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Twin Peeks

Naomi Klein finds it rather hard to understand

Tara Henley

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World

Naomi Klein

Knopf Canada

416 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

For Canadians of a certain ilk — Gen X, lefty, raised in counterculture circles, news obsessed — Naomi Klein has long been an icon. A columnist for the Toronto Star in her twenties, Klein shot to stardom in 1999 with her groundbreaking No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, which sold more than a million copies and became a kind of bible for the anti-globalization movement. She has since travelled extensively, publishing in the international press to wide acclaim, and penning what she archly refers to as books on “Big Ideas About Serious Subjects.” Known for interrogating capitalism and challenging corporate power, Klein is so committed to the workers of the world, she has joked in interviews, that she visited Indonesian sweatshops on her honeymoon.

So it was with anticipation that this reviewer, a fortysomething news junkie raised on the Left Coast, picked up Klein’s pandemic outing, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World. What would the celebrated journalist make of a once-in-a-century crisis, the response to which — as the former New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and the Vanity Fair contributing editor Bethany McLean argue in their own pandemic book, The Big Fail — was hobbled by the same pitfalls of neo-liberalism that Klein has made a career of chronicling?

It came as a surprise to learn that Klein had not spent the COVID‑19 period reporting on one of the most significant upward transfers of wealth in history. Nor covering the grim conditions experienced by essential workers. Nor investigating the impacts of unprecedented public policy — like extended lockdowns — on the working class. Instead, Klein spent much of the pandemic holed up on the remote and spectacularly scenic Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, home to some of the more expensive real estate in the country, contemplating Naomi Wolf.

Drawing on those long, disorienting months of pandemic isolation.

Sandi Falconer

It started with a highly idiosyncratic problem: Naomi Klein has been perpetually confused with Naomi Wolf, also a famous public intellectual and author of big-think books. Both women are Jewish, both are brunettes with blond highlights, and both once had filmmaker partners named Avram. (Klein is still married to Avi Lewis; Wolf has a new spouse.)

The Naomi confusion posed less of a problem when Wolf was speaking out in favour of causes that Klein supports, such as feminism and Palestinian rights. But in recent years the author of The Beauty Myth has undergone a transformation. In 2019, the premise of Wolf’s book Outrages, which rested on a misreading of a historical term, was exposed, live on BBC Radio, as false. Shamed and humiliated, she migrated away from the liberal left — where she was once an establishment Democrat, even serving as a consultant to Al Gore — and found a new home on the populist right, as a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast, War Room. Wolf was frequently de‑platformed for posting anti-vaccination content, including, among other things, the claim that the vaccines were “a software platform that can receive uploads.”

The mix-up between Klein and “Other Naomi” thus became an acute branding crisis — and one that deeply frustrated Klein, both because she was against the whole concept of personal brands, as per No Logo, and because her attempts to address the situation on Twitter proved ineffective.

Sometime during the long, disorienting months of pandemic isolation — when her social media use increased — Klein found herself mesmerized by Wolf. Her interest took an obsessive turn, and the research, as she puts it, “began to truly spiral out of my control.” She was soon making herself late for appointments by pulling off on the side of the road to listen to Wolf’s podcast appearances in her car; she streamed War Room episodes while practising yoga. Her husband was exasperated. (“I’ll block Twitter,” she promised him.) Her mother expressed concern. Several in her circle “strongly cautioned” against writing Doppelganger. But she ultimately felt compelled to.

The question, of course, is: How do you take such an experience and make it a book? To accomplish the task, Klein dedicates much time and space to rationalizing the merits of her inquiry, first riffing on the doppelgänger theme and pinballing between intellectual influences like Sigmund Freud and Philip Roth, then moving on to build the case that her esoteric interest is actually a topic that holds wider cultural significance. She advances a theory of what Wolf represents: a mirror world, “a new and dangerous political formation” occupied by people “now in open warfare against objective reality” who are taking to the streets “in rebellion against an almost wholly hallucinated ‘tyranny.’ ”

“Almost everyone I talk to tells me about people they have lost ‘down the rabbit hole’— parents, siblings, best friends, as well as formerly trusted intellectuals and commentators,” Klein writes. “People, once familiar, who have become unrecognizable. Altered. It began to feel as if the forces that have destabilized my world are part of an expansive web of forces that are destabilizing our larger world — and that understanding these forces could hold a key to getting to firmer ground.” To Klein, this clearly feels like an urgent undertaking. But to me, it feels like garden-variety political polarization.

Indeed, Doppelganger has the hallmarks of a polarization spiral. This term describes a dynamic in high-conflict societies, in which polarized groups — in this case, the far left and the far right — become, yes, mirror images of one another. Each side fixates on the most outrageous actors on the other side and, genuinely alarmed by what it sees, escalates its own rhetoric accordingly, provoking further extremes. In the process, both lose sight of what the anti-polarization non-profit More in Common has called the “Exhausted Majority,” whose members are “so frustrated with the bitter polarization of our politics that many have checked out completely, ceding the floor to more strident voices.”

In other words, our culture gets defined by the loudest and most radical individuals on the margins, who become locked into an intractable conflict, in which everyone, on all sides, loses. Under such circumstances, as the investigative journalist Amanda Ripley has detailed in High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, emotions are strong and binary thinking dominates the discourse. “High conflict is an us-versus-them conflict that seems to have a life of its own,” Ripley told me in 2022. “Where the facts stop mattering very much and it becomes all about the fear of the other side.” Such disputes can be magnetic, she added. “It is very hard to resist.”

With this dynamic in mind, it’s easier to understand Klein’s own transformation. As Doppelganger unfolds, she starts to sound a little unmoored herself, casting her mirror-world net ever wider to encompass everyone from fitness enthusiasts and wellness influencers (part of a rising “fascist/New Age alliance”) to former NDP voters and parents at her son’s school. She fears he will come home “with a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus . . . contracted from a classmate whose parents believe that vaccines are part of a plot to commit genocide and enslave humanity because some lady on the internet named Naomi convinced them it was so.”

The polarization dynamic also helps explain how Klein, a meticulous researcher, seems to have overlooked some key points. For instance, she portrays the truckers who took over the capital in early 2022, to protest vaccine mandates, as dangerous extremists — even though the Public Order Emergency Commission concluded otherwise. Similarly, she bemoans the lack of debate over school closures, apparently having missed the outcry from parents on social media, dissenting views in the independent press, and early, influential reporting from the American journalist Alec MacGillis on the consequences of those closures for vulnerable children. It’s significant that mainstream conversations did not happen in any meaningful way in Canada until recently. Klein, as one of our most high-profile journalists, surely could have covered this issue — had she not been otherwise occupied with her double.

To her credit, Klein attempts, repeatedly, to escape myopia. Throughout Doppelganger, the sharp critical thinker resurfaces for moments of introspection, reflection, and lucidity. She notes that the lab leak explanation for COVID‑19, once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, turned out to be worthy of investigation. “I do realize, in retrospect, that I was too quick to take the official story — that it came from a wet market where wild animals were sold — at face value,” she writes. “If I’m honest, I accepted it because it served my own motivated reasoning and reinforced my worldview.” Turning her attention to Wolf and Bannon explicitly, she adds, “In an odd way, their over-the-top conspiracies fed our overcredulity; their ‘question everything’ led to many of us not questioning enough.”

That Klein does not ultimately manage to untangle herself from the polarization spiral — or even fully identify it — is not for lack of trying. Indeed, she ends her book with one last attempt to understand the nature of the relationship between herself and Wolf, recounting their meeting in 1991. Klein was a twenty-year-old reporter in the student press, interviewing the twenty-eight-year-old whose Beauty Myth had just made her a blockbuster author:

It had never occurred to me that such a thing was possible. I wasn’t one of those kids who mapped out their career paths at puberty. I joined no clubs, had no goals. I got kicked out of high school once, and I flunked out of junior college when my mom got sick, before finally making it to university, where I would drop out again. I had no picture of what my adult life could be beyond a vague sense that I wanted to do something with words that would let me travel and afford a loft of the kind I had seen on the television show Moonlighting. But what Wolf had done — write a book of ideas, command an international audience before hitting thirty, all by calling bullshit on patriarchy? That felt like something worth aspiring to.

The story of that pivotal interaction effectively humanizes both Klein and Wolf, highlighting how complicated their twinning actually is. And in one brilliant flash of insight, it illustrates the book that Doppelganger could have been.

Tara Henley is a current affairs journalist, podcast host, and the author of Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life.

Related Letters and Responses

Michael Chapin Winnipeg