Naomi Klein’s Mirror World

For years, people confused writer Naomi Klein with writer Naomi Wolf. Klein shrugged it off. Then came the pandemic, and Wolf became a pro-gun, anti-vaccine darling of the far right. Worse yet, Wolf seemed to be twisting Klein’s anti-elite concepts into mirror versions of themselves. Seeing Wolf on television, Klein “felt like she had taken my ideas, fed them into a bonkers blender, and then shared the thought-puree with [Tucker] Carlson.”

Klein is the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She would have preferred to keep writ- ing about the climate emergency and the crimes of billionaires who plan to leave the rest of us on an overheated Earth while they seek salvation on Mars. But the constant confusion of Wolf ’s identity with her own started to feel like a metaphor for a bigger cultural disorder. Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00) is Klein’s attempt to untangle the chaos.

Wolf won fame with her 1990 book, The Beauty Myth, arguing that an impossible beauty standard is a trap that stops women from succeeding. More books followed, but she suffered a great humiliation not long before the pandemic: a BBc interviewer exposed critical inaccuracies in one of her books, and her publisher pulped it. Wolf reemerged as an ardent anti-vaxxer, insisting that “vaccine passports” would lead to “a fascist reality” and that resistance was “a hill worth dying on.” Soon she was a regular on Steve Ban- non’s “War Room.”

Klein tries to understand Wolf ’s conversion and why right-wing ideas appeal to some former liberals and leftists. Progressives have facts, Klein says, but the right has access to the way people feel. And people are fed up: they fear constant surveillance by corporate-owned media, they sense that consumers are constantly scammed. They instinctively know “the feeling that every human misery is someone else’s profit, of being exhausted by predation and extraction, the feeling that important truths are being hidden.”

The genius of the right, Klein argues, has been to hitch realistic fears of surveil- lance and exploitation to an agenda that undermines mutual trust and the collective good. Instead of questioning the tech bar- ons or the pharmaceutical giants, Wolf and her ilk push us to blame each other. The real conspiracy, according to Klein, is capitalism as usual: Exxon spending decades hiding its research about the effects of burning fossil fuels, Flint’s poisoned water supply, the financial machinations that led to the Great Recession of 2008.

The left, meanwhile, sometimes lacks the empathy it claims to champion, often acting “in ways that are neither inclusive nor caring.” Instead of working to build alliances based on shared interests, she thinks progressives reduce their own ranks by demanding unattainable political purity.

Klein follows “other Naomi” and her allies through “a master’s degree worth”

of hours of right-wing media. She probes literature and mythology for clues to wider cultural meanings of doppelgangersparts of ourselves that we ignore at our peril. Klein starts to see “doubling” everywhere. We treat our children as mirrors of ourselves. We “self-brand,” curating idealized versions of ourselves for display online. Media giants use “the data trails we leave behind” to construct our “digital Golems.” We in richer countries have “doubles” who scavenge the world for the resources our consumer selves devour.

The literary doppelganger that resonates most strongly for her is Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock. (This annoys her. She’d stopped reading Roth decades before because of his superficial female characters and because his books felt “less like fiction than fraught visits with the New Jersey wing of my own fam- ily.”) In the book, “Fake Roth” impersonates “Real Roth” but proclaims ideas that “Real Roth’’ finds dangerous. “Real Roth” calls his double “Moishe Pipik” (Moses Bellybutton), and “Pipikism’’ becomes a force that undermines the truth at every turn. “Once an idea has been pipiked, can it ever be serious again?” Klein wonders.

Klein confronts the ethnic dimensions of being confused with another Jewish woman and probes the role of doubling in racial prejudice. Minorities must always represent their group, she writes, serving as stereotypical doubles that they can’t shake. And minorities evoke doppelgangers of their own: the Israeli “New Jew,” a double to the Diasporic “Old Jew,” and Palestinians as doppelgangers who some Israelis want to eliminate altogether.

We can try to destroy our doppelgangers, or we can learn from them. We can ignore them, or we can acknowledge what binds us together. Doppelganger holds up a lamp to help us see what’s behind the mirror.

Mimi Bluestone is a writer and teacher and is a co-leader of the climate group 350Brooklyn.