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Joe Hoover, S.J.December 01, 2023
Naomi Klein (Photo by Sebastian Nevols)

Naomi Klein is spun from a certain thread of social activist that, if embodied in a single person over the last 30 years, would have voted for Ralph Nader, linked arms at a G7 protest, boycotted Nike, opposed the Iraq War, occupied Wall Street, advocated for Palestine, door-knocked for Bernie, marched against fossil fuels and hoped that Covid would lead to a communitarian reset of Western social norms and practices.

Doppelgangerby Naomi Klein

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

416p $30

She is their champion. She is the one who provides strong reporting, exhaustive research and the acute, prescient recognition of trends and currents in modern society. Klein has done this for years, from her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine to This Changes Everything, along with a raft of articles and columns for The Guardian and numerous other outlets. Her work usually finds its deep center in critiquing capitalism as an ultimately brutal and unforgiving socio-economic system.

Her new book,Doppelganger, springs from the phenomenon Klein has experienced for years: that of repeatedly being mistaken for someone else—i.e., living with a doppelganger. She takes this frustrating, even unnerving experience as a leaping-off point into a discussion of a broken society in which she notices there are doppelgangers everywhere.

Naomi Klein's new book serves as a kind of sociopolitical post-mortem of the Covid era, in which our social divisions and paranoias only grew more strident.

The bookserves as a kind of sociopolitical post-mortem of the Covid era, in which our social divisions and paranoias—fertile breeding grounds for dopplegangers—only grew more strident. It is also tragically timely: A significant thread of the book focuses on the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. It focuses in particular on Israel as its own doppelganger—both victim and victimizer.

Doppelgangers are, in brief, people who by all appearances are us but are really our opposite. (Inherent to the nature of the doppelganger is the question: are they, in fact, so very opposite to us?) While the doppelganger can represent the soul, our higher self, writes Klein, “[it] also represents the most repressed, depraved, and rejected parts of ourselves that we cannot bear to see—–the evil twin, the shadow self, the anti-self, the Hyde to our Jekyll.”

While the experience of having a doppelganger had been initially confusing and painful for Klein, by the end of the book it becomes—to my thinking anyway—a gift from God. She turns a curse into grace. Naomi Klein’s doppelganger indirectly birthed a brilliant piece of writing and social commentary—and thoughtful remedies for our common problems (including some needed critiques of the left)—that never would have come to light otherwise.

The woman that Klein is constantly mistaken for is another Jewish female writer named Naomi, also with a one-syllable last name, who traveled along the same general byways of liberal social feminist commentary culture that Klein did. This writer is Naomi Wolf. She was the author of 1991’s The Beauty Mythand an outspoken voice in what has been called third wave feminism. She was an adviser for Al Gore in his run for the presidency in 2000. Wolf is associated, correctly or not, with advising Gore to be more of an “alpha male.”

The crux of the book, and the point it loops in the notion of the doppelganger, is that over the years, Naomi Wolf veered away from some of her points of contact with Klein on the liberal political sphere. She started moving full bore into “patriotic” conspiracy theory mode. This exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic, when her stance as an anti-vaxxer found its natural and perfect moment.

Naomi Klein’s doppelganger indirectly birthed a brilliant piece of writing and social commentary that never would have come to light otherwise.

Wolf’s metamorphosis throughout Covid arrived at its apogee when she became a regular guest on the podcast “War Room: Pandemic” with Steve Bannon. She was surprised and happy to make common cause with the architect of Donald Trump’s political ascendance. Wolf became the Naomi on the right to Klein’s Naomi on the left.

The doppelganger aspect of the Wolf/Klein dynamic attained its full expression when–consciously or not–Wolf began to employ for the sake of her own ideology one of Klein’s journalistic calling cards. With it she advanced a conspiracy of the kind Klein would be diametrically opposed to.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein reported on the way natural disasters, wars and political regime changes (Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, to name a few) became ripe for what she called “disaster capitalism.” Such events, in her interpretation, rendered cities and countries as “blank slates” ready to be reshaped by outsiders. Disasters became golden opportunities for political and economic advisers to implement policies that advanced Milton Friedman’s Chicago school model of radical laissez faire capitalism. It brought in privatized schools, flat taxes and shrank government programs to a nub.

And now Klein’s doppelganger, Naomi Wolf, was claiming that the latest disaster—the worldwide Covid pandemic—also created an opportunity for radical elites to come in and manipulate the fabric of society. But this time it was elites on the left—the Faucis and Bidens of the world—who wanted to socially engineer and reshape all of us in their own image. It would appear they were creating their own doppelganger, what might be called “disaster socialism.”

Wolf’s conspiracy theory about Covid (the plandemic, as it was sometimes called in paranoid strains on the right) found its symbolic essence in fears that citizens would all have to go around with vaccine passports. To Wolf, forcing people to carry vaccine passports was akin to putting yellow stars on Jewish lapels in Europe in the 1940s.

The leftist doctrine of social control the pandemic was ushering in needed vigilant batting away. Conservative political figures were delighted to have a former adviser to Al Gore join them in fighting Covid communism.

It may seem a doppelganger society would operate from the “horseshoe theory,” where the far right and far left surprisingly meet up. Instead, says Klein, it often hinges on “diagonalism.” Diagonalism is a phenomenon where “disparate strains” from across the political spectrum meet up. It is where, for instance, writes Klein, “soft-focus wellness influencers make common cause with fire-breathing far-right propagandists.”

Naomi Klein, who takes no prisoners in her quest for pursuing the truth and exposing injustice, has street credit when she urges her comrades to be “soft on people.”

Diagonalisms often revolve around the kinds of conspiracies Wolf peddles. Uncovering conspiracies is a ripe example of the doppelganger theory at work. Twin selves, in this case social prophets on both the left and the right, aim at similar ends with different goals. Writers and activists, whether quasi-socialist or alt-right, both rail against secret interests and shadowy actors running the world. I take my prophetic conspiracy to the right, and you take yours to the left.

But it is one thing to “research” various internet conjectures about the machinations of George Soros and his secret cabal. It is another to do the hard, patient, on-the-ground reporting and scholarly research exposing actual conspiracies and corruption. The Shock Doctrine, for instance, which came in at 589 pages, was meticulously researched and reported. It listed more than 1,000 footnotes to complement its many interviews. It makes its case persuasively. This is one of the chief takeaways of Doppelganger when considering who to trust: it is hard to argue with good journalism.There are not, in fact, alternative facts. There are hard-to-dispute truths.

An example: both Klein and Wolf publicly expressed concerns over the dangers of geoengineering. But which doppelganger should win out? Klein came at it as a journalist, Wolf as someone who wondered about things. “I began publishing about the dangers of geoengineering as a response to the climate crisis,” writes Klein. Wolf, she says, did something in the same ballpark, but did it through “speculating on social media about chemical cloud seeding and covert mass poisonings.”

Klein continues: “I based my writing on dozens of peer-reviewed papers and managed to get access to two closed-door geoengineering conferences, where I interviewed several of the key scientists involved in lab-based research” on geoengineering.

And Wolf? “She started taking photographs of random clouds in upstate New York and London.”

Klein also goes on to explore larger national-cultural doppelgangers. One chapter is devoted to what she calls “the Unshakeable Ethnic Double,” particularly as it relates to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Klein quotes the writer Caroline Rooney, who describes doppelganger politics in relation to “the state of Israel and the complex psychological space it occupies as both victim and perpetrator.”

Klein offers her own girlhood as a way to understand the phenomenon. When she was taught at her Hebrew day school about what was done to Jews in the Holocaust, Klein writes, it prompted “surface-level emotions: horror at the atrocities, rage at the Nazis, a desire for revenge.”

But looking back, what she says she did not receive was “reflection on what duties the survivors of genocide may have to oppose genocidal logics in all of their forms.” In other words, the notion that colonized, oppressed Jews became the colonizers and oppressors of the Palestinians strikes Klein as brutally absurd.

This kind of thinking led to a socio-global attitude regarding the nation of Israel’s place in the world and what it is allowed to do; in particular to the Palestinians next door. For Israel, the Palestinian “as the Jew’s new eternal enemy, was treated as so illegitimate, so irrational, so other, that Israelis believed themselves to be justified in reenacting many of the forms of violence, dehumanizing propaganda, and forced displacement that had targeted and uprooted the Jewish people throughout Europe for centuries.”

In response to the massacre by Hamas on Oct. 7, Israel has also been the perpetrator of its own massacre. As of Nov. 30, Israel’s bombs have killed more than 4, 600 children. This is the nation’s internal doppelganger at work. It fully acknowledges it will destroy innocent civilians—citing the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Copenhagen as moral justifications—as an unfortunate consequence of keeping the cause of Jewish statehood alive.

For Klein, the journey of Israel from oppressed to oppressor is indicative of a larger global story—namely that “pools of trauma being spatially moved around the globe like chess pieces made of human misery, with yesterday’s victims enlisted as today’s occupying army.” And yet it is in naming this reality that Klein begins to move toward notions of solidarity. She describes Israel as a warning about, among other things, “what happens when once vibrant debate gives way to fiercely policed speech.”

Klein cites with empathy her own doppelganger as a clear example of this. In 2014, Naomi Wolf publicly deplored Israeli attacks on Gaza, writing things that could well have been written by Naomi Klein: “I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany.”

For her stance, Wolf was lambasted both publicly and privately, even to the point of receiving online threats. She says she lost her university position because of it. Klein wonders if this public shaming and even “excommunications” by Zionists helped “contribute to how unmoored [Wolf] became in subsequent years? Does losing her political home partially explain how far she would stray to find a new home?”

Klein is not just trying to be nice, an inoffensive bridge-builder, when she decries our social fragmentation and calls for solidarity and mutual aid “in our zero-sum economy.”

In a doppelganger world, in which alliances are sharply drawn and “you are either with us or against us,” it is easy to get pushed far toward the destructive margins. Klein wants to counter this, and by the end of her book talks about “unselfing” as one way out. Not everything needs to be about me. She discusses seeing in a particular art exhibit, “a model for surrender, not to sameness but to interconnection and enmeshment—the same lesson the pandemic tried to teach us in those early days. No one makes themselves; we all make and unmake one another.”

It is in writing like this that Klein offers a mirror (a secular doppelganger?) to the Judeo-Christian concept of the common good, of our fundamental brotherhood, our kinship as children of the one God.

She quotes john a. powell, a civil rights scholar, in one of the most memorable lines of the whole book: “We can be hard and critical on structures, but soft on people.” For Klein, “That is the opposite of the discourse that dominates today, the one that is so very hard on people and far too soft on structure.”

Naomi Klein, who takes no prisoners in her quest for pursuing the truth and exposing injustice, has street credit when she urges her comrades to be “soft on people.” She also critiques some of the way the left does not help itself, for instance, “by turning minor language infractions into major crimes” or not considering the exhausted working class parent who, as Covid ground on, wants the schools to open against the left’s insistence they stay closed.

She points out what Steve Bannon already knows, that the left is losing some of its traditional base—in particular, Black and Latino men. This is “in part over frustrations with how Covid measures affected their jobs and small businesses, and also over discomfort with their kids coming home with unfamiliar ideas about the mutability of gender.”

Klein is not just trying to be nice, an inoffensive bridge-builder, when she decries our social fragmentation and calls for solidarity and mutual aid “in our zero-sum economy.” No, she is also mobilizing this stance as an effective way to reach the very same ends she has always fought for: Fighting capitalism, racism, environmental destruction and all attendant inequities and miseries—to, quite plainly, “make the world different from the way it is now.”

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