Chuck Klosterman (Kris Drake)

Chuck Klosterman's shocking secret!: Being the Ethicist doesn't make me ethical

The writer on Stephen Colbert, Donald Sterling and the possible immorality of journalism


Katie McDonough
July 18, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

Chuck Klosterman's "I Wear the Black Hat" was released in paperback around the same time that everyone in the country started to hate Donald Sterling, so I thought it seemed appropriate to talk to him about his book on villainy at a moment ripe with so many people who seemed to fit the bill.

But Klosterman's take on what makes someone a villain is specific, and, he explains, limited by design. According to the book: “In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.” My colleague Laura Miller noted in her review that -- at least for Klosterman -- determining who is a villain is not "entirely the same thing as deciding who’s in the wrong."

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I spoke to Klosterman over the phone about applying his villain criteria to politicians and celebrities in the news, his views on the possible villainy of journalists, why Prince never let reporters bring pencils into interviews with him and whether or not it's weird to be writing a New York Times column on ethics while personally questioning his own status as a psychopath.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You write in the book that you’re the villain of your own story. You also happen to write a column for the New York Times in which you try to instruct people on how to be good. That seems like a tall order in general, but is it particularly weird as a person who -- as you do in the intro to your book -- questions whether or not he is a psychopath?

You know, how one behaves and how you know you're supposed to behave aren't always the same. So when I'm dealing with questions in the Ethicist, what I’m trying to do is view the situations almost as nonfiction thought problems. And I'm trying to deduce what a rational ethical person would do in that scenario if the primary goal was to do the moral thing. I’m not telling people, “Well, this is what I would do.” I would never argue I am the most moral person in New York. Or even my own apartment. [Laughs]

So how do you envision this rational ethical person?

The reason that ethical conundrums are difficult in life is because when you are actually experiencing the problem you are emotionally invested. And you have interpersonal relationships with the people you're dealing with. You’re unable to distance yourself from your own biases. But when I get a question, I am not involved in any of that.

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This might be an impossible task, but if someone said, “How do you think objectively about a subjective issue?” the idea would be to remove emotion. That would remove the subjective part, and then you look at something, in theory, rationally.

In a weird way, your role as the Ethicist kind of matches your definition of a villain. You’re the person who knows the most but cares the least. You've had time to consider the question and consult experts, but you also care the least because it’s ultimately not your problem.

I don’t know if I care the least because I definitely care about the column. But you’re right in a way that of all the people involved with the problem -- which is really just the letter-writer and me -- I am less invested than they are.

So maybe you’re the villain of the letter exchange.

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I suppose. [Laughs]

After reading the book, I found myself applying your villain criteria to people in the news. Donald Sterling came to mind.

Here we have someone who definitely doesn’t seem to know the most, but he does seem to care about incredibly strange things. He certainly becomes the easiest example of a contemporary villain because there's such a universality about that perception.

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But I suppose the issue also becomes mental illness. If someone may be mentally ill, how much leeway are we supposed to give them? Though I certainly wouldn’t say that Sterling is not a villain.

There was also a lot of questioning whether or not V. Stiviano was a villain in this scenario.

Well, she is someone who is either attracted to people who are extremely problematic -- or she is someone who uses people regardless of who they might be for her own gain and then is willing to betray them later. So I can’t really see a scenario in which she comes across as good.

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But of course there are people who will try. After that situation happened, there were people writing pieces defending her position, which is strange. It really just illustrates that at this point there is so much bandwidth to write about culture that there is literally no person who can exist who there will not be a takedown and a supportive piece about. To the point where it’s all kind of useless now.

There are so many people writing takes on what is happening in the culture with the main priority being your take is somehow previously unused, that now it's like perspectives on figures in the culture are even more useless than they used to be.

How does it feel to say that as someone who writes perspectives on figures in the culture?

Well, it’s depressing. It certainly makes any rational person less interested in doing it.

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Do you think that journalists can fit your definition of a villain? 

A huge swath of journalism is inherently immoral. It’s a difficult thing to get away from. There are certain things that everyone accepts cannot be done. You can’t make up quotes. You can’t consciously misquote someone. But the thing that I see happening almost as much -- and this has certainly happened to me when people have interviewed me -- is where they create a scenario where they give you the impression that you are having one kind of conversation when really all they are looking for is a part of your quote that they can take a put it in a totally different context or maybe with no context whatsoever in order to portray a different idea. Which is as unethical as making a quote up.

But is it just the journalist with the motive? Let’s say you’re interviewing a politician -- wouldn’t they be playing at the same game from the other side?

Here’s the scenario you’re setting up: A journalist is talking to a political figure and the political figure is trying to use the journalist to forward his or her talking points. If that’s what’s happening, and the journalist realizes that the politician is just using this opportunity to push an agenda, then that is what’s happening. That is the reality of the story. There is nothing unethical about framing the profile as, “This is a person who was robotically trying to fabricate a persona and push forward a position.”

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What would be unethical would be talking to the reporter casually, for the reporter to give them the sense that they were just talking about ideas but then use one quote to represent them in a totally inaccurate way.

Now Prince. Prince does not let people record him while they interview him. You can’t even bring a pencil into an interview with Prince. For a long time, people assumed it was because he didn’t want to give quotes in case what ran upset him. But what he was actually doing was forcing the journalist to depict him in totality. They would have to write about the overall experience of talking to him, which he believed would be much more accurate.

I feel exactly the same way.

So if we apply the Prince principle to this hypothetical politician and put what we know aside in order to allow him or her to exist in totality, does that ignore the fact that these things have actual consequences?

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You’re asking if a detached approach somehow risks the idea that what really matters are the people impacted by these issues.

Yes. That these things aren’t just ideas. I found myself thinking about this in the essay about Bernie Goetz. You conclude that he is indeed a villain and you point out his racism. But the New York City of that moment, the fact that he is an armed white man who shot four unarmed black teenagers -- you accept that these things matter, but your ultimate conclusions seem to be drawn around Goetz himself more than anything else.  

Your perception of this is accurate. The thing is that I write what is interesting to me. So when I write about Bernard Goetz, I write about Bernard Goetz as a character. I realize he is a historical character. He is a real person who is still alive. And the issues you’re talking about are totally valid, but it’s a different book. I’d be interested in someone else’s book on that, but that’s not what I do.

I feel like there are plenty of people out there working to persuade people to think the same way that they think. There are a lot of people whose idea of essay-writing is to persuade the world to concur with them. I am not like that at all. I have no interest in trying to persuade people to believe what I believe.

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What I like to do is to think about things in different ways, and to get away from the idea that writing about political figures means that you need to enforce your political ideology. Or that writing about music means that you have to like the bands I like and dislike the bands I don’t like. You know, I wrote 10,000 words about KISS recently. KISS is my favorite band, but I have absolutely no intention to make people like KISS. In fact, if it ends up happening, I would almost be like, “I wonder if I got too close to doing this kind of conventional persuasive writing.” That’s not who I am.

In some ways, I very often like to look at the nonfictional world as if it was fictional. I watch figures in real life the same way I would watch a television show about it. So that of course changes things. It’s certainly acceptable to people to be intrigued by the antagonist in a novel, but I kind of am interested in the antagonists in the world.

The other part of the book that was particularly interesting to me was the essay on Andrew Dice Clay and what you view as the culture of political correctness that characterized the '90s. I feel like the questions you raise are still being discussed right now. We’re debating rape jokes, grappling with the intent of the author versus the perceptions of the audience.

You see I don’t think we’re arguing that anymore. The interpretation of the work definitely matters more than the work now.

I would love for you to talk more about that because I’m not sure I think those things are quite so settled.

To me, the Stephen Colbert thing was a great example of this. At one point the argument essentially was about a tweet of a satirical joke that was taken out of context. There was almost a tacit agreement that the argument wasn’t that good, but it mattered because someone cared. In the '90s, the debate was more balanced and unknown. Now I think that is sort of over, as far as I can tell.

I say in the book that over time, people who are perceived as progressive inevitably succeed. Because time rewards progressive ideas. Ideas that may have seemed radical or even bad at the time end up succeeding.

I think that #CancelColbert is interesting to me because I don’t know that the conversation about racism and satire had truly happened in a mainstream way. There was a lot of talk about whether or not people understood satire, but some of the other questions -- about the whiteness of the comedy writer’s room and if that matters when a joke using racism to satirize racism does or doesn’t land with an audience -- didn’t seem to happen in the same way. A lot has changed, but so much of what we see in the political and cultural sphere hasn’t moved that far.

The idea of people complaining about political correctness -- the only people you see doing that are on the farthest fringes of the right. No intellectual person is calling things “P.C.” anymore.

But we still have people like Marsha Blackburn or Rick Perry arguing that they won’t be beholden to “P.C.” values when it comes to support for marriage equality, for example.

But look what’s happening in all of those scenarios. It’s killing these candidates. Ted Cruz is not going to win the presidency. If the GOP has any real hope to take a prominent part in the political process outside of this obstructionism, then they are going to have to accept that some of these ideas are utterly unpopular.

Who would you say is the most successful reactionary political figure?

Well there are mainstream guys like Paul Ryan who people take seriously, and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson are regularly floated as 2016 contenders.

If the most successful reactionary candidate is Paul Ryan because he read Ayn Rand, that is a very different portrait than the most far right person in 1992 or 1976. That has changed.

Whereas many of the people who have been perceived as on the fringe of the left in the 1970s would now be viewed as mainstream. Jerry Brown promoting marijuana seemed crazy. Now it’s becoming a consensus. In 10 years, marijuana will be legalized in most of the states.

That depends on the issue, though. The reproductive rights landscape seems radically different than it did even ten years ago.

I was in college from 1990 to 1994. When I was taking political science classes there were serious discussions of Roe v. Wade possibly being overturned. There is no chance that is going to happen now.

But if you look at a place like Texas, it’s predicted that come September the second most populous state in the country will have six remaining abortion clinics because of how successful the state Legislature has been at working around Roe.

There’s a difference between ideas disappearing from the culture and ideas being sonically removed. There will always be a percentage of the country that will always be against abortion, that will always be against gay marriage. But they will be less and less central to the discourse.

So do the people who wear the black hat ultimately lose in the end?

Well, no. But being a villain is a short term thing. Take some master of industry -- someone who does whatever it takes to succeed. During their life, they may be perceived as one of the big winners, but during their dying days or when the obits start running, the money they earned in their life can no longer be enjoyed by them and now it is just how they are remembered. That’s always negative.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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