OTM-2023-09-15 Naomi Klein doppelganger


ML: This is On the Media. I'm Michael Loewinger.
BG: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BG: The writer and activist Naomi Klein has been confused for writer Naomi Wolf for much of her career. Wolf rose to prominence with the book The Beauty Myth in the 90s, establishing herself as a best-selling feminist, whereas Klein wrote acclaimed critiques of capitalism, such as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. To say Klein was often mistaken for Wolf is rather an understatement. In the interview she did just before ours, the TV host mistakenly called her Wolf. The confusion has been incessant on social media. She even overheard people confusing her for Wolf and decrying her from a stall in a public bathroom. In fact, it was so unrelenting that someone tweeted a rhyme that itself became something of a meme. "If the Naomi be Klein, you're doing fine. If the Naomi be Wolf, oh, buddy, oof." The poem resurfaced when Wolf became ever more visible as a peddler of COVID conspiracies, suggesting the vaccinated people shed particles that impaired fertility, and that masked children were spookily placid like stepford wives in the horror story, and that proposed vaccine passports were akin to slavery. Ultimately, Klein decided to plunge down the rabbit hole to follow Wolf and emerged with a new book called Doppelganger, A Trip into the Mirror World. It's a wide-ranging exploration of doubling in our lives, culture, and politics. One of the first mysteries Klein set out to solve was how her doppelganger crossed over into the realm of conspiracy.

NK: She had had this really humiliating experience with a publication of her 2019 book, Outrages. An interviewer confronted her with every writer's worst nightmare, which was that the book that she was there promoting had misunderstood some key historical facts, and it meant that a really big part of her thesis was wrong. This was unveiled live on the air. It was extremely humiliating. I should know because a lot of people thought it was me.

BG: Her publisher dropped her, and the book was pulped.

NK: She entered the pandemic in a very destabilized place and started getting a lot of traction with various kinds of COVID misinformation. At one point, she was on Steve Bannon's podcast every single day for two weeks. She published a book with Steve Bannon filled with vaccine misinformation. They actually put out t-shirts together at one point, so it's not like she's an incidental small minor figure in this world. She's really become a star, getting everything she lost and more.

BG: But what Bannon gets from it is something more consequential.

NK: He hopes to get an election victory out of it. I think he was the key strategist behind the idea that Trump could attract disaffected Democratic voters who had really felt betrayed, particularly over the issue of free trade agreements where they had voted for Democrats multiple times who promised that they were going to renegotiate these trade deals and not sign new ones, and then didn't do it. He brought a segment of the Democratic base over to the MAGA right. He calls it MAGA Plus. The old Red Hat Brigade Plus, all that my doppelganger has come to represent in terms of disaffected white COVID moms who were angry about lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates for their kids, mixing and matching it with transphobia, xenophobia.

BG: He's also really skilled at appropriating language. He's borrowed a lot from the left.

NK: He was building what I call the mirror world. Bannon makes the argument that because his listeners and he himself have been de-platformed on so many social media sites, they need to create their own parallel information ecosystem. If you get kicked off Twitter, you have Getter. If you get kicked off YouTube, you have Rumble. If you can't do a GoFundMe, then you can go to GoSendGo. There's all of these direct mirrors. And then he says, we will never other you. That's what they do. Othering, of course, is a really key term in anti-fascist discourse because that's what fascists do. They create an in-group of belonging, and then they designate other people less than human. And that becomes a rationale for ghettoization, for discrimination, and if it goes far enough, extermination. This whole mirror world is really an appropriation machine. You have key slogans from social justice movements like, "I can't breathe" from Black Lives Matter suddenly being used by the anti-mask brigades holding up signs saying, "I can't breathe" about the masks or "My body, My choice" about vaccines. What's extraordinary is that often the same people who are appropriating the slogan, "my body, my choice", or "I can't breathe", support politicians who are banning abortion. So it's really a one-two appropriation and attack of the original.

BG: Back to Bannon, though. You mentioned that he said he would never other those who would be canceled by the left. You hold the left responsible for a lot of its own ills, things that they could have avoided easily and deprived Bannon of ammunition of this sort.

NK: It isn't only about the left. I want to be really clear about this. I think that centrist liberals also have a lot to be introspective about. Bannon's an interesting sort of mimic, but he also says, OK, well, what are you doing wrong that I can make a point of doing right? You know, I don't think it's a great secret that left movements, though we talk a good game about standing for a culture of care, don't always treat each other in ways that are very caring. And I think that has a lot to do with the social media platforms on which we communicate, where we perform doppelganger versions of ourselves.

BG: So in the course of your research, you began to see doubles everywhere. And you describe how our politics have become doppelgangers as well. They're kind of each other in a funhouse mirror.

NK: We became very reactive, very whatever they are, we are not. The classic example of this is the lab leak theory. Early on that was seen as a conspiratorial take on the origins of the covid virus rather than something that was worthy of exploration. And in recent months, we've seen some serious investigations of the lab leak theory, which deserved real journalism. I mean, I think we've mistakenly sometimes think our job is just to do the opposite of what they're doing. So if there's a huge amount of misinformation going on about vaccines, then we are going to be the people telling people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. And that's okay, but not if it's at the expense of engaged debate about what else we might do. I mean, we could have had more focus on lifting the patents on those vaccines. It's one thing to say, oh, Bannon is generating a distraction machine with all of these wild theories that he can't get enough of. And I think that is happening. But so is seeing the Barbie movie for the sixth time. There are different ways to numb and distract yourself. And I don't think that Steve Bannon has a monopoly on it.

BG: Let's stop for a moment and talk about the title of your book, Doppelganger, its history and its meaning.

NK: It's been in use since the 1700s. It comes from two German words. Doppel means double, ganger means goer or walker. So sometimes it's translated as a double walker. But doppelgangers are also now a real favorite on the streaming platforms. They are through line in the history of literature, Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin. I mean, novelists love a doppelganger.

BG: Star Trek, you have Lore and Data. The multiverse.

NK: And, you know, I think artists are culture that encourages us to perfect the self. And we have this illusion that we can do it. But we also know that the self can be undone in an instant by a terrible accident, by a psychotic break, by a bad trip, by a bad tweet.

BG: By a BBC correspondent cutting the rug out from under your latest book.

NK: I think that's true. I think writers are particularly aware of it.

BG: At first glance, your book could seem to be a bold act of personal branding to put the confusion between you and Naomi Wolf to bed at last. But you wrote that there's something humiliating about confronting a bad replica of yourself and something utterly harrowing about confronting a good one.

NK: Yeah, I mean, if doppelganger art, particularly film, is any guide, attempts to confront your doppelganger and be the last you standing rarely end well. It often ends with you stabbing yourself, like in Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray, where he stabs the portrait of himself growing old and ends up dying on the floor. So one has to be very careful about trying to win a war with your doppelganger. And I don't think I can do that. If anything, probably, Brooke, I have inextricably cemented the association for those who were not confused. Terrible branding. I do pride myself on being a really bad brand.

BG: Well, you got a history with branding.

NK: This is actually the main reason I wanted to write the book. You know, when I was in my 20s, I wrote a book called No Logo about the rise of lifestyle branding. And I started to see the first branded humans, super brands, as Michael Jordan's agent described him. But when I wrote that book, the idea that non-celebrities could also be brands was sort of an absurd concept that was being peddled by various management consultants. And the game changer, as we all now know, was social media, where suddenly it was very affordable to create a product version of us, right, because that's what we're doing when we log on to one of these new platforms, decide the perfect picture that we want, and we write our little sassy bio. And I think we've barely begun to grapple with what it means to perform a product version of oneself, because this thing I'm putting out here is a thing. A brand is not human. I think that that partly accounts for the kind of public shaming that Wolf herself experienced and that so many other people have experienced, because if you perform as a thing, people might believe you and start throwing hard objects at you and think that you will not bleed.

BG: About the exercise of branding, you observed, and I really love this, that for it to be effective, it has to be simple and static. But people change, which can be disastrous for a brand. And also, we're not just one thing. We contain multitudes. So you asked, what aren't we building when we're building our brands?

NK: I think that that line is the most important line in the book to me. As life becomes more insecure, more precarious, we are encouraged to turn towards the self, which is something that the late Barbara Ehrenreich discussed in the context of wellness and fitness culture, that this is a way of channeling our insecurities about the job market, authoritarianism, climate change. We have plenty to worry about. And these are crises that we are only going to confront together. And that's why it matters that if the labor of the self, whether it's building the brand, perfecting the body, fortressing the family, we are only alive on this planet for a finite number of hours. If we are spending a huge number of them in this rat race of self-perfection, we're not going to be reaching towards each other, building the kind of collective power that I think actually stands a chance of getting us on a much safer, more stable path.

BG: You quote Daisy Hildeyard, talking about the unseen world that we live in that we don't see. Could you read from Daisy Hildeyard's Shadowland?

NK: Yeah.

"You are stuck in your body right here, but in a technical way, you could be said to be in India and Iraq. You are in the sky causing storms, and you are in the sea herding whales towards the beach. You probably don't feel your body in those places. It is as if you have two distinct bodies. You have an individual body in which you exist, eat, sleep, and go about your day-to-day life. You also have a second body, which has an impact on foreign countries and on whales, a body that is not so solid as the other one, but much larger."

So what she's saying is that we're implicated in these systems. We want to believe that it is just the bad them, but this is our world. This is our system. And if we are fortunate enough to be in wealthier parts of wealthier countries, fortunate enough during COVID to be part of the lockdown class, we knew our comforts were only because of other people's risks and frankly, other people's exploitation. We were reminded many times that people who were described as essential workers were really, in many cases, sacrificial workers. I don't think it's a coincidence that it's that moment when conspiracy culture just goes supernova. I don't think it is just about the technology. I think it's about what we can't bear to look at. But part of the reason why we look away is because we are so conditioned to see ourselves first as individual consumers that we forget that we actually have the ability to join with other humans and build collective power. This is what we're not building when we're building our brands, that kind of collective power that would make it bearable to really look at our implication in these systems so that we can make our systems more just.

BG: So in literature and mythology, the protagonist often must confront their doppelganger or be replaced, but your journey doesn't end with a confrontation with Naomi Wolf. She wouldn't meet with you. Instead, you said you found it more useful to think of this whole experience as an exercise in unselfing. What does that mean?

NK: It allowed me to be more playful and experimental as a writer because I figured that if countless numbers of people thought I was someone else entirely, I didn't have much to lose. I may as well just try. Unselfing is a beautiful term from Iris Murdoch, the British philosopher and novelist. A state that she reaches for. It's not a state that you can be in all the time, nor should you be. It's the state that artists talk about when they're in a flow state where they kind of forget themselves and they are all flow. Or Murdoch is talking about how one feels when one is awestruck by beauty, so transcended by it that we forget ourselves. We are unselfed.

BG: You also recommend unselfing to your readers as a way to break out of our doppelganger politics. But how does unselfing work for people who aren't following their doppelgangers down rabbit holes?

NK: I have a very specific niche version of this with my Naomi-Naomi confusion. But I think we all create doubles of ourselves. We do it when we create our brands. We do it when we try to perfect our bodies. We do it when we try to perfect our kids and turn them into little mini-me's. And these are all examples of the self taking up too much space and kind of blotting out the sun. And I really do think it's getting in the way of our ability to reach towards each other and do the kind of work that is our only hope of meeting our unbearable moment in history when so much is unraveling. We really need to do it.

BG: Naomi, thank you so much.

NK: Thank you so much, Brooke. It was such a pleasure.

BG: Naomi Klein is the author of Doppelganger, a trip into the mirror world. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber, with help from Sean Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone, and thanks OTM correspondent Michael Loewinger for co-hosting this week.

ML: Thanks, Brooke. My pleasure.

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