Chuck Klosterman on who wears the black hat in our society


Chuck Klosterman’s new book I Wear the Black Hat is mostly a list of villains throughout pop culture and History.  The list, at times, is a little kitschy, and at times it’s a little serious, but whether you agree with him or not, Klosterman always has plenty of material to back up his claims.

In one of the passages of his book, Chuck Klosterman informs us that it’s no longer PC (Politically Correct) to call the PC movement PC.  He says that the very term PC is now nothing more than a “quaint distraction” that “no one takes too seriously anymore,” and “it feels like something that only matters to Charles Krauthammer.”  Klosterman says that the last time it was a “correct term to use to describe the linguistic issue in America was (roughly) between 1986 to 1995.”

Klosterman

It drives some of us “really, really crazy” when an individual tells us that a term, or phrase, that we use to describe a movement no longer properly describes that movement.  These people are prone to say, “You should stop using that term,” or something like, “That is so yesterday dude.”

‘Ok,’ I mentally respond, while reading this particular condemnation in the book I Wear the Black Hat (Or should I say African-American Hat). ‘What term, or phrase, would Mr. Klosterman prefer we use to describe the current incarnation of the PC movement?’ The answer, we find by dutifully reading on, is that we don’t replace it, unless you’re Charles Krauthammer.  It’s, apparently, just not a phrase that people should use anymore.  In other words, the cynical would respond, “it drives certain people (like Klosterman’s wife) really, really crazy” to try and defeat the idea that some people are trying inflict speech codes upon our language, so just drop it, and we can all get along a lot better.

If the import of Klosterman’s message on PC speech codes were that I’m not to be considered hip anymore when I use a term like PC, I’ll take that, because I’m admittedly about as far from hip as one person could possibly be.  If he’s telling us that the term PC is no longer an apt description of the attempts to control language, however, he’s going to have to provide us with a substitute.  I wouldn’t use that substitute, of course, but it would strengthen his argument to do so.

I was going to argue that the PC movement may not be as overt as it was between 1986 to 1995, but it is, we’re just more assimilated to it now.  Those of us that railed against PC speech codes in that era, as Klosterman later points out, simply lost the war.  The difference between the culture that existed between 1986 to 1995 and now, is that it’s simply less shocking to us now when someone tries to control how we speak.  It’s one of those sad but true facts that we’ve all learned to accept and a code we now have to lived by.

It used to be shocking to some of us when someone, be they a politician, or an obnoxious member of a particular group, would tell us that we weren’t speaking correctly, and it would elicit rebellion back then.  That rebellion was put forth by many, but in Klosterman’s opinion no one did it more often, or as loudly, as Andrew Dice Clay and 2 Live Crew.  Klosterman states that PC climate of that era provided an historical window in which an Andrew Dice Clay could become a megastar, and that “he would not have been a megastar in any other historical window—if (Dice Clay) had happened at a time when vulgarity somehow felt less important.”

Klosterman declares that that PC era was “painlessly oppressive” and those in that era experienced “low level anxiety” when they argued in public in which “Even casual conversation suddenly had the potential to get someone fired.”  He describes how sexism and racism were given birth, or at least re-birth, during this era, and that the “backlash was stupid and adversarial.”  In other words, if we are to read Klosterman correctly, we presumably should’ve all acquiesced to the PC crowd a lot sooner, so they could’ve won the war a lot quicker and saved us a whole bunch of adversarial exchanges.

I don’t know much about Klosterman’s life, and if he has experienced the hammer of the PC police personally, but those of us that have know that the PC police don’t just go away. They move onto the next thing, whatever that thing is.  To some of us, it is very important, and at the risk of inflating it beyond reason, vital to the the free speech clause that we continue to provide them the “stupid and adversarial” backlash that keeps them somewhat close to being in check.

In the final portion of this chapter, Klosterman does concede that the winners of this war, these advocates of speech-limitation, “Didn’t necessarily make a better argument, they just wore the culture down.  Almost everything that these advocates wanted in 1990, have been adopted by the world at large, in that we now err on the side of caution for the potentially offended.”  So he basically admits that the PC crowd is still on the march, but that it’s just not PC to call them PC anymore.

The Villians

The much ballyhooed (and selling point for the book) chapter on O.J. Simpson doesn’t live up to the hype.  The hype that the publishers used to try to move the book, was that Klosterman was going to tell us O.J.’s second biggest mistake.  The second biggest mistake O.J. made, in Klosterman’s opinion, is that O.J. didn’t go into hiding after the trial exonerated him of the brutal slaying of his wife and Ron Goldman (yawn).  Klosterman advises O.J., as O.J.’s adviser Alan Dershowitz advised O.J., that he should’ve kept a low profile, or move, or do anything but what he did by going out and living the O.J. lifestyle that O.J. knew pre-incarceration.  Klosterman, would’ve advised O.J. against writing that book, or going on talk shows to give his side.  A much more interesting chapter, as if it hasn’t been covered already, would’ve been to focus on our society’s reaction to O.J. post-verdict.  It would’ve been interesting to read Chuck’s analysis of the young kids (who never knew O.J. the running back, announcer, or Naked Gun star) asking for O.J.’s autograph, the manner in which he was fawned over in public, and he could’ve tied this into the culture’s glorification of bad guys dating back to Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid, and those that wore the black hats.

The most interesting chapter, in my opinion, other than the “Eagles” chapter that was covered in one of my previous blogs, is the chapter concerning how Muhammad Ali is a villain.  Klosterman takes on this icon’s current, glorified status, stating that Muhammad Ali ruined a man’s life (Joe Frazier) for the expressed purpose of getting in the man’s head to win a fight.

I must painfully admit that I have been on Muhammad Ali’s side for much of the history of the Ali/Frazier story.  I was too young to have firsthand knowledge of the fight, or the debate that followed, and much of what I’ve seen, heard, and read has been after the fact analysis.  I was also very young when the debate started springing up around me, so I took the star’s side.  When I later learned that that put me on the same side of this debate as TV personality Bryant Gumbel, I knew I was on the wrong side. I didn’t yet know the specifics of why I was wrong, but I knew that Gumbel was consistently and obnoxiously, on the wrong side of history.  Thanks to Gumbel’s obnoxious takes on the matter, I began to strive for more objectivity on the story.  The productions I watched from that point on, including the one put together by HBO, “The Thilla in Manilla”, convinced me that Ali was a bad guy, and a bully, that would stop at nothing to humiliate Frazier, until it reached what some have termed an historical level of betrayal.

The other illuminating fact Chuck unearths, that I must say I didn’t know, is that Ali met with the KKK to discuss their shared belief on the evils of interracial marriage.  One has to think that even the obnoxious Bryant Gumbel would not have been eager to agree with Ali on this point, as Gumbel’s mother, and his wife are white.  If you have ever watched Gumble interview a subject he sides with, however, you have to think this may have been a possibility.  Gumble is, if nothing else, consistently obnoxious. The likely outcome, if Ali brought this up in a Gumble interview, would’ve been a surreptitious edit.  It is possible that this obnoxious, succumbent to African-American stars may have found a surreptitious way of agreeing with Ali, and he may have found a way of calling those that opposed  an “(effing) idiot” for disagreeing with whatever  “the greatest” had to say on the matter.  Klosterman concludes this piece by asking how many icons, other than Ali, could’ve survived with their image intact after such a meeting with the KKK, and such a shared belief, as that.

Klosterman also states that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a villain, because he was once mean to a guy from Pearl Jam.  Klosterman says that the guys from Pearl Jam are nice guys, and they have a history of being appreciative of their fans, and Jabbar purportedly does not.  These facts, when put together, should lead the reader to believe that Jabbar is a villain.  Did Jabbar thump an autograph-seeking child in the forehead, did he push an old lady to the ground, or did he set Mother Teresa on fire after a particularly heated debate on the virtues of altruism?  No, he was mean to a guy from Pearl Jam.  Mean may even be a relative term in Chuck’s description of what happened.  I read dismissive more than mean, but apparently no one can be dismissive of guys in Pearl Jam, or they’ll write a song about them, and Klosterman will like that song so much that he’ll feel enough allegiance to call the one that dismissed them a villain on that basis alone.

Chevy Chase is also a villain in Klosterman’s view, and this is based on the fact that Chase doesn’t take his role in entertainment seriously enough.  Klosterman does lay out the fact that none of Chase’s co-stars in movies or on TV showed up for his roast, and that that pretty much means that those co-stars didn’t care for him.  Chuck revisits a fight scene between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, where Bill Murray called Chevy a “medium talent”, to suggest that Chase was overrated and underachieving at the same time.  Chuck writes that the book “Live from New York, as oral history of Saturday Night Live” is littered with people taking pot shots at Chevy, and that the creator of the show “Community” called him a bad word, but Klosterman believes the nut of why Chevy is a bad guy exists in the fact that Chevy hates himself.  Klosterman writes that one of Chevy’s most famous lines: “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not” is not something he’s happy about.  Klosterman also writes that Chevy “never opted for the serious roles that so many comedians vie for throughout their careers.”

Now I agree with Marlon Brando that it doesn’t take a lot of talent to act in movies, but perhaps Chevy feared some sort of revelation of his “medium talent” in those roles.  From the rare glimpses we’ve seen of Chase’s obnoxiousness, it’s hard to believe he’s a good guy, and as Klosterman writes, we can take some of Chevy’s cohort’s criticism as jealousy, but to suggest that he’s a villain based on the fact that he didn’t take his career serious enough might be a bit of a stretch.

In the “Eagles chapter” that has little to do with the villain premise, except perhaps thematically, Klosterman writes that he doesn’t think certain bands, and singers, are bad guys, he takes a moment to suggest why Mr. Bungle is not as great as some people think.

Mr. Bungle “was way more interesting than it was” writes Chuck Klosterman.  Klosterman claims Mr. Bungle was a “self-indulgent side project”.  He calls it “my real world introduction to The Problem of Overrated Ideas”.  He says that Mike Patton, in particular, was “improvisational and gross.  Musically and otherwise: He (Patton) stated that he would eat huge portions of mashed potatoes and chase it with schnapps,” Patton told MTV News, “Then he would sneak into his local laundromat and vomit into washers and dryers.” The fact that Klosterman does not mention Mike Patton by name, only as the singer, suggests that there may be some personal animus that drives his review of the band, but I could be wrong. Klosterman also basically claims that Patton should’ve stuck with the more mainstream Faith No More.

First of all, a decent study of Mike Patton’s history would show Klosterman that not only was Faith No More Patton’s other band, but it was his side project (not the other way around).  At one point in his career, Patton did give Faith No More his full concentration, but it was mostly viewed as a promotional vehicle for Mr. Bungle.  As evidence of this, Faith No More’s first video “Epic” shows Patton in a Mr. Bungle T-Shirt.

All personal preferences and disagreements aside, it says a lot about Klosterman’s listening habits that they’re, at least in part, dictated by things said in interviews he finds distasteful. Klosterman writes that Patton’s improvisations are “gross musically”, and this leads the informed reader to believe that Klosterman has probably only listened to the first Mr. Bungle album.  I’ve listened to this self-titled debut ad nauseum, and I’ve basically reached a point where I’ve deleted all of the silly and gross improvisations from that album on my iPod, and I used to delete the same portions from the audio tapes I recorded the album onto.  What you’re left with, when you delete the silliness, is a great piece of work from a bunch of teenagers.  (As a side note, Mr. Bungle’s other two albums succeeded without such deletions.  Those albums were tight in their musical structure, and all the silliness lay behind them by this point.)  Perhaps, Klosterman should do more homework on a subject he apparently knows little to nothing about.

Are you telling me, Chuck, that Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue never did anything silly and gross (like biting the heads off bats), and they’re never been immature in interviews? How old were your peeps when they snorted a line of ants?  The guys in Mr. Bungle were teenagers when their self-titled, first album came out, and teenagers love bathroom humor and fart jokes, but the members of the group eventually grew up and produced two of the best, most consistent, and serious albums of music I’ve ever heard.

I’ve always thought that the best reviews were those that dissected a book in a negative manner, as opposed to those glowing, sound bite style reviews (“A Tour de Force”) that the reviewer writes, so that he might get his name on the cover of the book.  It may be just me, but I’ve always thought that negative reviews act as an EKG monitor for the heart of a book, and positive reviews usually act as a fawning mechanism for the star status of the author.  I also don’t care what a person’s personal review of the book is, if it’s based on the fact that they like Muhammad Ali, I want to know if it was a good book or not, and I think a thorough dissection of a book, can only be done in a negative manner.  If you do want my opinion, however, I Wear the Black (African American) Hat is an excellent, fun read that dissects our era (Chuck and I are about two years a part) in a manner, it appears, that only Chuck Klosterman can do this well.

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