From Satan in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" to TV's Tony Soprano, fictional bad guys are often more interesting than traditional heroes, and in the real world, criminals sell more newspapers than do-gooders. In "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)" (Scribner, $25), pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman, who writes "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine, examines his own conflicted responses to figures such as subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, The Eagles and O.J. Simpson, and attempts to understand why rogues and scoundrels generate such strong feelings. He discussed the book in a recent phone interview.
It's striking that many of the figures you write about are people whose fame, or infamy, peaked some time ago. Did you need temporal distance to figure out the nature of their "villainy"?
Partially yes, but you've got to write a book with the idea that the concepts you're dealing with and the examples you use to illustrate your ideas will still be relevant in 10 or 30 years. I consider myself a very recent historian -- I'm dealing with the history of the last 20 years, but that's still a closed system. I can do cultural criticism on The Eagles because their trajectory is set. The way we perceive The Eagles is pretty calcified.
In the chapter on The Eagles, you talk about seeing artists you intensely disliked as villainous. When you try to work out why you once hated the group, you seem to conclude that to stop hating The Eagles, you had to stop caring deeply about music.
It was more a recognition that the reasons I was having strong reactions to musicians were totally nonmusical. I realized that if you don't like The Eagles, you don't have to hate them, you can just choose not to listen to them. If you continue to listen to them, you're consciously, actively engaging with something you don't like. It's almost performative. It's a way to access that anger or that distaste.
In that same chapter, you provide a pretty detailed chronology of the musicians you've hated since you were 12 years old. You're 41 now. How are you able to call up those feelings from nearly 30 years ago?
One thing that I'm able to do is jump back into past versions of my body with the mind I have now. So I can jump back to 1984, and I can remember the way I felt about Bruce Springsteen. It was actually as important to me to hate Bruce Springsteen as it was to love the artists who were important to me. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference. If you hate something, you're pretty close to loving it; it's somehow informing the way you view the world.
In the section on Bill Clinton, you note that physically attractive people get away with more than plain people. Does that mean that physically attractive people can't be villains?
In a way, they're almost the perfect villains. In the present tense they're allowed more freedom, but when we step back a little bit, we can see the machinations of their villainy. Clinton was able to be the most famous philanderer in the world while also being the most powerful man in the world, and somehow it turned out OK. When he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, I think he had a 60 percent approval rating with women. The obvious response is that there's an ingrained double standard that men can do this and women can't. There's some truth in that, but I think that his handsomeness plays a significant role. I can't imagine someone who looks like, say, Nixon being able to do that and being re-embraced by society. Everybody knows that the way people look impacts our reaction, but I think we underrate it, because it's discomforting to admit that in some way we are all kind of shallow.
At one point you suggest that when people are nice and polite, it's because that's how we're supposed to behave. That makes villainy seem more authentic, because villains are truly expressing themselves rather than just following the rules.
That's absolutely true. When people talk about movies, you often hear them say, "The villain is more interesting than the hero." When they use the word "interesting," the word that they're actually using is "real." When we see people doing bad things, it immediately resonates with us, because we know we have the potential to do that. Heroic figures seem naive and false.