Thursday, 4 July 2013

I Wear The Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman review

Chuck Klosterman looks at the character type of the villain, both in real world figures and imagined, and surmises that a villain is someone who knows the most and cares the least. It sounds like a simple idea but becomes more complex as you think about it. He uses a number of examples to highlight his point and one of the first is Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, if you know him at all, is famous for writing The Prince, a book about political theory. The Prince is controversial as it makes Machiavelli appear not just incredibly cynical but evil too in the way he advocates ruthless domination for a ruler over every other form of governance. Klosterman argues, convincingly, that Machiavelli wasn’t saying that this was his preference but that this was his observation of how the real world worked having spent his career as a diplomat seeing how politics actually operated. That his book was used and influenced any number of shady characters is not his fault and yet we have his name as a term describing a backstabbing, conniving person today. Machiavelli was not Machiavellian.

In this way he argues that George W Bush was not a villain (gasp!) because he didn’t know the most (that would be Dick Cheney) and he seemed to care at least a bit (unlike Cheney), whereas Joe Paterno will be remembered as a villain because he knew about Jerry Sandusky’s sick life but chose not to do anything about it, ie. caring the least.

Other examples Klosterman uses to explore the nuances that go along with the way we see villains include Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers who is justly reviled by all, and DB Cooper, another plane hijacker who in 1971 pulled off the only unsolved case of air piracy ever - and yet is seen favourably, almost like a folk hero (possibly because no one was hurt in his hijacking with the likely exception of himself, seeing as he was never seen again after he leapt out of a plane at night). Klosterman makes the thoughtful observation that if a person has confidence, no matter the crime then they are the hero even if they should be the villain.

He lost me at one point when discussing Batman. He wants us to imagine Batman is real and doing what he does in the comics in real life (all well and good) but then ruins his thought-experiment by comparing Batman to Bernhard Goetz, a mad, gun toting lunatic who shot several young black men in the early 80s who were going to rob him. He tries to make a connection saying that Bernhard was obsessed with squirrels and Batman with bats and both are vigilantes, but it seemed like a long shot and felt like Klosterman was going off of the movie Batman rather than comics Batman (aka the real Batman). But he does make the interesting point that “when considering the vigilante, the way we think about fiction contradicts how we think about reality” which is definitely true.  

Despite this hiccup, the book is a really great read for the most part as he continues his thesis by looking at Bill Clinton, Don Henley, Snidely Whiplash, and OJ Simpson and comes up with fresh, clever perspectives on all of them through the prism of his villain argument. Klosterman’s background as a music critic though never fails to come through in his books and I Wear The Black Hat is no exception. In one pointless chapter he spends several pages telling you which bands he disliked each year for 20 years from the mid 80s to the mid 00s! After reading the book I’m struggling to see how this connected to the overall villain thesis but worse, it’s easily the most boring, self-indulgent tangent in the book.

However, “boring” is something that this book rarely is and reading the essays in I Wear The Black Hat is a highly enjoyable experience. Klosterman writes lucidly and articulately, especially as he is aware that he at times uses words that inhibit some of his audience’s understanding of his points (he is loquacious and eloquent at the same time, sometimes to the writer’s downfall). If you enjoy informative pop culture discussions especially one involving the dissection of what a villain is and isn’t, I Wear The Black Hat is for you.

I liked it so much I tied it to the train tracks while rubbing my pencil thin moustache - BWHAHAHAHA!

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

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