Calm Can Coexist with Fury: A Conversation with Naomi Klein
By Michelle ChiharaSeptember 14, 2023
Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein
I have a distinct memory of sitting in the lobby of a hotel somewhere in Boston and asking her point-blank: how did she think profound social change might actually come about?
The weekly newspaper where I was working as a reporter during that initial meeting, the Boston Phoenix, is now gone. A search through its surviving articles in the Internet Archive came up empty. So readers will have to take my word for what I remember of the original conversation. When I asked her how she thought change would happen, she said: only with great social upheaval.
When I spoke to Klein on September 6, in Los Angeles, I didn’t expect her to remember meeting me. But I wanted to tell her that when I was bringing sandwiches to the Occupy L.A. encampment, in 2011, I thought of her. I believed then that the great upheaval might have arrived. Of course, Occupy, like the WTO protest movement (and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and the Green New Deal), has not brought about as much change as many activists once hoped it would. When I mentioned Occupy last week, Klein asked me if I was going to make her depressed.
The Left has reason to be depressed, and much of Klein’s new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, seems to have been written from a place of grief. She touches on this at the end of our conversation here, edited for length and clarity. But the book’s occasion of telling is the strange phenomenon of Klein getting mixed up on social media platforms with her red-pilled dark twin, Naomi Wolf.
In trying to understand Wolf, Klein takes a journey of the soul into North America’s political underbelly. She looks at the twisted ways that so many people have lost the ability to understand each other. But she’s very clear that no one is off the hook; Klein discovers instead that we are all implicated in each other’s messes. One thing I neglected to mention to Klein is that my middle name is also Naomi. There are Naomis everywhere, it seems.
MICHELLE CHIHARA: I don’t want to make you depressed—but there’s a really heavy moment in Doppelganger where you’re talking about the aftermath of your book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), and coming to grips with the fact that the world has now let a crucial window of opportunity close on turning around carbon emissions. You grapple with what it means to put down your identity as the person offering the solution. You’re not the one exhorting people now.
I was thinking about that—which is maybe a little depressing—but I was hoping that you would say something about using this newer approach, or voice. You’re not exhorting anyone to take action around the story with Wolf, which is odd and funny in so many ways, and yet I think you write it with a lot of compassion. Did you think about this as a way to invite a different group of readers in?
NAOMI KLEIN: I do feel like this is a different kind of book that will appeal to different kinds of readers. I hope there’s overlap with my old readers as well. It’s a weird book for weirder moments. A lot of people I know from movement work also feel very destabilized. They feel a lot of vertigo and confusion, especially around people whom they used to trust and respect, who are now in what I’m calling the mirror world.
I just came from the Haymarket Socialism Conference, which was a great way to start my tour, because I saw so many old comrades from over the years. So I don’t feel like I’m putting the people whom I’ve been in conversation with my whole adult life aside, in favor of trying to reach other readers. But this book is more personal. It’s kind of creative nonfiction and doesn’t put its politics in the window, so to speak. So there’s a part of me that does see the book—don’t tell anyone—as a little bit of a Trojan horse? I mean, it’s a doppelgänger book, and doppelgänger books always start out as being about the Other, about an attempt to defeat the double—but then they end up being a mirror. The doppelgänger story always ends up being about a new way of seeing oneself.
Some more liberal readers might pick up a book that doesn’t have “capitalism” in the title, like my books generally do. And with the subtitle, they might think, Oh, this is a book where I get to feel smug and superior to all those rabbit-hole people. And I think that they, like me, may then find themselves looking in some kind of mirror … I hope so. The reason that I made myself as vulnerable as I did in this book, in terms of confessing to my own failings, was that I don’t think you can ask other people to do that if you’re not willing to do it yourself.
Now, in terms of that exhortation and that voice, that work—I still value it. I don’t think that it always has to be the same person at the front of the room, exhorting. Part of what allowed me to write this book is that even though we are not where I want us to be politically, the Left is so much larger and it’s so much more diverse and leader-ful than it was when I was coming up. I think after No Logo, I was sort of anointed the voice of a certain kind of movement, but No Logo was a more playful book, if you remember. You probably don’t. It was a long time ago! But it was a little bit silly.
I mainly remember raging against McJobs …?
Sure. But then because of the sudden notoriety that the book generated, I came to feel responsible for acting as the public face of a certain kind of left movement. I was under scrutiny; I was watched and surveilled by the press. There was a Canadian paper that had a column called Klein Watch, which basically was them trying to catch me going to the Gap. It was silly, but it really got inside my head, and I was already a self-conscious person.
But there are so many other people who are exhorting right now—they’re exhorting people right now on the picket lines in this city, and at the Haymarket, which would have been unimaginable when I was writing No Logo. Three thousand people at a socialism conference?! There are just so many incredible young leaders now, and that’s freeing, right?
And so now I get to be weird. And maybe I’ll find my megaphone again. You never know.
It’s almost as if vulnerability is a way to share the megaphone. Can you go back to what you said about people who have lost friends and colleagues into the rabbit hole? I know the book is just coming out, but can you tell me about conversations with people, and how it may have helped them?
I got an incredible email just an hour ago from someone who read an advanced copy and was telling me about a family member. So many people have told me about family members. It looks different in different communities—some people turn against other people, some people turn on themselves—but there is a commonality around people sort of checking out and latching onto fantastical beliefs, something that does seem to run across class and race and to cross generations. It used to be, like, Oh, get Grandma off Facebook. It’s not just Grandma on Facebook anymore.
What’s been most gratifying to me is hearing from people that they feel more equipped to speak to people in their lives whom they had cut off. There are different reasons why people severed relationships, but there seems to be a softening: Maybe I can talk to that sibling, or that parent; maybe I have some ideas about what might be a possible bridge to find some common ground. Because all the social science research shows that people aren’t just getting a cosmology from the mirror world—they’re also getting a community, friendships, a sense of purpose. And so if they’re also being cut off from everybody they used to know, then it’s going to be really hard to pull them back.
Sometimes you need to cut people off. Depending on the power dynamics, depending on how interested they are in firearms, there are reasons that it’s not safe to talk to some folks. So it’s really an individual, case-by-case situation. But if everybody cuts these people off, then they’re getting everything from these worlds, right? So when you’re trying to pull them back, you’re not just asking them to change their mind. You’re asking them to lose their whole community.
And maybe in staying connected with them, you can remind them of the person they used to be.
Yeah. I talked to somebody who’s actually going to reach out to this person in their life. That makes me happy because I’m not under any illusion that the book itself is going to reach those folks, because they’re already armored against me. I’m a globalist, right? I’ve sold out. I’m, you know, me. But that friend who went to high school with them—that’s different. That’s more human.
And do you think the book models a path toward finding yourself in those folks and being more vulnerable, and that it can provide a way of helping people to see how important that is?
Well, I also think that it’s about how we on the left need to understand that there’s a doppelgänger of the Left being created by the Steve Bannons of the world. And so this is interpersonal work, but it’s also a political project.
If Bannon and RFK Jr. are building their bases by doing a mix-and-match of some things that are real, and some things that are just lies, hateful lies, then our job is to drain some of their power by taking back the things that are true. We have to work with the things that are true and organize with them and hold out the possibility of actually changing people’s lives materially for the better, which is not something on offer from Bannon. That’s political work. And that’s always the tension, around the moment when we fear the hounds of fascism at the gate. Every far-right triumph is also a story of left-wing fragmentation and sectarianism. Certainly the 1920s and ’30s tell the oblique tale of that in Europe; we do need to know that history. I don’t want to leave the impression that I think this is something that we can win one uncle at a time.
Of course, it’s not just about one personal relationship at a time—we all have to be aware of the systems that we’re embedded in. At the same time, the mirror world, as you describe it, has taken root in the current system, among people who are isolated and who feel helpless against that system. For a number of years, I taught college students, many of whom were working two jobs to stay in school. I often felt that the thing that most overwhelmed them was trying to talk about climate crisis, precisely because it made them feel so helpless. They were basically like: If this isn’t going to help me get a job when I get out of here, with all this debt, what can I do? And do I really have to read this?
I can’t really save the world. Yeah.
Getting them to read anything meant staying connected to them, trying to find inspiration with them, and so there was systemic work in those day-to-day personal interactions. Even before the pandemic, when I was teaching media literacy, it was getting harder to find common ground. Before Trump was elected, I used to teach which media sources had newsrooms and which didn’t. But when Breitbart’s former executive chairman was in the White House, teaching that media literacy unit was suddenly very different.
I think when you’re teaching working-class students who don’t have a sense of entitlement around their own power, it’s completely different from teaching the more privileged students, who are just like: We shall fix it! Because we are the leaders of tomorrow. But when you’re with working-class students, it can just feel terrifying and sad and overwhelming. And education, foundationally, has to be about that sense of possibility—that it is possible to change, that non-elite people have changed the world before. That’s the most important education I think we can do—more than saying, Hey, the actual content of this is really alarming.
I have a line in the book: it’s not that we don’t know, it’s that we don’t know how to know what we know.
Exactly. You also have a line in the book about calm being a form of resistance. That really resonated with me, that it’s important to find a way of being calm enough to prioritize your focus.
That’s John Berger. But yeah, “calm is a form of resistance.”
I thought that was an amazing passage. I wonder if you could riff on that for a second.
That’s interesting, because I don’t want the “Keep Calm and Carry On” kind of calm. I think we’re talking about a different kind of calm, that can coexist with fury, that can coexist with a lot of passion.
There is still this methodical work of mapping the moment and ordering the inundation of information that we are all in. I think that our brains are wired for story and narrative and sensemaking, and I don’t think we have begun to reckon with what it means to swim in a sea of non sequiturs, which is social media, right? It’s bad for the brain. When you spend your days reading books or watching films or reading poetry—anything that somebody has put care into creating—you find a pattern and a kind of order. That then brings a feeling of calmness to you. Whereas if you are just in the sea of non sequiturs—this and this and also that, and look over here, and I hate the Barbie movie, the world is ending, I love the Barbie movie, and I hate you—it’s a scramble. It creates panic.
And so, yes, it is still worth doing the work of ordering information, whatever form that takes. It doesn’t have to be a book. Any effort we make to rescue reality from the sea of non sequiturs, we help one another. It gets us out of that gripping panic, where we’re closed down, and gets us into a state where we can think clearly, and where we’re more porous to one another. But I think that calm can coexist with great passion. The worst state to be in is deadened. When I don’t feel either outrage, or floods of love for, you know, all of the beauty—that’s when I know something’s wrong.
Be calm, but not the empire’s calm.
Yes, I think it’s important to distinguish between numbness and calmness.
In the spirit of the right kind of calm, do you think that Naomi Wolf will ever come around and talk to you after reading the book?
Honestly … I really am not enjoying thinking about how hard this period must be for her.
I didn’t expect the book to get as much attention as it’s getting. I think it must be incredibly hard for her, and I really feel badly about it. I know that may sound disingenuous, because I wrote this book, but I didn’t write this book to be mean to her. And I gained more compassion for her in writing the book.
I mean, I hope if she’s reading the book, or reading excerpts of the book, I hope it’s not what she most feared. But I’m still seeing people use the book as an excuse to rehash the most humiliating moments of her life. And that bothers me. In the book, I spend one paragraph on the BBC interview, where she went through what really is every writer’s worst nightmare. I absolutely think that interviewer [Matthew Sweet] was doing his job. He was fact-checking. He was holding her accountable for errors in the book. But what happened next was just an epic internet pile-on. It was people just taking straight-up joy and pleasure in somebody else’s pain.
Part of the equation of what pushes some people to a very dangerous place is feeling that there’s nothing here for me. So why would she talk to me? She’s already written me off. It’s the same reason she wouldn’t talk to me for the book. She doesn’t do interviews with anybody who’s not right-wing now, because she feels that there’s no chance she’ll be treated fairly. So do I think that’ll change? I think this is her whole world now. She has written thousands of words about all the people who cut her off during [the COVID-19 era], who told her that they wouldn’t go near her, wouldn’t sit with her, wouldn’t let her meet their baby. She was so clearly hurt by that, and I don’t think that was the right way to handle somebody who’s not doing well. I also don’t think it’s everyone’s job to help. But one of the things that I wanted to explore in the book is, What happens to people who are shamed on that scale? Some of them turn it inwards. Some of them self-harm; some of them just go quiet. But not everybody. Some people go straight to Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson, and get a gun. Which is what she’s done.
Things get tricky in the attention economy. People need to earn a living. When that thing happened with BBC, it wasn’t just a reputational crash for her. When your publisher drops you and unpublishes your book, it’s financial. And part of the legacy of mass manufactured precarity on the scale that capitalism is creating it now is that we have told people they’re on their own. Some people have gotten very good at being on their own and building branded empires. But it makes it harder to change your mind.
I was trying to articulate something like this in the book, something I don’t think I understood when I wrote No Logo all those years ago, when we were children. I knew I didn’t like the idea of being a brand, but I didn’t understand exactly why it was such a problem. And part of the problem is that it traps you, and freezes you in time, right?
A brand is a promise. That’s what the consultants always say, that your brand is your promise. So I worry about talking about people where this is their business model, who are able to monetize this. That’s different from the friends we have to get off Facebook. We’re talking about a small group who’ve really figured out how to turn the mirror world into money.
Sure, although I think even for much less well-known people, that kind of validation can be very heady. If everyday people are isolated but getting hundreds of likes on social media, those likes might feel just as crucial to them as the money does to people who need it stay afloat.
I’m interested in figuring out how to create more spaces where people can find that calm, where they’re not numbed out and are still open to experience, and to reading books.
Conspiracy culture is making sense of an unjust world, and it’s particularly seductive if you don’t understand how the world works. It’s not like in high school we have classes teaching people about capitalist logics of enclosure, you know? They’re not reading Marx.
I did give students some Marx … But in college.
I only read Marx in high school because my brother made me. I think these kinds of systems can work, and reading is part of it, but there are other ways to do popular education. Marxists were invested in popular education; it’s why they started newspapers and reading groups and knew that it was important to spread basic political and economic information. I don’t know that we value that as much as we should, and so what we’re seeing is this warped mirror version of popular education. Jordan Peterson gives people a sense that they have access to a life of ideas, “the big ideas”—I mean, with air quotes, air quotes, air quotes.
But I believe it’s interesting that people want to be treated as if they can handle complex ideas. So much of the liberal media that gets produced assumes an utter lack of capacity to handle anything remotely complex.
The mirror world is both an upside-down version of education and an upside-down version of communities of care.
Definitely. It is a warped mirror that’s providing consciousness-raising and a support group. And Bannon—generally what we see are the clips of him at his most rage-fueled, or getting dragged away in handcuffs. But what I saw in researching this book was the way he performed care and participatory inclusion. The thing about War Room is he calls his audience “the posse”; he calls them soldiers. And he gives them jobs. He gives them things that they can do: Go take over your school board, go take over your local Republican chapter! They are part of something big.
And the ask is very low. It feels like you’re participating, but you don’t have to do much besides get outraged.
The ask is not very low! Not compared to Pod Save America, where the ask is “just vote.” He’s asking people to take over their local Republican chapters, and they’re learning about their school board.
I guess I’m thinking about in-person organizing meetings, where you’re gonna get asked to go knock on 10 doors and get 10 of your colleagues into the union.
But that’s what you’re saying about the doppelgänger version of liberal America, where they’re replacing liberal outrage and “donate once to the Democratic Party” with the War Room.
Even if you weren’t ever in danger of getting red-pilled, did you ever feel almost addicted to this research?
I think I do have a podcast addiction.
But any big research project has an obsessive quality to it. When I wrote The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), every surface was covered in cue cards. The line is not as firm as we might think. I remember telling my son a few years ago, “You’re falling into the rabbit hole again,” because rabbit holes aren’t that healthy for him. He said, “Is the Green New Deal your rabbit hole?” Touché. That was 2019. Anyway.
I was also going to say that, because this is more creative nonfiction, I do lean into the character of the destabilized narrator at the start of the book. But no one needs to worry about me. I’m all right.
Good to know.
We just honored Mike Davis, who has many ties to Los Angeles. Could you say something about the dedication in the book?
Part of the project, for me, was about making a little bit of room for loss and grief—recognizing that we’ve been through some really, really rocky times. And it’s not just the pandemic. We’ve had our hopes raised higher than they had been in my lifetime, with the Bernie campaign and then the racial justice uprisings in 2020. And we crashed pretty hard. While I was writing the book, these personal heroes of mine—Mike Davis, Barbara Ehrenreich, bell hooks, Leo Panitch—left us. In fact, I had an email from Leo from the hospital where he was asking me to turn a speech into an article for the Socialist Register. And I was like, “Leo, I’m in the middle of this other project.” And that was the last email that that I exchanged with him. I was writing the section about branding, about how we value ourselves but also not turn ourselves into a thing, and about bell hooks, before she passed. There were these really painful moments when I moved these quotes into the past tense. The same was true for Barbara, who has thought so much about how we sometimes turn toward the individual self as a way of not reckoning with collective loss. She was alive when I wrote those parts, and then I switched it to past tense. And then when Mike left us … his writing was so important to me, Late Victorian Holocausts (2000) in particular. But I hated that he was called the “prophet of doom,” because I really believe that he believed in people, to his very last breath. And as long as you believe in people, as long as you can believe fiercely in political education … That’s the quote that I have from him in the book: “Speak in the vernacular.” Speak in a language that regular people can understand. Because the stakes are so high, and the issues deserve legibility.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author. She is a columnist with The Guardian. In 2018, she was named the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair at Rutgers University and is now Honorary Professor of Media and Climate at Rutgers. In September 2021, she joined the University of British Columbia as UBC Professor of Climate Justice (tenured) and co-director of the Centre for Climate Justice.
Michelle Chihara is editor-in-chief at Los Angeles Review of Books.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
The engine of the right-wing movement is a narrative about social disgrace, according to Anthony Nadler and Doron Taussig....
Visible Faultlines: A Conversation with the Authors of “Unprecedented? How COVID-19 Revealed the Politics of Our Economy”
In “Unprecedented? How COVID-19 Revealed the Politics of Our Economy,” a group of political economists use a single and precise metaphor — photosynthesis — to bring the broad social consequences of the pandemic into focus....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.