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Naomi KleinPhotography by Sebastain Nevols

Naomi Klein: “I’m Trying to Have a Little Compassion for Myself”

The journalist discusses the perils of writing, social media, and her new book Doppelganger – an uncanny trip into the shadow world of conspiracy theories and far-right propaganda

Lead ImageNaomi KleinPhotography by Sebastain Nevols

Naomi Klein has long been a beacon of light for the left, illuminating both the present moment and the future to come. Each book she releases is packed full of omens which only become more prescient as the years unfold. Take 1999’s No Logo: a cutting critique of consumer capitalism’s obsession with “branding” and relatability, released just before tech giants – with their data-driven advertising and unbridled encouragement of self-commodification – infiltrated every part of our individual lives. Or there was 2007’s The Shock Doctrine, which examined the ways neoliberalism covertly exploits public disorientation following a collective shock, like a war, natural disaster, terrorist attack or pandemic. More recently, Klein’s work has been focused on the growing urgency of the climate crisis: diagnosing the most pressing problems, shedding a light on the corruption hidden in plain sight, and envisioning an actionable plan for a better future.

But Klein’s most recent book, Doppelganger: A Trip Into The Mirror World, marks a new direction. Although still eerily prophetic, it reads like more of a memoir, with the writer choosing to instead cast a critical light on herself. Blending sharp political analysis with personal essays, Jungian theory and art criticism, Klein explores the idea of the “shadow self” – how we project our worst fears onto ‘the other’, and how the internet is warping and feeding those same fears. It’s a darkly funny (albeit alarming) look at how we as humans are growing apart, as we attempt to navigate an uncanny global landscape riven by fear, conspiracy theories and topsy-turvy far-right propaganda.

When I speak to Klein, this polarisation feels even more heightened. For the last few days, social media has been fraught with impassioned discourse about the Hamas attacks in Israel, and the subsequent invasion of Gaza by Netanyahu’s government. Fake news is rife, infographics are everywhere, and opinions are split. “I feel terrible,” a weary Klein tells me, speaking over Zoom from her home in Canada. Once again, her writing is proving to be more prescient than we would have ever imagined.

Dominique Sisley: Doppelganger is your most personal work to date. What inspired you to write it? How was the writing process different to your other books?

Naomi Klein: The whole book grew out of a desire to write in a way that would excite me more formally. I was feeling really speechless in the second year of the pandemic, and I’d lost faith in the way that I constructed books in the past. I wasn’t wanting to write articles, and I was just really feeling like, what is the point? I was depressed, frankly, and I had this idea that if I couldn’t get excited about the content, then maybe I could get excited by the form.

At first, I had the idea that I would enrol in a writing school. I’d never studied creative writing, and I ended up meeting somebody who had taught at Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was willing to take me on as a private student. So I started doing these playful writing exercises that were more personal, and then this identity confusion stuff was going on in the background and I realised, well, this could be a really interesting container for a more experimental, personal type of writing. It was a totally different process, and it really came out of a desire to write differently.

DS: In the book, you talk about the doppelganger in both an individual and collective framing. We can have our own personal doppelgangers, but nations and cultures can have doppelgangers too. Can you explain what you mean by that a bit more?

NK: I think doppelganger art is often used to explore the shadow side of societies, particularly in moments when a society seems to turn into its own evil twin – either because war breaks out, or because it gives up on democracy and turns into an authoritarian regime. So you can track, in doppelganger art, that there are these spikes during moments when people are trying to make sense of this collective shadow self. [For example, with] Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people see that film as a metaphor for Stalinism.

I think we know this about our societies, and part of why we’re so edgy is that [we know that] flip is possible. Because you see it in Hungary, you see it in Israel – societies can become their alter egos, and your neighbours can turn into a mob. So I think the doppelganger is a really good productive metaphor for that: this idea that there are two yous, or that there are two thems. It helps us wrap our heads around it.

“One of the things about performance culture and what it means to act like the ‘brand’ version of yourself is that you’re turning yourself into a thing, into a commodity. And things don’t have feelings” – Naomi Klein

DS: It felt like we reached peak mass mania on social media during the pandemic, which made sense as we were all trapped inside, anxious and glued to our phones. And then the terrible events of the last week happened and we seem to have somehow become worse. What are your thoughts on the way we experience these catastrophic global events on social media? Why do they induce this kind of frenzied behaviour?

NK: Well, you and I are speaking on the day that Israel is ordering a mass relocation of more than a million people in Gaza. It’s happening in the context of an unprecedented bombing campaign, while Israeli leaders talk about how these are ‘human animals’. This is why we have a Genocide Convention, to prevent exactly this. And I think that people [on social media] are acting from a place of deep fear. Palestinians and their supporters are fearful of annihilation, and I think even supporters of [the genocide] are fearful of what they are supporting, so have to project all the evil onto the other. This is what doppelganger politics is, where we project and perform our own purity, and then project everything that is negative onto the hated other. That’s what I see happening online, and I think it’s exacerbated – but not created – by platforms on which we don’t believe each other to be human. I think one of the things about performance culture and what it means to act like the ‘brand’ version of yourself is that you’re turning yourself into a thing, into a commodity. And things don’t have feelings. Things aren’t fully human. So I think when we accept the premise of the idea that we are brands or avatars, it’s more than likely that we’re going to be cruel to each other. But also, let’s face it, people are also being cruel to each other offline and in person.

At the heart of this is a very, very deep denial and disavowal of the other that I explore at length in the book. [For example, the situation in Israel and Palestine] was an absolutely impossible way to try to make reparations for the Holocaust, right? I mean, this idea that after the near annihilation of the Jews in Europe, it’s any kind of solution to push Palestinians off their land … It’s a project that has been violent from the beginning, and it didn’t address the underlying causes of the genocide in Europe. It just displaced them. So we’ve been in this dance of denial and disavowal ever since, and now it is reaching its most violent apotheosis as we speak. It’s absolutely unbelievable.

DS: It’s very hard to know how to behave right now. I know you wrote a piece last week about the tragedy of the Hamas attacks, and there were some who were hurt by parts of it.

NK: I think everybody is in an impossible position that we didn’t create. The Israeli government has used the bloodiest day in the history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust, and there was not even time to bury the dead to mourn before those deaths were used to justify a massive war crime that is ongoing in Gaza and now expanding beyond it. And so the idea that anybody is going to handle this well or that anyone is going to say exactly the right thing … There were missteps on everyone’s part, including mine, and I think we all feel massively helpless watching this pre-announced war crime unfold. The real issue is we can’t stop that, and we want to stop that – at least I do, especially because it’s being done in the name of protecting Jewish people. And I think when we feel such an extreme sense of helplessness, we just turn for the closest target and we do something that can have an effect, like tear that person down.

I also feel absolutely devastated that the piece came out just as this attack was starting on Gaza – just the idea that I could have contributed in any way to the pain and betrayal that Palestinians are experiencing right now, I don’t feel good about it. I do believe that I needed to speak about the attacks, but having these events so sandwiched together, there’s no space for speech. I obviously stand by the sentiment in the piece, but it‘s just that I posted quickly and I don’t do that usually; I read over my pieces multiple times, I approve the headlines, I’m back and forth with my editor. This time there was no editing process, it just went right out. And so I’m trying to have a little compassion for myself. I didn’t create the circumstances, and I also couldn’t be silent in the face of what I do believe were very damaging silences about – and in some cases tacit support for – killing civilians. I think that’s very damaging to our movements. And you know, the British left knows what happens when antisemitism is not taken seriously quickly within their ranks. It destroyed the Corbyn project; I think we can all objectively say that. And I defended Jeremy because I don’t believe he’s an antisemite, but I do believe it could have been handled better. I think we have to learn from these mistakes.

DS: So what should individuals, and media outlets, be calling for at this time? How do we approach this issue responsibly?

NK: All we need to do right now is oppose [genocide], it’s pretty clear. That’s what we need to be doing. We also need to be unequivocal in condemning the targeting of civilians and the massacres of Hamas; it’s not a legitimate tactic. Yes, I believe Palestinians have the right to armed resistance. No, I do not believe they have the right to target civilians. I think all sides need to be bound by the laws against war crimes. The reason to respect those laws is because you need them when they’re being violated on your side, and I think pretty much everybody has come around to that position. It’s an absolutely impossible situation, but the one line today is pretty straightforward.

The other thing I would say for leftists is that we need a vision. We need a very clear ‘No’, but we also need a vision of a ‘Yes’” – Naomi Klein

DS: What are your views on the British media at the moment? A lot of people that I’ve been speaking to have this sense of feeling gaslit – an overused term, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a better one at the moment. Do you think it’s always been that way, or do you think it is getting worse?

NK: It’s been my experience, specifically in British broadcast media, that you don’t even need to do any kind of homework. It’s really lazy, right? From a presenter’s point of view, you don’t need to know anything, you don’t need to have read the book or know very much about what is happening, all you want is just do a gotcha moment with whoever is in front of you. I think it’s got worse, though I do want to be clear that I think it’s been bad for a long time. And once again, I can’t blame it on the internet. I always found it to be an experience akin to hazing. It was always my least favourite part of every book tour, coming onto British TV. I’m sorry. I hope I’m not offending anyone.

It’s a weird situation in the UK where there’s simultaneously more access to the airwaves for leftists and they get treated shittier. In the US, they just won’t put you on. If they do, it’s because there’s a more progressive host and they are going to be nice to you. I think there’s a broader spectrum of who can get onto British broadcasting, but then once they’re on, it seems that the goal is shaming and getting a moment that will go viral on the internet. The producers will tell you, ‘no one watches this show, it’s just about the clips later.’ That is a very bad situation! It’s like they have just an incredibly expensive YouTube set, because all they’re trying to do is just get a viral moment on Twitter.

DS: Finally, how are you going to try and look after yourself in the next few weeks? How can we all be staying compassionate, and engaging with these issues in a meaningful way?

NK: I think the next while is going to be really hard. This war is going to grow, it’s not a blip, so we really have to figure out who we’re going to be in this moment and how we’re going to treat each other. It’s really a moment to commit to our friends, to the relationships that we’ve had in the past, get face to face, send each other notes saying that we appreciate each other and that we see each other’s efforts. And wherever possible, we need to try to speak with other people and pool our voices, as opposed to just being a million ‘me me me me mes’ out there. We have to really find those collective voices, and we’re going to have to push back very hard on attempts to criminalise dissent. I think this suggestion of banning Palestinian flags or making solidarity any kind of crime [is wrong]. We have to have real moral clarity that we need to be able to peacefully resist more than ever. We need all the tools of nonviolent resistance: protests, boycotts, divestment.

We also cannot allow ourselves to be shamed or bullied into not opposing genocide, [because] that is what is happening right now. And it’s being done in my name as a Jewish person, and [it’s not going to] keep me safe. I have a [friend] who lost a close family member [in the Hamas attacks] and she is not calling for blood. It’s fortress mentality, the idea that you can just lock up your enemies forever, and that is precisely what has failed.

The other thing I would say for leftists is that we need a vision. We need a very clear ‘No’, but we also need a vision of a ‘Yes’. And that’s what emerges out of relationships, out of art, out of keeping those lines of communication open. [We need to envision] what we want, instead of this world of walls, fortresses and bombs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Doppelganger: A Trip Into The Mirror World by Naomi Klein is published by Penguin and is out now.