Chuck Klosterman, the author of such influential works of pop anthropology as "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" and "Fargo Rock City," is the best kind of philosopher -- the kind who refuses to cop to being a deep thinker even as he's kicking in the doors of perception (and sometimes spraining his ankle in the process).
In "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)," his first collection of original essays since 2010's "Eating the Dinosaur," Mr. Klosterman asks what it means to be a villain and how to differentiate true villains from those who are simply morally confused.
"I WEAR THE BLACK HAT: GRAPPLING WITH VILLAINS (REAL AND IMAGINED)"
By Chuck Klosterman
Early in the book, Mr. Klosterman settles on a pithy definition of a villain that works as well as any proffered by any religion in the last 10,000 years: "The villain is the person who knows the most, but cares the least."
With the aplomb of a modern Machiavelli surveying our ever shifting moral landscape for examples that prove his point, Mr. Klosterman takes the reader on a grand tour of villainy's outposts in popular culture, sports, politics and American history.
In a vertiginous but often humorous journey through our collective experience, Mr. Klosterman makes a case for why universally acknowledged villains (New York subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, comedian Andrew Dice Clay, treasonous BFF Linda Tripp, occultist Aleister Crowley and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange) earned their places in the pantheon of unambiguous villainy.
He also makes a case for unacknowledged but operational villains as disparate as Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton and hijacker D.B. Cooper that adds a layer of contrarian nuance to his definition.
Some people and institutions self-consciously embrace the dark side because it is an inextricable part of who they are. Mr. Klosterman counts gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A and the Oakland Raiders among this cohort of cheesy, self-mythologizing villains.
In what is destined to be one of the book's most quoted chapters, Mr. Klosterman explains why as a former rock critic and lifelong music fan, he was once "contractually obligated" to hate Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Dire Straits, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Phish, U2, Coldplay and Blur.
At one point, Mr. Klosterman refers to pop singer Taylor Swift as a "one woman 'Hotel California' " to underscore his dislike of both the pop star and the Eagles.
On a sober note, a good chunk of the first chapter deals with the quandary presented by Joe Paterno, the late Penn State University football coach whose reputation unraveled in his final months as Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, stood accused of multiple counts of rape and child abuse that ultimately resulted in his conviction and life sentence.
Keeping in mind Mr. Klosterman's definition of a villain as "someone who knows the most but cares the least," the author asks why PSU's iconic football coach failed to care enough to use his institutional clout and moral authority to stop Sandusky when he knew enough early on to suspect the worst.
"The drug lords on 'The Wire' were criminals, but they had a stricter ethical code than the corrupt police trying to stop them," Mr. Klosterman wrote in his analysis of the HBO show and its complex characters.
"The most admirable adult in the series was Omar Little, a hyperviolent stickup artist who lived by a street code so austere he wouldn't even cuss (in 2012, Barack Obama cited Omar as his favorite 'Wire' character, thus making Obama the first sitting president to express admiration for a fictional homosexual who killed dozens of people with a shotgun)."
As a candidate in spring 2008, Mr. Obama happened to reveal the same during a visit to the Post-Gazette. After his editorial board meeting, we started chatting about "The Wire," and he broke into a broad smile while mentioning that he had met the actor who plays Omar (Michael K. Williams) at a recent campaign stop. That joy over having met "Omar" revealed his appreciation for morally ambiguous characters.
It may also explain how the man who would win the White House months later could later appoint a known villain like Lawrence Summers to his economic team without any hint of cognitive dissonance. Mr. Summers never made any secret of the fact that he was more than comfortable wearing the Black Hat.
"I Wear the Black Hat" is an erudite, provocative and playful survey of the ever shifting face of villainy in the American experience. To think of villainy as just Hitler is to miss its multifaceted reality.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631 First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM