Creeping Doppelgängers

Reviewing Doppelgänger by Naomi Wolf, Paris Wilder asks what social and political lessons we can learn from myths about doubles and their stranger-than-fiction real-life counterparts. From conspiracies to creeping fascism, how can we contend with our eerie other selves?

 

Doppelgänger starts as a memoir of Naomi Klein’s Covid-19 experience and her “own personal-branding meltdown” of being constantly mistaken for right-wing author Naomi Wolf. Klein and Wolf share similarities in name and leftist beginnings, both producing political work with mainstream appeal: Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Klein has maintained her radical views and become a key advocate for anti-capitalist strategies around the climate. However, Wolf has moved from her original values to become a spokesperson for far-right media, most notably appearing on Steve Bannon’s War Room. How and why did the two Naomis diverge, and what does this tell us about politics today? This is the core point of Klein’s new book.

Following Wolf’s trajectory, Doppelgänger becomes a critical analysis of the creeping fascist ideologies and conspiracy theories increasingly dominating the current political climate. From anti-mask protests to vaccine passport surveillance, Klein takes us through the often-forgotten dark histories behind well-known Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the ‘doppelgängers’ lurking within them.

At its core, Doppelgänger explores the political shift taken by those previously on the liberal/left, with Wolf a prime example. Klein defines this shift as “denialism slicing a diagonal line across borders”, which has only increased since the pandemic. Whilst the right has always been there, their use of language and ideas historically associated with the left sets this wave apart. For example, the right’s critique of ‘abuses of states of emergency’ and ‘government conspiracies’ is straight out of The Shock Doctrine, something Klein grapples with throughout the book.

“Doppelgänger explores the political shift taken by those previously on the liberal/left, with Wolf a prime example. Klein defines this shift as ‘denialism slicing a diagonal line across borders,’ which has only increased since the pandemic.”

Giorgio Agamben, a previously left-wing academic who is now also a Covid denier, theorised the very idea of states of emergency. Klein defines this wonky ‘doppelgänger’ version of politics as ‘the mirror world’. She proposes this is rooted in a misplaced fear of constant surveillance, tech monopolies, and unchecked corporate power channelled through a capitalist lens and finding its final place in the world of conspiracy theories.

Klein covers various topics, but her most enlightening observations are focused on health, something we all had to face head-on during the pandemic. She details the relationship between the ‘far right’ and the ‘far out’ and how the rise in wellness culture (a concept that promotes the individualistic idea of constant self-improvement) and the divide between those who were physically healthy and those who were not (as seen during the pandemic) had a dramatic impact on how we reacted to lockdown mandates and vaccine rollouts.

She suggests this rise in physical, moralistic judgements increased during the pandemic, ushering in a new era of ‘body fascism’ and calls attention to wellness’s “well-worn neural pathways with long and sinister histories” as she reminds us of the Nazi regime’s obsession with health fads and eugenics.

“Klein suggests this rise in physical, moralistic judgements increased during the pandemic, ushering in a new era of ‘body fascism’ and calls attention to wellness’s ‘well-worn neural pathways with long and sinister histories’ as she reminds us of the Nazi regime’s obsession with health fads and eugenics.”

Klein experienced first-hand this diagonal political shift whilst canvassing her nearby neighbourhoods. Voters who were part of the “hippy-dippy West Coast community”, her kind of people as Klein put it, are now happy to admit that those with compromised immune systems “should die” instead of asking the rest of society to make a collective change to protect them – a far cry from the ‘peace and love’ flower children of the 1960s we so often associate with the New Age movement. Klein shows us how we can no longer rely on well-trodden signifiers for someone’s political alignment and how an obsession with health – and self – led to the loss of thousands of lives over the pandemic.

Klein takes us further into the health world, specifically into the dark, heartbreaking history behind the ‘vaccine-autism myth’, a precursor to the Covid vaccine conspiracies Wolf would so virulently promote throughout the pandemic. Weaving in personal anecdotes about her own experience with a neuro-divergent son, Klein lays out the idea of the child as a ‘double’. A “disability arrives as an unwelcome interruption” to parents who see their children as an idealised image of themselves, resulting in them searching for cures and conspiracies to extinguish neuro-divergent behaviours.

Klein outlines the history of Hans Asperger, once a curious doctor interested in understanding neuro-divergent children who only a few short years later begins to “echo the Nazis’ eugenicist discourse”, leading him to sign execution papers for dozens of neuro-divergent children. Klein concludes that Asperger’s career trajectory demonstrates how easily the “shadow tyrant who lives in us all” – our evil doppelgänger – can change the minds of seemingly ‘good’ people when exposed to fascist thinking around purity.

The scope of what Klein discusses is broad, including chapters on the strategic nature of the far right, the attention economy and a profound and moving analysis of Jewish stereotypes, “the ethnic double” and the “muscle-bound, land-hungry, machine-gun-toting New Jew” doppelgänger created by the state of Israel now used to commit genocide on innocent Palestinians. But what makes this piece stand out is Klein’s ability to weave all these ideas together through the analogy of ‘the doppelgänger’ and the shadow side tyrants, to help us understand the bigger picture and warn us about where all this could lead.

Stories of doppelgängers are ubiquitous in our culture, such as The Double by Dostoevsky, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Us by Jordan Peele. At one level, what stands out in these stories is our fear of a doppelgänger taking over and distorting other people’s perceptions (Klein finds this out the hard way as she debates how to handle her doppelgänger, Wolf), but more than that, the fear that our doppelgänger may already be in us – may already be taking over.

Klein ends with a poignant chapter about ‘unselfing’, distancing ourselves from our perceptions, which can often hinder the real action required to make a change. Klein suggests that these ‘doubles’ we grapple with daily are all ways of ‘not seeing’. They force us to focus on performing idealised versions of ourselves and ignore the world and those within it and around us.

Klein eventually finds freedom in the idea of doubles walking among us; there are no true individuals. As Oscar Wilde tells us in his famous double story The Picture of Dorian Gray, “that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin”. This analogy allows us to look deeper at how we want to be perceived, how we perceive others, and how we take the right steps forward towards the change we’d like to see.

“Klein eventually finds freedom in the idea of doubles walking among us; there are no true individuals. As Oscar Wilde tells us in his famous double story The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin’.”

Suppose you’re having difficult conversations with family, friends or acquaintances who seem to be inching closer and closer into the mirror world. In that case, this book may help answer a few of your frustrating questions. Whilst it won’t provide a step-by-step guide on how to drag someone back from the precipice, it will give you a deeper understanding of why we can’t underestimate our doppelgängers. Klein is asking us to learn from history and heed the lessons of years of doppelgänger literature because if we do not, our good-natured, true self may easily be replaced by a charismatic, cunning, evil doppelgänger.


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Paris Wilder is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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