One of the things I try to do on my podcast The Gray Area is sort through all the political and cultural confusion in our society.
To say that our world is becoming deranged by our technologies and media ecosystem might be a little much, but I do think that we’ve scrambled our relationships to ourselves and each other in profound and puzzling ways.
And yet I sometimes wonder if things are really as weird as they seem. Every generation thinks their time is uniquely strange or dysfunctional, so maybe we’re falling into that same trap — or maybe things are actually as strange as they appear.
A new book by the influential writer and activist Naomi Klein is a near-heroic attempt to sort through these sorts of questions. It’s called Doppelganger and it’s ostensibly about her struggles to avoid being confused with Naomi Wolf, the former liberal feminist icon turned anti-vax conspiracist.
But you realize pretty quickly that the book isn’t really about this dynamic. It’s about the distortions and absurdities of life in the digital world and about how all of us, not just public figures, are experiencing our own bewilderment in this environment. It’s a fascinating — and often disorienting — read, so I invited her onto The Gray Area to talk about her journey and how it helped her make sense of this moment.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.
How do you sum up what this book is about when people ask?
I don’t really have a great elevator pitch for it. It’s an attempt to wrap my arms around the wildness of intersecting crises. There was a moment when I decided this isn’t going to be a quirky essay. I was going to write an essay about identity confusion that would revisit some of the themes from my first book, No Logo, which came out before the idea that regular people could be brands was a reality, because it was pre-social media. And so I thought it was going to be maybe a 10,000-word kind of literary essay.
The moment I thought, “No, this is way bigger than that,” was during the pandemic. I moved back to Canada from the US, and I live in a really beautiful remote part of British Columbia. Around September 2021, I was driving through our small sleepy town, and there were hundreds of people protesting outside of the local hospital, and they were holding all kinds of signs about “plandemics” and Nuremberg trials and Fauci. And I can’t stress to you enough that this kind of thing does not happen where I live. This is the largest gathering I had ever seen of a political nature in this part of the world. And it just seemed like, well, if this misinformation and conspiracy culture could have reached here, then this is so much bigger than whatever I’ve been experiencing on an individual level.
One of the things you end up doing is immersing yourself in what you call the “Mirror World.” You start mainlining Steve Bannon’s podcast, where your professional doppelgänger, Naomi Wolf, became a recurring guest, and you really dove into this whole space. Obviously, you weren’t red-pilled, but you clearly learned something about that side.
Yeah, I was interested in a perception among a lot of people who I knew that this whole world really didn’t exist or didn’t matter, or was unworthy of our attention. And I saw that very clearly with the reaction to my doppelgänger, Naomi Wolf, because she was deplatformed on a lot of social media networks, including the one she was most active on, which was Twitter.
First, she became a kind of running joke on Twitter, and then, eventually, she was deplatformed. She’s back thanks to Musk, but she was kicked off in maybe late spring, early summer of 2021. The reaction on Twitter was a lot of jokes like “Ding dong, the witch is dead” and that sort of thing, as though she didn’t exist anymore. We don’t need to think about her anymore. And because I had already started to pay attention to what she was up to, I was so struck that the opposite was true, that she actually had a much bigger reach — despite the fact that she was no longer visible to liberals and leftists. She was now, as you say, a regular on Steve Bannon’s podcast. At one point, she was on his podcast every single day for two weeks, to give you a sense of the unlikely buddy movie they’re involved in. They published a book together. They put out T-shirts together. I don’t think they’re for sale anymore. But it was really a coming together. And the first time she went on his show, she said, “I used to think you were the devil.” But I learned a lot by listening to Steve Bannon. I got a strong sense of why a figure like her would be so important to him as an electoral and political strategist.
Why was she so important?
We all know for the MAGA right, women are a problem. Trump did not do as well as he needed to do with white suburban women in 2020, and the Republicans didn’t do well enough in 2022. And I think the reason why Bannon is as attracted to Wolf, as unlikely as that would be since she was a lifelong feminist and a former Democrat, is not just that he’s able to cosplay reaching across the aisle, which he likes to talk about how “We won’t cancel. We’re willing to come together across differences and across divides.”
I think what she represents to him is a slice of white women voters who had a rough time during Covid, who don’t like being called “Karen,” who didn’t like that the schools were closed for as long as they were closed, who got very worked up about mask policies and vaccines. And he’s now kind of pivoting them very quickly to book banning and transphobia. And so that’s one of the things I learned from listening to him. He’s a good strategist.
This reminds me of something pretty important you say in the book, which is that the conspiracy theorists may get the facts wrong, but they often get the feelings right. People feel that they have less and less control over our lives. They feel like important truths are being hidden from them. They feel disconnected and they feel a sense of belonging that comes with getting wrapped up in some of these online worlds. And all of this gets supercharged under the hysteria of the pandemic.
Anyone trying to make sense of our ideologically scrambled landscape, especially this drift of so many people to what we think of as the right or the far right, has to recognize that people like Bannon are very good at sensing these grievances and fears and then offering people a counterfeit vision of emancipation.
I think that’s exactly right. And then we dig ourselves in deeper when an issue gets co-opted, warped, and twisted in that world, which I call the “Mirror World.” Then the response among liberals and leftists is to mock. The more conspiratorial they are, the more credulous we become. All kinds of issues become untouchable. So if they’re mad about school closures, then we don’t see a single issue to talk about when it comes to school closures. Or if they’re talking about the lab leak theory, well, then that’s crazy-person talk and we won’t even mention it. So when they get the feelings, and then there’s a counter-reaction, whatever they’re tapping into becomes kind of unsayable, it’s an absolute gift to the Bannons of the world.
So I’ll give you an example involving Naomi Wolf [“Other Naomi”] that really turned the light on for me. The issue that was her right-wing star turn where she was suddenly invited on Tucker Carlson regularly and other Fox shows and where Steve Bannon discovered her as a voice was when she started talking about how vaccine verification apps were actually surveillance tools that were going to bring Chinese Communist Party social credit systems to the West. At one point, I think she said, “They can cancel your life if you don’t ... if they find out something wrong about you beyond just not getting vaccinated.” Basically, she was saying they’re going to extend it from vaccination to absolutely everything like they do in China. And if you don’t toe the line, then your kids won’t be able to get into the schools. They’ll be able to eavesdrop on your conversations in restaurants. They’ll know everybody who you’ve met with.
And the response on liberal Twitter to all of this overblown rhetoric about what vaccine verification apps could do when it came to surveillance was this pithy little joke, which was, “Wait till they hear about cell phones!” And I remember the first time I saw that, and I thought it was funny. I probably retweeted it. And then I thought, “What am I doing? Am I saying that the joke is these people think a vaccine verification app is tracking them everywhere they go and is able to somehow eavesdrop on them?” We smart liberals know your cell phone can do that, and we think it’s funny, right. But it’s not actually funny. A lot of people are really concerned about it, and they should be.
So what you see is that when an issue gets trivialized or abandoned in mainstream circles or even in left circles, then it’s ripe for the picking for somebody like Bannon to twist it. And so I think the way to respond to that is not to say, “Wait till they hear about cell phones.” The response is, “What are we actually going to do about this? And, in fact, didn’t we think that the Biden administration was going to do more to protect our data and our privacy online?” There are ways that we can offer substantive responses to the feelings that they’re getting right.
I don’t know if “paradox” is the right word exactly, but there’s definitely a related trade-off you explore in the book. As more and more of our lives shift into the virtual world, we have more freedom to assert our identities, to experiment with identities, but we also become unmoored from the real world and, at the same time, kind of remade in the image of our digital tools and the twisted culture they create. And it seems like these things you’ve always written about — the phoniness of branding, the hyper-individualism of late capitalist culture — it all gets amplified by modern tech.
I think the confusion around identity is a lot easier when we are not actually interacting with each other. We’re interacting with tiny little thumbnail avatars of one another, which are eminently more confusable with tiny little thumbnail-sized avatars of somebody else. And I’m not immune to it. There are people who I can’t keep straight on my Twitter feed. I don’t think our brains are wired to sort this many faces that we’re exposed to in a day. But I also think that [in] the combination of the unidimensionality of the technology and the fact that we are marketing ourselves, we are thing-ifying ourselves, that what it means to create the “brand” version of you is to create a thin version of you, a commodity version of you. I think this is part of why these are often such cruel spaces.
We are all familiar with the analysis around how the algorithms encourage a certain kind of angry, indignant behavior. And all of that’s true, but I think missing from that analysis is the fact that it isn’t only that the algorithms reward rage and shaming, it’s also that it’s easier to treat people as a thing, as an object, if they’re performing themselves as an object. You would believe that there’s no human there and that they can just live through whatever pile-on the crowd has decided is the outrage of the day.
I thought a lot about this because I do think that the doppelgänger at the center of the book, Naomi Wolf, is somebody who has experienced one of those internet-shaming moments. She’s actually experienced a lot of them. She’s really been a punching bag over the years. And I’m not saying she hasn’t made huge errors. She has. But there’s this famous moment where a major error in a book of hers was revealed live on the BBC. And look, we should hold each other accountable. We should take facts seriously. We should fact-check each other. There’s nothing wrong with that part of what happened. I think, in many ways, it’s right that there was a process of having somebody or an interviewer who did enough research to find this error. But what happened afterwards was just one of those really ugly internet moments where it became a sport to make fun of her as if she was not a human being at all. And I think that’s related to what you’re talking about, about this unmooring.