When Naomi Klein was in high school, she had a part-time job at Esprit, a popular retail clothing store for women. Esprit had a great manager, but sales were down, and so the head office brought in a supervisor to see to it that things turned around. It seemed image was part of the problem. Suddenly, seminars were being held to discuss what it meant to be an “Esprit girl,” a term reserved for the store’s largely teenaged and early 20-something employees. An Esprit girl, they were told, was very natural; she wore fresh-looking makeup, painted her nails in conservative colours, rolled her shirtsleeves in a certain way. An Esprit girl did notsnicker about ridiculous seminars or initiate meetings to discuss the difficulties of working at a store under such strict new management-unless, of course, she was Naomi Klein, whose cynicism about store policies spread among her fellow employees. When the manager noticed the growing attitude problem, she identified Naomi as the ringleader and took her into the back hallway for a chat. There, she told Naomi that she didn’t like the way she was conducting herself, that the little meetings she was “organizing” weren’t appreciated and that, in short, she was fired. And then, as if sensing there was a lesson to be had-a lesson that wouldn’t go ignored by this newly unemployed Esprit girl-she said to her, “There will come a time in your life when lots of people are going to listen to you. That time is not now.”
Tonight, a blustery November evening more than a decade later, is the time, and Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre, the place. About 500 people, mostly teenagers, have gathered to discuss globalization, or, more specifically, to belt out snide remarks when panellists Bill Dymond, director of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law, and Greg Fergus, policy advisor for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, take the stage-both are representing the opposition. Naomi Klein is there too, and when she strides up to the podium in a denim skirt and knee-high black leather boots, something strange happens: the once-jittery audience becomes inexplicably quiet, intent on hearing every word. Naomi talks for seven minutes, and when she’s finished-and she isn’t really finished, just out of time-the crowd explodes in triumphant applause, the kind of exuberant reaction you’d expect at a movie theatre when justice is finally served, when the bad guy is dead and the good guy wins. For the crowd here tonight, Naomi Klein is the good guy.
Only it isn’t always this way. In recent years, Klein has certainly made a name for herself, a name that’s just as likely to conjure up an image of the bad guy-particularly if you’re a multinational corporation with brand-name visibility. Only 30 years old, the award-winning journalist, best-selling author and antibranding activist has already served as editor at This Magazine and has had her own column in The Toronto Star. Every Wednesday her thinly veiled attacks on everything from the Liberal government to the World Trade Organization appear in “Unlabelled,” her aptly named column in The Globe and Mail.
But what really catapulted her career came early last year, when Klein took the corporate world by storm with her antibranding bible, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, a book so firm in its message that its publisher’s tiny greyhound colophon is slashed out on the spine. In it, she writes, “This book is hinged on a simple hypothesis: that as more people discover the brand-name secrets of the global logo web, their outrage will fuel the next big political movement, a vast wave of opposition squarely targeting transnational corporations, particularly those with very high brand-name recognition.”
Whether you agree with her or not, one thing is clear: people are taking notice. So much so, in fact, that even her would-be archrivals are inviting her opinion. Last September, Klein was the unlikely speaker at the Canadian Marketing Association’s annual branding conference. In an earlier instance, she was invited to take the stage at an informal gathering of top-level executives from CIBC, Nike and the Bank of Montreal, some of the very companies under attack in No Logo. While she won’t talk to individual companies as a consultant, she doesn’t want to exclude them, either, “because these are human beings and they are engaged.” And so, in what might be an exercise in futility, she tells them about the dangers of branding in a world on the brink of an antibranding backlash, often prefacing her speeches with the warning that her ideas are enormously unprofitable. In a way, her decision to talk to corporate bigwigs in their “capacity as citizens” is trademark Naomi: she’s trying to reach the unreachable.
And though her intentions may be good, her countless television appearances, speaking engagements and media interviews make it hard not to think of her as a walking, talking corporation, a “Naomi Inc.” of her very own. In fact, there was even talk among her publishers about copyrighting the term “No Logo” (Klein refused).
But to reduce her to a brand would be the ultimate irony for a woman whose most important work to date rests on the argument that branding is leaving us in a world with no space, no choice and no jobs. To hear Klein tell it, we’re living in the midst of hollow corporate culture: Starbucks sells community, but all you really get is coffee. A Polaroid isn’t just a camera, it’s a social lubricant. Just don’t turn to Klein in search of something that brand names fail to deliver. She doesn’t offer any easy answers or quick fixes in her critically acclaimed book or her fact-heavy column. Read anything by Naomi Klein. At worst, you’ll get a scouring critique of issues you didn’t even know were issues. At best, you’ll get hope that someone is finally using her journalistic voice for something important.
So who is this hard-nosed reporter, anticorporate crusader, culture critic and reformed mall rat called Naomi Klein? The short answer is she’s everything you wouldn’t expect. Readers know her as the black-and-white photo behind an ultraserious lefty column, an interesting combination of old-fashioned reporter and militant activist-journalist. And yet, something doesn’t quite fit. Klein’s weapon isn’t so much the message as it is the medium. Let’s face it: her speeches about trade policies and global economics wouldn’t be nearly as interesting coming from a balding 40-year-old man in a suit-and she knows it. Young, hip and decidedly unpreachy, the woman behind the words isn’t the hard-core tightass you might expect. Packaged in cool clothes and a hint of an attitude, Naomi Klein makes serious issues look good-or, at the very least, a little less scary. Her attacks on the branded world as we know it notwithstanding, meeting her in person would remind you that she is, after all, just an ordinary pop culture junkie who doesn’t have all the answers. (In fact, despite her denunciation of consumerism, she admits that she actually likes to shop.)
And one more thing: she won’t be apologizing for any of it. On why she writes about the things she does, she explains simply, “That’s what I do: I go out there and I fight with assholes.” If Naomi Klein is a brand-a notion she heartily rejects-then this product can sure pack a punch. After all, this is one former Esprit girl who learned from the enemy.
When I meet Naomi for the first time, she’s huddled in the backseat of a cab, cell phone on her lap, shoulder bag at her feet, lip gloss carefully applied. We make small talk for a while: the weather, my classes, her crazy schedule. She’s pleasant at first, but not overly friendly; her friends tell me that I probably won’t see her lighthearted side, and I don’t right away. A few minutes later she’s quiet, preferring to look out the window or at the highway. We’re on our way to U of T’s Scarborough campus, where she’s scheduled to deliver a speech to a class studying culture. She’s not nervous, she says, even though she suspects her audience won’t be particularly engaged with what she’s saying. Like a politician hoping to convert a few people, she can do no more than wait.
While Klein didn’t initially aspire to a political career, some might say it was inevitable. Her grandfather, a Marxist, lost his job as an animator at Disney for organizing the company’s first strike. In the ’60s, her American parents moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. They settled in a suburb of Montreal, where Klein’s father, Michael, a family doctor, was a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility; her feminist mother, Bonnie, joined the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change studio.
While Klein’s childhood was average on many levels, it was hard to ignore her parents’ political values, particularly her mother’s. At a time when most children her age were battling for later bedtimes, Naomi was becoming acquainted with the controversy surrounding her mother’s 1981 antipornography documentary Not a Love Story. The idea for the film came when Naomi, then only eight years old, was greeted by a row of “tits and ass” magazines at a local convenience store. The scene is reconstructed in the film’s introduction, during which Bonnie narrates, “What could she think of her own self and her own little body surrounded by this?” In retrospect, Bonnie admits that it was a “tremendous invasion of Naomi’s privacy,” a fact that Naomi was quick to recognize. The film made her mother the subject of vicious attacks from major national newspapers and mega-porn magazine Hustler, which awarded her the title “Asshole of the Month.”
If there was a lesson to be learned from her mother’s nervy assault on pornography, it wasn’t lost on Klein. At the age of 12, she had to prepare a speech for her bas mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage in which one assumes religious responsibilities. While her more traditional peers delivered feel-good accounts of their grandparents’ history, Klein had a different idea. On the day of the ceremony, she stood up in front of the congregation and spoke candidly about discrimination among members of the Jewish community, a subject that was not, shall we say, kosher. But when young Naomi spoke, people listened. She had done her research, complete with interviews with leaders of major Jewish organizations. So taken were they by the speech, the synagogue members rose to their feet in applause, an event more unusual than a pork roast dinner on Yom Kippur.
While it appeared to be a promising step in the right direction, Naomi certainly had her turn playing the teenaged rebel. In high school she and her friends were accused of arson (for starting a small fire in the girls’ locker room), landing her in a strict all-girls school for a year. It seemed the politics that so enraptured her parents failed to spark the same enthusiasm in their daughter. “I wanted them to leave me the hell alone,” Klein said of her parents in Britain’s The Guardian last September. Much to her parents’ dismay, Naomi retreated to the world of clothes, the mall and gossipy telephone marathons with girlfriends. But despite her indulgence in the whimsies of typical adolescents, her parents recognized her underlying potential. “She was mature beyond her years even when she acted like a brat,” laughs her mother.
Her bratty behaviour eventually gave way to an older, more serious Naomi-a woman comfortable with the prospect of addressing a roomful of students quite possibly like her former self. When we arrive at U of T, Klein greets the class with an easy smile, and within minutes she abandons her spot behind the podium to get closer to the audience. She starts pacing the room, clacking her heeled boots across the linoleum floor, sipping on her Master’s Choice bottled water. Her speech is somehow both serious and funny: one minute she’s making a crack about the lack of oxygen in U of T’s classrooms, the next she’s explaining the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, or the MAI, “another goddamned acronym.” The audience, bored-looking suburbanites, become a little more alert. Someone is swearing in their classroom. When her time is up, a handful of students approach her to sign their copies of No Logo, and she obliges politely. She seems at ease here among the students. It wasn’t so long ago that she was one of them. After graduating from a CEGEP, Klein moved to Toronto to study English and philosophy at U of T. It was about the same time that a man by the name of Marc Lepine marched into a Montreal university, pulled out his gun and opened fire, killing 14 women and changing Canada forever. The event was somewhat of a turning point for Klein, and the dissenting spirit that had made a cameo appearance at her bas mitzvah some 10 years earlier began to reemerge. Klein started writing feminist articles, many of them controversial, for the campus newspaper The Varsity. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the one entitled “Victim to Victimiser,” in which she wrote, “[N]ot only does Israel have to end the occupation for the Palestinians, but also it has to end the occupation for its own people, especially its women.” The 800-word piece elicited such a strong reaction among her fellow Jews that she received bomb threats at her home. While Klein admits that it was indeed a terrifying time of her life, she didn’t stop writing. “I thought that’s what journalism was,” says Klein. “You wrote stuff, you pissed people off, you got bomb threats.” She went on to serve as editor.
Klein didn’t finish her degree. Instead, she started writing for the left-wing alternative publication This Magazine. At only 23, she made her cover story debut with “Give Us a Break: Generation X and the Boomer Media Shut Out,” a rant about Canadian youth’s diminishing presence in the mainstream media. In it, she wrote, “Sure, in the short term the boomers are a lucrative market (they do have job security and enjoy reading), but could anyone really be so shortsighted, so completely unable to see beyond their own life span?” When “Give Us a Break” hit newsstands, the media were quick to place a watchful eye on the new, left-leaning young journalist.
While her professional life began to take off, she met her personal and political match in the form of Avi Lewis, now host of CBC’s political debate show counterSpin and son of famous left-wing duo Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg. The pair had what Lewis calls “a thoroughly modern media meeting.” It was 1993 and the federal election campaign was in full swing. At the time, Lewis was a political news reporter for MuchMusic and the perfect choice as an interviewee for a story Klein was doing about Gen-Xers’ views of the election process. Lewis describes their conversation as one of the most intelligent ones he’s ever had on the subject. There might have been a spark; one friend says Klein “definitely had her eye on him.” Though the pair aren’t legally married (says Lewis: “We have deeply ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage”), they had an unofficial ceremony, and Klein is well aware of how much they appear to be a media merger. “I do understand that from the outside it looks like an embarrassment of riches, and that’s why I’m not interested in personality journalism. I don’t write about myself, I write about issues.”
At the same time, This Magazine was following her work, and when the position of managing editor opened up in the early ’90s, she seemed to be the natural choice for the job. Under Klein’s leadership, This went through a successful transformation that recaptured the fresh, exciting reputation it had enjoyed in earlier years. Some attribute the magazine’s turnaround to Klein’s youthful exuberance. “Naomi’s great skill as an editor was her ability to make you believe that you were writing the most important story, not just in the magazine, not just in the entire year of the magazine, but possibly the most important story in Canada,” says Clive Thompson, who succeeded her as managing editor of This. “She was very, very good at creating excitement in you.” Others felt that the media spin surrounding the new young editor overshadowed their own contributions. Says one former staffer, “It was like Naomi was the big person and we were a bunch of goofballs who couldn’t get it together.” Because she was only 24 at the time of her editorship, there was a sense among some staff that she was simply passing through, on her way to bigger and better things.
If that was a prediction, it was a wise one. Klein’s stint as editor lasted a little over two years before the pundit calls came, most notably from The Toronto Star, where she was hired to write a weekly column with a youthful slant. Klein took advantage of her new, more visible platform and soon built a reputation for smart, provocative pieces on everything from the APEC scandal to corporate sponsorship at Canadian universities. But while the pundit hat certainly fit, it wasn’t entirely comfortable. Over a dinner of Diet Coke and chicken souvlaki at a downtown Toronto restaurant, Klein says, “It was depressing the hell out of me because that’s not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, just being a critic.” Indeed, the Star was just a pit stop along the way to another destination, her column a mere preface for what was to come.
It’s 9 a.m. on the morning after her speech at the St. Lawrence Centre when Naomi picks me up in a rented white Pontiac with Christina Magill, or “Chris,” her assistant since September. I’ve never met Chris, but meeting her is like a reunion of sorts. When I email Naomi, it’s Chris who emails back. When I phone Naomi’s home number, it’s Chris who returns my calls. Chris is driving today, partly because Naomi admits to being the “worst driver in the world.” We’re on our way to the Canadian Auto Workers Centre in Port Elgin, where Naomi will be talking to members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and students from the infamous Ontario town of Walkerton, whose E. coli-tainted water killed seven citizens last year. The drive should take only about three hours, but we get lost so many times that we have to pull into a Canadian Tire somewhere in Barrie (“Where’s Barrie on this motherfucking map?” Klein asks at one point). Naomi calls the CAW to let them know that we’ll be late. Her cell phone is a natural extension of herself: she calls Avi for directions (she’s not lovey-dovey), her mother (they make plans for Christmas), a fact checker (yes, her father’s name is Michael, and yes, she studied at U of T).
Once we’re clear on the directions, Naomi flips through the radio stations but decides to put in a CD instead. She’s brought a few from Avi’s collection, and she chooses Wilco, an American country-rock band. It’s the kind of beautiful late-November afternoon that makes you wish you were outside instead of holed up in a car, but no one complains. Sipping on coffee and listening to Wilco, we decide to leave the interview for the drive back to Toronto.
Here’s what you should know about Naomi Klein: yes, she likes to shop, but she thinks it’s become an insane part of our lives (“It’s not that I’m against shopping, I’m just for culture”), yes, she sometimes wears brand names (Theory, Fendi), and hell yes, when her clothing has logos, she tears them off with a seam ripper (she’s not an advocate of free advertising). But she doesn’t have the holier-than-thou attitude you might expect. She doesn’t object when we pull into Tim Hortons for a snack, and the only acknowledgment she makes about the surrounding factory outlets is the deadpan remark “Brand debris.”
Once at the CAW, Klein quickly takes her place at the front of the room and launches into yet another lecture. She isn’t “on” as she was last night. She has about 12 versions of the speech, and perhaps she should’ve chosen a different one for today. She falters a bit more than she should, taking long pauses to look at her notes. “We have to redefine globalization,” she says at one point. “This is about democracy, not globalization?.” For a minute, her speech brings me back to painful history lectures delivered by my potbellied high school teacher?only this time I’m not doodling in my notes and neither are the people around me. Standing there at the podium, she looks like someone who has, perhaps grudgingly, learned her lesson: image is important. There’s something easy about listening to her. She smiles when she talks. Dressed in black pants, a denim jacket and dark sneakers, she seems more like a hip college student than someone who knows about the broader implications of multinationalism.
When it’s time for questions from the audience, a young girl nervously approaches the microphone and asks, “If you’re against communism and capitalism, what’s the middle ground and how can it be achieved?” The question hangs in the air for a minute before a low murmur fills the back of the room as if to say, “Good luck answering that one.” Klein breaks into a slow smile, a hint of weariness on her face. Leaning into the mike, she looks the girl straight in the face and asks only half-jokingly, “Do you have any easy questions?”
We’re back in the parking lot not even an hour later. Travelling over 250 kilometres for a single event isn’t rare for Klein these days. Since No Logo was released last January, she’s been everywhere from Seattle to Prague to Windsor, Ontario. The idea for the book that’s responsible for “the most amazing year” of her life came over five years ago when Klein was still a columnist at the Star. In 1995, she returned to U of T with hopes of finishing the degree she had embarked on in the late ’80s. But when she arrived on campus, something else captured her attention: young radicals had begun to spray-paint campus advertisements, an emerging phenomenon known as culture jamming. The university climate had certainly changed since her days as a student, a time when the popular idea of activism was simply banning the offending behaviour.
Klein was impressed with the new wave of hand-to-brand contact she saw at U of T; for her, it represented something much more than a student revolt. She saw it as an issue that would help to revitalize the dying left, whether anyone else knew it or not. “When I was researching the book I would tell people I was writing about anticorporate activism,” says Klein. “And they would say, ‘What anticorporate activism?'”
She started writing anyway, and No Logo was born: a book that took over four years to write and countless trips to foreign locales to research, including a jaunt to Indonesia during her “honeymoon.” A whopping 490 pages, the book mentions everything from the Gap to Courtney Love to the World Trade Organization. And yet, it doesn’t offer solutions as much as it tracks the anticorporate movement. As Klein explains, No Logoisn’t her “Here’s how to change the world, a 10-point plan.” She says, “I’m better at finding the evidence and building an argument than saying, ‘I’ve found the solution, follow me.'” It’s a point she makes clear in the book’s introduction, where she writes, “I don’t claim that this book will articulate the full agenda of a global movement that is still in its infancy. My concern has been to track the early stages of resistance and to ask some basic questions?what are the forces pushing more and more people to become suspicious of or even downright enraged at multinational corporations? What is liberating so many people?particularly young people?to act on that rage and suspicion?”
When No Logo made its way to bookshelves in January 2000, Klein was set: critics?most of them, anyway?loved it. The book became an international best-seller, praised by the likes of Gloria Steinem, who called it “invigorating,” and The New York Times, which touted it “a movement bible.”
With this success, Klein’s voice quickly became much sought after. Globe and Mail editor Richard Addis had heard about her from some people in the book business and, being new to the country, naturally wanted to meet her. Addis scheduled an appointment, they hit it off, and Klein was given a space in the Comment section. It was naming the column that proved to be the more difficult chore. When “Unlabelled” was chosen (a clever play on Klein’s book title), the Globe employees responsible for doing a final check on all the copy saw the moniker and thought it was some sort of mistake; surely the editors had forgotten to give the column a name. The confusion was sorted out, and today Klein’s headshot (complete with her eyes gazing to her left) and the word “Unlabelled” accompany her weekly column.
The column itself has been well received by most readers, although one Globe editor says that she’s received email messages from incensed Post reporters that say, “Fuck Naomi Klein.” In the car on the way back from Port Elgin, I ask Klein why she thinks people are so upset about her column. For a second, Klein looks surprised, and then hurt, saying she didn’t know that people were angry. I tell her about the emails. Almost instantly, she’s annoyed, telling me I’m going to have to be more specific?who at the Post? When I tell her I don’t have names, she snaps, “Well, you obviously don’t have any evidence and so I’m not going to respond to that.” She spins around in her seat to face the darkening town of Acton.
Her reaction comes as a surprise to me. This is the same woman who got bomb threats for writing an unpopular article in university. Klein can’t be new to unfriendly criticisms. Fuelled by No Logo‘s attacks on its manufacturing operations, Nike fired back. In a formal response to the book, the company cited several of its supposed inaccuracies, calling it “misinformed” and “unbalanced.” To that criticism, Klein answers, “Nobody took that seriously because if a company like Nike actually finds damaging errors in a book, you hear from their lawyers, not their PR department. Nike used my book as they use almost everything: as just another spin to talk about all the great things they’re doing.”
Nike wasn’t the only one to have a problem with Klein. It seemed that happily handing out seam rippers to remove brand-name tags at her book launch was not enough to distract her critics from where she chose to do business. It was ironic, almost funny, really, that a book that shook such an unforgiving finger at the evils of big-name corporations should embark on a tour that included highly publicized stops at Indigo. Reporters at Marketing Magazine were quick to run some biting critiques of Klein’s marketing ploys with remarks like “The whole thing dripped with delicious irony.”
When I ask about her appearances at Indigo, Klein pauses for a moment in the front seat before carefully saying, “I’m not a purist and I’ve never claimed to be. My book doesn’t advocate boycotts of any kind. I made a decision in the way I did this book that the integrity was going to be in the content and in the argument.” She’s sounding bored now, and continues in a way that tells me she’s been asked the same question a thousand times. “I’ve published with multinational publishers, [No Logo] is being sold in chain bookstores, and I work at The Globe and Mail. I think you make compromises all the time to get your message across. I do it every week and I think my skill is in being a popularizer. There’s not much point in being a popularizer if you’re not willing to reach people.”
But reaching people doesn’t seem to be a problem. Since No Logo‘s release, Klein’s message is being heard loud and clear: Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, urged his fans to read the book (Klein has since met the band personally), and her inbox is flooded almost daily with emails from young people who’ve read No Logo and want to get involved. But perhaps the most surprising incident came when popular children’s singer Raffi phoned her up and asked to meet. It turns out her book inspired a new ballad: “Tomorrow’s children got no logo?” he sang to her. “?Tomorrow’s children are not for sale?.”
By six o’clock in the evening, our white Pontiac is more than halfway back to Toronto. Along the way, we stop at Tim Hortons, where Naomi orders the much-advertised chicken stew and jokingly tells me how susceptible she is to marketing. We eat slowly and head back to the car, where any small talk has come down to random reminders about not missing our exit. It’s been a long day, and it seems as though every possible topic of conversation has been exhausted.
And then, somewhere on the darkening highway through Orangeville, Naomi turns around and motions me to turn my tape recorder back on. As if worried about forgetting to tell me something, she begins to talk about her family, and then her writing, and the people who inspire her to use her column as an outlet for saying what other people don’t. “My journalism is so much driven by?.” There’s a long pause. “?really what I think is wrong with this world.” She talks slowly and deliberately, as if she’s hearing herself for the first time.
We talk more about the media’s responsibility to serve the public, and when the subject of lifestyle journalism comes up, she says, “We watch junk TV, we watch shitty movies, we eat junk food. We choose convenience over content at every turn.” And then, perhaps not sensing the irony, she adds, “Something being popular doesn’t therefore make it worthy or important.”
And as she speaks, I’m reminded of the Naomi Klein I knew only a few hours ago, the Naomi Klein who was fun and fresh and popular.
Yet she doesn’t have all the answers-but I wish she did. The branded city looms ahead of us now, seemingly oblivious to the force of the woman in the front seat of our car. There’s no telling what will happen post-Naomi, when the media spotlight stops shining and No Logo, becomes buried on a bookshelf among others of its kind.
In the meantime, she’ll be selling her own brand of journalism, the kind that doesn’t promise to save the world, but sure makes it look as if it’s worth a shot trying. She’s an Esprit girl gone bad, and for now, people are buying in.