By Michelle Goldberg
I’ve been raving about Naomi Klein’s “Doppelganger” since I read an advance copy this summer, and when I tell people about it, some of them are baffled: You mean Klein wrote a whole book about being confused with the writer Naomi Wolf? The central conceit of “Doppelganger” sounds more like the premise for a surreal Charlie Kaufman film than a work by an earnest lefty who usually writes about overweening corporate power. Klein herself is apologetic about it. “In my defense, it was never my intent to write this book,” she says in its first line.
We should all be glad she did, because I can’t think of another text that better captures the berserk period we’re living through. Only in a superficial sense is “Doppelganger” really about Wolf, the liberal feminist icon turned anti-vax Steve Bannon sidekick. Instead, it’s about the instability of identity in the virtual world and the forces pulling people away from constructive politics into a shadow realm where clout chasing and conspiracy theorizing intertwine.
Klein and Wolf, both brown-haired middle-aged Jewish women writers, are often mistaken for each other. That became a growing problem for Klein as her reputation was tainted by Wolf’s escalating lunacy. Trapped at home by the pandemic, Klein became increasingly obsessed by Wolf’s transformation into a heroine of Covid truthers.
That obsession, in turn, guides Klein into an examination of what she calls “the Mirror World,” the vertigo-inducing inversion of reality common to contemporary far-right movements. Think, for example, of Vladimir Putin claiming that he’s liberating Ukraine from fascism or Donald Trump howling that his multiple prosecutions are a racist plot to subvert a presidential election. When I spoke to Klein recently, she described how jarring it was to watch protests against Covid measures appropriating left-wing language — common slogans were “I can’t breathe” and “My body, my choice” — making them “this weird doppelganger of the movements that I had been a part of and supported.”
This idea of the doppelganger gave me a new way to think about the mix of malicious parody and projection that now dominates our public life. Sometime soon, for example, the House is likely to impeach President Biden on the pretext that he was involved in corruption in Ukraine — the same conspiracy theory Trump was trying to breathe life into when he got himself impeached for corruption in Ukraine. This coming doppelganger impeachment is hard to even discuss without getting pulled down innumerable rabbit holes, which is surely part of the point.
“How comforting it would be if Wolf were a fake we could unmask — and not a symptom of a mass unraveling of meaning afflicting, well, everything,” writes Klein. This unraveling, of course, was well underway before Covid, but the pandemic accelerated it by forcing people to live online, communicating on platforms seemingly algorithmically designed to reward rage and paranoia.
Wolf’s story is instructive. “The Beauty Myth,” her 1990 blockbuster about the toll taken on women by the upward ratchet of unreasonable beauty standards, made her famous. In retrospect, the seeds of her intellectual decline were already present in that book, which contained both major statistical errors and a conspiratorial subtext that painted the influence of patriarchy as a deliberate plot. In the ensuing years, her work grew increasingly sloppy and absurd, until her reputation collapsed altogether in 2019 with the publication of “Outrages.”
Wolf faced the singular mortification of being confronted, live on the radio, with evidence that her book’s central contention — that several dozen men in Victorian England were executed for having same-sex relationships — was based on a misreading of historical records. That October, her U.S. publisher canceled the release of “Outrages.”
“If you want an origin story, an event when Wolf’s future flip to the pseudopopulist right was locked in, it was probably that moment, live on the BBC, getting caught — and then getting shamed, getting mocked and getting pulped,” writes Klein. Klein had a front-row seat to the pile-on, since much of it was mistakenly directed at her. She writes with real empathy about how, coming only a few months after the death of Wolf’s father, this professional implosion meant that Wolf “went into the destabilizing period of the pandemic in an already highly destabilized state.”
But in channeling the fears of people similarly unmoored by Covid, Wolf seems to have found something like stability, gaining a new audience that accorded her the respect she’d lost. In “The Shock Doctrine,” Klein writes about how rapacious capitalists take advantage of disasters. Wolf peddled a bizarro-world version of that idea, describing the response to the virus as a ploy to impose global totalitarianism. I looked up her most recent book, “The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, Covid-19 and the War Against the Human,” on Amazon. A best seller, it features glowing endorsements from Bannon and Tucker Carlson. (Wolf told The New York Times Magazine that she hasn’t read Klein’s book.)
In “Doppelganger,” Klein offers a half-joking formula to explain onetime leftists or liberals who migrate to the authoritarian right: “Narcissism(Grandiosity) + Social media addiction + Midlife crisis ÷ Public shaming = Right wing meltdown.” As Klein emphasizes, Wolf’s journey into the Mirror World can’t really be described as a fall. She and others like her, says Klein, “are getting everything they had and more, through a warped mirror.” For Klein, the more important question is less about Wolf’s motivations than those of her followers. Somehow, Wolf’s apocalyptic pronouncements about sinister drug companies and imminent technological tyranny speak to these people in a way that the left does not.
“When looking at the Mirror World, it can seem obvious that millions of people have given themselves over to fantasy, to make-believe, to playacting,” writes Klein. “The trickier thing, the uncanny thing, really, is that’s what they see when they look at us.”
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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn
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