Naomi Klein’s new book, Doppelganger, is personal. For years the author of No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, a vital critic, has been confused with the “Other Naomi”.
The first time it happened Klein was “in a stall in a public bathroom just off Wall Street”, she recounts at the start of Doppelganger. It was November 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, and the organisers of the movement’s original Manhattan encampment had called for a march through New York’s financial heart that day.
“I was about to open the door when I heard two women talking about me,” Klein explains. “Did you see what Naomi Klein said?” one of the women asked the other. In her stall, Klein froze, “flashing back to every mean girl in high school, pre-humiliated”. What had she said? “Something about how the march today is a bad idea,” the women told her friend, to which the friend replied: “Who asked her? I really don’t think she understands our demands.”
“Wait. I hadn’t said anything about the march – or the demands,” Klein writes. “Then it hit me: I knew who had. I casually strolled to the sink, made eye contact with one of the women in the mirror, and said words I would repeat far too many times in the months and years to come. ‘I think you are talking about Naomi Wolf.’”
Wolf has also been a lauded writer: her first book was The Beauty Myth, which was published in 1990, when she was still in her 20s. More recently she has become a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast, developing an eyebrow-raisingly loose relationship with facts and pushing anti-vax conspiracy theories to such an extent that Twitter suspended her account.
Klein can see why people confuse her with Wolf: “We both write big-idea books … We both have brown hair that sometimes goes blond from over-highlighting … We’re both Jewish. Most confusingly, we once had distinct writerly lanes (hers being women’s bodies, sexuality, and leadership; mine being corporate assaults on democracy and climate change). But by the time Occupy happened, the once-sharp yellow line that divided those lanes had begun to go wobbly.”
This “identity merger” began to happen often enough for a poem about the two Naomis, first posted in October 2019, to go viral, being shared many thousands of times: “If the Naomi be Klein/ you’re doing just fine/ If the Naomi be Wolf/ Oh, buddy. Ooooof.”
“Again and again,” Klein writes about the mistaken identity, particularly as it unfolded during the Covid pandemic, “she was saying things that sounded a little like the argument I made in The Shock Doctrine but refracted through a funhouse mirror of plots and conspiracies based almost exclusively on a series of hunches. I felt like she had taken my ideas, fed them into a bonkers blender, and then shared the thought purée” with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “All the while, Wolf’s followers hounded me about why I had sold out to the ‘globalists’ and was duping the public into believing that masks, vaccines, and restrictions on indoor gatherings were legitimate public health measures amid mass death.”
In tracking Wolf’s descent, Klein has spent a lot of time listening to Bannon’s podcasts. “Somebody asked me if I was afraid I would start agreeing with them, [that] if I listened to a lot of Bannon I would start thinking he was right,” she says. “The thing that worries me most when I listen is the ways in which he is successfully picking up ideas that are traditionally associated with the left, traditionally associated with movements I’ve been a part of. I know their power.”
At one point, she says, Bannon – a key part of Donald Trump’s world of alternative facts – made an audio montage featuring phoney sponsorship deals: “MSNBC brought to you by Pfizer” or “CNN brought to you by Moderna.” Those inventions are in line with false claims Covid conspiracists frequently make that US network news is in bed with the pharmaceutical industry.
“That’s kind of like Noam Chomsky media-literacy 101,” Klein says. “We all did this. We had these charts when we were in university of who owns what. What gives me the uncanny shudder is not that he’s doing it; it’s that I know we’ve stopped doing it, way too much. We’ve ceded way too much territory.”
Klein also cites Robert F Kennedy jnr, the American environmental lawyer who has parroted antivaccine disinformation (and who, besides running for the Democratic Party nomination for next year’s US presidential election, also happens to be former president John F Kennedy’s nephew). He’s a “very dangerous figure”, she believes, yet he also says “things that are true about regulatory capture” – which is to say when a corporation effectively persuades a government to prioritise its interests over those of the general public.
In fact, Klein says, Kennedy’s objections “sound a lot like the antiglobalisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s and Occupy Wall Street. I look around at the left and I don’t see the strong, anticapitalist critique that we once had. I see a lot of politics … where it’s less about challenging the unjustness inherent in these systems and more about changing who is at the top.”
It’s not just explicitly political spheres that have entered a strange era of doubling, becoming untethered from reality in a “mirror world” of digital strangeness: during the pandemic, Klein says, some prominent figures in alternative health, wellness and fitness went “full-blown Covid-QAnon”.
These include members of what the Centre for Countering Digital Hate identified as the Disinformation Dozen, who it says were responsible at one point in 2021 for up to two-thirds of antivaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. One of them, a “holistic psychiatrist” named Kelly Brogan, equated refusing to wear a mask with such acts of liberation as bra-burning. Another, the “guru” behind the newsletter GreenMedInfo, peppered vaccine disinformation between advice about the healing power of superfoods.
During Covid, Klein writes, “so many of those fit and beautiful influencers stopped merely cooing soothingly and offering encouraging words to motivate our home workouts and green juicing and started whispering to us alarmingly, about dark forces coming to poison us, and eventually to gag, jab, and dominate us”.
Doppelgangers have long been part of our culture. They are “a way of looking”, Klein says. “That’s why artists are so drawn to them. That’s why they’re this through-line in the history of film and literature, dating back to ancient mythology and the fascination with twins. You definitely could make an argument that they ebb and flow, and they flow in particular in historical moments that are very hard to look at directly.”
Among many others in the book, she gives the example of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, which skewered the Nazis with its depiction of the totalitarian ruler Adenoid Hynkel. Fascism was surging in the US at the time, Klein says, and Chaplin wanted to help Americans see it in their own culture, not just in Germany. In “doubling himself, and blurring the boundaries between the two characters of victim and victimiser, he implicitly asked the question: ‘What does it take to turn into our evil twins..?’
“I think authors are still trying to understand the Holocaust through doubles,” Klein says. “It’s what Philip Roth was doing with Operation Shylock.” In that novel, the narrator, named Philip Roth, travels to Israel in an attempt to find the figure who has stolen his identity, and is impersonating him to advocate that Israeli Jews return to Europe.
She’s also a fan of Jordan Peele’s macabre film Us. Doppelgangers, Klein says, are ultimately never about “them”. “It’s always about yourself. It’s that moment in Us when they say, ‘Who are you?’ and the response is, ‘We’re Americans,’ we are you.” When we find it hard to look directly at ourselves, Klein believes, a doppelganger – which “also represents the most repressed, depraved and rejected parts of ourselves that we cannot bear to see” – can help.
Klein, who grew up in Montreal, lives in British Columbia with her husband, the film-maker Avi Lewis. In one scene in Doppelganger, when Lewis is standing for the New Democratic Party in the Canadian elections of 2021, Klein, out canvassing for him, meets a constituent who is abandoning the NDP for the right-wing populist People’s Party. The constituent stares at Klein with “internet eyes”, as the writer calls the look people can get when they absorb so much online bile that they end up sounding like the worst kind of social-media feed.
Klein is also wary of “people who have Jordan Peterson eyes”, she says, referring to the Canadian clinical psychologist and author of the 12 Rules for Life self-help book, who has claimed there is no such thing as climate. When she encounters them, Klein says, “I’m not that surprised, because it is this combination of loneliness, isolation and the possibility of these extraordinary parasocial relationships.”
Peterson made his no-climate remarks on the immensely popular daily podcast hosted by Joe Rogan, who has himself been criticised for spreading misinformation, particularly about Covid. “Joe Rogan is on for three hours a day,” Klein says. “Who else do you spend three hours a day with? It’s going to have an effect. That just makes sense. We’re social beings.”
We’re also all complex, she adds. “We’re individualistic, and we’re generous and compassionate. We care about ourselves and our families at the expense of all else, and we care about people we’ve never met on the other side of the world. So what lights up the best parts of ourselves?
“Obviously, I don’t think it’s capitalism. I don’t think it’s a system that tells us again and again that we’re on our own, and that our own guard and our only fortress against increasingly terrifying futures is to shore up ourselves, our bodies, our families, our homes. That’s not ending well.”
The remedy? “It sounds so simple and maybe facile,” Klein says, “but I really do think we have to spend more time with each other. I think it’s really good medicine to be in the company of our embodied friends to the extent that we can be.”
Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World is published by Allen Lane. Naomi Klein will be taking part in a Kilkenomics conversation with David McWilliams at the RDS in Dublin on Friday, September 29th; tickets are available from ticketmaster.ie