Naomi Klein, author, professor, journalist, and contributing editor at The Intercept, has ventured into the far-right “mirror world,” exploring the movements and figures promoting conspiracy theories, misinformation, and its hold on large segments of society. This week on Deconstructed, we bring you a live conversation between Ryan Grim and Klein at the George Washington University Amphitheater, organized by Politics and Prose. Klein and Grim discuss Klein’s newest book, “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World.” They discuss the labyrinthine world of conspiracy theories and how the right has effectively sowed confusion and capitalized on issues abandoned by the left.
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Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
On Wednesday of this week, I interviewed Naomi Klein about her new book, “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World,” which begins with Naomi following her doppelganger, other Naomi — that’s the feminist-turned-Steve-Bannon-ally, Naomi Wolf — down a series of rabbit holes.
Describing her journey to these shadowlands, she also looks into the mirror, and asks all of us to look in the mirror as well, and ask what role we’ve played in ceding turf to the right, or abandoning principles — like skepticism of corporate greed and big pharma, opposition to censorship and mass surveillance, and so on — that have long been the domain of the left. By abandoning that territory, did we play a part in clearing the ground for the mirror world? And how can we reclaim our confidence and our voices in such disorienting times?
We spoke at George Washington University at an event hosted by Politics and Prose. That independent bookstore, by the way, will also be hosting a reading for my own forthcoming book, “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.” I’ll be in conversation there with my Breaking Points colleague Krystal Ball on November 27th.
Now, here’s Naomi Klein with a brief reading from her new book, followed by our conversation.
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Presenter: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving a warm and enthusiastic welcome to Naomi Klein and Ryan Grim.
Naomi Klein (Reading from “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World”): In my defense, it was never my intent to write this book. I did not have time, no one asked me to, and several people cautioned against it. Not now, not with the literal and figurative fires roiling our planet, and certainly not about this.
“Other Naomi,” that is how I refer to her now; this person with whom I have been chronically confused for over a decade. My big-haired doppelganger. A person whom so many others appear to find indistinguishable from me. A person who does many extreme things that cause strangers to chastise me, or thank me, or express their pity for me. The very fact that I referred to her with any kind of code speaks to the absurdity of my situation.
For a quarter of a century, I have been a person who writes about corporate power and its ravages. I sneak into abusive factories in faraway countries and across borders to military occupations. I report in the aftermath of oil spills and Category 5 hurricanes. I write books of big ideas about serious subjects.
And yet, in the months and years during which this text came into being, a time when cemeteries ran out of space and billionaires blasted themselves into outer space, everything else that I might have written appeared only as an unwanted intrusion, a rude interruption. In June 2021, as this project began to truly spiral out of my control, a strange new weather event, dubbed a “heat dome,” descended on the southern coast of British Columbia, the part of Canada where I now live with my family.
The thick air felt like a snarling, invasive entity with malevolent intent. More than 600 people died, most of them elderly. An estimated 10 billion marine creatures were cooked alive on our shores. An entire town went up in flames. It’s rare for this out-of-the-way sparsely populated spot to make international headlines, but the heat dome made us briefly famous.
An editor asked if I, as someone engaged in the climate fight for 15 years, would file a report about what it was like to live through this unprecedented climate event.
“I’m working on something else,” I told him, the stench of death filling my nostrils.
“Can I ask what?”
There were plenty of other important things I neglected during this time of feverish subterfuge. That summer, I allowed my nine-year-old to spend so many hours watching a gory nature series called Animal Fight Club that he began to ram me at my desk like a great white shark. I engaged in all of this neglect so that I could, what? Check her serially suspended Twitter account? Study her appearances on Steve Bannon’s live streams for insights into their electric chemistry? Read or listen to yet another of her warnings that basic health measures were actually a covert plot orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party, Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, and the World Economic Forum, to sow mass death on such a scale, it could only be the work of the devil himself?
My deepest shame rests with the unspeakable number of podcasts I mainlined, the sheer volume of hours lost that I will never get back. A master’s degree worth of hours. I told myself it was research. That, if I was going to understand her and her fellow travelers who are now in open warfare against objective reality, I had to immerse myself in the archive of several extremely prolific and editing-averse weekly and twice-weekly shows, with names like “Q Anon Anonymous” and “Conspirituality,” that unpack and deconstruct the co-mingling worlds of conspiracy theories. wellness hucksters, and their various intersections with COVID 19 denial, anti-vaccine hysteria, and rising fascism.
This, on top of keeping up with the daily output from Bannon and Tucker Carlson, on whose shows Other Naomi had become a regular guest. “I feel closer to the hosts of Conspirituality than to you,” I whimpered one night into my best friend’s voicemail.
I told myself I had no choice. That this was not, in fact, an epically frivolous and narcissistic waste of my compressed writing time, or of the compressed writing time on the clock of our fast-warming planet. I rationalized that Other Naomi, as one of the most effective creators and disseminators of misinformation and disinformation about many of our most urgent crises — and as someone who has seemingly helped inspire large numbers of people to take to the streets in rebellion against an almost wholly hallucinated tyranny — is at the nexus of several forces that, while ridiculous in the extreme, are nonetheless important, since the confusion they sow and the oxygen they absorb increasingly stand in the way of pretty much anything helpful or healthful that we humans might at some point decide to do together.
RG: So, Naomi, you talked about all of the podcasts that you mainlined, and I’m curious what … And so, for background, I think you know this, for the last two years I’ve been doing a show where the co-host is a right-winger, which means I’ve been mainlining this stuff, also.
RG: Forced to engage with it on a regular basis. And so, I’m curious, from your perspective, how did your understanding of the right change from before you started mainlining it? And the right itself has obviously been changing enormously.
NK: Yeah. I think it definitely did change. You know, I thought I knew who Steve Bannon was, because I would see the Media Matters clips, or I would see him being dragged away in handcuffs, you know? And what you realize as a longitudinal Bannon listener, he does put out 17 hours a week, around.
RG: It’s an enormous output.
NK: And I did listen to hundreds of hours. There is this, really, there’s a real other side to him. I’m interested in the things he does well, because I think he is a dangerous figure. I take him seriously as somebody who takes internationalism, in some ways, more seriously than a lot of the left. You know, he is building an international nationalist alliance, authoritarian alliance.
When Giorgia Meloni was elected prime minister of Italy in April 2022. I mean, he was like a proud papa. That’s part of his project. He’s been weaving together the farthest-right political parties across Europe, South America. I think it’s a deeply nefarious project.
So, I wasn’t surprised by the nefarious things he was saying. The points where I felt real vertigo… And, you know, this book is not about my doppelganger, it’s really about this vertiginous moment, and it is very unsettling to lose control over oneself in the ether. And so, that kind of became a metaphor for this, I think, collective unsettling, where so many of us have had this feeling of, like, what is this world, you know? How people are behaving so strangely. I thought I knew who this person was, they’re now acting really, really differently. I can’t talk to my grandma anymore, my uncle, you know… I hear this from my students a lot.
So, it’s really just a literary device, to use that sort of identity-unsettling to get into that world, and my most vertiginous moments listening to Bannon were, honestly, when he sounded a little like me. When he would do these — I’m sure you’ve heard this — but these audio montages of the big cable news shows on MSNBC and CNN brought to you by Pfizer, brought to you by Moderna. And it sounds like the media education 101 that we did in the alter globalization movement in the late nineties, where we were like, okay, there’s just a few companies that own the whole thing.
What worried me about it was not that he was doing it; it was that we weren’t doing it anymore. Or when he talks about transhumanism — that’s a big hobby horse, right? — and he talks a lot about how tech is replacing the human. I wonder if we are, right? I wonder if we’re speaking to those fears.
One of the things I write in the book is, conspiracy culture — and I call it conspiracy culture, not conspiracy theories, because it really is conspiracy without a theory, it’s throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, seeing what sticks — it gets the facts wrong a lot of the time, but gets the feelings right a lot of the time. So, a feeling of being surveilled, a feeling of being left behind. I take that really seriously, and a lot of it I see as a failure of our side. You can’t blame a strategist for being strategic, and it’s very strategic to pick up the issues your opponents have carelessly left unattended.
RG: Yeah, and he’ll say Elizabeth Warren had a terrific framing of this particular gripe. He’ll talk about Ro Khanna as somebody that he thinks is, like, as a Democrat, framing things the way … If Democrats would do that more, that he’d be nervous.
NK: Right. Or he would say, I would have been nervous if Trump was running against Bernie. He’s been open about that,
RG: Yeah, he said that. And you’ll hear his riffs, and 90 percent of them, you’re like, actually, okay. All of that’s right. And then he veers off into —
NK: Not 90. No, not 90, Ryan. Not 90.
RG: Okay, 90 within a riff of the show. So, within a show, let’s say it’s a two hour show. Like, an hour and a half of that is complete nonsense. But then you’ll get a 20-second riff, and in that 20-second riff, he’ll go for 15 seconds. You’re like, that’s right, that’s right, that’s right, that’s right. And then at the end…
NK: Military industrial complex, endless wars. Yeah.
RG: And then at the very end, it just crashes into a wall of xenophobia, or…
NK: Well, because it’s a bait and switch. I mean, it’s not like there’s an actual plan to do anything. Take the military spending. He is rabidly anti-China. The theme song — which got stuck in my head for a while — is this incredibly weird song.
RG: Not the CCP …
NK: About the CCP, let’s take down the CCP. It’s sung by the billionaire, Guo, with a lot of autotune, the billionaire whose yacht he was on when he was arrested … Anyway, it’s a deep Bannon cut. But I was like, what is this song? And I looked into it, and Guo wrote the song, and he got this whole vanity project. He’s like, a rapper on his yacht singing it. Oh man.
Yeah. So, if you’re against the military industrial complex, why are you trying to start a war with China? Like, that’s World War 3. So, he’s not to be taken seriously, except as a strategist, I think. I don’t think that it is really about ending the wars, and I don’t think it was ever really about bringing the jobs home. I don’t buy it. I think he, I think he saw issues that a lot of people who had voted for Democrats multiple times, promising to do something about free trade, and he saw a fertile issue. He’s a market researcher more than anything else, I think.
RG: Yes. Today, for instance, he’s going off about spending, so it all comes back to Paul Ryan-style old-school Republican stuff, worried about the deficit and spending.
NK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And transphobia and white supremacy. And he’s most passionate about the border war. So, he capitalizes on these issues like anger at big tech, anger at big pharma, anger at the endless wars, the military spending, but it doesn’t actually ever reach those targets. That’s what I’m struck by. It pivots very, very quickly. And the project is — he says it very plainly — it’s to gain power for a hundred years. Take him seriously.
RG: And you talk about the legal concept of abandonment in the book, which goes to your point that you were just making, about Democrats kind of ceding all of this turf.
NK: I mean, the legal concept of brand. Like, copyright. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Under copyright law, you lose control over your trademark if you’re not using it. That’s just a joke about branding, because I have a branding crisis, which is ironic, if you know anything about the things I’ve written over the years.
RG: How hard was it for you to write about that? To just go directly at your own brand and say, you know what? Okay, fine. You know what? I do have a brand, and the brand is in crisis.
NK: I had so much fun writing this book.
RG: It comes through.
NK: It was not hard. In fact, it was really joyful. I remembered why I wanted to be a writer. I used to be a lot funnier when I first started writing and no one knew who I was. I had this weird thing happen where … You know, my first book “No Logo” was much more playful and self-deprecating. It’s a book about the colonization of so many aspects of our lives by the logic of corporate branding. Little did I know what was ahead — you know, I wrote it in the 90s — but I talked a lot about how I was drawn to the shiny world of logos, and it was a critique written from inside of what I was critiquing, not from the outside wagging my fingers. I get the appeal. I’m drawn to it. I also wanted to climb inside my television set and live there.
I think what happened, because that book sort of put me in this position of being a face of a certain kind of left, at a certain moment when a new movement was emerging, I sort of felt the weight of that, and my writing got a lot more serious and straight up. And I’m proud of the work I did in “The Shock Doctrine” and “This Changes Everything,” and I still do more conventional academic research on climate justice, as you heard in the intro. But I felt a little speechless during the pandemic, that’s the truth. I felt like I lost faith in the ability to move the needle just by making that same argument again around the climate crisis.
And so, I actually went back to school… You know, we’re here at a school. I never studied creative writing. As an undergrad, I studied English literature and philosophy, and then I started just working in journalism. I got hired before I graduated, and just kept doing journalism, kept writing. And so, I thought, when I was kind of grounded because of the pandemic, maybe I would take a writing course, and that’s what I did.
I worked with a writing teacher and just went back to school and started playing. And then I had this weird concept of using my own doppelganger to look at the doppelganger world that we’re living in, and that felt really fun.
RG: That shows, too. And don’t take this the wrong way, but I was reading it, and thinking, I didn’t know Naomi was so funny, and such a good writer. I mean, the other books are well written, but that’s not what you’re there for. This book, it really sings. And you’re laughing halfway through it.
NK: Laugh-crying. The laugh-cry emoji. Frozen.
RG: And while, in some ways, it’s a departure from your earlier books, I think — and I’m curious for your take on this — I think it also fits in with them as well, in the sense that a lot of your previous books were at once kind of an intervention in a particular moment, but also building a new framework for how to then think about that moment going forward. And I think this is both of those.
So, if that’s right, what kind of intervention did you want this to be, and what are you hoping comes out of it?
NK: Yeah. Thanks for that, Ryan. It’s definitely a weirder book, but it’s definitely a weirder time. I mean, this was a very different writing process in the sense that [in] all my other books, I had a full outline of what I was going to write before I wrote it, I had a book publishing deal. It was like, lay out the thesis, say what you’re going to do, do it. Say you did it. You know, that’s the structure of the books.
With this book, I really found it through writing it. I knew that the device of the narrow aperture of the double, of the doppelganger, was going to help me get back into branding, was going to help me get into AI, was going to help me get into data mining, but was also going to help me get into the way the right, and the sort of liberal center, and, to a degree, also, the left, were kind of in this mirror war with each other, where whatever they said, we can’t say. So, if they’re now talking about big pharma, we are cheering big pharma. Get your… You know, that’s our whole thing.
And so, I was really interested in that reactivity, but also, the final third of the book is about, what are we not looking at, when we’re looking at ourselves as brands, as perfected beings, or when we’re just reacting with one another? And the final third of the book is called “The Shadowlands.” And that’s, I think, as James Baldwin said: what are we not looking at? We’re not willing to look at death, we’re not willing to look at trouble, we’re not willing to look at history. And I think this is such a moment of wild distraction, and it makes sense.
Like, this is a hard moment to hold. COVID was this reckoning, this unveiling of so many preexisting injustices and inequalities that became unignorable, because the people who were in the shadows holding the world up, highly racialized, were the COVID hotspots. I mean, it was the meatpacking plants, it was the Amazon warehouses. And here’s an airborne virus that forces us to think about who else breathes this air, you know? Did could they call in sick? Did they have any rights? It is an absolute frontal confrontation with the logic at the heart of capitalism that tells you you’re on your own. You are an island. All of your successes are yours alone, and people who don’t have them, it’s their fault. And, suddenly, no. We are enmeshed. And that was a very hard reckoning to hold when you’ve been told your whole life that you make yourself, you know? And your only duty is to yourself and your family and, if you are successful, then you’ve won the prize, right?
And now, suddenly, you have to think about vulnerable people, you have to think about workers, you have to think about racialized workers? That was not the bargain that a lot of people signed up for, and I don’t think it should be a surprise that a lot of people rebelled against that and said, no way, you know? I’m going to shout freedom in the freezing cold, and that’s what happened in my country. Honk your air horn.
I think it’s equally interesting that a lot of people who grew up in that same individualistic culture welcomed the emergence of a social state that put an eviction moratorium, paid people to stay home, set up mutual aid networks, and said, yeah, we want to show up for each other. And then there’s a racial justice reckoning in the middle of that, and it deepens, and there’s a vision for another kind of society with radically different spending priorities.
So, I think we’re in this moment where you’ve got a reckoning with our present incredibly unjust economic order, which you can no longer unsee on some level, especially if you’re part of the lockdown class, because you know that you are being supported by all these other people who bore so much more risk unequally. You’ve got a reckoning with the very creation of settler colonial states, and then you’ve got a reckoning with the future, right? Which is, the climate crisis is here, and we are all implicated in it.
I think there’s all kinds of distractions being thrown up right now, and that’s what this book is trying to do, is map the weirdness of now. Arundhati Roy said to us early on in this pandemic that it was going to be a portal, that we were going to go somewhere new, and it could have been better, and it could be worse, but it was not going to be the same.
This was too cataclysmic to not bring us somewhere, and I don’t think we know where that somewhere is yet.
RG: Yeah. We’re still figuring that out. And you write that the mirror world has to be understood through the prism of the doppelganger, and through the framework of the doppelganger, and so, therefore, can’t be understood without reference to ourselves as well. And you go into a number of different areas where you changed your own mind, and you’re self-critical. For people who haven’t read the book, there’s a lot of self-criticism of things that you wish you had given more thought to early on in the pandemic. Some of them — COVID origin, you write about the vaccine and complications around pregnancy, and some other warnings that could have been given.
Let’s go through some of those. Which ones do you want to start with that were the ones that you…
NK: I just want to point out that I’m in a particularly awkward situation here, because there is this thing where I did write a book called “The Shock Doctrine.” It is about how large-scale emergencies are exploited by elites to push through a preexisting wish list. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s all proven, it’s real, it’s still happening. It’s happening in Hawaii right now, happening under cover of COVID. It’s not a conspiracy, but it is true that, for instance, the U.K. government has used the fact that hospitals were over capacity to attack the NHS, to attack their much-loved National Health Service. Different right-wing-run Canadian provinces have done the same thing.
I think a lot of the attacks on schools around COVID policies were actually just attacks on public schools, and part of that preexisting pattern of, whatever the disaster, let’s use it to have vouchers and charters. The same thing that happened after Katrina and Maria, and again, and again, and again.
But this was awkward for me, and I did write a lot about that in the early stage of the pandemic. But then, all of a sudden, there was this kind of doppelganger version of “The Shock Doctrine,” which was this Great Reset conspiracy theory that was coursing through the world, which was like “The Shock Doctrine” with all the facts and evidence removed in order to expose a conspiracy that actually had a website and a marketing firm. Which was that the world economic forum said, yes, we want a great reset. It wasn’t hidden, but somehow it got recast as if it was some great feat of investigative journalism to find this website where…
RG: And watch a couple of YouTube videos that they made.
NK: Right. Which included people like King Charles, right? So, it’s like, if you were trying to hide something, you wouldn’t get him involved, you know? That left me speechless. Like, I didn’t know what to do.
RG: You wrote one very helpful piece for us, I remember, about The Conspiracy Smoothie. Then I could send the link to all my friends who would be asking about The Great Reset.
NK: I want to tell you an interesting story related to that before we go down the list. because there are real things, there were true things, and things that were abandoned. But some of this is just about clout chasing, and the reason I know that is because… So, Russell Brand read that article on his show. He would often just read articles of mine on, anyone who’s listened to his podcast knows that a lot of what he does is just sort of read articles written by other people with feeling.
RG: Yeah. And an accent.
NK: Yeah. And so, he does this show where he says, Naomi Klein’s written this really interesting article, I know a lot of people are talking about the Great Reset. It explains what it is, it’s nothing to get excited about, and he reads the article and says, you know, this is all true.
And he puts “Great Reset” as one of the tags — you know about all this — and then all of a sudden he gets a lot more views than he had been getting before. Because, of course, all the people who believe in The Great Reset find it, and they watch it. And, suddenly, Russell Brand has a whole bunch of new followers. And then he goes back to The Great Reset about 20 times, except for, now, it’s audience capture, and he’s giving them what they want, which is a much more conspiratorial take on it.
So I just sort of watched that happening with great fascination. Just interesting. It’s a clout mine.
RG: Yes. But YouTube does that to a lot of its content creators, it will pull them into conspiracy land further and further by funneling more and more traffic to them And then they’ll cross an arbitrary line, and they’ll nuke their channel. It’s a bizarre thing where they’re feeding the very thing that they then nuke.
Let me ask you about… you hinted at censorship a couple times, and the whole big tech… It used to be a thing of the left, that you don’t want big tech telling people what they can and can’t say. That’s become a right-wing thing.
RG: And, looking back with Facebook, for instance, [it] wouldn’t let you post anything that’s speculated about the Wuhan lab being the origin of COVID. Like, you would lose your account. I think Twitter had some penalties, but it wasn’t as draconian as Facebook.
NK: That’s terrifying.
RG: That’s a real, terrifying thing that actually happened.
NK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s also not the first time. I think that this idea that this is a right-wing concern is a very specifically American phenomenon. If you ask folks in Turkey or India, they will most certainly say that it is their extreme right-wing governments that are working with these same tech companies to deplatform dissidents and toe the government line.
RG: Right. Because the right is doing that here as well, including buying the platform, and directing it their way.
So, the book also feels like it’s trying to give people permission to kind of look back at where they were the last couple years, and allow for more uncertainty, while also not wallowing in complete nihilism or pretending that nothing is true.
If you could go back and talk to yourself in, like, 2020, what would you say to help you think your way through the next couple years?
NK: Yeah. I would say that just be… There were certain points where, I think, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a lot of really great political organizing on the left that was not just supporting the… Like, yes, supporting masks and, eventually, vaccination programs, but being much more ambitious than that. For instance, we knew from the Scandinavian countries that you keep schools open if you had small enough classrooms, right? And so, that’s a pretty good argument for something that we need anyway. We need smaller classrooms for our kids. More outdoor education is also a great way to keep your kids safe from an airborne virus. The right to good indoor air is another one.
And I think what started to happen is, there was a lot of this more ambitious — I mean, you know this, Ryan — there were a lot of groups here that were collaborating across different kind of issue silos to envision what rebuilding from the pandemic could be, learning from the lessons of who had been most impacted, taking in the lessons of the racial justice uprisings of 2020. And there was the [Red, Black & Green New Deal], , there were all these sort of platform experiments happening.
And I think, then, for a variety of reasons, a lot of them got derailed. And, for me, that was what made me most speechless, was watching us go from these really, really high highs. You know, I was part of the Bernie campaign, I was still living in the states when the racial justice uprisings happened. I remember being in New Jersey, and just that kind of amazing moment where you realize that all of your neighbors are out. And it was, like, the opposite of every zombie movie plot right, where there’s an apocalypse and people come out to eat each other’s brains, except there’s an apocalypse, and people come out and they just are expressing solidarity. That was an amazing turn of events.
And then things… You wrote the piece, The Elephant in the Zoom. But I do think Zoom organizing around this was very hard. I think it was hard to sustain solidarity virtually. I think it was one of the issues, losing those sort of interstitial moments that, I think, nourish folks in movements, and just having the hard meetings is really, really difficult. A lot of things got confused when Democrats were in power as well, right? Where I was just like, okay, well, how against things can we be, when we don’t have Trump to clearly all be against? Things got a little mixed up.
But what would I say to myself? I would say, we were on the right track! I think we were on the right track. There was a good piece on that [that] David Wallace Wells did recently, about COVID revisionism, and the COVID revisionism I’m most interested in is the revisionism that kind of erases all that early solidarity, is almost kind of embarrassed by it. And I think we need more stamina, frankly, to see things through, and I think we need that horizon of where we’re moving towards, precisely because these kinds of unveilings and reckonings are really difficult. And if there isn’t a vision of a world where nobody is sacrificial, where everyone has a place, which is somewhere where we all might want to go, I think that the hard work of actually seeing where we are becomes almost impossible, right?
Yeah. So, I would say: keep at it. You were on the right track, don’t get derailed. What would you say?
RG: Uh … Oh God, I don’t know.
[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]
RG: Which direction do you think things are going, the last year or so? You write about the difficulty that, in 2021/2022, on the progressive left, people were just having open debate. That everybody was nervous, everybody was … And you talk about the distrust that was producing just people who were out for themselves, and collapsing organizations, which goes to the thing that you were mentioning that I wrote about later.
RG: Do you feel like it’s still headed in that direction? Or do you think it’s swinging back a little bit, and there’s more trust and more willingness to disagree?
NK: I’ve been struck with this book, that I think there are peaks and valleys in social movements, and I think we’re in a valley. And I think, because of that, there’s less defensiveness. I’m finding less defensiveness where, I think with … Maybe when things are going a little better, people are more inclined to be like, no, don’t criticize us, we know what we’re doing. But I don’t know a single person who’s happy with the trajectory of how social movements have gone.
You know, we’ve had these high-high highs, right? I mean, the climate strikes, that wasn’t so long ago. Millions and millions of people around the world. Or the energy around the Green New Deal in 2019. So, given that in our recent memories we’ve experienced these kind of effervescent political moments when a lot seemed possible … I was in Nevada when Bernie swept the strip. You know, I’ve never seen so many happy leftists. It was just, hugging total strangers, right?
And so, yeah. I think that I’m noticing a non-defensiveness. It’s never easy to do this work, but I think it’s incredibly important for social movements to be able to do self-criticism. And most, frankly, non-North-American countries are better at it than we are. They do the autocritica in Latin America, it’s just like, part of organizing. What did we do wrong, how do we learn from that?
I quote in the book Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is one of the amazing Egyptian revolutionaries who led the 2011 revolution [and] has been in prison now for 12 years. And he’s sitting there writing essays about what they did wrong, you know? And he knows they did it wrong, because he’s in jail, and so are tens of thousands of other political prisoners in Egypt. And he’s not saying it’s all their fault; it’s obviously a murderous military dictatorship’s fault. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still have a responsibility to try to metabolize. How do we do it better, right? Because everything’s on the line here.
So, yeah. So far so good, Ryan. I mean, everything could go south really quickly, but …
RG: What do you think that we could acknowledge that we did wrong in the last couple of years in general? Particularly when it comes to COVID.
NK: Who’s the “we?”
RG: Who’s the “we…” The “we” would be the kind of broad, progressive left.
NK: I think we should have got all-in for lifting the patents on the vaccines. I think there should have been just really militant internationalism. Like, I won’t get my third shot until everybody on this planet gets their first one. That was one of the moments where we had this big trucker convoy in Canada that shut down Ottawa for three weeks. And it was weird, because I was like, well, what if we’d shut down Ottawa for three weeks, actually, with some real demands for justice?
So, you know, I think that’s one. I think that it has to be a … If you’re going to ask individuals to do hard things, it has to be fair. This is the lesson of the mobilizations during the Second World War, where people did a lot of hard things for the war effort, but it was incredibly important that it be perceived by the public to apply to everyone. So I think that we should have gone after COVID profiteering hammer and tongs. Like, nobody should have been allowed to get rich, let alone have these billionaires double their already obscene wealth. It’s so demoralizing.
And when you have systems that are allowing that to happen, and then are saying, close down your small business, close down your small job. Come on, that is not going to work, right? And then turning around and saying, oh, those people are jerks. It doesn’t hold, it really, really doesn’t hold.
So, I think that that’s where the energy should have gone. And it still can, it still can. We can take these issues back.
RG: So, we’ve got some audience questions we’ve got to get to here. So, here’s one: In a world and a future where human history is being collected as data by wealthy companies and then repurposed by AI, what do you see as the role of a writer? How do you compete, and ensure your words are portrayed as they should be? That’s from Natasha.
NK: Oh, hi Natasha. Where are you? Oh, that’s a great question. Yeah.
I mean, it’s funny, I quoted Arundhati Roy, who I’m lucky to call a friend, and she said to me 20 years ago, you can’t control what happens to your ideas once you release them. And that was before AI and social media. It was just, you know, the thing she was saying is, for better and for worse. People do awful things with one’s ideas, and they also do wonderful things, and you actually can’t take credit for either of them.
So, I think to write is to be misunderstood, but it’s also to have this amazing experience of having your words meet other brains, and have them add all kinds of things that never occurred to you. I’ve talked about this project as being a kind of first attempt at a weird little map of what I see through the portal, but I’m just one set of eyes seeing it, you know? And the fun part is the part I’m in right now, where people are going like, you missed a whole mountain range over there, you know?
And what about this path? Writing is such collective work. Even when you’re all by yourself, you’re hearing this cacophony of voices that are influencing you, that are your sources, that are your references, that are the other writers that made you. And then the work goes into the world, and then you do it all over again.
And that’s actually been the funnest part about this particular book, is that, because it doesn’t make any pretext of being definitive about anything — it’s very personal, it’s very quirky, it’s very particular — it has inspired, already, some incredibly wonderful writing in other writers.
So, we can’t control it, but I think there’s a lot of beauty in it.
RG: Would you clone yourself if you could? No name on this one.
NK: I would absolutely not. No.
RG: It doesn’t work out in any of the stories that you write about in your book.
NK: No. No.
RG: Never a good ending.
NK: There’s an under underappreciated doppelganger film called Dual — I think it’s a made-for-Netflix film — where the main character played by Karen Gillan gets a terminal diagnosis, and she lives in a world where you can create a clone, so that your friends and family don’t have to feel grief. It’s more a metaphor for how bad we are at grief, right? And how much the culture we’re in tends to not feel, and numb. And so, yeah, how about having a technology where nobody has to feel sad things?
Yeah. There’s a line in it, where it turns out that she was misdiagnosed and she’s going to live, and that means she has to fight her clone to the death. And they say, we can’t have two of you walking around, that would be ridiculous! Tell me about it.
RG: As a college student and climate activist, I’m inspired constantly by your work. What advice do you have for people like me who want to do the kind of writing and research you do?
NK: Well, I think one of the things we really need now are some success story writings. We’ve got plenty of reasons to feel down. There was just a great piece that came out — I just tweeted it — by Liza Featherstone in In These Times about the story of how New York State won a really fantastic energy democracy piece of legislation. And it’s a great pincer of climate justice organizing and DSA folks in office who are able to receive that pressure. And it’s a wonderful kind of success story that I think we need to spread.
You know, right now in Brazil, there’s a celebration going on because they beat back Bolsonaro, and they’re starting to be some really progressive policies about the Amazon enacted. And some indigenous ecofeminists have been elected into the Brazilian cabinet. It’s exciting. We don’t think about that enough.
So, yeah. I would say, tell those stories. And, as a writer and as a researcher, figure out how we can crack this, and spread the good news if you can.
RG: Last question for me, and then, if you want to read a little bit more …
So, one of the main things I took away from your book is how much fear of the mirror world shapes our own approach to truth and to our own politics — justified, I think, fear — which then ends up linking the things that we believe, with our tribe, with our partisan politics. And you become unable, then … You end up with a situation where things that don’t have any obvious partisan valence take one on.
Like, I understand why most progressives say the minimum wage should be higher, and conservatives say there should be no minimum wage. Like, that makes ideological sense. It doesn’t make ideological sense to talk about COVID origins. That doesn’t fit into a partisan [valence]. Or what you wrote about with potential complications that the virus produces during pregnancy or during a menstrual cycle. Like, that shouldn’t have anything to do with partisan politics. Yet, it did.
On the vaccine, for instance, as it became increasingly clear that it wasn’t stopping the spread, it was impossible for Democrats to talk about that. And I feel like the fear that you write about in your book, it helps to explain that. So, how can people break out of that, so that they don’t continue to produce the monsters in the mirror world?
NK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I think that what’s really dangerous about these figures, to me — Bannon, Malone — is the way they’re kind of mixing and matching these very, very dangerous scapegoat policies of various kinds with these issues that are not, traditionally, issues for the right, and that have a lot of potency. And so, I think the most important thing we can do is reclaim those issues, because they’re only available to be picked up if we’re not using them to full effect, right? I mean they can use them but it won’t have the same kind of power of truth-telling that it’s having at the moment. So, I think that is incredibly important work.
I think, as a journalist, there just needs to be a little bit of just doing our jobs, right? I think people can handle more complexity than we sometimes give them credit for. So, you can say that there are some adverse reactions to vaccines, and people can still make an educated decision about it. And if you don’t, then they’re going to go do their own research, and they’re going to end up in the arms of some people who are really, really untrustworthy.
What you were referencing around vaccines and pregnancy, it’s incredibly important for pregnant women to be vaccinated, because your immune system is suppressed when you are pregnant, because your body needs not to reject the fetus. And so, if you get COVID when you’re pregnant, there’s a really good chance you’ll get quite sick. This was not really explained, it was just sort of treated like, “oh, what a ridiculous idea, people…” You know?
And so, I think just doing some basic education and also explaining … And also just treating people a little more kindly. Like, that’s a really legitimate question. I was afraid of everything when I was pregnant. I was afraid of eating soft cheese when I was pregnant, so I can understand why people were afraid of these vaccines. And I think it was honestly a failure of scientific communication that that sort of simple fact was not explained properly, but I just saw a lot of mocking of people who had those concerns, and I think a lot of people were pushed into… They were suddenly getting their advice from Instagram momfluencers, and that was super bad, you know?
RG: Do you want to finish with a [reading]?
NK: I’ll do one last reading. Maybe I’ll just stay here if that’s okay. Storytime. Doppelganger storytime.
So, a lot of the book is about the way we avoid looking at the shadowlands, because we’re implicated in them. And I quote this wonderful British writer named Daisy Hillyard, who has a different kind of take on doppelgangers. And she talks about something called “the second body.” And what she says is that we all have two bodies. We have the body that we’re in right now, which we’re aware of, right? But there is also another body that is out there in the world doing our bidding, and that body is implicated in oil wars, and drone warfare, and extinctions, just because we are all in this system. Not because we like it, but because we are just all in it.
And that second body, that reality, that is us, too. Like, that is our tax dollars, that is our purchasing decisions, that’s us. It’s so, so hard to hold, and we throw up all of these projections and distractions, including putting so much work into perfecting ourselves, our brands, our bodies, our families, that we don’t really have much time left for the collective work that really is our only hope.
So, the last chapter is called “Unselfing.”
NK (Reading from “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World”): James Baldwin, speaking about the double projected onto him as a Black man in the United States observed that it had everything to do with a person doing the projecting. What was a white man seeing when he saw Baldwin? It wasn’t me, he said. It was something he didn’t want to see. And do you know what that was? It was, ultimately, yes, his own death, or call it, trouble. Trouble is an excellent metaphor for death.
So many forms of doubling are ways of not looking at death or trouble, and death feels awfully close these days. As close as a fentanyl-laced pill, a heat dome, a hate crime, an intake of virally loaded breath. Much closer for some than for others, as usual, but not far enough, I suspect, for anyone’s comfort.
So how do we stop averting our gaze? How do we face our second bodies and our mortal bodies in a sustained way, rather than throwing up partitions, performances, and projections to hide from them? What would it take to stop running? To know, really know, what we already know.
Some of the climate scientists whose work I most respect have come around to an understanding that there is an intimate relationship between our overinflated selves and our under-cared-for planet. Charlie Varon, a legendary coral scientist who has spent a lifetime studying the Great Barrier Reef, now in its death throes, describes the journey of his life as one of decentering himself so that he has the headspace to truly see other life forms, human and non-human alike.
It was a hard-won lesson, which began with losing his young daughter, Fiona Ornone, to drowning. Leveled by personal and ecological grief, he aspires now to dissolve into the reef he studies, to, quote, “Feel like coral, or a fish.” This recalls the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s description of observing something beautiful, whether a bird or a painting, as an occasion for unselfing.
Varon’s humbling journey to unselfing may well hold a key to our collective survival, because it means that our role here on Earth is not simply to maximize the advantage of our lives, it’s to maximize, protect, regenerate all of life. We are here not just to make sure we as individuals survive, but to make sure that life survives. Not to chase clout, but to chase life.
This is something else we might choose to learn from our double walkers. The idea that each one of us has a lookalike walking around somewhere means that no one is quite as special or unique as we might have imagined ourselves to be. Within capitalism’s hall of mirrors, this revelation tends to be told as a horror story, as embodied by Jesse Eisenberg’s character in The Double, the one who whimpers, “I’d like to think I’m pretty unique.” This is the must-kill, must-stab, must-be-the-last-me-standing response to doppelgangers that threads its way through Western literature, film, and monotheistic religion. But there is also the option of viewing our doubles the way fake Philip Roth does in “Operation Shylock.” Hooray! I’m not alone in this cruel world.
Because we are not alone, at least not as alone as it can feel. Connections and solidarities and kinships are available to all of us should we choose to guard the boundaries of ourselves less jealously. We have kin everywhere. Some of them look like us, lots of them look nothing like us, and we are still connected to them. Some aren’t even human. Some are coral, some are whales, and they are there to connect with, if we can get out of our own way for long enough.
To be clear, I’m not planning to embrace my doppelganger as a long-lost relative. But doppelgangers, by messing with our heads and our illusions of sovereignty, can help teach us this lesson, that we are not as separate from one another as we might think. Not as individuals, and perhaps not even as groups of individuals who have been born into various kinds of seemingly eternal fratricidal duels.
It’s the same lesson the pandemic tried to teach us in those early days. No one makes themselves; we all make and unmake one another. Self-involvement, however it manifests — my doppelganger’s megalomania, my various neuroses, your fill-in-the-blanks — is a story in which the self takes up too much space, just as the story of Judeo Christian Western civilization puts the human, (read: white male powerful human) at the center of the story of life on this planet, with all of it created for our species.
None of it is true. Whether we are loving ourselves too much or loathing ourselves too much, or, more likely, doing both, we’re still at the center of every story, we’re still blotting out the sun. All of which is why, over the course of this now-concluding journey, I have come to embrace Naomi confusion as an unconventional Buddhist exercise. I could never quite get the hang of non-attachment before this but, I think, thanks to her, I have.
NK: Thank you, Ryan.
RG: Thank you, Naomi.
NK: That was fun. Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody.
RG: Thank you so much for doing this, and congratulations on the book.
NK: Thank you so much, Ryan. It was so fun. Listen to Deconstructed!
[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]
RG: That was Naomi Klein, and that’s our show. Her latest book is Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World.
Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was engineered by Lena Moreno, and technical coordination by Cory Choy of Silver Sound. And special thanks to Politics and Prose in GW. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.
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