Books & the Arts / October 2, 2023

Mirror Worlds

Naomi Klein and her doubles.

Naomi Klein’s Quest to Understand Her Double

In her new book, a case of mistaken identity reveals how life online and off has become more and more polarized. 

Laura Kipnis
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.

Lucky is the writer upon whom misfortune smiles, especially when it’s a relatively minor misfortune from which a lot of narrative mileage can be wrested. Take, for instance, the “personal-branding meltdown” that has recently befallen Naomi Klein. A prolific writer and activist, Klein became notable at a youthful age for having written a mega-best-selling anti-branding manifesto, No Logo, in 1999, which naturally led to her becoming a massive brand herself, a twist of fate about which she’s both amusing and astute. But fate proved to have a further irony up its sleeve: Beginning in the 2010s, Klein would also spend more than a decade being chronically mistaken, online and off, for the increasingly unhinged writer, conspiracy theorist, and former feminist Naomi Wolf—both being attractive Jewish public intellectuals named Naomi, and current attention spans being what they are.

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Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World

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In her new book, Doppelganger, Klein uses the ego-rattling effects of acquiring a weird shadow self as her launching pad for a compelling and far-reaching political detective story. Tracking the other Naomi’s transformation from liberal feminist media darling to inflamed anti-vaxxer and mascot of the far right allows Klein to tell the larger story of a country in the midst of its own identity crisis. Her admittedly niche doppelgänger problem becomes a portal to some of the most catastrophic issues currently facing us: the international rise of the authoritarian right, the uncertain future of American democracy, the social schisms accelerated by Covid, and the nature of identity itself under digital capitalism’s designer jackboot. Especially when it comes to the political fallout from the pandemic, no other book I know of has been this intellectually adventurous, this loopily personal, or this entertaining.

Known primarily as a critic of globalization and a climate activist, our Naomi turns out to be that rarest of specimens: a leftist with self-irony. Regarding branding, Klein is the first to admit to having wanted things both ways when she started out: to be the “No Logo girl” and the “face of an emerging anti-capitalist movement” while weighing a tough decision about whether to trademark No Logo as a logo. Her agility at navigating such contradictions without grating earnestness is a skill not always prominent on the left.

Klein, it turns out, has another rare talent: She’s a great social eavesdropper, on perpetual alert for promising narrative materiel. In an opening set piece that might have been lifted from a progressive comedy of manners, Klein overhears, from inside a public bathroom stall, two women disparaging something dumb that “Naomi Klein” had just said. Except that it hadn’t been Klein; it had been Wolf. This incident took place at the height of Occupy Wall Street, the largely leaderless uprising that Wolf had taken it upon herself to, well, lead. Her contributions included attempting to deliver a list of what she’d adduced were the movement’s “demands” (there were no such demands) to then-governor Andrew Cuomo at a black-tie event, following which she got herself arrested outside in an evening gown. Cue headlines. Apparently, Klein had acquired not only a doppelgänger but an embarrassing one.

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For those who haven’t closely followed Naomi Wolf’s baffling journey, here’s a map of her unlikely itinerary. A liberal feminist stalwart in the 1990s who wrote the best-selling The Beauty Myth, she next became a norm-core Democrat hired to advise Al Gore on upping his appeal to women voters in 2000. Since then, she’s become a mouthpiece for increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories: that Barack Obama had personally ordered the clearing of the Occupy encampments; that ISIS beheadings were covert ops staged by the US government; that Edward Snowden was a US spy; that American troops building field hospitals during the 2014 Ebola outbreak were really collecting disease specimens to bring back to the United States to justify mass lockdowns. Many technological schemes were afoot, Wolf believed, along with their attendant health risks: Secret NASA programs were spraying the skies with aluminum; 5G cellular networks were affecting air quality.

Needless to say, once Covid hit, Wolf went full-on anti-vax. She warned that vaccinated people’s urine and feces needed to be separated from the general sewage until its impact on unvaccinated people’s drinking water could be established. Masks, she insisted, were affecting children’s smile reflexes. The vaccinated had no scent anymore, which had something to do with the lipid nanoparticles in the mRNA vaccines, said Wolf, who was now going by “Dr. Naomi Wolf” (she holds a PhD in English literature). Given her affinity for headlines, she was soon staging one-woman sit-ins at upscale coffee shops to protest “vaccinated only” signs, an anti-vax Rosa Parks who compared such acts of dissent to the civil rights movement and vaccine requirements to medical “apartheid.”

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An increasingly influential source of online Covid disinformation, Wolf was particularly skilled at targeting female anxieties: Women with fertility issues were experiencing bleeding and clotting just from being around vaccinated women, she tweeted helpfully; meanwhile, she was mobilizing pro-choice language about the right to bodily integrity in her anti-vaccine-mandates crusade. The more anxiety she inflamed, the more followers she accrued, and the more people she put in active danger. In Klein’s blunt summation, “Wolf may be a joke, but she’s not a funny one.”

If anyone was in a position to gauge the unfunniness of the joke, it was Klein, since with every new stunt or pronouncement by Wolf, her own Twitter feed filled with comments like “I can’t believe I used to respect Naomi Klein. WTF has happened to her??” While fully aware that social media is a “filthy global toilet” and that anti-Semitic stereotypes about striving Jewesses were fueling the confusion, Klein found the situation harder to ignore when Wolf starting tagging her in tweets. Twitter’s algorithm did its part by autocompleting Wolf’s name when Klein’s followers typed “Naomi” into the search bar.

No surprise, Wolf was also moving increasingly rightward. She became a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s influential podcast War Room (the two had what Klein calls, scary-funnily, “an electric chemistry”). Wolf also became a go-to on the Fox News Channel, where she likened vaccine passports to the punch-card system that allowed the Nazis to more efficiently round up Jews and claimed that the Covid vaccines were a Chinese bioweapon against the West. In addition, the vaccination apps would allow the government to link to our social media and payment accounts and track our search histories, she explained. Eventually, Wolf was locked out of her social media accounts for circulating medical misinformation and joined Donald Trump as a coplaintiff in a class-action suit against Twitter, which had ousted them both from the platform. (Elon Musk would later welcome them back.)

The apostasies kept coming. Though still claiming to be a pro-choice Democrat, by the 2022 midterms Wolf was apologizing for having bought the media’s account of the January 6 insurrection and was celebrating the election of the MAGA-backed gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin as a historic day for women’s rights. It was a head-spinning political transformation, as well as one that encapsulates—and this is Klein’s larger point—the “horror of the society that flips fascist from within.”

What on earth happened to Naomi Wolf? Klein isn’t big on armchair psychologizing, though she does delve into a horrendous public humiliation that Wolf endured shortly before the pandemic, among other destabilizing personal events. It turned out that Wolf had made a spectacular research mistake in her 2019 book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love. Adapted from her recent PhD thesis at Oxford, the book was about the treatment of homosexuality in Victorian Britain and featured evidence that Wolf thought she’d uncovered that several dozen men had been executed following sodomy convictions. Except she’d misunderstood the term “death recorded,” as she was informed live and on-air during a BBC interview: It actually meant the sentence had been commuted. (Klein, who thanks a small army of research assistants in her acknowledgments, says, not without empathy, that just thinking about this gives her heart palpitations.) After the BBC debacle, more errors were uncovered; then the book was pulped, her publisher dropped her, and she was gleefully shredded on Twitter. Soon Wolf was charging that shadowy efforts were afoot to destroy her reputation.

Given Wolf’s mounting track record of errors and stunts, there was probably no path back to any sort of mainstream credibility, but the right-wing media welcomed her with open arms and flattered her as a courageous truth-teller. By platforming a self-described former liberal media darling and 2020 Joe Biden voter (Wolf would later tweet that she regretted the vote), the right burnished its own supposed free-speech credentials. None of which was great news for Klein: A British climate-change denier and right-wing provocateur welcomed Wolf to his podcast by saying how surprised he was to host her, since he’d always bracketed her with “the other Naomi—you know, Naomi Klein, Naomi Wolf, what’s the difference?” (“Insert silent scream from me,” interjects the former Naomi.)

Cringe-following the pronouncements of her “big-haired doppelganger” in real time became Klein’s pandemic obsession; she grew so addicted to Bannon’s podcast that it caused tensions in her marriage. Perhaps it will induce similar dismay in certain of her readers, because Klein came to regard Bannon’s willingness to build unlikely alliances with someone like Wolf as a strategic lesson for the left.

As someone whose politics favor class solidarity over identitarian one-upmanship, Klein was, by the start of the pandemic, in a gloomy state about the constant intra-left takedowns devouring progressive movements, with activists often behaving “in ways that are neither inclusive nor caring.” The left, Klein worried, was losing the plot. Bannon, on the other hand, was finding ways to usurp the left on its own issues and channel blue-collar anger at corporate Democrats for betraying workers with trade deals and bank bailouts. While obviously not signing on to his political agenda, Klein takes Bannon’s strategic skills as a bracing reminder of the failure of progressives to speak to the same fears or galvanize the same voters. What might the political field look like, she wonders, if the left devoted less energy to hounding everyone over minor language infractions and instead sought to build a broader movement?

If anyone understood the left’s hypocrisies and failures, it was Bannon. And this, for Klein, is the doppelgänger’s lesson: Something you’ve been ignoring needs attending to. What had happened to her with “Other Naomi” had happened to the left more broadly, and the left had ignored it. Wolf, after all, was hardly the only former liberal or Democrat to lurch right in the Trump era, and Klein sees her transformation as part of a larger story about how Covid helped transform the political map in country after country. An increasing number of movements, she points out, now blur the traditional left/right distinctions in what she labels the new “diagonalism”—another recent book uses the term “conspirituality”—between various New Agers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, health nuts, gym rats, libertarians, anti-woke types, and proto-fascists. To be sure, fitness and alt-health subcultures are no strangers to fascist thought; neither is eugenics, which is also a distinct undercurrent in much anti-masking sentiment. (Predictably, blurbs from Wolf appear on the allegedly steroid-addled Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s best-selling anti-
vax tirades.)

Klein became personally acquainted with some of these convergences when her son was diagnosed as neurodivergent and she began meeting other parents of autistic children, some of whom, of course, blamed autism on vaccines. (Though long debunked, such fears have produced a startling resurgence of previously eliminated diseases like measles.) In her quest for community and information, Klein encountered parents’ groups experimenting with the sort of grotesque DIY treatments—much like the bleach-drinking cures we’d hear about during Covid—for which the vaccine-autism panic had provided a trial run. Her skepticism toward so-called autism experts provides a few moments of dark comedy: When asked if her son “mirrors,” Klein wonders whether she really wants him to mirror and whether “the reflexive impulse to copy what everyone else is doing [is] part of what has landed us in such a mess?” But she’s also stinging on the casual cruelty underpinning much of what’s known as wellness culture, many of whose adherents and influencers blamed the first wave of Covid victims for being unhealthy.

Happily, those experiences send her tramping into the research wilds: Klein is a writer who bravely heeds the siren call of digression and enjoys a high yield of pretty fascinating returns. This includes digging up the horrifying connection between Hans Asperger, who identified the eponymous syndrome—on the so-called high-functioning end of the autism spectrum—and Nazi euthanasia programs, which exterminated upwards of 200,000 disabled people (including children as young as 2 whom Asperger had diagnosed with autism). His distinction between high- and low-functioning autism remains in place to this day, as do, percolating not far beneath the surface, lingering ideas about “impure blood” and culling the disabled. Here we have the lineage of today’s anti-vax crowd: an alarming bundle of fascist ideology and child murder.

Despite drawing such devastating connections, Klein maintains a perfectly calibrated tone toward Wolf, favoring calm argument over derision or contempt. Her preferred move is excavating the kernels of insight from even Wolf’s most out-there claims. About the idea that the vaccinated have lost their scent, Klein locates a point of agreement: “Many of Wolf’s words, however untethered from reality, tap into something true. Because there is a lifelessness and anomie to modern cities, and it did deepen during the pandemic—there is a way in which many of us feel we are indeed becoming less alive, less present, lonelier.” For Klein, the breeding ground of conspiracy culture is found in a submerged panic about the ongoing economic and climate catastrophes we face, combined with a lack of real political alternatives. The “kind of predatory, extractive capitalism” that is all around us, she writes, “necessarily breeds mistrust and paranoia. In this context, it’s not surprising that QAnon, a conspiracy theory that tells of elites harvesting the young for their lifeblood (adrenochrome), has gone viral. Elites are sucking us dry—our money, our labor, our time.” At its heart, conspiracy culture is, in other words, a fantasy of justice.

Klein’s habit of generosity toward political foes extends to giving Wolf credit for brave stances in the past, such as when she spoke out against Israeli brutality in Gaza in 2014, labeling it genocide and setting off a predictable fury—Wolf says she lost her teaching position at Barnard over those speeches. Having had similar run-ins given her own critiques of Zionist orthodoxy, Klein wonders how much the experience of friends and colleagues turning on her over Israel also contributed to unmooring Wolf, who endured serious enough online threats at the time to hire a private security firm. She then married one of her bodyguards (a former US special forces officer), just like in the movies, and soon posted a video of herself doing weapons training with her new husband. Gun rights became her latest cause, now dressed up as empowerment feminism.

With characteristic ham-fistedness, Wolf posted her gun-happy pics the same day that a white supremacist named Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket with an AR-15-style rifle. The day of the school shootings in Uvalde, Tex., Wolf gushed online that the Second Amendment was saving us from tyranny. These skillfully executed juxtapositions by Klein make a crushing case—or would if anyone on the right cared about mass carnage.

Luckily, Doppelganger has more on its plate than cataloging Wolf’s imbecilities. Klein also delivers an enjoyable running commentary on other doppelgängers, literary, filmic, and psychoanalytic, from whom she derives a set of arcane truths and life lessons. A person confronted with the appearance of a double, Klein learns, is duty-bound to go on a journey and seek to understand them. One must embrace, not reject, one’s doppelgänger, even though the presence of one is invariably stressful and paranoia-inducing, raising questions about the nature of identity: Who am I if I’m not as singular as I thought? (It turns out that Wolf has her own doppelgänger, a fake Naomi Wolf on Telegram who has 38,000 followers.)

In Klein’s case, being confused with Wolf also leads to soul-searching on what it means to be Jewish. Despite certain feminist ambivalences about Philip Roth (the usual ones), she extracts particular use value from his novel Operation Shylock, in which the character Philip Roth encounters a second Philip Roth who has started a movement, called Diasporism, to send Israeli Jews on a reverse exodus back to the European countries they’d fled. The two Roths resonate with Klein’s experience of the two Naomis, but beyond that, the novel is a pointed reminder of “the fascistic shadow selves doppelgangers can reveal inside ourselves. The way whole societies can have sinister 
doppelgangers.”

Operation Shylock also ferries Klein back to the subject of Israel and her own conflicts about it—“a Jewish country without a Jewish soul,” as one of Roth’s characters puts it. Israel, too, has a doppelgänger that it refuses to engage with: Palestinians. Descended from victims of genocide and dispossession, Israelis have now become willing to impose a genocidal logic on a new group of dispossessed citizens. Klein herself is split, wanting more acknowledgment from Israel’s critics that many of the people who fled to Palestine in the 1940s were victims of white supremacy without other places to go. “So much of modern history,” she observes, “is a story of pools of trauma being spatially moved around the globe like chess pieces made of human misery, with yesterday’s victims enlisted as today’s occupying army.”

As a writer and a theorist, Klein is particularly talented at knitting together the sweep of history and the banalities of the present. She’s equally attuned to what doppelgängers can mean in a more transhistorical sense. As Freud notes, they’re always at some level menacing—a reminder of our non-uniqueness, “the uncanny harbinger of death,” while given the nature of online life, we also all have digital doppelgängers, idealized selves and despised others. We’re conscripts in what Klein calls “doppelganger culture,” which is now our general political condition, living as we do in a “fascist clown state that is the ever-present twin of liberal western democracies, perpetually threatening to engulf us in its fires of selective belonging and ferocious despising.”

If Klein is occasionally somewhat overdedicated to slogan coinage—“Shadow Lands,” “Mirror World” (I lost track of which was which), “pipikism” (derived from Operation Shylock)—and if she at times leans a bit hard on the figure of the doppelgänger as an explanation for the entirety of everything, she’s also an exceptionally lucid and punchy writer. I imagine her counterargument about the slogans might be that this is what the left needs to do: speak in digestible, user-friendly sound bites and catchphrases. Speaking of popular tactics, Klein does of course attempt (unsuccessfully) to interview Wolf—how could she not?—though at least forgoes Michael Moore–style guerrilla encounters with her prey. As it turns out, she and Wolf had met long ago, when Klein was an undergrad, and her rendering of the encounter is shrewdly insightful about feminist divas and the manipulative underbelly of charisma.

Following her mystifying doppelgänger down her many rabbit holes has unleashed Klein as a writer—but then it would have to, if the doppelgänger “represents the most repressed, depraved, and rejected parts of ourselves that we cannot bear to see—the evil twin, the shadow self, the anti-self, the Hyde to our Jekyll.” The originality and political courage of this book is to turn that into an opening, an entirely different way of thinking about our enemies—and our selves.

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Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is the author, most recently, of Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis.

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