Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World is a beautifully written, insightful, poignant, and brutally honest examination of real, imagined, and historical identities. She starts with a personal dilemma which has been unfolding for years: being constantly mistaken for feminist writer and commentator Naomi Wolf, the “Other Naomi.” (34) Klein’s ongoing dilemma revolves around having inflammatory statements and conspiracy theories, made by Wolf about a host of issues from corrupt global elites to COVID, directly attributed to her, particularly on “the filthy global toilet known as social media.” (30)
Klein uses this cautionary tale about two individuals as a starting point for a larger and complex commentary. Wolf might be her “evil twin,” but she is not unique. According to Klein, there is a “shadow tyrant who lives in us all and lies in wait in every nation.” (213) People and entire countries have their own dopplegangers.
But where do these doppelgangers come from? It is tempting to pass these stories along as accidents or coincidences. But they are not. Klein explores a wide variety of sources throughout her book. Some are already well known. The internet cultivates “profoundly bored people addicted to dopamine hits from our machines.” (35) The social isolation imposed by COVID moved this ongoing trend into overdrive in 2020.
Some doppelgangers are the product of aspirational personal branding. (88) Engaging in the deliberate manipulation of a public persona is not new. David Riesman wrote about “inner-directed people” in The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950). Tom Wolfe covered similar ground in his landmark The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening. (1976) What constitutes our public face can reflect a combination of ambition, or desire for social acceptance, or simple narcissism. However, in the modern day, the practice has evolved and accelerated. Klein notes the current penchant for “credit claiming” today: “I wrote that. I said that. That’s my phrase. My buzzword. My hashtag.” (70) Klein admits that she has embraced the same system that she made a career out of criticizing. (50)
In other cases, individuals and groups – from both the political Left and Right – are attracted to the hero narrative, where they possess special and superior knowledge to hold over their doppelganger opposites. It is common to misappropriate history to burnish their heroism. During the battles over COVID policy, for example, many in the antivaxx movement – to include Wolf – repeatedly invoked the sacrifices of civil rights leaders 50 years ago. (251-252) False equivalencies like these are everywhere in the doppelganger discourse.
At points, carefully crafted righteousness can easily morph into bullying or outright cruelty. Most people who have ever seen or participated in online threads understand how quickly a discussion can fall apart. Klein points out that internet influencers often make a basic mistake: “Forgetting that the pack loves blood and there is nothing bloodier than performative trauma.” (64) The same process that created today’s “hero” might just as easily turn against them.
In this constantly shifting environment, internet doppelgangers can be very hard to manage. In part, as Klein concludes early in her book, we are not always in charge of identity. “The person we think we are is fundamentally vulnerable to forces outside of our control.” (28) Many are egged on by experts in the craft of exposing raw nerves – Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson immediately come to mind. Klein singles out Steve Bannon for his particular artistry in constructing grievances and motivating people to act on them. Any number of tragedies have resulted from this corrosive craftsmanship. The January 6th attack on the Capitol is an obvious example. More recently, we have witnessed the horrifying death of a six-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois.
A dangerous path leads to these tragedies. Our use of doppelgangers reduces public discourse to a choice of being for something or against it. Contradiction has replaced sober, informed discussion. Klein uses the example of COVID being “stuck in the binary of lock down versus open up.” (121) Ongoing debates over public policy also apply. With respect to immigration, we debate whether the border should be “open” or “closed” when neither status applies in reality. More importantly, in this binary world of rigid black versus white choices, “people lose the ability to imagine the perspectives of others.” Klein observes a profound danger in the devolved ability to listen and understand: “In that state of literal thoughtlessness (i.e., an absence of thoughts of one’s own), totalitarianism takes hold.” (66)
The result of this breakdown is regretfully ironic. Klein mentions throughout the book that she (and like-minded people) and Wolfe (and her followers) actually share some beliefs, especially regarding political and economic elites. However, where Klein struggles with tangible issues of vastly disproportionate shifts in wealth that benefit a shrinking minority, conspiracy theorists pointlessly pursue debunked narratives. Arguing in favor of a living wage or reigning in Big Pharma is not coequal to flogging false stories that link 5G towers to COVID. Lost in the endless struggle over claims, counterclaims, and personal attacks is the possibility of meaningful collective action. Doppelgangers are extremely effective distractions that lead us away from reform.
In her second to last chapter, “The Unshakable Ethnic Double,” Klein uses Israel as a tragic case study of dopplegangers. Centuries of prejudice have bifurcated Jewish identity between the people they are, and the vicious stereotypes and conspiracy theories projected upon them. While recognizing this long-standing dynamic Klein follows with two important points of her own. The first is that Jews are not unique victims. “Manifest Destiny” in all its various forms throughout history has taken a terrible toll on its victims. Secondly, since its inception and a nation, Israel has manifested its own doppelganger:
“And in the face of the spectral Shylock, the eternal Jew that is the shadow-double of all Jews, Israel will respond with a doppelganger of its own: the sun baked, muscle-bound, land-hungry, machine-gun-toting New Jew, that unbound alter ego of the pale, studious, melancholic Old Jew.” (295-296)
For Klein, a permanently fixed interpretation of The Holocaust to never have its horrors repeated in any form has produced the sad irony defining Israeli-Palestinian relations today. “It’s a psychological prison for Jewish Israelis, locked inside a fortress of fear and denial, and it’s a very literal prison for Palestinians, entrapped in a warren of walls and checkpoints in the West Bank, in the open-air prison that is Gaza, and in the sprawling jail cells that have made incarceration such a routinized part of daily life.” (303)
Is there a way out of the “Shadowlands” and our freely roaming doppelgangers? (236-239) It is hard for this reader to finish Klein’s book with any sense of optimism. She treats her own evolving thought process regarding the scope and scale of the problem, identifying along the way the fallacies, contradictions, and desperate need for context in our online bloodsport. But the end result seems to be more a sense of bewilderment with our current mirror world than a path forward.
“It would all be so ridiculous — if it weren’t so serious.” (157)
Yes it is.