David Remnick: For 20 some years, Naomi Klein has been a leading thinker on the left. She's especially known for the idea of disaster capitalism, an analysis that says that the forces of big business will exploit any severe disruption to take over more space in our lives. A few years back, Naomi Klein appeared at the New Yorker Festival, and she was interviewed by staff writer, Jia Tolentino. Jia's friends texted her, "Good luck with Naomi Wolf." Hmm, Naomi Wolf was also a prominent writer on the left at the time, and apparently, this confusion between the two Naomies happened quite often on social media and elsewhere.
Now, this seems pretty unsurprising and relatively harmless, and it was at first, but that case of mistaken identity, particularly online and the way it's gotten weird as Naomi Wolf has moved rightward and taken a various conspiracy theories, is the subject of Naomi Klein's new book. It's a fascinating book, and it's called Doppelganger. The other day, Naomi Klein sat down to talk once again with Jia Tolentino. Here's Jia.
Jia: When I first read the galley of Naomi Klein's new book, Doppelganger, I was instantly dying to talk to her about it. I have been a fan, and I read all of her work, and this book seemed different. It starts in a stranger place. It addresses a stranger reality. This book takes, as its premise, the Doppelganger situation that Naomi Klein finds herself in. The book starts with the double Naomi situation, but it doesn't stay there. It takes that as a jumping-off point to the world of conspiracy, conspiracy profiteering, of surveillance capitalism, of various other forms of political Doppelgangers, and strange mirrors that we find in history, and that especially we find in this extremely dizzy and contemporary moment that we live in right now.
The Doppelganger confusion with Naomi Wolf had started a long time ago. You were both big idea, female writers on the left. You go through a list of categorical similarities in the book, which extend to your partners sharing the same first name but a couple of decades ago, she started writing about-- her writing took a bit of a conspiratorial turn, and your arguments could seem plausibly interchangeable to a person who was very distracted writer maybe casually anti-Semitic or all of these things that you talk about in the book.
Naomi: I had this particular experience in the pandemic because when I went online, I had like on some days, hundreds or even thousands of people talking about a not me, talking about somebody else who was being chronically mistaken for me, who was another Naomi writer, Naomi Wolf. There were a lot of genuine cases of identity confusion, and this partly had to do with the fact that during COVID, Wolf became a kind of industrial scale disseminator of medical misinformation.
She was all over the place before she was deplatformed on social media, and then she was all over other places like Fox News and Steve Bannon's show. Like, "Why is Naomi Klein saying that vaccine apps are a fascist coup?" It also became for a time one of left Twitter's favorite jokes, and I had a period of real vertigo.
Jia: Right. We should mention that great tweet with the rhyme, that if the Naomi be Klein, you're doing just fine. If the Naomi be wolf, it's like, "Oh, baby wolf," or something like that. You begin the book with this situation, particular situation you find yourself in, and then you're slowly broadening it out chapter by chapter to this moment in politics, and strange right-left alignments and the marionette way the left and the right relate to each other, and various forms of conspiratorial thinking.
You note that it makes things even weirder that Naomi Wolf herself seemed like a Doppelganger of-- she herself seemed like a Doppelganger of the self that you had known, as a self you had read as a college feminist. That in itself captures something that's a real feature of this time where so many people who have been radicalized one way or another-- as you say, we all know someone who feels like they are a Doppelganger of themselves.
It does feel like a distinct feature of today where so many of our world views are organized by the algorithmically escalating internet that within six months of going down any particular rabbit hole in the internet, there's, let's say, some normy southern sorority girl might reveal herself to be a radical police abolitionist who's also queer, and maybe her friends think, "What happened to her? She's gone nuts."
Some guy who seemed perfectly nice at work might suddenly reveal himself to be an incel obsessed with seed oils in the child custody system or whatever. It's a feature of the internet that it makes people seem like bizarre doubles of themselves. Anyone can seem unrecognizable at this point.
Naomi: When we're looking at avatars, right?
Naomi: When we aren't rooting our relationships actually in any embodies experience. I think I try in the books that I've written to be a bit of a mapmaker of the political moment. I think the reason why I was excited about the literary technique of using my own Doppelganger. I want to stress that this book is not about my Doppelganger. It's using her as a case study for those people who have changed, but it's also using the figure of the Doppelganger to understand the uncanniness of our political moment. Freud described the uncanny as that species of frightening that changes what was once familiar to something unfamiliar.
It's that weirdness of like, "I think I know what this is, but it's not what I think." People used to be very distressed by wax figures. Now, we have a whole Doppelganger world. A world of wax figures. I think there are ways in which political movements feel like Doppelgangers of themselves. Bill McKibben wrote a book about a decade ago called Earth, but he added an extra A in it. Basically, he was making the argument that climate change creates a Doppelganger of the planet in the sense that this is not the planet we grew up in. We are experiencing uncanny weather, right?
Naomi: So it's a deep, deep, deep uncanniness. The figure of the Doppelganger, interestingly historically, often emerges during moments of collective vertigo. The first piece of theoretical writing about Doppelgangers was in the first year of the First World War, 1914, written by Otto Rank, who was a student of Freud's, who was trying to make sense of why there were Doppelgangers all over the place in the culture, including in film, like early films like Student of Prague.
He argued that the Doppelganger stood in for what we can't look at in ourselves and repress desires, what we're afraid of, what we want most, what we fear ourselves to be most. Then the Holocaust and the Second World War and the rise of Nazis and becomes another moment where artists turn to the figure of the Doppelganger because reality is so very hard to look at. I think about Charlie Chaplain's film, The Great Dictator, and he made it in 1940, and he cast himself as both the persecuted Jewish barber and the Hitler-like dictator, and they trade places.
And the Jewish barber, dressed as Hitler, gives one of the greatest anti-fascist speeches of all time. I think Doppelgangers can be useful, I guess is what I'm saying, to wrap our minds around very, very difficult things to look at. I think we are in one of those moments.
Jia: Right. We were talking about the weather being so uncanny. We look around, we wake up every day into this denatured, strange earth. Then one thing that you say is that conspiracy gets the facts wrong, but it gets the feelings right. Then there's this ambient conspiracy that the sun has somehow been replaced. That the sun looks different. The sun isn't yellow like it was in my childhood. This is something that-- have you seen this discourse crop up on?
Naomi: You're way more online than I am. I have not seen-- like I know the Biden is played by an actor in a mask. I know a lot of them, but I don't know that one.
Jia: Yes, there are more and more semi-playful, but the instinct towards them is very telling. There are these semi-playful theories that various celebrities have been-- this is the iteration of the Charlie Chaplain movie. We're now at the point where it's just Wikipedia articles about the conspiracy theory that Avril Lavigne was replaced by an actress. Decades ago or whatever.
Naomi: We're actually making a thread of these. There's so many of them
Jia: Oh, good. Yes, it's going on with Brittany, even with Kanye right now. Yes, this is another doppelganger moment, but you speak really--
Naomi: Well, whenever you don't like reality, you can just say that it's not real. As you know, my main area of research is the climate crisis. I had a research center about climate justice at the university and my research there into climate change denial. I've gone to the conferences where all the climate change deniers converge and trade theories. It's very clear that they are fleeing from the science of climate change or just refusing to accept it and throwing whatever they can at the wall because the implications of the science are too challenging to the worldview that they hold.
I mean, it's overwhelmingly, like a very right-wing anti-government pro-deregulation subculture. If climate change is real, you and I have talked about this, it means we need to do all of those things. Rather than confront those hard things, you just deny the reality. I think that that impulse has now generalized to basically everything, including Avril Lavigne.
Jia: Right. You bring up in this book the way that this other form of mirroring and inverse relationship, where once some issue became important to the far right, like the minimal but real cases of adverse effects from the COVID vaccine. For example, the left had a way of automatically dismissing in some cases, even just the inquiry about it. There were all of these ways that you write about that the tortured balancing relationship between the left and the right.
You had for so long urged your readers to be suspicious of moments of crisis being taken advantage of by those in power, and many on the far right during COVID began to understand COVID as exactly that, but just with things that weren't true, such as the fact that the government was tracking us all with microparticles and vaccine passports, likening vaccine passports to yellow stars in Europe. Then as you write during COVID, you write that you yourself had begun to worry that those of us on the left had, in fact, been too complacent about what did happen during COVID, which was consolidation of power to the wealthy and corporate profiteering and billionaires doubling their fortunes and vaccine apartheid.
That there were real, I don't want to say conspiracies, but there were real examples of profiteering and power concentration that had somehow fallen by the wayside.
Naomi: Yes. What worried me was hearing Steve Bannon take issues that I knew to be very powerful, traditionally left-wing issues that had been left unattended, that were not being deployed as much, where it was like, we all just need to-- like if they are anti-vax and anti-mask, then we just need to be the people saying get vaccinated and wear your mask and not make too big a deal about all the other things that our governments could have done, like lift the patents on those vaccines, like make sure that every classroom had proper air filters, that classrooms were smaller, that we had more teachers, that we had more nurses, that they had PPE bans on pandemic profiteering, and we were not ambitious in calling that out.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but I believe we dangerously seeded political territory. When I would hear Bannon cosplaying Chomsky or my own politics, it's not that I think he believes it, it's that he is a strategist and his political move that he has used to great effect is looking at the people and the issues that the Democratic party has abandoned, who feel betrayed, who feel unrepresented. He identified that this was fertile political territory to bring a portion of the traditional democratic base over to the mega right.
Now, he's doing the same things, it used to be like the forgotten every man. Now, it's the angry every mom. That is who my doppelganger represents to him, is sort of frazzled COVID moms who feel like mocked and dismissed, and he's saying, "Come on over," and then moving very quickly from masks and vaccines to critical race theory and transphobia. We can get angry about that, but the parts of this agenda that come from the left and the center left that were not being used effectively, that where we had become too timid, too silent, too afraid of seeming like them.
That is something we can do about, there are ways that we can take those issues back, but we have to get over this fear of sounding too much like Bannon because he sounds like-- We're worried about that because he's sounding more like us and he doesn't really mean it. They're doing it because it works politically and it's a root to power.
Jia: There's this other thread running through the book that I loved. You write about Daisy Hilliard's formulation of the shadow self that you and I are sitting here talking, kind of, there are little pictures of us are sitting on the screen talking to each other, but we're talking,
But there are other versions of ourselves that are, as she writes in the sky, causing storms and in the ocean nudging whales towards the beach, that as we who are western consumers have these lives, that there are shadow versions of ourselves, there are doppelgangers of ourselves in rare earth minds alongside 14-year-old laborers who are being poisoned, and that life asks us the narrative of success in a good life and even just everyday mental functioning perhaps asks people to suppress the reality of those shadow selves and those doppelgangers, but they're with us and they're growing, our sense of them is becoming unavoidable.
That because of the reality of climate change, because of the reality of all of these accelerating systems, they're not going to be shadow cells for long. We are going to have to confront the flip side of the economic systems that fuel our lives.
Naomi: I think it is the work of our lives to try to look, so it isn't just that, it's hard to look at things that are hard. It's also that we are implicated in those hard things. We are not apart from them. That's what she, I think, articulates really beautifully with this idea that we have two bodies, the body that is sitting here in this chair, the body that is going to go for a walk with my dog later and my kid, and then there's the body that is hovering over whose tax dollars fund, drone warfare, who is implicated in oil wars, who is implicated in plastic in the ocean and all of that. That is not other people. That is me. That is us.
That is the hardest thing to look at. We're implicated in those storms that are hitting us, we're implicated in the histories that's coming at us, and we're implicated in the exploitation of those workers in the clothes that we wear. Oh my God, that's hard. Is it any wonder that people are finding ways to look away? The argument I make about conspiracy culture and what's going on with my doppelganger and Steve Bannon is they are creating these fake scandals that are actually an amazing way to not look at the real scandals.
I guess the flip side of that, and because at Doppelganger book, I dove deep into doppelganger novels and short stories and films, and I think I can say with certainty that pretty much all the storylines start with you thinking you're confronting your doppelganger and ending up confronting yourself. I would just say to those of us who might feel a little bit smug about, "Oh, those ridiculous people who are choosing to take a flight into fantasy conspiracy theories instead of doing the hard work of looking at reality." I mean, I went to Barbie, did you? There are different ways of fleeing from reality.
Jia: Thank you for writing this book. I just loved every bit of it. I'm so glad we got to talk today.
Naomi: I am so glad too, there's no one I'd rather discuss this with. It's such a pleasure.
David Remnick: Naomi Klein's new book is called Doppelganger. You can find a longer version of her conversation with staff writer Jia Tolentino at newyorker.com.
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