Transcript for Chuck Klosterman on "I Wear the Black Hat"

Jim Fleming: Chuck Klosterman has been described as one of America's top cultural critics. He also writes the Ethics column for "The New York Times Magazine."  So, maybe it's only fitting that his new book is a series of suitably Klosterman-esque essays about villains. It's called “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)”.  "To the Best of Our Knowledge" producer Doug Gordon talks with Chuck Klosterman.

Doug Gordon: One of the essays in your book is called “Easier Than Typing” and you start this essay by presenting a thought experiment in which you ask the reader to imagine that Batman is real. Can you tell me about that, Chuck?

Chuck Klosterman: Well, I think vigilantes pose a particularly complicated scenario for people trying to understand how we feel about public figures who are in the news, and I say that because, if you talk to somebody who is intelligent, somebody who is thoughtful and you say “is vigilante justice good or bad for society?” they will immediately say “of course not, we have these laws, we have a framework for how society works, you can't have people taking justice into their own hands.” But, then you give them a slightly more specific portrait of an incident that has happened. You say in a city that's dominated by crime, a person who had done nothing wrong was sitting by himself, is confronted by thugs and he ends up responding with more violence than they brought toward him, and he is sort of acting on behalf of society, society is fighting back. Well, then, their willingness to emotionally side with the vigilante just amplifies. And, then it goes one step further whereas we learn these details about the vigilante, what he or she is like, what their belief system is, the idea that this act may have been more personal than social, it swings back the other way. Then, this person isn't acting on behalf of the world, they're acting as a rogue free agent that has nothing to do with social justice, it has to do with a desire for blood lust or whatever. So I was thinking about Bernhard Goetz because he's the clearest example of this, the subway vigilante in New York in the 80s. So I started thinking to myself “What if Batman was real?” and when I say Batman, assume that there isn't this pre-existing knowledge of this character from DC Comics. No one knows who Batman is, so no one knows what his motives are. I was trying to figure out how people would react, and particularly, how the media would react, if a figure like Batman actually came into play.

Gordon: And, then that's where you go from Batman to Bernhard Goetz and, as you touched on earlier, Bernhard Goetz, even though he's a victim, the more we find out about him, the more he seems like a villain.

Klosterman: The initial reaction to those shootings was entirely in Goetz's favor, for three to four days he was a nationally-adored figure because New York was just a cesspool of violence at the time and it just seemed as though this is somebody who was saying to the world “this is unacceptable cultural status, we cannot accept our culture to be like this”. But, then when he was arrested, and he started talking about himself, and showed no remorse over what he had done, and I guess there was maybe a social hope that he would be like “I hated shooting those guys, but I had no choice” and instead he was more like “It was easy shooting them. It was easier than typing”. Then, we start going back into his own life and we realize he said racially-insensitive remarks at a community meeting, and then we find all these strange details about his personal life. It turns out, for example, now he lives in an apartment in New York with a bunch of squirrels, he's become an advocate for the squirrel population of New York. Well, now he becomes marginalized as a character, and now we no longer see him as acting on behalf of anyone besides himself.

Gordon: So, now there's this slippery slope there can be between a vigilante and a villain.

Klosterman: Well, yeah, because we know all this stuff about Batman, the character, we know Batman is good. We know his motive is based on the fact that he sees his parents killed and it changes him, it traumatizes him, and he decides he doesn't want anyone to experience that kind of drama. But, if Batman were real, of course we would not know those things. We would just know that someone is dressing like a winged mammal, going around, beating people up who have not had due process, I think that a lot of the people, in fact, who like Batman the most as a character, the kind of people who are really forwarding the import of the comic book mythology, would be the first people to say “This bat guy needs to be arrested, we need to get him off the streets, he's even worse than the criminals”.

Gordon: It's funny, when you said that, you mentioned Batman as a winged mammal. I had this image, given Bernhard Goetz's being a squirrel advocate, of being Squirrelman, could be a Squirrelman superhero.

Klosterman: I wonder what would have been the impact of that. I've always thought it was interesting that we don't see more examples of people trying to become literal superheroes. There are people who dress up in suits and walk the streets at night but it would almost seem like that's such a part of our culture that it would become a normative thing for crazy people to do.

Gordon: Exactly, and I'd like to see that happen with villains, too, that would be nice. I don't know who it's up to to do it first, maybe the villains have to initiate it, I don't know.

Klosterman: It's a real mistake if you're a villain to become a supervillain because a big part of being a criminal is being unseen and not being caught, so wearing Joker makeup does seem like a bad move if you want to elude prosecution.

Gordon: But with the cult of celebrity, that's maybe fifteen minutes of fame there but that's a good point you raise. Chuck, can you tell me about your own arch-enemy, Rick Helling, who you write about near the end of the book?

Klosterman: Well, I had this incident happen around eighth grade, it was a basketball camp near Fargo, North Dakota, and there was a kid at this camp, and there was a kid at this camp named Rick Helling, who was, at least in our age group, by far the best player. He was physically imposing and more skilled and very talented, but at least from my perception at that time, an awful person, maybe the worst person I had ever met. He was extremely egocentric and he seemed obsessed with sex, which I know is a normal thing for an eighth-grader but I just found it very uncomfortable and he didn't listen to the coach and was always arguing with the referees and he was just a bullying figure. That really stayed in my mind. I remember him going to high school. We went to different high schools; he went to a Catholic school in Fargo called Shanley and I was in a small town. But, he was a good athlete so his name was in the paper and he ends up becoming a Major League baseball player, the only Major League baseball player I've ever known personally. So I follow this guy's career. I still feel the same way I did in junior high, so I'm reading the newspaper hoping to see that Rick Helling got shelved, I'm waiting for him to fail. He wins twenty games one year and I'm just so disappointed and he pitches in the World Series and I'm mad the whole time. Well, I wrote a piece for "Esquire" about this where I make this passing reference to having this arch-enemy and he then retires and I'm like “oh well, end of story”. But then I find out, years later, reading an issue of "Time" magazine in a dentist's office, that Rick Helling, this guy who I've spent my whole life viewing as the antithesis of me, my arch-enemy, was the first player in Major League baseball to stand up and take a stand against anabolic steroids. No one listened to him, but he was the first guy to be on record going “look, this is a problem, it's screwing the game up, there's going to be consequences if we don't step in”. Then, of course, now in the wake of what has happened, everyone looks back and goes “Oh, Rick Helling was this truth pioneer”. So I had to come to the realization that the one person I am on record for hating is probably one of the most important baseball players of the last forty years despite the fact that his success on the field was very marginal. His import was that he refused to allow something that was wrong to continue happening without standing up and saying “we need to change this”. So, that's my life, the people I hate end up being the heroes.

Gordon: Exactly. As you write in the book, that makes you the villain.

Klosterman: In my own story.

Gordon: Yeah. Has writing this book, and your work as ethicist for "The New York Times Magazine" changed the way you think about good and evil?

Klosterman: I'm not exactly sure I really believe in the concept of evil. There's good and bad, but evil is something different. Being "The Ethicist" has definitely changed my life, though. You take that job and I'm not claiming to be the most ethical person in New York or in America, the title of the job is 'the ethicist', it's just the name of the column, but I know it's not perceived that way. It is perceived by other people as someone saying “I know what is right and I know what is wrong” so I'm super conscious of all my actions now. I was walking down the street the other day and I was eating something and I had a wrapper and I rolled up the wrapper and I tried to throw it in the wastebasket and I missed. I kept walking, and then I was like “I'd better not do this, if someone sees this I'm going to get fired”. So I went back and I put it away. I'm very nervous now of being seen as an unethical person. But, that's not the same as being good and that's part of the problem. If I go through my life making sure I only do good things, but my motive for doing so is just to be seen as not bad, I don't think that's the same as being good for society. That seems like acting all the time, and I sometimes wonder if my good deeds are basically just performances.

Gordon: Do you really think that, though? You sometimes wonder, but do you really think that might be true?

Klosterman: I don't think I know. I don't think it's possible for me to know, because a big part of living a reasonable life is self-deception. We are constantly self-deceiving ourselves into believing that what we're doing is just or important or meaningful that it becomes a second nature. It's as if there's a shadow-self that is constantly convincing us that what we are doing is being done for the proper reason, the proper motive and I'm very distrustful of the things that I do. I try to be a generous person. I'm suspicious of my generosity. I try to be an honest person. Why? Am I honest in a way that avoids a straightforward lie but is just a twisted version of the truth? I can't be accused of straightforwardly making something up? I don't know. You write a book like this because, probably, you're uncomfortable with your own self and I think that's probably true about myself.

Fleming: Chuck Klosterman is the author of “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined).”  He spoke with "To The Best of Our Knowledge" producer Doug Gordon. Is there a hero, or a villain, that you find especially captivating? We'd love to know who he or she is. You can get in touch with us through Facebook or Twitter. You'll find links to our accounts on our website: ttbook.org.

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