Killing Yourself To Live, an account of his travels and thoughts on various music deaths; perhaps I was just hungry for a variety of subjects. I've pretty much avoided his interactions with Malcolm Gladwell, a writer I've had problems with for awhile. I've never had any real desire to read his two novels. And I never got around to Eating the Dinosaur, his 2009 collection. So while I'm nowhere near being on top of his collected writings, I'd still consider myself an admirer of his work, and this has increased a lot with my recent reading of I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). The title is apt: Klosterman writes about the idea of villains from historical, cultural, and philosophical angles. I went into the reading with high hopes, since his focus on a sometimes abstract idea (villainy) would conceivably allow him to move among a range of subjects. I was correct, and this newest book came the closest to emulating the feelings of awe and discovery that I felt as young twenty-something reading and re-reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.

In the book's introduction, Klosterman sets up the reasoning in his standard fashion: as a teenager, he listened to a Metallica cover of a song by the British band Diamond Head that included the lyrics "Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I evil? I am man." As an adult, he reflects and considers the nature of evil, empathy, and image from the inside and the outside.

"I am typing this sentence on an autumn afternoon. The leaves are all dead, but still tethered to the trees, waiting for a colder future. Outside my living room window and three floors below, people are on the street. I vaguely recognize some of them, but not most of them. I rarely remember the names or faces of nonfictional people. Still, I believe these strangers are nonthreatening. I supposed you never know for certain what unfamiliar humans are like, but I'm confident. They are more like me than they are different: predominantly white, in the vicinity of middle age, and dressed in a manner that suggests a different social class than the one they truly occupy (most appear poorer than they actually are, but a few skew in the opposite direction). Everyone looks superficially friendly, but none are irrefutably trustworthy. And as I watch these people from my window, I find myself wondering something:
Do I care about any of them (Klosterman 2)?"

The opening essay explores three wildly different topics, but Klosterman manages to keep even seemingly divergent ideas grounded into a single narrative. It begins with what could be the most typically villainous act (tying a woman to railroad tracks, a narrative device first introduced in silent cinema), before exploring Machiavelli's philosophy (and the possibility of The Prince being a satire, which I've heard before and find very fascinating) to what truly constituted the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's downfall. More so than I remember from his previous writings, Klosterman explores a vast number of gray areas. However, he's uninterested in rehashing old arguments. The media hurricane surrounding Paterno and the Penn State sex abuse scandal was its own entity, and Klosterman isn't going down that path. He uses Paterno as an example for his overall thesis, and manages to create a very apt definition of villainy. It's paired with an assessment of Nike CEO Phil Knight, who eulogized Paterno at his funeral with some poor remarks.

"All those imperfect denouncements are easy. But Paterno's vilification is harder. A handful of media bottom-feeders reveled in his fall, but only to play to the trolls. No normal person wants to hate a dead man he once admired. It feels abnormal and cheap. But what's the alternative? Paterno knew what was happening and chose to intellectually avoid it. He had to choose between humanity and sport, and he picked the one that mattered less. On the day he was finally lowered into the ground, his most adamant defender was the aforementioned Knight, a man who allowed Indonesian children to work in sweatshops so that he could sell $120 basketball shoes to fat American teenagers who didn't play basketball. And then--six months later--even Knight rescinded what he'd said. It was not a good look.

The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least (Klosterman 18)."

A long chapter is devoted to President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In this chapter, Klosterman weighs the various players, all of whom took turns as victims and villains in the dragged-out process. Later in the book, Klosterman declares himself as apolitical, and in assessing this overtly political scandal, he is true to his word. He's opinionated yet impartial, and manages to write intelligent passages about human sexuality, power, and politics without pointing any fingers, at least not in a biased fashion. Returning to my previous comment about gray areas, Klosterman's views on the position of the Presidency is a perfect look at how every President, Democrat or Republican, is in a position to veer into textbook villainy.

"So this is what people said: 'It's not the sex. It's the lying.' Which was totally idiotic and completely untrue.
Presidents lie all the time. Really great presidents lie. Abraham Lincoln managed to end slavery in America partially by deception (In an 1858 debate, he flatly insisted that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in states where it was already legal--he had to say this in order to slow the tide of secession.) Franklin Roosevelt lied about the U.S. position of neutrality until we entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Though the public and Congress believed his public pledge of impartiality, he was already working in secret with Winston Churchill and selling arms to France.) Ronald Reagan lied about Iran-Contra so much that it now seems like he was honestly confused. Politically, the practice of lying is essential. By the time the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton had already lied about many, many things. (He'd openly lied about his level of commitment to gay rights during the '92 campaign.) The presidency is not a job for an honest man. It's way too complex (Klosterman 119-120)."

Of course, I'd be disappointed if Klosterman wrote a book and didn't touch upon professional basketball. In a particularly illuminating chapter, he presents the public and private images of various athletes, and the one I found most affecting was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I never realized that Abdul-Jabbar has been viewed as a villain or as disliked figure: he's now universally beloved for his non-basketball work, and he retired as the NBA's all-time scoring leader; and as Klosterman and Bill Simmons have pointed out, his cameo role in the movie Airplane! worked so well because he lampooned his image at a time when people didn't realize he had a sense of humor or a more complex side beside that of a basketball great. Klosterman explains why and how Abdul-Jabbar was viewed as a villain, and how time has made this designation wrong. It proves that concepts and definitions can be wide-ranging, even for people (in this case, me and my overall view of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who don't assume a person can be classified in a specific fashion.

"As he's moved into the winter of his life, Abdul-Jabbar has grown conscious of his image and has tried to evolve into a conventionally nice celebrity--which is disappointing on two levels. He has grown more patient with interviewers, partially because they have migrated to his side: It seems increasingly absurd that this intelligent, well-spoken, socially conscious person who is the all-time leading scorer in the history of basketball cannot get a job as an NBA head coach, simply because he's not super friendly. He had a cancer scare in 2008, so that generated some warranted sympathy; as an author, he's probably done more for the lost history of twentieth-century African-Americans than every other athlete combined. He made a cameo on a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel, and it's so goofy and superfluous that only a jerk could criticize the decision. Muslims don't drink alcohol, but Kareem still endorsed Coors. If he's a villain, he's the best possible kind. Still, there are parts of his personal history that will never evaporate. He may ultimately be remembered more affectionately than anyone would have guessed in 1980, but that turnaround will always be framed as a surprise. He played the game, but he didn't play The Game. He refused to pretend that his life didn't feel normal to the person inside it, and he refused to pretend that other people's obsession with abnormality required him to act like the man he wasn't (Klosterman 173-174)."

These are just a handful of the essays presented. There are some that I enjoyed, even if I was detached from the subject (I think I can name two, maybe three Eagles songs, but enjoyed his take on the band's evolution). There are some obvious subjects--The Oakland Raiders, O.J. Simpson, and Adolf Hitler, to name a few--but again, Klosterman doesn't go the obvious routes. He digs, he opines, and he ultimately draws new conclusions on the nature of villainy. I'm sure more than one person has dubbed Klosterman a "pop culture critic," but that label really doesn't highlight his writing skills. He can be funny without being forced, and he can take on subjects that have been driven into the ground and write about them uniquely. His goals have stayed the same, but there's a definite growth here. For such a fast read, I Wear the Black Hat remains true to its thesis, and no matter how many different directions the essays go in, it never feels like Klosterman is rambling. As a reader, this book gave me everything I had hoped for and more. I think it's only appropriate that I eventually return to Klosterman's older works, even his novels, to give my opinions a more well-rounded foundation. For the scores of imitators he has given birth to, he remains an original thinker, blurring the lines between intellect, assumptions, and, most importantly, the notion of deep thought and expanded essays in an era of quick blurbs and bite-sized writings that try to pass themselves off as deep and stimulating.

Work Cited:
Klosterman, Chuck. I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). Copyright 2013 by Chuck Klosterman.

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