Sunday, September 24, 2023

Return to Doppelgängerland: Naomi Klein's Mirror World


Enter the Dragon

When I first read that Naomi Klein wrote a book about being confused for her doppelgänger, Naomi Wolf, I was initially amused. I had written earlier about the doppelgänger as the monster of our times, and it seemed that Klein was confirming that thesis. Klein dealing with Wolf seemed like it might be a fun distraction, but as I read the book, I was immediately struck with the fact that Klein is taking on more than a particular case of mistaken identity. Her book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, is in some sense an attempt to make sense of the world we are living in a world dominated by social media doppelgangers in which the work of political and social criticism has its own dark doppelganger in the world of conspiracy theories. 

It is not just that Naomi Wolf gets confused with Naomi Klein, both are women who wrote mainstream "big idea" books, The Beauty Myth and No Logo, have similar physical appearances, and their husbands are even both named Avi, but that this confusion reveals another doppelgänger, another double, our online or virtual self. As Klein writes, we live in "a culture crowded with various forms of doubling, in which all of us who maintain a persona or avatar online create our own doppelgängers--virtual versions of ourselves that represent us to others. A culture in which many of us have come to think of ourselves as personal brands, forging a partitioned identity that is both us and not us, a doppelgänger we perform ceaselessly in the digital ether as the price of admission in a rapacious attention economy." Klein's struggle with being confused with Wolf is also a recognition, that Klein, the author of No Logo, has another double, her "brand." This is what most people know her as, the author of critical books on the culture, politics, and economy of capitalism. Klein is aware that it is ironic to point out that the author of No Logo has a brand, but such a brand, an identity, are increasingly indispensable factors of living and working as a writer. As she puts it, the idea of a personal brand seemed like a dystopian future when it was proposed in the late nineties, but now it is a dystopian reality, anyone with a social media account has a double, a brand, that they can manage, and some need this brand to survive. 

The Lady From Shanghai 

Klein's book is not just about Wolf usurping her digital identity, but about Wolf's own descent into what Klein calls the "mirror world." the world of conspiracy theories, especially those that have metastasized in American culture since Trump and Covid. Wolf's descent into this world is very much a dive of the deep end. Wolf has tweeted about vaccinated people losing their smell, they no longer smell human, about the risk of the feces of the vaccinated contaminating drinking water, and most famously about vaccine passports and contact tracing being the end of human freedom.

 It is easy to mock all of this, but Klein does not play this for the laughs, she tries to understand the causes and crises underlying the paranoid fantasies. One common retort to the paranoid fears of contact tracing, vaccine passports, and even microchips hidden in vaccines is to simply say, "wait until they hear about cellphones," to point out that the surveillance that is feared is already here and for the most part broadly accepted. Klein supposes instead that they, those who spread such theories, already know about cellphones, already know about surveillance and the loss of a certain kind of anonymity and freedom. It is this awareness that appears backwards and distorted in the fears of vaccines laden with nanotechnology to monitor and control us. Their fears about vaccines, about being tracked and monitored, is in some sense a fantasy that they can do something about this increase of surveillance. They can refuse the vaccine, and thus opt out of what many of us find it impossible to opt out of, a world where our every motion, every transaction, is monitored. 

Klein's concept of a mirror world is both a reflection and refraction of our existing world. In some sense it reflects our world, but through a kind of distortion, shaped by our illusions and fantasies. Conspiracy theories are right to point to the control of a powerful elite, but wrong in thinking that this elite is secret, or that its motives are anything other than daily life under capitalism.  As Klein writes, 

"There was no need for histrionics about how unvaccinated people were experiencing "apartheid" when there was a real vaccine apartheid between rich and poor countries, no need to cook up fantasies about Covid "internment camps" when the virus was being left to rip through prisons, meat packing plants, and Amazon warehouses as if the people's lives inside had no value at all."

The fears of the Covid alarmists of a dark future to come are the reality of existing life under Covid. What Klein proposes is in some sense a symptomatic reading of conspiracy theories, finding their points of reflection and refraction of the existing world. 

The Man With the Golden Gun
(In case it is not clear I am illustrating this with Hall of Mirrors scenes from films)

With respect to the latter, the refractions and distortions, reading Doppelganger  it is possible to find three causes or conditions underlying the distortions of the mirror world. Three aspects of existing ideology that distort and warp the way that this world responds to actual crises and problems. First, is idea of the individual, of the autonomous individual. This belief in autonomy and self reliance is the common core that connects the "wellness industry," yoga instructors, gym gurus, etc., who deny the need for vaccines and even masks for healthy people, with survivalists, who see them as an imposition by the state. Both insist on a purely individual response to a collective condition. Of course in doing so they are only acting on the basic premise of a capitalist society, which privatizes every social problem into a commodity.  During Covid many doubled down on this, insisting that one could get through the pandemic with everything from Vitamin D supplements and essential oils to horse medicine. Yoga instructors, vegans, and Fox News audiences might seem to be politically opposed, but they all are different expressions of what Klein calls hyper-individualism, responding to social collapse with individual responses of wellness and self-protection. As absurd as all of these homegrown cures and remedies were they were perhaps not as absurd as the notion that the US as a society could shift its entire economy and ethics, transforming all of those people we do not think about, the people who grow, ship, make, and deliver our food into essential workers. As Klein writes, 

"With no warning, the message from much of our political and corporate classes change diametrically. It turned out that we were a society after all, that the young and healthy should make sacrifices for the old and ill; that we should wear masks as an act of solidarity with them, if not for ourselves; and that we should all applaud and thank the very people--many of them Black, many of them women, many of them born in poorer countries--whose lives and labor had been most systematically devalued, discounted and demeaned before the pandemic."

Many embraced conspiracies rather than adjust to this new concern for essential workers, the elderly, and the sick, but in doing so they followed to the letter the dominant image of our society, a society founded on isolation, self-interest, and competition. As Klein details, often suspicion of things like free vaccines stemmed from a deeper internalization of the fundamental idea of capitalism. Why would a society that charges for a visit to the emergency room give away a life saving vaccine?

This idea of the individual has its own little doppelgänger, the child. A great deal of the opposition to vaccines, mask mandates, and shutdowns was framed as protecting children from the supposed threats these things supposedly represent, spectres like "learning loss" rather than the reality of a pandemic. These threats all stem from a particular idea of a child, a child as extension of the self, and possession of their parents. 

"So many of the battles waged in the Mirror World--the "anti-woke" laws, the "don't say gay" bills, the blanket bans on gender-affirming medical care, the school board wars over vaccines and masks--come down to the same question: What are children for? Are they their own people, and our job, as parents is to support and protect them as they find their paths? Or are they our appendages, our extensions, our spin-offs, our doubles, to shape and mold and ultimately benefit from? So many of these parents seem convinced that they have a right to exert absolute control over their children without any interference or input: control over their bodies (by casting masks and vaccines as a kind of child rape or poisoning); control over their bodies (by casting masks and vaccines as a kind of child rape or poisoning); control over their minds (by casting anti-racist eductions as the injection of foreign ideas into their minds of their offspring); control over their gender and sexuality (by casting any attempt to discuss the range of possible gender expressions and sexual orientations as "grooming")."

If the focus on individual health and the wellbeing of one's offspring sounds like eugenics, that is not accidental. This brings us to the third condition for distortion, race. As Klein argues Naomi Wolf, like many of the anti-vaccination movement,  regularly invoke the holocaust or the civil rights struggle in their rhetoric. Wolf has even had her own sit-ins opposing vaccine mandates at lunch counters, her term, even as she singles out Black owned businesses for her protests. Throughout the mirror world there is a desire to appropriate the signs and images of ethnic exclusion, (remember the store that sold yellow stars that said "Not Vaccinated?" ) and racial justice, from sitting in at lunch counters to using Eric Garner's famous cry "I can't breathe" to protest mask mandates. In the mirror world it is white people who are both the true victims of discrimination and the real protagonists of social justice.


This appropriation of the terms and history of racial justice is coupled with an absolute indifference to its current status. The year of shutdowns and mandates was also the summer of some of the largest protests of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. 

"If you were a person concerned that Covid marked the dawn of a new age of CCP inspired mass obedience, surely it would be worth mentioning that the largest protests in the history of the United States happened in the Covid era, with millions of people willing to face clouds of tear gas and streams of pepper spray to exercise their rights to speech, assembly and dissent. Come to think of it, if you were a person concerned with tyrannical state actions, you would also be concerned about the murders and mass denials of freedom to incarcerated people that drove the uprising. Yet in all the videos Wolf has put out issuing her dire warnings about how the United States was turning into a nation of sheeple, I have seen her acknowledge neither the existence of this racial justice reckoning nor the reality that if a Black person had pulled the same stunt that she did at the Blue Bottle or Grand Central Station, they very likely would have ended up face down in cuffs--not because vaccine rules were tyrannical, but because of systemic anti-Black racism in policing, the issue that sparked the protests she has so studiously ignored. 

I would argue that while Naomi Wolf might not have mentioned Black Lives Matter, she definitely noticed it. Her "lunch counter sit in" at a Blue Bottle Cafe would seem to reveal that. It was definitely noticed by the larger mirror world for which the site of millions of people in the streets protesting racism  when they could not go to the gym or to a restaurant was a wrong, a violation of the order of the world, that they could not tolerate. As Klein argues much Mirror World thinking is an attempt for white people to rewrite the history of the present--making them the true victims of repression and the true heroes. The real struggle was not in the streets fighting against police repression but screaming at the hostess at the restaurant asking for proof of vaccination. 

As much as Klein draws the lines of demarcation between "mirror world" thinking, between conspiracies and critical thought, any such division is going to be an unstable one. In the end it is not just that Naomi Wolf is confused for Naomi Klein but that theories about microchips in vaccines or vaccines rewriting our DNA are confused for criticisms of contemporary surveillance and the pharmaceutical industry. Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine has been appropriated and reappropriated by everyone from Second Amendment activists arguing about "false flags" to those that argue that global warming will produce a new global surveillance state. Klein's book ultimately is not just about her own struggle with a doppelgänger, but how any critical thinker, anyone on "the left," for lack of a better word, will always confront a doppelgänger. Every critic of the invasion of Iraq has to deal with "truthers" who claim that 9/11 was an inside job, every critic of the failure of the US to respond to the pandemic will ultimately have to deal with claims of microchips and genetic engineering. What starts out as one persons struggle with a very singular condition of mistaken identity ultimately is a story about all of us. We are all in the hall of mirrors now. Klein has also charted something of a path out, by showing the ideologies of individualism, the family, and the race, that distort any awareness of our conditions into its mirror world opposite. Lastly, Klein like Bruce Lee before her knew that you have to smash a few mirrors to escape a hall of mirrors, and this includes, for Klein, giving up on one's own image, one's brand, learning to think and act collectively rather than individually. 

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