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Big Bad Wolf

Life in the Mirror World
A close-up of Naomi Wolf in profile.

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages. 2023.

All of our brains, in one way or another, were scrambled by the pandemic. The sudden mass withdrawal from public life mixed with the daily parade of death have done more damage to our psyche, individual and collective, than we may ever properly account for, let alone reverse: children are exceptionally behind in school; adults have become antisocial paranoiacs; and those of us who are supposed to be adults aren’t necessarily sure what that even means. At the same time, disinformation and institutional distrust have congealed into a noxious sludge, enveloping more and more Americans seeking answers to the existential questions cropping up each week. And many found in its warm embrace the easy comfort of conspiracy theories—many, including Naomi Wolf.

Once an esteemed feminist public intellectual, Wolf has made a new name for herself as a gun-loving, reactionary sleuth, uncovering ghastly plots left and right, including that, as she tweeted in 2021, Apple was scheming to deliver vaccines through “nanopatticles [sic] that let you travel back in time.” But that new name also came to consume Naomi Klein, whose new book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World chronicles her disorienting journey to free herself from the muck.

Klein began tapping into Wolf’s late-stage career as a conspiracy peddler during the early phase of the pandemic. While she’d been getting mistaken for Wolf as early as 2011, the connection didn’t become parasitic until 2021, when Wolf became a fixture in the alt-right mediasphere. Seemingly every time Wolf made an outrageous statement on some right-wing broadcast, Klein was tagged or referenced in the public’s reactions. “I can’t believe I used to respect Naomi Klein. WTF has happened to her??” one post says. “The real victim in all this here is Naomi Klein,” reads another. There was even a viral poem that some readers may recognize:

If the Naomi be Klein
You’re doing just fine
If the Naomi be Wolf
Oh, buddy. Ooooof.

So, Klein decided to dive into her digital doppelganger’s world of disinformation. But as Doppelganger progresses, she stumbles upon a greater truth: we no longer occupy the same plane of reality, and maybe we never did.

As Klein’s star rose, Wolf’s began to fall—and then suddenly exploded in a supernova of public humiliation. 

The book starts with an anecdote from 2011, when Klein overhears two women in a Manhattan restroom criticizing “her” (Wolf’s) stance on Occupy Wall Street. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise, Klein writes. “We both write big-idea books,” Klein writes. “We both have brown hair that sometimes goes blond from over-highlighting.” Klein’s and Wolf’s careers had long orbited each other like a binary star: the former wrote about corporate malfeasance and climate change, the latter on gender inequality in leadership and sexuality. Klein launched her career with No Logo, about the outsized and generally abusive power of brands like Nike and The Gap, nearly a decade after her feminist forebear released The Beauty Myth, on how beauty is weaponized against women to keep male dominance intact. But as Klein’s star rose, Wolf’s began to fall—and then suddenly exploded in a supernova of public humiliation. In 2019, a small detail in her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, on how nineteenth-century British law penalized gays in the Victorian era, was corrected on-air by a British historian, swiftly upending the book’s entire premise. Wolf was dropped by her U.S. publisher and the excruciating moment went viral on Twitter. (The footage still gives me nightmares.) Months before the interview, Klein notes, Wolf also lost her father, a figure so central to her life that she wrote a book about him.

Then Covid-19 hit and Wolf, effectively banished from liberal circles, found a new audience: the far right. Wolf had already dabbled in conspiracy theories—about Ebola, Edward Snowden, ISIS—for years, but the coronavirus proved to be more than just a passing fixation. (Prolonged social isolation didn’t seem to help anyone.) She began appearing on right-wing platforms like Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight (RIP) and Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, and she began describing vaccine-verification passports for international travel as “a tyrannical totalitarian platform” and vaccine-verification apps as a “CCP-style social credit score system.” “It’s not about the vaccine, it’s not about the virus, it’s about your data,” she warned Fox News host Steve Hilton. “What people have to understand is that any other functionality can be loaded onto that platform with no problem at all . . . Your credit history can be included, all of your medical history can be included.”

These days she uses her various social media accounts to almost exclusively rail against vaccines, to great effect: her following on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, has swelled to over three hundred thirty thousand. “When someone is pushed out of progressive conversations or communities because they said or did something hurtful or ignorant . . . their absence is frequently met with celebration, as Wolf’s exile from Twitter was,” Klein writes. “But these people don’t disappear just because we can no longer see them. They go somewhere else. And many of them go to the Mirror World: a world uncannily like our own, but quite obviously warped.”

And Wolf’s success illustrates how seductive the Mirror World can be, partially because her skepticism isn’t entirely unwarranted. Tech companies do have unrestrained access to our most sensitive information, and they are, in many ways, watching our every move. “We are all mine sites now, data mine sites,” Klein writes, “and despite the intimacy and import of what is being mined, the mining process remains utterly obscure and the mine operators wholly unaccountable.” Naomi Wolf, she argues, thrives in this space by tapping into the “barely submerged fears” of a public that felt powerless as they watched pharmaceutical giants reap outsize profits from the Covid-19 vaccines, corporate oligarchs jack up consumer prices, and political elites hoard the resource from poorer communities both within their borders and around the globe.

Klein also points out that the Mirror World has a corrosive effect on any issue brought into its orbit. She argues that former Trump adviser and avowed white nationalist Steve Bannon gained much of his power and influence from spotting gaps in the left’s political project and using them to create a “warped mirror agenda,” wherein conservative white Americans are the real victims and straightforward journalistic efforts to keep power in check becomes “fake news.” It’s the poison that makes it an effective strategy. Liberals and leftists alike aren’t particularly keen to admit that Steve Bannon has a point about oligarchic rule when that point is purposefully couched in fascist rhetoric. But avoiding the topic altogether, she argues, leaves those gaps wide open for anyone to fall through. “Issues that we had once championed had gone dormant in a great many spaces,” she writes. “And now they were being usurped, taken over by their twisted doubles in the Mirror World.”

But this isn’t a new condition, and Klein knows it. Powerful civilizations have always relied on some form of dissociative identity to maintain their grip. America in particular is infamous for it. Toward the end of the book, Klein quotes W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous description of the “double-consciousness” in the Black American experience, a persistent split identity through which most of us must live in order to survive and sometimes thrive in the United States. She writes that while people of color have to present different versions of themselves depending on the situation, bigots also engage in this doubling from the other side. “This is how prejudice works,” she writes. “The person holding it unconsciously creates a double of every person who is part of the despised group and that twisted twin looms over all who meet the criteria, always threatening to swallow them up.”

This “mass unraveling of meaning” is really a collective search for power.

Many of the ideas Klein proposes in Doppelganger can be applied to racialized Americans’ experiences from before Covid-19. Look at the case of “Black Lives Matter.” In her book, Klein lifts the term pipikism from Jewish American novelist Philip Roth, which he described as “the antitragic force that inconsequencializes everything—farcicalizes everything, trivializes everything, superficializes everything.” “Black Lives Matter” became the de facto slogan against extrajudicial police killings following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, and Eric Garner—all unarmed Black Americans who were either killed by the law or in its name. When the phrase caught fire on social media, critics across the political spectrum quickly coined alternatives: “All Lives Matter” seemed less divisive, “Blue Lives Matter” supported the police, and “White Lives Matter” was just racist. Soon enough, a cry about Black death became a debate about white feelings, taking the movement away from the injustices it targeted. The slogan was also picked up from the streets and plastered on pins, mugs, T-shirts, sometimes in earnest, often not. Just look to mean-spirited twists like “Black Rifles Matter,” “Bald Lives Matter,” or “Bang Local Milfs”—all available on Etsy. Meanwhile, police shootings persist, and Congress seems more than happy to just keep giving them more money.

A similar phenomenon overtook the word woke. Once a slang term among Black Americans to describe the emergence of that double-consciousness to understand how Blackness is perceived in society, it’s since become a right-wing dog whistle to describe threatening Black ideas and race traitors. The only time woke made it to the law books is through Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s much-maligned “Stop W.O.K.E Act,” which effectively blocks classroom instruction on racism from public schools. I haven’t heard “stay woke” said in earnest since 2019. It seems to have fallen out of use even on the right—but perhaps that was the idea all along. “Once an idea has been pipiked,” Klein writes, “can it ever be serious again?”

It’s not all hopeless. Throughout the book Klein’s message remains clear: this “mass unraveling of meaning” is really a collective search for power, and an opportunity to create more equitable systems on the ruins of the old. No one person, group or society is just one thing. You can be cruel and kind, selfless and selfish, right and wrong. Our repressed fears may manifest in evil doppelgangers, but what happens when you merge those two selves—the ideal, unblemished version with the shadowy, insecure one? You get a real reality and the chance to make it better.

“What we need are systems that light up our better selves,” Klein writes, “the parts of ourselves that want to look outward at a world in crisis and join the work of repair.” The old world is crumbling, she says, and maybe it should. “It was an edifice stitched together with denial and disavowal, with unseeing and unknowing, with mirrors and shadows,” she continues. “It needed to crash.” Earlier in the book, Klein quotes José Saramago who once wrote that “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” With Doppelganger, she’s managed to do just that: organize the madness of contemporary life into a guide toward a more just future.