Author Interviews
3:53 pm
Tue July 9, 2013

Chuck Klosterman On Batman, Bad Guys And Wearing 'The Black Hat'

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 4:00 pm

News stories can often be distilled into good guys versus bad guys, heroes versus villains. But what makes a villain? What's the difference between a garden-variety bad guy and an evil genius, besides a couple of IQ points? Those are the questions pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman grapples with in his new book, I Wear The Black Hat.

Klosterman, who also writes The New York Times Magazine's Ethicist column, joins NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss Darth Vader's grown-up fan base and the appeal of unknown vigilantes.


Interview Highlights

On how people gravitate to more villainous Star Wars characters as they get older

"I was talking with the guy who ultimately edited this book, and his son had just watched Star Wars, his 4-year-old-son, and was very affected by it. And I kind of had this theory that when you're a very young person, the character in Star Wars you care about the most or like the most is Luke Skywalker, who's this, you know, wholly good, heroic, almost naively pure kind of character.

"And then you become, you know, 12 years old, a teenager, and you gravitate toward Han Solo, who seems like a bad person, but ultimately he is good. And when you're kind of going through adolescence, you sort of like the idea of being perceived as a dangerous individual, even though you still sort of identify as being good.

"But when you really become adult, you're no longer looking at characters — fictional or unfictional — as aspirational. You kind of are the person you are. And now when you look at characters, you kind of want to see things in them that help you understand yourself. So I feel, as an adult, the character you care about the most is Darth Vader. The maturation process seems to move a person toward relating to and understanding villainous personalities. And that was in some ways kind of the framing device for this book."

On the image of vigilantes like Batman and Bernhard Goetz, who became famous in the '80s after he shot a group of teenagers who he said tried to rob him on the New York City subway

"Vigilantes are particularly complex scenarios because any sophisticated intellectual person, if you say to them, you know, 'Is vigilante justice good for society?' they will say, 'No.' But when people hear a story about a real vigilante, with very little information — all that they know is that a peaceful person was attacked and responded with force and basically took justice into their own hands because no one was going to help them. In that kind of slightly defined abstraction, people like the idea of a vigilante. It's like Batman.

"But as soon as that vigilante becomes a real person, as soon as Bernhard Goetz starts saying things about his life and his worldview and we learn details about how he lives and we see what he looks like and we see all these things about him; suddenly then the vigilante becomes very problematic again.

This is often described as somebody's image "falling apart."

"The irony is that it's actually someone not falling apart; it's actually someone being put together. I mean with someone like Bernhard Goetz, or with the fictional idea of Batman, if you don't know anything about a person, you only put good things into the shell."

On whether he wrote the book because he thinks he's a villainous person

"If you write a book about villainy in order to define that you are one, it almost seems like an excuse, like I'm trying to convince people that villains are interesting because I'm a bad guy."

On whether it's problematic for him to write a book about villainy and a column about ethics

"As the Ethicist [columnist], I'm looking at other people's problems, and I do think I am good at looking at other people's problems objectively and rationally and saying, 'This is what [an] ethical person would do.' I'm very rarely arguing, 'This is what I would do,' because I don't know what I would do."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, you've probably heard a couple of news stories on our show that might be distilled down to good and bad guys, heroes and villains. Well, what makes a villain? What's the difference between your garden variety bad guy and the evil genius besides a couple of IQ points? Chuck Klosterman tries to take on these questions in a new book called, "I Wear The Black Hat, Grappling With Villains Real and Imagined."

Chuck Klosterman, welcome to the program.

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Hey, thanks for viewing me as a thing worth considering.

CORNISH: Well, you're also the writer of the ethicist column in the New York Times and people write you asking for advice about moral dilemmas from their lives. And in this book, you first go at our very ideas of good and evil and working out that spectrum in our own minds by using "Star Wars" and what characters that you and you think other boys in particular would gravitate towards as they viewed the film over time.

KLOSTERMAN: Yeah. I was talking with the guy who ultimately edited this book, and his son had just watched "Star Wars," his 4-year-old-son, and was very affected by it. And I kind of had this theory that when you're a very young person, the character in "Star Wars" you care about the most or like the most is Luke Skywalker, who's this, you know, wholly good, heroic, almost naively pure kind of character.

And then you become, you know, 12 years old, a teenager, and you gravitate toward Han Solo, who seems like a bad person but ultimately he is good. And when you're, you know, kind of going through adolescence, you sort of like the idea of being perceived as a dangerous individual, even though you still sort of identify as being good.

But when you really become adult, you're no longer looking at characters, fictional or unfictional, as aspirational. You kind of are the person you are. And now when you look at characters, you kind of want to see things in them that help you understand yourself. So I feel, as an adult, the character you care about the most is Darth Vader.

The maturation process seems to move a person toward relating to and understanding villainous personalities. And that was in some ways kind of the framing device for this book.

CORNISH: So much of this is about context, right? And, you know, one example that really speaks to that is this idea, your take on Batman, the comic book hero, versus Bernhard Goetz, who was, in the late '80s, came to be known as the subway vigilante.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Police are calling the gunman a vigilante. They say that he methodically shot four young men on a crowded 7th Avenue IRT Express just north of Chambers Street in Manhattan. The gunman said he shot them because they were trying to rob him.

CORNISH: This is an example you use in the book that really illustrates how important context is to deciding who is a villain, right, or who gets labeled a villain?

KLOSTERMAN: Well, vigilantes are particularly complex scenarios because any sophisticated intellectual person, if you say to them, you know, is vigilante justice good for society? They will say, no. But when people hear a story about a real vigilante, with very little information, all that they know is that a peaceful person was attacked and responded with force and basically took justice into their own hands because no one was going to help them.

In that kind of slightly defined abstraction, people like the idea of a vigilante. It's like Batman. But as soon as that vigilante becomes a real person, you know, as soon as Bernhard Goetz starts saying things about his life and his worldview and we learn details about how he lives and we see what he looks like and we see all these things about him, suddenly then, the vigilante becomes very problematic again.

CORNISH: This is often described as somebody's image, quote/unquote, "falling apart," even though maybe that wasn't their construction in the first place, right? That's just how we viewed them.

KLOSTERMAN: Well, the irony is that it's actually someone not falling apart, it's actually someone being put together. I mean, with someone like Bernhard Goetz, or with the fictional idea of Batman, if you don't know anything about a person, you only put good things into the shell.

CORNISH: Now you mentioned this editor who talked to you about the book at the start, but you also write that he asked you whether you only wanted to write about this idea because you were afraid that you are a villainous person. And by the end, do you really think that it's true? I mean, do you wear the black hat?

KLOSTERMAN: Well, if you write a book about villainy in order to define that you are one, it almost seems like an excuse, like I'm trying to convince people that villains are interesting because I'm a bad guy.

CORNISH: Although, you haven't done anything all that bad in the book, frankly. I mean, there's a couple of bands you don't like that I object to, but other than that, you don't seem that bad a guy. And you're the ethicist. What the heck?

KLOSTERMAN: Well, I mean, as the Ethicist, I'm looking at other people's problems, and I do think I am good at looking at other people's problems objectively and rationally and saying, this is what an ethical person would do. I'm very rarely arguing, this is what I would do, because I don't know what I would do.

CORNISH: Well, Chuck Klosterman, whatever your motives, thank you for coming on this show to talk to us.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, thanks. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: Chuck Klosterman is author of "I Wear The Black Hat, Grappling With Villains Real and Imagined." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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