11 Nov 2023

Naomi Klein and the other Naomi

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 11 November 2023

In her new book Doppelganger, Canadian writer Naomi Klein explores conspiracy culture alongside the complicated behaviour of someone she views as her own doppelganger – Naomi Wolf.

For over a decade, people have been confusing and conflating Klein with the prominent feminist writer turned anti-vaxxer

"I always know when she's made a particularly outrageous claim because when I go online there are lots of people yelling at me," she tells Kim Hill.

Canadian writer and academic Naomi Klein

Canadian writer and academic Naomi Klein Photo: rob trendiak

Naomi Klein is co-director of the Centre for Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia. Her best-selling books include No Logo and The Shock Doctrine.

Klein says there are various reasons why Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, became part of what she calls the "mass migration of the mind".

To illustrate how Wolf flipped from the left to the right side of the political spectrum, Klein presents a "not exactly totally serious but also a little bit serious" math formula in Doppelganger: "narcissism slash grandiosity plus social media addiction plus midlife crisis divided by public shaming equals right-wing meltdown".

Wolf's increasingly conspiratorial claims related to oddly shaped clouds, Edward Snowden and ISIS beheadings had already made her a figure of ridicule on the left, Klein says, but a 2019 incident in which it was revealed live on BBC Radio that Wolf had made a foundational research error in a book seemed to to be the last straw.

Once Wolf had lost all hope of regaining the audience she'd once had on the left, Klein says, she allied herself with figures like media personality and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

More than anything, Wolf appears to be a "clout chaser", she says.

"She goes wherever the heat is, wherever the action is, wherever she's gonna get some clicks and some views. And she's very good at playing the attention economy game. It has worked for her."

Today the far right side of politics has become "a strange kind of doppelganger" of the left, Klein says.

"This is not the right that I grew up with. This is a right that takes issues that have traditionally been issues of the left like a critique of globalization, a critique of corporate power of the banks, and mixes and matches it with transphobia, xenophobia into this very potent cocktail."

Part of the reason the far right is successfully rising is that both sides are engaged in "very reactive mirror games", she says.

"We have a kind of a doppelganger politics where rather than being guided by clear, legible principles, we increasingly have a left and a right that just react to one another.

"I think this is part of how we're why we're seeing a resurgent right around the world."

There was "rightful" reason for people to be very suspicious of the way pharmaceutical companies profited from the Covid-19 virus and put their patents ahead of vaccinating everyone on the planet, Klein says.

But once the right started turning anti-vax, many liberals and leftists reacted by telling people to simply "roll up their sleeves and get their booster".

"A lot of the left was just responding to the way the right was opposing all of these health mandates, by just kind of doing propaganda for [their] government's health departments, which was just not enough."

People within conspiracy culture often distract attention away from actual misconduct taking place in plain view, Klein says.

Although it was not a "conspiracy", she says corporate players and governments took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to push pre-existing agendas..

"They didn't cause the pandemic in order to profit from it. But I think by not focusing enough on the way tech companies were exploiting Covid in order to push self-driving cars, more remote schooling, telehealth… there was a whole agenda."

American writer Naomi Wolf

American writer Naomi Wolf Photo: YouTube screenshot

People within conspiracy culture, such as Naomi Wolf, often get the facts wrong, Klein says, but the feelings right.

Wolf "really took a star turn on the right" via her claims that vaccine verification apps were part of a government plan to introduce slavery and monitor private phone conversations.

"She seemed to be tapping into real fears about high-tech surveillance and the fact that we all have sort of questions about what our phones are tracking and where that information goes."

The left, Klein says, instead of really engaging with these concerns about the protection of data and privacy, gave a "liberal sneer".

"I don't think that we can be surprised that when these issues that a lot of people care about are not being addressed by our political leaders, they're co-opted by political opportunists and grifters."

Having a real-life doppelganger has been a very rich tool for trying to understand "our topsy-turvy time", Klein says.

"In many ways, we create doubles of ourselves to represent us online. That's what our avatars are, they're sort of idealised versions of us. And our idealised versions of us talk to other people's idealised versions of themselves on platforms like Twitter, or X or Facebook or Instagram, whatever."

Wellness culture promotes this self-idealisation process, she says.

"We have an idealised physical form of ourselves that we're constantly reaching towards if we're deep into this world of sort of pure food and peak fitness. And that is why there was so much suspicion of these shots, of big pharma kind of entering your body as an invasion, is the way it was imagined.

"[Covid-related conspiracies] resonated in, particular, in these communities that have really made a fetish out of being completely natural. Natural food, clean food, as little pharmaceuticals as possible and so on."

Another way that parents – liberal as much and possibly more than conservative – create doubles of themselves is through their children, Klein says.

"A lot of parents see their own children as a replica of themselves. In a sense, the child becomes the promise of immortality."

As the mother of a neuro-atypical child, Klein has seen this phenomenon in the autism parent community.

"There's lots of wonderful parents of neuro-atypical kids who I've met over the years, but I've also met a certain kind of parent that identifies as an autism warrior mum or dad who's sort of in a state of rage at the world that they didn't get the child that they imagined that they had a right to.

"The autism vaccine myth, which long predates the various myths about COVID vaccines, is this idea that you had this perfect child, this normal child, and then they got vaccinated for MMR and then that child was taken from you and replaced almost with a defective child."

cover of the book Doppelganger - A Trip Into the Mirror World
by Naomi Klein

Photo: supplied

Covid-19 revealed the "ugly" flipside of idealised body autonomy, Klein says - the idea that those who don't exercise the same level of bodily control "deserve what they get".

One day in 2021, she and her husband Avi Lewis – a political candidate for Canada's "left-ish" Social Democratic Party – knocked on a front door in a "hippie-dippie community" in Vancouver and met "a very fit yoga teacher".

The woman first told Lewis she didnt need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 because she had a very strong immune system.

"Then she said, of people who didn't have a strong immune system, 'I think they should die'.

"I'm not saying that everybody who's involved in fitness has these worldviews, but I think that understanding how much is being placed on the individual, on the optimised self, within late capitalism helps explain this strange intersection of what I call the far right and the far out."

Our culture sends the message that the way to protect ourselves is to 'optimise' ourselves, Klein says.

"That's the whole reason why we are out there on social media, perfecting these our avatars, our doubles, our personal brands, is because we've been told not to expect jobs that can support us for our lifetimes and certainly not a pension.

"That's what all of this performing of the self and perfecting of the self and optimizing of the self is about, but it does seem to be pretty compatible with these far-right conspiratorial views."

Although some people think Wolf and Klein have a physical resemblance, Klein argues that her doppelganger actually looks more like our culture which monetises attention and rewards narcissism.

Although most doppelganger stories in literature end with the doppelganger being confronted and killed, Klein says she'd be happy to sit down for a discussion with Wolf, whom she first met years ago as an undergraduate.

"I did reach out to her several times to interview her and at that time she didn't see a value in it, but maybe that could change."


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