Think of someone you hate, someone you detest in your gut. Then ask yourself, is there anything about them that reveals something about you, something you’d rather not admit to yourself? What a frightening thought! It’s even more frightening when this hated other has the same name as you, looks like you or is like you in some other way.
Naomi Klein’s new book Doppelganger delves into this eerie psychological domain. A “doppelganger” is a double, a person like you except with all the features you dislike or don’t want. Imagine encountering your doppelgänger.
In popular culture, this psychological dimension is often missing, and a doppelgänger is merely a lookalike. Klein’s analysis goes beyond appearances.
Klein is an accomplished researcher, writer and social critic. She wrote the book No Logo, which exposed the ubiquitous process of commercial branding that has been taking over the world, and told about challenges to it. She later wrote The Shock Doctrine, about how powerful corporations zoom into areas hit by disasters — war, hurricanes — to make supersized profits. In several books, she has presented passionate arguments for action on climate change.
As a prominent intellectual with a well-defined persona as a social critic, a scourge of neoliberalism, it might seem that Klein’s identity was both well-established and secure. But then she encountered a different Naomi, and many people confused the two of them.
The other Naomi, Naomi Wolf, became a public figure with her first book, The Beauty Myth published in 1990, and was hailed as a next-generation feminist.
Later, Wolf went down a different path, which became especially distinctive during the Covid pandemic, when she endorsed views that, to Klein, seemed absurd and dangerous. Wolf started supporting what are conventionally called right-wing views, like gun-owners’ rights.
People saw public statements by Wolf and unintentionally attributed them to Klein. This caused Klein to have strange feelings, as if Wolf were her evil twin, saying things she abhorred. Klein became fascinated and, with her usual energy for in-depth study, began exploring everything she could find about doppelgängers, including mythology, psychological analyses and fiction. There are novels and films about doubles. A well-known example is Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a man retains his youthful looks while a painting of him, hidden away, ages instead. Klein probed many such stories, looking for insights into her own situation.
Doppelganger is a long book. After writing best-selling books focusing on big issues like capitalism and climate change, it might seem self-indulgent to analyse a personal issue about an apparent real-life double. When there are so many pressing concerns in the world, ones for which Klein has well-developed capacities to explore, why bother with a seemingly trivial matter?
Well into Doppelganger, Klein provides answers to this question. She finds the presence of doubles in ever wider facets of human life. She gives special attention to Covid. As noted, Wolf, during the pandemic, promoted some unorthodox ideas. Klein, in contrast, pretty much adhered to the standard line, conveyed by medical authorities, about lockdowns, distancing, masks and vaccines. To Klein, it seemed that Wolf was a mirror image of herself, adopting views that were an evil inversion of her own.
But Klein, ever critical of her own thinking, wondered whether her mirror self had something to offer. By rejecting entirely any challenge to orthodox views about Covid, was something being lost, some insight into the dominant position? This is a crucial question for Klein and for the reader, and I think it’s an important one. But before addressing Klein’s big-picture examination, there’s one aspect of her treatment of Covid I need to mention.
Klein, by adopting the authorities’ position concerning Covid, is able to position Wolf and other Covid critics as delusional and dangerous, putting their own freedoms above the health of others. Klein sees this as individualism, a feature of neoliberal society, running rampant over collective concern about everyone’s welfare. But there is another way to frame this clash of worldviews.
Throughout the pandemic, not all dissident views prioritised individual rights over collective welfare. Consider, for example, the Great Barrington Declaration, initiated by three accomplished medical researchers and signed by hundreds of thousands of health professionals. They supported protecting the vulnerable, the aged and the immune-system compromised, while letting Covid spread among the young and healthy, to whom it posed little threat. The young and healthy would develop natural immunity, which comes from having the disease, and could then safely contact the aged and infirm.
Klein does not mention the Great Barrington Declaration, nor that its leading figures came under fierce criticism and were censored. For the purposes here, there is no need to examine the pros and cons of the declaration, only to note that Klein’s contrast between community-minded Covid orthodoxy and individually selfish Covid heterodoxy can be questioned. Furthermore, Covid-control orthodoxy involved many things that separated people from each other, including lockdowns, masks and distancing. Pandemic policies were devastating for many social-movement campaigns, inhibiting collective action. Klein does not address such perspectives but instead focuses on what she sees as Wolf’s aberrant beliefs.
When examining contentious public issues, especially ones where credentialed experts play a big role, there’s a trap involved. Such issues include pesticides, genetically modified organisms, microwaves, fluoridation — and vaccination. On such issues, establishment experts are contrasted with citizen opponents, such as Wolf, who supposedly know nothing, and it is easy to dismiss all opponents as ignorant. But on every such issue, there are highly knowledgeable dissident experts. To understand the debate, it’s necessary to delve into both science and politics rather than assuming dominant experts are right and opponents are both ignorant and wrong.
There is a psychological process called projection that involves taking a part of your own psyche and attributing it to others, in other words projecting it onto others. For example, every person has both masculine and feminine aspects, but some men are so repulsed by their feminine side that they project it onto women — and gay men. Homophobia can be thought of as a toxic form of this sort of projection.
There’s also a parallel process called introjection, which is incorporating another’s psychological features into one’s own psyche. Demagogues take advantage of both processes. Followers project their own strength onto the great leader, and introject weakness and dependence.
Klein’s idea of a Mirror World is that it can be a distorted version of unwanted parts of ourselves. This is a vivid way of describing projection, individual and collective. Referring to political views classified as left or right, Klein notes that when the left drops an issue, it is sometimes taken up by the right, and then the left further distances itself from the issue. She notes that the left supported official Covid control measures due to “the torrent of lies coming from the conspiratorial right” when it should have done more questioning.
Klein offers a low-key critique of identity politics, saying that the left, by focusing obsessively on differences and using jargon, alienates many of those outside the university set. “Moreover, when entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender, and labeled ‘privileged’, there is little room to confront the myriad ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order.” (p. 127) Klein supports coming together in a common cause rather than asserting identities.
Genocide and Jews
Moving on from Covid politics, Klein explores other domains where doubling can provide insights. One of them is genocide. Klein tells about her experiences as a Jew, learning about the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide of the Jews, and presents a parallel between colonialism and the Holocaust, one that had been developed by a series of writers.
When colonialists settled in “new” lands, what are now the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, they justified their activities as taking over empty territories, empty of people of value. In Australia, this was the legal doctrine of terra nullius, a land owned by no one. The indigenous people were treated as non-owners, so their lives and cultures could be disregarded. Today this is called “settler colonialism” because settlers took over the land and pushed out the inhabitants, in contrast to colonialism in places like India and Indonesia where Europeans ruled but did not displace the native population.
By the time Hitler came on the scene, much of the world had been colonised this way. But Hitler had the same idea, called lebensraum, of creating land for the chosen people, the Aryans of Germany. It meant clearing the land of its existing population, of Jews and Slavs. In this way of thinking, the Holocaust was not a unique event but rather a continuation of the European colonial project, turned inwards against other Europeans rather than outward towards other continents.
Klein offers this perspective with the added insight of doubling. Just as Indigenous people were the dangerous doubles of settler colonialists, so Jews were the dangerous doubles of Aryans in Nazi Germany.
Then there is the question of Israel, itself a settler colonial society, in which Palestinians were killed or expelled to make room for Jewish settlers. This took place during the creation of Israel in 1948 and has continued ever since. It’s not quite the same as earlier forms of settler colonialism, but there are similarities. In Klein’s telling, Israelis, or rather Zionists, have a doppelgänger — the Palestinians whose lands and livelihoods they have taken over. And if one’s double is seen as the repository of one’s own unacknowledged bad side, one option is to attack it.
Doppelganger was published on 12 September 2023, shortly before the 7 October attack by Hamas and the subsequent Israeli military assault on Gaza, which many informed observers have called genocide. But there was an earlier allegation about genocide of the Palestinians, during an Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2014. At this time, Klein notes, her double Naomi Wolf had spoken against the assault, using the loaded word “genocide,” and encountered a storm of abuse for such sacrilege. It was after this experience, especially during Covid, that Wolf turned to a different constituency, becoming the darling of right-wing talk-show hosts.
Klein ends Doppelganger with a heartfelt plea to join together with others to address the urgent problems facing humans. This might be seen as a continuation of her campaigning on climate change, but she has arrived at this point by an unusual route, one through her personal double Naomi Wolf and through an examination of doubling through art and politics.
In her journey through doubles, Klein covers many other topics, including autism, US political strategist Steve Bannon, personal branding, conspiracy theories, digital doubles, feminism, Jew-hatred, novelist Philip Roth, and social media cancellations. She highlights the value of studying and learning from those with whom you strongly disagree. Accordingly, you need not agree with Klein at every step, or even very many of them, to learn from her journey and to apply the lessons to your own.
For useful comments, thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jungmin Choi and Erin Twyford.