Chuck Klosterman Asks Us: What If We’re Wrong?

Chuck Klosterman_Feature

Chuck Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, poses one central question: If so many of our ideas throughout history have been debunked, is it not likely that much of our present “knowledge” will ultimately be overturned as well? What if everything we hold to be true is exposed as a primitive misconception?

To explore this question, Klosterman leads readers on imaginary journeys into the future, where he asks us to visualize our present world as if it were the past, challenging our firmly held beliefs on such popular topics as rock and roll, television, football and—most entertaining of all—politics. Klosterman’s analysis of Ohio as a scale model of the entire country is hilarious, and his description of downfallen America, as contained in an imagined textbook from the distant future, delightfully ridicules our reverent adherence to the U.S. Constitution.

Ideas are not all that get turned upside down; the author also flips his book cover.

Written in a Dave Barry–esque tone, the text sprints along at a lively pace.
But while the concept is persuasive, some of the examples are tenuous. The problem is Klosterman’s use of sweeping generalities. He equates mass opinion with what “we” as a society hold to be true. For instance, even though public opinion polls at the time showed Americans to view Ronald Reagan’s presidency favorably, Klosterman is wrong to say that “we,” universally, believed that to be true and then later changed our minds; many knew of the problematic nature of Reagan’s presidency from the get-go.

The same holds for Klosterman’s claim that we didn’t know enough to be outraged when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election—that we thought both candidates were essentially the same, but now we know better. Again, plenty of us knew back then and were, indeed, outraged. On scientific topics, Klosterman stands on firmer ground, such as when he generalizes about a “we” who can’t conceive of questioning the existence of gravity—even though we know accepted understandings in physics have been reversed in the past.

My biggest criticism with the book is its ambivalent approach to the subjects. Klosterman has almost a timid quality when it comes to provoking us into thinking deeply, proffering just pinpricks of shocking ideas before quickly retreating. Too many sections end equivocally with maybe-but-maybe-not-I-don’t-really-know kind of statements. Perhaps this stems from the fact that most of the big ideas propelling Klosterman’s arguments are not his own, but derive from interviews conducted with some of today’s leading creative thinkers, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alex Ross and Richard Linklater, all of whom are quoted at length.

Unevenly engaging (the sections on rock music, contemporary novels and simulation grow tedious), Klosterman’s book jumps from one broad topic to another in a random, haphazard structure that seems to say, “whatever’s interesting to me is what I’m going to write about now.” Nonetheless, the book is wonderfully transporting. It prompts us to forgo the mundane particulars of the everyday and luxuriate in free, open-minded thinking about huge contentions we would otherwise never have considered.

Feature photo: Rich Fleischman