september 2023 Issue

When Naomi Klein Realized People Regularly Confused Her With Naomi Wolf, She Went Down a Rabbit Hole

In this exclusive excerpt from her new book, Doppelganger, the Shock Doctrine author takes on the Beauty Myth author, whose COVID conspiracism has further muddied the Naomi waters.
Naomi Klein looks directly at the camera.
Naomi Klein, photographed in New York City. Trench coat by Theory.Photograph by MARTIN SCHOELLER. Styled by Samantha Gasmer.

The first time it happened, I was in a stall in a public bathroom just off Wall Street in Manhattan. I was about to open the door when I heard two women talking about me.

“Did you see what Naomi Klein said?”

I froze, flashing back to every mean girl in high school, pre-humiliated. What had I said?

“Something about how the march today is a bad idea.”

“Who asked her? I really don’t think she understands our demands.”

Wait. I hadn’t said anything about the march—or the demands. Then it hit me: I knew who had. I casually strolled to the sink, made eye contact with one of the women in the mirror, and said words I would repeat far too many times in the months and years to come.

“I think you are talking about Naomi Wolf.”

That was November 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that saw groups of young people camp out in public parks and squares in cities across the United States, Canada, Asia, and the United Kingdom. It was a collective howl against economic inequality and financial crimes that would, eventually, birth a new generational politics. That day the organizers of the original Manhattan encampment had called for a mass march through the financial district, and you could tell by all the black clothing and heavy liquid eyeliner that no one in that bathroom was on break from derivative trading.

I could see why some of my fellow marchers had their Naomis mixed up. We both write big-idea books (my No Logo, her Beauty Myth; my Shock Doctrine, her End of America; my This Changes Everything, her Vagina). We both have brown hair that sometimes goes blond from over-highlighting (hers is longer and more voluminous than mine). We’re both Jewish. Most confusingly, we once had distinct writerly lanes (hers being women’s bodies, sexuality, and leadership; mine being corporate assaults on democracy and climate change). But by the time Occupy happened, the once-sharp yellow line that divided those lanes had begun to go wobbly.

At the time of the bathroom incident, I had visited the Occupy plaza a couple of times. I was mainly there to conduct interviews about the relationship between market logic and climate breakdown for what would become This Changes Everything. But while I was there, organizers asked me to give a short talk about the shock of the 2008 financial crisis and the raging injustices that followed—the trillions put on the line to save the banks whose reckless trades had caused the crisis, the punishing austerity offered to pretty much everyone else, the legalized corruption that all of this laid bare. Naomi Wolf, once a standard-bearer of 1990s feminism, had intersected with the protests as well, and I suppose that’s where the confusion began. She had written several articles arguing that the crackdown on Occupy demonstrated that the United States was tipping into a police state. This was the subject of her book The End of America, which outlined “ten steps” she claimed every government takes on its way to outright fascism. Her evidence that this evil future was now upon us was the aggressive way that Occupy demonstrators were having their freedom restricted. The city was not allowing megaphones and sound systems to be used in the park, and there had been a series of mass arrests. Wolf, in her articles, argued that activists should defy restrictions on their freedom of speech and assembly in order to prevent the takeover she insisted was unfolding under their noses. Not wanting to give the police an excuse to clear the protest camp, the organizers took a different tack, using what became known as the “human microphone” (where the crowd repeats the speaker’s words so that everyone can hear them).

That was not the only point of disagreement between Wolf and the organizers. For better or worse, the Occupiers had been very clear that the movement did not have a policy agenda—two or three political demands lawmakers could meet that would send them all home satisfied. Wolf insisted this was not true: She claimed the movement actually had specific demands and that she, improbably, had figured them out. Wolf then took it upon herself to deliver a haphazard list of supposed demands to New York governor Andrew Cuomo at a black-tie event organized by Huffington Post, where she and Cuomo were both guests. Wolf failed to connect with Cuomo inside but managed to get herself arrested in a burgundy evening gown, a melee documented by a bank of cameras. This is what the women in the bathroom were referring to when they talked about how “Naomi Klein” did not understand their demands.

I had paid only peripheral attention to Wolf’s antics as they unfolded—they were just one of many bizarre things swirling around Occupy during that eventful fall. One day the camp buzzed with rumors that Radiohead was about to perform a free concert—only to discover that it was an elaborate prank. Next, Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Russell Simmons actually did drop by, entourages in tow. Then it was Alec Baldwin’s turn. In this circus atmosphere, a midcareer writer getting handcuffed while unsuccessfully ordering around protesters half her age was barely a blip.

After the bathroom incident, though, I started paying closer attention to what Wolf was doing, newly aware that some of it was blowing back on me. How often does this identity merger happen? Enough that there is a viral poem, first posted in October 2019, that has been shared many thousands of times:

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

Over the years, there have been plenty of oofs. In the decade since Occupy, Wolf has connected the dots between an almost unfathomably large number of disparate bits of fact and fantasy. She has floated unsubstantiated speculations about the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden (“not who he purports to be,” hinting that he is an active spy). About US troops sent to build field hospitals in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak (not an attempt to stop the disease’s spread, but a plot to bring it to the United States to justify “mass lockdowns” at home). About ISIS beheadings of US and British captives (possibly not real murders, but staged covert ops by the US government starring crisis actors). About the results of the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence, which the “no” vote won by a margin of more than 10 percentage points (potentially fraudulent, she claimed, based on an assortment of testimonies she collected). About the Green New Deal (not the demands of grassroots climate-justice movements, she said, but yet another elite-orchestrated cover for “fascism”). She has even spotted plots and conspiracies in oddly shaped clouds.

And just like in that overheard Manhattan bathroom, every time she floated one of these theories, I would hear about it—only now on that infinitely scrolling bathroom wall known as social media. “I can’t believe what Naomi Klein said.” “Has she lost it?” “The real victim here is Naomi Klein.”

I came to think of her as Other Naomi. This person with whom I have been chronically confused for over a decade. My doppelganger.

For most of the first decade of the confusion, my public strategy was studious denial. I would complain privately to friends and to my partner, Avi, sure, but publicly I was mostly silent. Even when, in 2019, Wolf started tagging me daily in her tweets about the Green New Deal, clearly trying to draw me into a debate about her baseless theory that the whole thing was a sort of green shock doctrine—a nefarious plan by bankers and venture capitalists to grab power under cover of the climate emergency—I did not engage with her. I did not try to address the confusion. I did not join those mocking her.

I thought about it, but it never seemed wise. There is a certain inherent humiliation in getting repeatedly confused with someone else, confirming, as it does, one’s own interchangeability and/or forgettability—not to mention the traits that you and your doppelganger do have in common. Anything you might do to dispel the confusion and assert your separateness just draws attention to the areas of sameness and runs the risk of further cementing the unwanted association in people’s minds.

Naomi Klein turns her gimlet eye on the conflation of herself and the writer Naomi Wolf, and the broader meaning of doppelganging. Blouse by Aritzia Babaton; earrings by Jennifer Meyer. Throughout: hair products by Oribe; makeup products by Viseart Paris.Photograph by MARTIN SCHOELLER. Styled by Samantha Gasmer.

It was my dog, Smoke, who helped me understand the seemingly inescapable trap in which I found myself. Every evening at sundown, she glimpses her reflection in the glass of our front door and begins to bark ferociously. She is convinced, evidently, that an adorable white cockapoo doppelganger (dogpelganger?) is bound and determined to gain access to her home, eat her food, and steal the affections of her humans.

“That’s you,” I tell Smoke in my most reassuring voice, but she always forgets. And this is the catch-22 of confronting your doppelganger: Bark all you want, but you inevitably end up confronting yourself.

My commitment to non-involvement began to weaken during COVID, when the stakes of getting confused with Other Naomi rose markedly. Several months into the pandemic, Wolf emerged not as a scattershot peddler of conspiratorial speculation but as one of the most outspoken opponents of almost every anti-COVID public health measure, from masks to vaccines to vaccine-verification apps, which she equated with fascism while wantonly drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany. An NPR investigation found that Wolf was a primary spreader of the theory that vaccinated people shed dangerous particles onto unvaccinated people, possibly compromising their fertility, a theory that led a Florida private school to ban vaccinated teachers from the classroom.

Mocked and deplatformed in liberal circles, she quickly became a full-fledged crossover star on the MAGA right, appearing regularly (sometimes daily) on Stephen Bannon’s podcast War Room, as well as on Tucker Carlson’s now canceled show on Fox News—that is, when she wasn’t testifying for Republicans (or attempting to) in statehouses or posting photos of her new firearm. A “biofascist” coup d’état was taking place under cover of mask mandates and vaccine-verification apps, she warned, and her new fans ate it up.

Meanwhile, my doppelganger troubles escalated. No longer was it a periodic annoyance every few months. When I went online to try to find some simulation of the friendships and communities I missed during those achingly isolated months, I would invariably find, instead, The Confusion: a torrent of people discussing me and what I’d said and what I’d done—only it wasn’t me. It was her.

And look, it was confusing, and also, in a gallows way, funny, even to me. We are both Naomis with a skepticism of elite power. We even had some of the same targets. I, for instance, was furious when Bill Gates sided with the drug companies as they defended their patents on lifesaving COVID vaccines, using the World Trade Organization’s insidious intellectual property agreement as a weapon, despite the fact that vaccine development was lavishly subsidized with public money, and that this lobbying helped keep the shots out of the arms of millions of the poorest people on the planet. Wolf was furious that people were being pushed to get vaccinated at all and boosted conspiracies about Gates using vaccine apps to track people and to usher in a sinister world order. To stressed-out, busy people inundated with thumbnail-size names and avatars, we’re just a blur of Naomis with highlights going on about Bill Gates.

Again and again, she was saying things that sounded a little like the argument I made in The Shock Doctrine but refracted through a funhouse mirror of plots and conspiracies based almost exclusively on a series of hunches. I felt like she had taken my ideas, fed them into a bonkers blender, and then shared the thought purée with Carlson, who nodded vehemently. All the while, Wolf’s followers hounded me about why I had sold out to the “globalists” and was duping the public into believing that masks, vaccines, and restrictions on indoor gatherings were legitimate public health measures amid mass death. “I think she’s been got at!” @RickyBaby321 said of me, telling Wolf, “I have relegated Naomi Klein to the position of being: ‘The Other Naomi’!” It’s a vertiginous thing to be harangued on social media about your alleged misunderstanding of your own ideas—while being told that another Naomi is a better version of you than you are.

Doppelganger comes from German, combining doppel (double) with gänger (goer). Sometimes it’s translated as “double-walker,” and I can tell you that having a double walking around is profoundly uncanny, the feeling Sigmund Freud described as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”—but is suddenly alien. The uncanniness provoked by doppelgangers is particularly acute because the thing that becomes unfamiliar is you. A person who has a doppelganger, Freud wrote, “may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self.” He wasn’t right about everything, but he was right about that.

My first response to Other Naomi’s COVID antics was horror and a little rage: Surely now I needed to fight back in earnest, scream from my screen that she is not me. After all, lives were being lost to the kind of industrial-scale medical misinformation she was doing so much to help spread. Surely it was time to get serious about defending the boundaries of my identity.

But then something happened that I didn’t expect. I stopped being so horrified and got interested. Interested in what it means to have a doppelganger. Interested in the conspiratorial world in which Other Naomi was now so prominent, a place that often felt like a doppelganger of the world where I live. Why were so many people drawn to fantastical theories? What needs were they fulfilling? And what would their proponents do next?

In the hopes of picking up a few pointers on how others had handled their double trouble, I began reading and watching everything I could find about doppelgangers, from Carl Jung to Ursula K. Le Guin; Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Jordan Peele. The figure of the double began to fascinate me—its meaning in ancient mythology and in the birth of psychoanalysis. The way the twinned self stands in for our highest aspiration—the eternal soul, that ephemeral being that supposedly outlives the body. And the way the double 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. The doppelganger as warning or harbinger: Pay attention, they tell us.

From these stories, I quickly learned that my identity crisis was likely unavoidable: The appearance of one’s doppelganger is almost always chaotic, stressful, and paranoia-inducing, and the person encountering their double is invariably pushed to their limits by the frustration and uncanniness of it all.

Confrontations with our doppelgangers raise existentially destabilizing questions. Am I who I think I am, or am I who others perceive me to be? And if enough others start seeing someone else as me, who am I, then? Actual doppelgangers are not the only way we can lose control over ourselves, of course. The carefully constructed self can be undone in any number of ways and in an instant—by a disabling accident, by a psychotic break, or, these days, by a hacked account or deepfake. This is the perennial appeal of doppelgangers in novels and films: The idea that two strangers can be indistinguishable from each other taps into the precariousness at the core of identity—the painful truth that, no matter how deliberately we tend to our personal lives and public personas, the person we think we are is fundamentally vulnerable to forces outside of our control.

In the age of artificial intelligence, many of us are feeling this particularly acutely now, which may be why twins and doppelgangers and multiverses seem suddenly ubiquitous in the culture, from Everything Everywhere All at Once to the remake of Dead Ringers. When machines can generate the voice and the style of any person, living or dead, do any of us control ourselves?

“How many of everybody is there going to be?” asks a character in Jordan Peele’s 2019 doppelganger movie, Us.

Answer: a lot.

If doppelganger literature and mythology is any guide, when confronted with the appearance of one’s double, a person is duty bound to go on a journey—a quest to understand what messages, secrets, and forebodings are being offered. So that is what I have done. Rather than push my doppelganger away, I have attempted to learn everything I can about her and the movements of which she is a part. I burrowed deeper and deeper into a warren of conspiracy rabbit holes, places where it often seems that my own research has gone through the looking glass and is now gazing back at me as a network of fantastical plots that cast the very real crises we face—from COVID to climate change to Russian military aggression—as false flag attacks, planted by the Chinese Communists/corporate globalists/Jews.

As I went, I found myself confronting yet more forms of doubling and doppelganging, these ones distinctly more consequential. Like the way that all of politics increasingly feels like a mirror world, with society split in two and each side defining itself against the other—whatever one says and believes, the other seems obliged to say and believe the exact opposite. The deeper I went, the more I noticed this phenomenon all around me: individuals not guided by legible principles or beliefs, but acting as members of groups playing yin to the other’s yang—well versus weak; awake versus sheep; righteous versus depraved. Binaries where thinking once lived.

How, I wondered, could I use my own doppelganger experience as a guide into and through what I have come to understand as our doppelganger culture?

In stories about doubles, twins, and impostors, it is often the case that the doppelganger acts as an unwelcome kind of mirror, showing the protagonist an unflattering version of themself. I confess that while watching and listening to Other Naomi, I have felt that unwelcome wince of recognition more than once. For instance, at a particularly low point in my doppelganger journey, Dan Hon, a prominent digital-strategy consultant, tweeted that he had been utterly confused by Wolf’s actions because he had been attributing them to me the whole time. The problem, as he saw it, was obvious: “Naomi Klein should sue for trademark dilution and brand harm.”

It would seem that I had flunked at one of the most valued activities of contemporary capitalism: developing, maintaining, and defending my personal brand. As any marketing expert will tell you, a brand is a promise—of consistency and dependability. And my promise had clearly been both diluted and degraded. How else could so many confuse me with a person who can’t seem to tell the difference between a temporary public health measure and a coup d’état?

If my brand had indeed been diluted, it stood to reason that I should immediately endeavor to become a better, more distinctive brand while aggressively defending its edges against all would-be infringers. There was, however, one glaring problem with this plan. I have a deeply conflicted relationship with this whole idea of humans behaving like corporate brands. My first book, No Logo, was a treatise against the rise of lifestyle branding, including the idea that individual people should shape and market themselves as commodities. My treating Wolf like a branding problem would be about as off-brand as I could get.

For several years, I have been teaching a university course called the Corporate Self. In one class exercise, I ask the students, most of whom are in their early 20s, to locate their earliest memory of when the concept of being a brand was introduced. Some brand-performance memories begin in very early childhood. But without fail, students describe the crafting of their college admission essays as the decisive moment when their private sense of self was subsumed by the imperative to create a consumable, public-facing identity. They faced essay prompts like “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

The prompts may sound benign, but many students reported that through these high-stakes writing exercises, they learned to tell stories about their young lives that had less to do with truths as they knew them than with meeting the imagined needs and requirements of an audience of strangers for certain kinds of identities. There were many nods when one student described the process as “packaging up your trauma into a consumable commodity.” It’s not that the traumas they wrote about were fake; it’s that the process required them to label difficult experiences in specifically marketable ways and to turn them into something fixed, salable, and potentially profitable (since universities are themselves branded as the requisite first step to any lucrative career). A partitioning was occurring between these young people and this thing they were supposed to become to succeed.

Self-branding is an internal sort of doppelganging. There is you, and then there is Brand You.

Of course, for my students, the doubling did not stop once they got into university. One, an exile from the business school, shared that an early assignment had been to develop a “30-second elevator pitch” for himself. As he distilled his being down to his most marketable qualities, he told his classmates, “I felt my soul leave my body.” They all seemed to know how he felt—these were the early days of pandemic Zoom classes, and they filled their little boxes with heart emojis.

My students may not have real live doubles making chaos for them, but they have nonetheless grown up with an acute consciousness of having an externalized double—a digital double, an idealized identity that is partitioned from their “real” selves and that serves as a role they must perform for the benefit of others if they are to succeed. As part of this performance, they must project the unwanted and dangerous parts of themselves onto others (the unenlightened, the problematic, the deplorable, the “not me” that sharpens the borders of the “me”). At its worst, this manifests in the sort of online pile-on and shaming culture that shatters lives and makes all of our selves feel so precarious. This triad—of partitioning, performing, and projecting—is fast becoming a universal form of doppelganging, generating a figure who is not exactly us but whom others nonetheless perceive as us. At best, a digital doppelganger can deliver everything our culture trains us to want: fame, adulation, riches. But it’s a precarious kind of wish fulfillment, one that can be blown up with a single bad take or post. One that can easily become a kind of addiction.

Doppelganger stories often feature reflections or projections that break away from their original and take on a dangerous life of their own. In Hans Christian Andersen’s 1847 fairy tale “The Shadow,” a man’s shadow becomes animate, displacing and then replacing him. In the 1913 silent horror film The Student of Prague, a poor student sells his own reflection to climb social classes, only to have that reflection destroy him. This is a warning that recurs often in doppelganger books and films: When the self is carved up, the external self can develop its own agenda and overtake the “real” self completely. It’s a lesson highly relevant in the age of human-impersonating chatbots, but it may also help explain why so many formerly trustworthy people seem to turn into unscrupulous attention addicts on platforms designed to partition us from ourselves. It may be that those people—the ones hawking sham cures or making surprising alliances with malevolent figures like Bannon and Carlson—are simply doing what it takes to attend to the brand version of themselves. A self that has its own needs and agendas: to be seen, to stay relevant, to be omnipresent in our cultural hall of mirrors.

My doppelganger would seem to be a case in point. The onetime confidant of Al Gore and champion of power feminism appears willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the conversation, whether being loved or loathed. But what about me? For years I had told myself (and others) that I was opposed to branding, yet here I was, trying to assert my sovereign self in the face of an off-brand me. And aren’t so many of us tangled up in versions of this impulse, pouring so much time, energy, and money into perfecting, optimizing, and defending our most consumable selves, despite knowing how many more pressing crises deserve our attention?

One of the most celebrated depictions of doppelgangers in Western art is a lush Pre-Raphaelite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It depicts a couple in medieval dress in a dark forest who come across another couple who are their mirror image. It is not a happy encounter. The man who sees his double draws his sword in anger, while his female companion faints, overcome by the uncanny sight. The piece is titled How They Met Themselves.

When I first came across it, I realized that this is what it means to embark on a doppelganger journey—when I set off, I too had my figurative sword drawn, ready to do battle and be the last Naomi standing. Now, in these shadow-laden woods, I find myself confronting not her but myself, and asking some uncomfortable questions: Have I met myself? Really? Have we? Are we heeding the warnings carried by the doppelgangers that are all around?

Excerpted from Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Published by Penguin Random House in the UK and Canada. Copyright © 2023 by Naomi Klein. All rights reserved.

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