Wednesday, March 19, 2014

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

I Wear the Black Hat
by Chuck Klosterman
Publisher: Scribner, July 2013

ISBN-10: 1439184496 
ISBN-13: 978-1439184493

Available at Amazon 

What is it about our fascination with characters that, by any normal standard, would not be welcome into our lives, and the way they keep us riveted to our chairs watching them on media programs or reading them in books? People talk about the worst of them and try to understand them long after they are gone (like Hitler), are alternately horrified and amused by the bad boys and their antics (like Charlie Sheen or Alec Baldwin), and keep bringing murderers back to life over and over again (Hannibal Lector is reappearing in cable, and Norman of Psycho fame is back again). Really? Are they role models? Does it somehow help us? Are we drawn to evil? Is it the dark side of human nature that we can't get rid of?

Chuck Klostermann has taken on the task of sorting this out. While he's not sure he's got the answers, he's certainly taking a close look at the phenomenon. "I Wear the Black Hat" takes note of our penchant for paying more attention to the bad guys than the heroes (who can be unutterably simple and boring), and our tendency, over time, to remember the bad guys more clearly because they are a puzzle. Do they choose to be bad or is the choice made for them by outside forces? Do the cartoon-ish villains in old melodramas tying maids to the railroad tracks have anything in common with the author of "The Prince," Niccolo Macchiavelli? Which is worse, a villain-on-purpose, or one that can't help himself?

To be sure, these questions have been asked in one form or another for centuries, but in taking on this subject, Klostermann brings up a mirror to our own values and viewpoints, and shows us that they truly conflict with our actions (the bigger the villain, the better the movie sells). What to do about that is unclear, but seeing is one of those interesting things...once you see the patterns, they are hard if not impossible to un-see. Where the reader takes it from at that point is his or her responsibility.

Elements of villainy in our everyday lives are brought out, from football (the Sandusky fiasco and the Raiders' obsession with being seen as evildoers) to politics (was Bush more evil or Cheney?) to music (is group popularity fueled by fandom or revulsion? Does it have to be dark to sell?) to hijackers (why does everyone still obsess about D. B. Cooper?).

There are a couple of places where Klostermann tends to meander a bit (areas where he has his own obsessions, football and music, perhaps) and that slows down the pace of the book, but all in all it's an interesting look at old discussions of good and evil through the lens of pop culture, where drug dealers and terrorists and mafiosos are constantly appearing and re-appearing on demand. Although we know in our heart of hearts, they are evil, we somehow can't stop watching and listening to them, and Klostermann makes us face the question, "what does that say about us?"

For myself, I'll be noticing my reactions to the bad guys after reading this book, and probably feeling a bit sorry for the good guys -- they never get a break -- even when they win, they are quickly forgotten) but it sure makes one think about our culture, and the gap between how we see ourselves, and the things we find compellingly fascinating. I'd also recommend this book to anyone who wants to write, because if the villains are really what captivates, it's a primer for learning how to create better villains, guilty as it makes me feel to say that.

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