Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Villainy ("I Wear the Black Hat" by Chuck Klosterman)

Towards the end of I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman, there is a section--a chapter? an essay?--in which the author discusses 90s gangsta rap group NWA; Jack Tatum and John Matuszak of the Oakland Raiders; their team's now deceased longtime owner, Al Davis; and Dutch auteur Lars von Trier, whose films seek out controversial topics like rape, racism, xenophobia, and adultery, and handle them, well, controversially. It's a bizarre combination of people that, outside of a Pynchon novel, would never have any valid reason for being assembled in one text. But in the ever-churning cultural-societal melange that is the mind of Chuck Klosterman, there is a perfect reason for this unique assortment of men to exist:  they are all, in their own special way, villains.

Specifics aside--and each of their individual connections to "villainy" are as interesting as they are diverse--Klosterman is attempting to understand just what makes someone a villain. The usually tendency to condemn a person as a villainous figure is based on inconsistencies and undefined, ever-changing criteria:  for example, someone like Hitler should undoubtedly be considered a villain, his actions having been responsible for the deaths of millions, but other men who committed similar crimes, or even brought about the deaths of two or three times as many people--Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong--are not placed within the same circle as Hitler. We've isolated Hitler, made him out to be the one and only Ultimate Villain, even when the very criteria used to judge his villainy judges other men as even worse. It's as though, in evaluating the wickedness of men, we administer the Hitler Test, and often the subject scores higher than the control.*

Similarly, villainy is often defined by the era in which its potential villains live. Klosterman examines these discrepancies as they occurred over the last two or three decades--Bill Clinton in the 90s versus Bill Clinton in 2012, Bernhard Goetz in the crime-addled New York City of the late 80s versus Bernhard Goetz today--but he could easily have reached back centuries and found examples that are just as pertinent.** For instance, an adulteress in the 1600s--let's call her Hester--would be shunned by her townspeople as the pinnacle of sinfulness and egotism--a living, breathing danger to those around her--while, four hundred years into the future, she'd be little more than a prototypical American woman, possibly even a reality TV star, some sort of "real" housewife whose lack of job skills allows her to spend all day drinking and being catty towards other, similarly hobby-less women.

But in reading Klosterman's book--a collection of pseudo-essays, each connected by the theme of villainy and containing an eccentric selection of figures real and fake--it becomes apparent that our author isn't too interested in deciphering a formula for villainy; in fact, within the first few pages, his theory--"villains don't care"--is pretty well established, and it carries Klosterman through the remainder of the text. Which is actually just as well, not because his theory isn't fascinating in its own way, but because, page after page, watching Klosterman wax philosophic over such a strange company of men and women, somehow drawing them into a web of similarities that makes perfect logical sense, is downright beautiful. Over the course of 200 pages, he manages to boil up a mixture of artists, politicians, athletes, millionaires, presidents, rappers, hackers, comedians, coaches...and make it work, despite all expectations to the contrary, as a stew of disparate ingredients that goes down smooth and tastes delicious.

Which brings us back to NWA, the Raiders, and Lars von Trier. The first is depicted as "villainous" only in an archaic sense:  they sang of race, violence, and inequality at a time when doing so, especially as blatantly and unapologetically as they did, was seen as little more than stoking the flames of civil unrest. Davis is a "villain" because he ran his organization with the sole purpose of winning, which is an obvious goal for the owner of a franchised football team, but in doing so he removed any accountability for the actions of his players:  as long as they worked to win, he didn't seem to care how much damage lay in their wake.

Tatum and Matuszak--a defensive back and a defensive end, respectively--are seen as "villains" for their actions while players in the NFL; Tatum is remembered for paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley from the chest down, an act he never fully apologized for, while Matuszak is depicted as someone whose dangerous lifestyle was either caused by--or was the cause of--how the public perceived his role on the team, which is almost paradoxical in a way:  does a player's violent off-field behavior inform his violent on-field actions, or do his violent on-field actions inform his violent off-field behavior? Does the player beget the man, or does the man beget the player?

Klosterman has no real say in the matter--he even refers to Matuszak's situation as being "less clear-cut" in comparison to Tatum's. However, his short sections on von Trier, specifically the filmmaker's over-eagerness to stroke controversy by speaking of Hitler and Judaism in an intentionally misleading way, offer some guidance in the matter. Von Trier is villainous for the sake of being so; he makes statements that are incendiary and all but certain to cause a stir, and he makes sure they're spoken in such a way that the over-eager and context-shunning media will take the bait. (Anyone who's seen interviews with Von Tier, like the one he did for The Story of Film, know he can be an intelligent and charming man, much against the self-made caricature of himself.) But does acting like a villain (and not meaning it) necessarily make one a villain?

By the end of the book, there is no clear answer here...and that's quite possibly the point. Just as there's no definite answer on von Trier--and NWA, and Davis, and the two Raiders players--there is also no conclusive evidence linking any one person to the label of Pure Villain. Even someone like Hitler, who is far and away the closest we have ever come to understanding pure evil--whatever that terms means--cannot be the standard-bearer, the definition, the model by which all others are judged. "Villain" is such an in-flux idea, constantly moving to fit the changing morals and ideals of our society--our hundreds of societies--that trying to wrangle a consistent measure is pointless. But that doesn't mean reading about them can't be just a little fun, never mind how slightly villainous that idea in itself might sound.

*This is a terrible analogy, so if you prefer.... Imagine you take a test called the Einstein Test, in which your intelligence ranked on a scale of 0--or incredible stupidity--to Einstein, which signifies that you are the most intelligent person alive, an equal to the great physicist himself. He is the Everest that you scale:  you may reach his peak and essentially become "the next Einstein," but you cannot exceed him. Now imagine you score Einstein + 1...smarter than the man himself, on a test named for him. You have climbed Everest and now somehow stand a foot above it. That is analogous to judging all historical villains against Hitler and finding, quite shockingly, that some exceed the test.

**My apologies to Bill Clinton for placing his name within the same dash-separated clause as a bigoted, squirrel-obsessed vigilante from thirty years ago. But it could've been worse--I could've mentioned him alongside Sarah Palin.