This idea of the doppelganger gave me a new way to think about the mix of malicious parody and projection that now dominates our public life. Sometime soon, for example, the House is likely to impeach President Biden on the pretext that he was involved in corruption in Ukraine — the same conspiracy theory Trump was trying to breathe life into when he got himself impeached for corruption in Ukraine. This coming doppelganger impeachment is hard to even discuss without getting pulled down innumerable rabbit holes, which is surely part of the point.
“How comforting it would be if Wolf were a fake we could unmask — and not a symptom of a mass unraveling of meaning afflicting, well, everything,” writes Klein. This unraveling, of course, was well underway before Covid, but the pandemic accelerated it by forcing people to live online, communicating on platforms seemingly algorithmically designed to reward rage and paranoia.
Wolf’s story is instructive. “The Beauty Myth,” her 1990 blockbuster about the toll taken on women by the upward ratchet of unreasonable beauty standards, made her famous. In retrospect, the seeds of her intellectual decline were already present in that book, which contained both major statistical errors and a conspiratorial subtext that painted the influence of patriarchy as a deliberate plot. In the ensuing years, her work grew increasingly sloppy and absurd, until her reputation collapsed altogether in 2019 with the publication of “Outrages.”
Wolf faced the singular mortification of being confronted, live on the radio, with evidence that her book’s central contention — that several dozen men in Victorian England were executed for having same-sex relationships — was based on a misreading of historical records. That October, her U.S. publisher canceled the release of “Outrages.”
“If you want an origin story, an event when Wolf’s future flip to the pseudopopulist right was locked in, it was probably that moment, live on the BBC, getting caught — and then getting shamed, getting mocked and getting pulped,” writes Klein. Klein had a front-row seat to the pile-on, since much of it was mistakenly directed at her. She writes with real empathy about how, coming only a few months after the death of Wolf’s father, this professional implosion meant that Wolf “went into the destabilizing period of the pandemic in an already highly destabilized state.”