I didn’t actually think the author of The Shock Doctrine could write a less than wonderful book but I really wasn’t interested in a book about people confusing her (Naomi Klein) with Naomi Wolf, or any other Naomi for that matter. Then I read Dave Zirin’s review of Doppelganger and realized that of course it was about something more than twins, body doubles, and avatars — and literary references thereto.
Doppelganger is actually about, among other things, the situation we’re in, not for the first time, of seeing people swing from the left to the right politically, and more than that of seeing people on the left partially swing to cobble together a bunch of rightwing positions (or beliefs) with their leftwing ones so that you don’t know what to call these people’s politics anymore — and even more than that of people prominently featuring in their weird new unnamed worldview a bunch of baseless fantasies.
The desire to find something secret and pretend it’s worse than what’s public has always been there. Nobody could possibly have done anything worse in creating the crimes of 9/11 than the wars and occupations that used it as a justification — or, for that matter, the wars and occupations for which al Qaeda had said 9/11 was blowback. The whole thing could have been micromanaged from Dick Cheney’s bathroom, and the big story wouldn’t have been any different. A war/genocide was underway in Iraq and Afghanistan, with islands being turned into torture centers and the U.S. stripped of civil liberties and our grandchildren’s resources being wasted on weapons. Why would anyone attempt to find something worse than that hidden anywhere?
Same with October 7th. You could prove that Netanyahu personally produced fake video of the whole thing and raped each victim himself, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Israel was killing people in Gaza by the tens of thousands. Yes, of course, exposing war lies is a way to help end a war, but it goes deeper than that. There’s a disproportionate attraction to anything that’s secret, an attraction that loses some of its appeal when the truth is discovered, no matter how awful the truth is — at least if the truth fails to immediately set us free, as it always does.
Increasingly people think they have the right to invent what is secret, or at least they have an increased ability to make those claims heard. In the past two days, Nancy Pelosi has told us that advocates for peace in Gaza work for Russia, and that they work for China. The total lack of evidence, and the fact that Russia and China are not the same thing, doesn’t seem to matter. People will believe Pelosi if they identify with Team Pelosi. And in the past two days Republicans have told us that some mysterious powers have rigged the National Football League so that the team with Taylor Swift’s boyfriend on it can win — all so that Taylor Swift can tell people to vote for Democrats. Never mind that she could tell them that right now if she wanted to.
Of course, a lot of people do advocate for things they’re paid to advocate for. Perhaps the most prominent such people are members of Congress. Of course, a lot of elements of elections are rigged — such as the financial barrier, the ballot-access and debate-access and corporate media barriers, the manipulation of primaries by incumbents, the electoral college’s existence, the gerrymandering, etc. But, as we’ve known for many years, the failure of governments to provide obvious solutions (public financing, free media, popular vote, etc., not to mention taxing the rich, defunding the military, funding human needs, etc.) leads to support for less obvious solutions (term limits, coups, walling off Mexico). When one political party offers little more than blaming everything on Russia, another can offer little more than blaming everything on Mexicans without sounding especially unreasonable.
Naomi Klein suggests, I think, that what goes for policy solutions also goes for explanations of the world. When one team won’t even discuss the origins of COVID or the dangers of vaccines, and hardly touches the need to make the data and the products public for the good of the public over private profit, there’s something even more powerful than failing to provide good schools and clean energy and secure retirement going on. There’s a black hole being created with immense gravitational pull. And into the hole come rocketing the prophets of vaccine fantasy to blame on vaccines all variety of evils.
The amazing trick that Doppelganger pulls off is to frame advocacy of good nonviolent socialist revolution as mainstream in contrast to shoddy journalism, factual errors, and paranoid fantasies. Are you against crazy conspiracy theories? Then you’re with the sane people who want single-payer healthcare, a guaranteed income, and the Pentagon turned into affordable housing. Despite endless, deep self-reflection, the book doesn’t say it is doing this, but then it wouldn’t work if it did, would it? And if it does work, it will only work for people who read books — unless someone figures out how to spread the idea.
One can hope that in parallel, there is some association being established between decent, humane, leftist politics (for those who already support those) with the value of careful research and informed analysis. In an age of screaming multitudes of self-appointed experts, clearly our values should include, alongside environmentalism, healthcare, education, a living wage, etc., the value of proper research and comprehension of evidence.
This does not mean we have to side with reactionary willful incomprehension of sensible philosophical insights like those of Richard Rorty, or start shouting about “Objective Reality” as if that phrase denoted something we possessed. It also does not mean that Naomi Wolf writing a book and getting her basic facts wrong is as awful as Joe Biden fueling a genocide. It just means that among the things we need to care about — and figure out how to properly care about — is the acquisition of the best possible ways of understanding things, including understanding brand-new topics about which our elders have not told us what to think.
Little can prepare us better for understanding the future than understanding the past, and understanding how it was misunderstood at the time. Those who fail to study history are clearly condemned to not understand the centuries-out-of-date worldviews of their neighbors. But also, those who fail to consume rightwing podcasts are condemned to not even know what is going on. Doppelganger is very much an “I watched many hours of Steve Bannon so that you don’t have to” book, for which we should be very grateful. In the book, Klein warns her husband, who is running for public office, what is going on in the addled minds of many people. We should heed the lesson faster than he did.
Klein herself admits to having not caught on immediately. She sometimes says she regrets and at other times seems to think she was right to have avoided various topics because they would have been too much confused with the topics being pursued by Naomi Wolf. She says she and others didn’t look into the COVID lab-leak possibility, because they didn’t want to resemble others who were talking about that — who were talking about it with more racism and xenophobia than facts. But that, of course, is no reason whatsoever not to look into an important question that might grow harder to answer with the passage of time. Klein’s book gives us many examples of the complexities of the world and of individuals. We have to insist on recognition of that complexity in timely discussion — on the possibility of some racist buffoons with loud microphones being right about something for the wrong reason, and of our ability to communicate that even if we cannot fit it and all the obligatory caveats into a single tweet. Because, factually speaking, declaring there to have been no lab leak (from a partially-U.S.-funded lab, by the way) because I don’t hate Chinese people makes exactly as much sense as declaring there to have been a lab leak because I do hate Chinese people. And supporting NATO because somebody said Trump opposes it, is reckless idiocy.
There is a large group of people whom Klein calls diagonalists. These are people who used to be consistently good liberals but who have added blaming vaccines for a variety of ills (real and imaginary), have adopted various other ideas that verge on or enthusiastically embrace xenophobia and racism, have to various degrees decided that because Democrats are so awful there simply must be something good about Republicans (or their equivalent in other countries). These are people who need to be understood, not despised. The holding of a dumb and baseless belief about vaccines is not remotely as shameful an action as wishing for those who hold such beliefs to die off (a wish we have all encountered on social media, where it’s very easy to get yourself aggressively mocked for not recognizing such an evil statement as a joke — “It’s a JOKE, you idiot!”).
Distrusting the U.S. federal government is usually a smarter move than blindly trusting it. The problem is that many people have a very hard time figuring out what to believe and what not to believe, as well as how to live with not knowing the answer to an important question — and an even harder time putting things into proper proportions. A vaccine that saves many people and harms or kills a small number of people is something that should be improved. Someone who promotes using that vaccine while lying that it harms nobody doesn’t actually thereby alter the basic facts about it. The vaccine goes right on saving many people and harming or killing a small number of people. Words don’t have magical powers. The fact that greedy corporations are keeping data and products secret also doesn’t change the observable facts; it merely suggests a need to make more facts public.
Those who invent supposed facts often do not have an interest in making the actual facts public. They may want corporate death profiteers to get ever richer; they may openly make that central to their politics. Choosing to support those politics should not follow from someone getting one fact right, much less from someone else getting one fact wrong; it should only follow from believing that the policies advocated will make the world a better place, something that hating Mexicans and bowing before clownish despots won’t do.
So how do you get the whole doppelgangered gang back?
Well, back to where? Who had them and how? Certainly we shouldn’t want either of the catastrophic political parties in the United States or their equivalents elsewhere to capture anyone as a believer or follower. We shouldn’t be winning anyone over for Genocide Joe or Generalissimo Don. Loyalty to groupthink is the problem, not the solution.
The place we need to bring people back from madness to is a place that doesn’t yet exist in sufficient strength: a global movement for peace and justice and prosperity that is open and welcoming to all, that blames not mysterious “globalists” but billionaire robber barons, rightwing hucksters, liberal hucksters, the snake oil of redirection into hatred and bigotry, and the sleight of hand by which dumping everything into wars on distant peoples is supposed to be something other than hatred and bigotry.
One way we get there could be through honesty, through clearly pointing out the important difference between small and large problems while acknowledging both, and through humility, acknowledging past mistakes and failures, and through a commitment to questioning everything but answering only that for which we actually have reliable answers. This may require a lot more than mainstreaming the idea that good journalism is an important value, or that it is aligned with a leftist agenda. It may require questioning the foundational nationalist notion of “freedom of religion” and everything that grew out of it in terms of the personal right to “believe” nonsense — and the impoliteness or bigotry of anyone with the temerity to ask for said nonsense to be explained and justified.
Of course, everyone has passionately held beliefs they don’t want questioned. But perhaps we can imagine how we would explain those beliefs to someone just exactly like each of us who lacked only those beliefs. We could think of such a person as a belief-free doppelganger.