At first Naomi Klein thought it was kind of funny. More and more people were confusing the prolific capitalism critic with Naomi Wolf, the author of “The Beauty Myth” and erstwhile feminist star who has become a fount of conspiracy theories on everything from Ebola (The U.S. wanted to spread the virus and launch a military takeover!) to COVID-19 (The vaccines can shed! The government is eavesdropping through your vaccine passports!).
“It was a periodic annoyance, no big deal,” Klein said in a recent video interview. “It didn’t happen all that much. I’d stumble across somebody online who was very angry at me for something, and it took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t me they were angry at.”
Then, gradually, the social media echo chamber grew deafening. The pandemic quarantine meant more hours online for just about everyone, including both Naomis. Wolf and her easily agitated cadre, which now included right-wing firebrands Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, were hitting the COVID conspiracies hard, and describing a dark fantasy version of real-world crises. Millions seemed to be buying it. This, Klein realized, was serious. On both a personal and a political level, the Naomi conflation went from periodic annoyance to existential dilemma.
So Klein, the author of liberal calls to action including “No Logo” and “The Shock Doctrine,” did what she does: She wrote a book about it. “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World” isn’t about Klein’s Naomi Wolf problem per se; as Klein says, “She’s like the white rabbit who I follow down the rabbit hole, and the book is really about the rabbit hole.”
More specifically, it’s about the “mirror world,” a place inhabited not just by the conspiracy-mongers, willfully taking advantage of public confusion and anxiety, but potentially by all of us. We all live in a world of social media, after all; we constantly risk warping ourselves, changing our personae as circumstances shift, infecting our children with fears and dreams that aren’t their own.
“The doppelganger provides a lens that lets you look at a bunch of different things that I think are quite interesting,” Klein says, “including the way we create doubles of ourselves in order to perform ourselves online, whether it’s in a video game as an avatar or an idealized beautiful person on Instagram or a mom influencer. We’re partitioning ourselves up and we’re creating this double and we’re polishing it and we’re burnishing it.”
In short, to borrow the title of a doppelganger movie Klein examines in the book, “Doppelganger” is about “Us.”
As Klein writes, we live in “a culture crowded with various forms of doubling, in which all of us who maintain a persona or avatar online create our own doppelgangers — virtual versions of ourselves that represent us to others … a doppelganger we perform ceaselessly in the digital ether as the price of admission in a rapacious attention economy.” In this economy, the one with the most clicks wins, and the one with the most outlandish take gets the most clicks.
That helps explain the supply side of the world we live in, where talk of Maui space lasers, 5G vaccine surveillance and blood-sucking pedophile rings is pounding on the gates of mainstream thought. But the demand side is trickier — and perhaps more troubling. What makes consumers with nothing tangible to gain subscribe to woo-woo theories? The way Klein sees it, when reality is too much to bear, many escape into fantasy. The illusion of control, or at least comprehension, is often more tolerable than the chaos that increasingly surrounds us.
“We are in a moment of multiple and difficult reckonings, and COVID brought a lot of it into focus,” Klein says. “There’s the way we treat our elders, the way the working class is mistreated, and the mirror that was held up to the lockdown class — the people like me who were able to stay home. The only reason we were able to stay home and stay safe was because other people were out there with very, very little protection delivering food, working in slaughterhouses, Amazon warehouses and nursing homes. And suddenly the veil was pulled back on how our world actually works.”
Like Klein’s other books, “Doppelganger” is an in-depth critique of what late-stage capitalism hath wrought. But it’s also much more. Klein wields her polymathic expertise like a sword, slicing through the mirror world via political theory; tech anxiety (she shudders at AI’s potential); literary criticism (she warms up to former nemesis Philip Roth through his doppelganger novel “Operation Shylock”); and films famous (Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”) and obscure (Henrik Galeen’s silent oddity “The Student of Prague”).
The results might put the reader at risk of splitting in two. You can’t help but be invigorated by Klein’s intellectual synthesis and dexterity, even as her gimlet eye makes you want to run screaming into the night.
Much of it comes back to the woman Klein calls “the other Naomi” and the strange bedfellows she has embraced. It pains Klein to see Bannon, Wolf and company co-opt legitimate concerns, like internet privacy and government-mandated COVID school closures, and convert them into science-fiction theories. She places some of the blame on the left’s instinct to dismiss outright anything emanating from the right-wing echo chamber, instead of working harder to find common ground in reality.
“The conspiracy theorists get the facts wrong, but they often get the feelings right,” she says. “The feeling of living in a world with shadow worlds. The feeling of having important truths hidden from you. And then the other thing they offer is a sense of community and belonging. Sometimes they seem to be having a lot of fun.” And that can be vital at a time of growing societal isolation and “deaths of despair.”
There’s a lot going on in “Doppelganger,” yet somehow Klein ties it all together into what we seem to be lacking as individuals: a cohesive whole. “Doppelganger” is both timely and timeless, a work in a grand tradition. “Things fall apart,” W. B. Yeats wrote in his 1920 poem “The Second Coming,” “the centre cannot hold.” Nearly 50 years later, Joan Didion referenced his verse in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” a tour through the existential crisis of the 1960s. Now we have another spirited guide — a source of fact-based understanding, if not always solace.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.