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Mad about the bad guys

Antiheroes have their day in pop culture writer's entertaining essays

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Chuck Klosterman isn't sleeping with the enemy, but he is watching them sleep.

The American pop-culture philosopher dissects depravity in his latest bit of non-fiction, I Wear the Black Hat, and in typical Klosterman fashion, the results are obscenely observant, damned funny and devilishly good.

Klosterman, 41, a former North Dakotan and currently the ethics columnist for the New York Times Magazine, is engrossed with the evil that men (and fictional men) do, but more so, he's obsessed with society's concept of villainy. In other words, what makes someone a bad person?

Aligning yourself with the antagonist isn't exactly the path to popularity, but Klosterman's wit, lively style and passion for pop culture make understanding the enemy really easy and really, really fun.

He kicks off the book with a heavy metal reference (Metallica's cover of Diamond Head's Am I Evil?), only to then hit us with American philosopher John Rawls' idea of "the veil of ignorance."

This is a thought experiment used to determine the morality of an issue. In Rawls' "mind-crushing" concept, you get to completely recreate society, but after you do so, you're no longer yourself and you have no idea what your position in the new social order will be. Now that puts the heavy in heavy metal.

That's how Klosterman operates, offering up big ideas in accessible ways.

In discussing vigilantism, he compares the simultaneously praised and vilified Bernhard Goetz -- who shot four young men on a New York City subway train in 1984, claiming they were trying to mug him -- with Batman.

Contrasting the very real "Subway Vigilante" to the very fictional caped crusader surely won't sit well with some. In a single chapter, Klosterman also analyzes the early 20th-century British occultist Aleister Crowley, founder of the religious philosophy Thelema, alongside the merely arrogant comedian Chevy Chase and sports broadcaster Howard Cosell.

Klosterman also defends former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (somewhat), attempts to understand disgraced football coach Joe Paterno and really enjoys O.J. Simpson's "if I did it" line. Also, Hitler makes an appearance. This isn't how you make friends.

But Klosterman gets away with it. In discussing Machiavelli and his political treatise The Prince, Klosterman writes, "His mistake was consciousness." He argues that Machiavelli wasn't evil but was labelled as such because he could conceive of completely amoral political strategies.

In that sense, Klosterman is Machiavelli, but Klosterman's success is his consciousness. Just as he did in his 2009 essay collection Killing the Dinosaur, Klosterman makes his self-awareness clear. If you're offended, it's probably because you're not able to emotionally detach yourself from an idea the way he can.

"They hate you because you don't hate anyone, even when you should," Klosterman writes in I Wear the Black Hat.

Klosterman is able to remove himself from society while simultaneously being infatuated with it. He's a voyeur of sorts, a pop-culture Peeping Tom, and his obsessiveness is our reward.

Jared Story is a Winnipeg standup comedian and freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A1

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