The Daily Maverick recently ran an article by Rebecca Davis on rumours emanating from Washington D.C. that Joel Pollak, a former speechwriter for then Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon in the early 2000s, now with Breitbart News in California, may be in line to be the next United States Ambassador to South Africa. The profile proceeded to paint Pollak in highly unflattering terms, and contrasted him negatively with the previous US ambassador, Patrick Gaspard, an Obama political appointee.
I have been on friendly terms with Joel for many years and he has also contributed occasional articles to Politicsweb since its inception. From what I know of him, and his political views, Davis’ profile struck me as inaccurate, misleading, and unfair. To explain why it is perhaps useful to begin by going over Pollak’s biography (much of this ground is also covered by Davis).
Pollak was born in South Africa but was taken across to the United States by his parents when he was a few weeks old. He grew up in Skokie Illinois and attended Harvard University as an undergraduate where he studied under Professor Cornel West. He came back to South Africa in 2000 on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. In a 2010 essay documenting his political shift from Democrat to Republican he writes that he was initially enthralled not just by South African’s transition to democracy but also the new ANC government’s “avowedly Left-wing policies and ethos.”
Two early reality checks to his naïve views were Thabo Mbeki’s campaign against the theory that HIV caused AIDS, underway at the time of his arrival, and the worsening state of schooling in Khayelitsha, where he tutored high school students. Here, “centralised planning by the national government and redistribution of resources from rich to poor districts had not improved results.” Perhaps the key moment in his transition from social democrat (“Liberal”, in American parlance) to liberal democrat (“Conservative”) was the debate occasioned by Minister Ronnie Kasrils' “declaration of conscience” - launched in December 2001 in the midst of the Second Intifada– which protested “Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory and its cruel suppression of the Palestinians' struggle for self-determination." "Measures to oppress the Palestinian struggle are an intolerable abuse of human rights,” Kasrils stated, “so we raise our voices as Jews and cry out, 'Not in my name'.”
The declaration, which was signed by 220 prominent (mostly left wing) Jewish South Africans, caused huge ructions within the broader Jewish community in South Africa. Pollak had contributed in a small way to the wording of the final declaration published in December 2001, but increasingly found himself in public opposition to Kasrils’ ongoing attacks on Israel. This controversy was the subject of Pollak’s dissertation for his Master’s in Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. It was later turned in to a book The Kasrils Affair: Jews and minority politics in post-apartheid South Africa.
Pollak’s contemporaneous writings on this debate were sympathetic and humane. For instance in one article he contrasted the welcome he had received while renting a room with a Muslim family and studying Arabic at a Madrassa in Cape Town with the vehemently anti-Jewish beliefs circulating feely across the Muslim world. He concluded by stating: “If I may, as a non-Muslim, offer some advice, it is this: The Islamic world will gain nothing from the destructive, racist ideologies of anti-Semitism. Rather, it is the Islamic tradition of tolerance and learning - which I have been so fortunate to experience first-hand - that holds the key to the future.”
In 2002 Pollak became a speechwriter to DA leader Tony Leon; a role which he performed, by all accounts, with distinction. In his 2010 essay Pollak wrote: “Tony’s party, the Democratic Alliance, stood for free markets, civil liberties, and the rule of law and the constitution. In American terms, it would be roughly equivalent to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats or to Reagan’s Republicans without the component of social conservatism (though the party’s base was predominantly Christian, it did not take formal positions on abortion, gay marriage, or the death penalty.)”
Pollak said that Leon believed strongly in two ideas in particular. One was his opposition to notions of collective guilt, the other was his commitment to constitutionalism – “or, more precisely, the checks on majority power that South Africa’s constitution provided. In principle, South Africa’s constitution created several institutions intended to restrain the power of the ruling majority in parliament. In practice, the ruling majority simply appointed its own members to head those institutions. Watching Tony defend his ideas against overwhelming political odds was an inspiration.”
The Alternet article, which Davis seems to regard as a completely authoritative source, represents the views expressed in the paragraph above as follows: “When he left South Africa in 2006, Pollak says, he had become an opponent of the concept of majority rule — which in the context of South Africa means opposing black rule.” This article also regarded it as an indictment of Pollak that he worked as a “speech writer for a controversial white, Jewish South African politician, Tony Leon, who was accused by top ANC politicians, including former President Thabo Mbeki, of racism.” As the embedded link makes clear Leon had been accused of “racism” for the terrible offence of criticising the ANC President’s policies on “HIV and AIDS”, policies which would lead to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of black children.
While with the DA Pollak met his future wife Julia Bertelsmann, the daughter of Rhoda Kadalie. The two moved to the United States in 2006 where both studied at Harvard University. In the 2008 presidential elections Pollak worked as a volunteer for the John McCain – Sarah Palin ticket, finally joining the Republican Party. In his 2010 essay Pollak wrote that “in the Democrats’ eager rush to consolidate political power,” following Barack Obama’s landslide victory “and to expand rapidly the role of the federal government in the American economy” he recognised “a dangerous majoritarian impulse that our Constitution, and my experience in South Africa, warned against.” This passage, which is quoted in the Alternet piece, appears to be the source for Davis’ claim that Pollak “has referred to the ANC’s ‘majoritarianism’ as ‘dangerous’.”
In 2010, having received his JD degree in law the previous year, he stood as the Republican candidate in his home district in Illinois, where he was backed by Tea Party groups. The Illinois's 9th congressional district is heavily Democrat-leaning and the incumbent, Jan Schakowsky, duly retained her seat - albeit with a majority reduced from 74.66% to 66.34%. His campaign brought him to the attention of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the eponymous Conservative website Breitbart.com, and Pollak was recruited as in-house counsel, later taking up the position as editor-in-chief. After Breitbart’s death in early 2012 Pollak carried on in this latter position until October 2013 when he stepped down to become a senior editor-at-large, a position which allowed him to focus on writing rather than editing.
Under the direction of its Executive Chairman Steve Bannon, who had stepped in to run the website after Andrew Breitbart’s death, Breitbart News was one of the few Conservative publications to provide sympathetic coverage and support for Donald Trump’s outsider campaign for the Republican nomination for US President. Bannon, who describes himself as an “economist nationalist” but not an “ethno nationalist”, is driven by his hatred for the establishment elites (both Republican and Democrat), whom he blames for the 2008 financial crisis, and the belief that the American working and middle classes have been screwed over by the policies of globalisation. In a Washington Post article in January 2016 on the site’s support for Trump Bannon was quoted as saying: “We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy. We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say [Republican Speaker of Congress] Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.” Incidentally, this was a hard-charging approach which was at odds with Pollak’s generally calm, reasoned and balanced style of writing.
This editorial line in support of Trump caused significant strains within Breitbart. These were brought to a head in March 2016 after Tump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski forcibly grabbed the arm of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields' to pull her out the away, as she tried to ask a question of Trump while following after him. The Trump campaign proceeded to vehemently deny Lewandowski’s involvement. In an article based on partial video evidence and these denials Pollak suggested that Lewandowski had been misidentified as the true culprit - with a security officer really to blame - and that Washington Post reporter Ben Ferris, who had witnessed the incident, must have been mistaken. Further video evidence then emerged which contradicted this hypothesis, and Pollak updated the article to reflect this. While Pollak’s half-baked intervention on this matter is certainly open to criticism it is inaccurate for Davis to claim either that “Michelle Fields was captured on camera being manhandled to the ground” or that Pollak ignored the footage confirming this in his article.
This incident precipitated the departure of Fields from Breitbart and a bitter public falling-out between Pollak and a close colleague, Ben Shapiro, who then went on to found the rival Daily Wire website. At about this time a private email exchange was leaked from January 2016 in which Pollak had asked an ex-Trump staffer whether the candidate needed a speechwriter given that he tended to talk off-the-cuff. The answer was no. Pollak told Buzzfeed when asked for comment that he had “reached out to several campaigns at the time — including Cruz, Perry, and Fiorina as well as Trump — because I considered returning to speechwriting. I didn’t end up changing careers, and I’m proud to work at Breitbart.” In her piece Davis omits this context.
In August 2016 Bannon was appointed Trump’s campaign manager, and helped steer the campaign to an improbable and wholly unexpected victory over Hilary Clinton in the US Presidential elections on November 8th. After the election Trump appointed Bannon as his “senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist”, to considerable opposition from the Democratic Party, the mainstream media and some establishment elements in the Republican Party. Since then, Pollak has taken a leading role in publicly defending Bannon from thinly-sourced allegations that the latter was an “anti-Semite” and a “white nationalist.”
This then is the strange path which has, if the Daily Maverick is correct, led Pollak to a position where he could be considered by the new Trump administration for a possible ambassadorial appointment to South Africa.
Much of Davis’ article can be read as an effort to link Pollak in readers’ minds to the noxious “alt-right” movement in the United States. That she was not unsuccessful in doing so is suggested by subsequent articles that have appeared in the South African press. In one of these Independent Media’s Foreign Editor Shannon Ebrahim has described Pollak as “a grand proponent of the alt-Right” and an “alt-Right ideologue”.
Davis’ begins her article by describing Pollak as “the editor-at-large of Breitbart, the alt-right website credited with helping galvanise white nationalists in America” and then goes on to republish a number of deliberately provocative headlines from the publication which democrat-operatives had employed in their campaign against Bannon’s appointment to the White House. None of these were from articles that Pollak had written, and Davis provides no evidence whatsoever that he had anything to do with them. The description of Breitbart as an “alt right website” is also inaccurate and a misrepresentation of last year’s controversy over the issue.
In March 2016 Allum Bokhari and Breitbart’s (now ex) tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos wrote an article for Breitbart called “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right”. Yiannopoulos is an eloquent, charming and sinister provocateur (see a number of the headlines quoted by Davis) and a self-described “chronicler of, and occasional fellow traveller with, the alt-right”. He is also capable of directing onto his opponents, with a nod-and-a-wink, a truly terrifying army of abusive trolls, a power which eventually got him banned from Twitter. The thesis of the article, as summarised by Cathy Young, was that while the alt-right did have some actual white supremacists and neo-Nazis in its ranks it was mostly “a loose alliance of maverick intellectuals, traditionalists who feel unrepresented in the mainstream political establishment, and cheeky young rebels who post racist slurs and memes just to annoy the pearl-clutching guardians of political correctness.”
In an interview with the left-wing site Mother Jones in July 2016 Bannon claimed that Breitbart was "the platform for the alt-right" and suggested that while this movement did attract white nationalist, anti-Semitic and homophobic elements – in the same way that the progressive left and hard left also had its nasty camp followers – this was not its essence. In a later interview with the Wall Street Journal he clarified his earlier remarks. As Kimberley Strassel reported:
[Bannon] acknowledges the site is “edgy” but insists it is “vibrant”. He offers his own definition of the alt-right movement and explains how he sees it fitting into Breitbart. “Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.” But he says Breitbart is also a platform for “libertarians”, Zionists, “the conservative gay community”, “proponents of restrictions on gay marriage”, “economic nationalism” and “populism” and “the anti-establishment”. In other words, the site hosts many views. “We provide an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought — we set it up that way” and the alt-right is “a tiny part of that”. Yes, he concedes, the alt-right has “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones”. He makes clear he has zero tolerance for such views.
It is deeply questionable whether any real distinction can be drawn between the white-racist and anti-Semitic elements of the alt-Right and the rest of it. As Cathy Young noted in her response to Bukhari and Yiannoupolos the movement is, if you look carefully enough, almost entirely poisonous: “This is a movement that counters the toxic culture of the left with a toxic brew of its own: a mix of old bigotries and new identity and victimhood politics adapted for the straight white male.” Breitbart’s flirtation with the alt-Right under Bannon is thus certainly deserving of serious condemnation but the problem for those who claim it is itself an “alt-Right” publication is to point to any anti-Semitic or white-racialist content that has appeared on it. The “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” headline, which Davis cites, would perhaps qualify were it not for the fact that the article was written by the Jewish conservative David Horowitz. As Horowitz subsequently commented:
“[T]he only alleged slander of the Jews that the NY Times could dig up in its list of Bannon’s faux sins, is a headline that I wrote, and am totally responsible for, and that Bannon had nothing to do with. This headline was written by me for an unsolicited article I sent to Breitbart.com – that I didn’t even get paid for – calling Bill Kristol a ‘renegade Jew.’ Why renegade Jew? Because Kristol defected from the Republican Party and the cause of Jewish survival to throw his weight behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who gave nuclear weapons and billions of dollars to Iran whose leaders have sworn to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Since Kristol was a leader of the post-primary, “Never Trump” Republicans, he was deserting his party to help elect Clinton and in my view to dig Israel’s grave.”
Although Davis creates the impression that Pollak belongs to the “alt-right” (after all he allegedly works in a senior position for an “alt-right publication”) she does not provide any proof for this insinuation (pivoting instead to Pollak's unblinking support for Israel). This is unsurprising given that it would require producing evidence that Pollak was a committed anti-Semite and white supremacist, presumably also deeply opposed to the practice of race-mixing. To take an analogous South African example: it would be fair comment to say that the Daily Maverick provided a platform for the hyper-racialist Fallist movement in 2016. It would still be inaccurate however to talk about the Daily Maverick as “a Fallist publication”, and ridiculous to describe someone like Ivo Vegter as a “black nationalist” simply because of his association with the website.
Davis also makes much of the fact that Pollak would have no diplomatic experience were he to be appointed to the job. This is a fair point, but Davis fails to recognise that all the US ambassadors to South Africa under President Barack Obama were also political appointees. The last career Foreign Service Officer to serve in the position was Cameron R. Hume whose term ended in 2004. Patrick Gaspard also had no diplomatic experience at the time of his appointment. Davis writes that “Pollak would make as different an ambassador to South Africa than his suave predecessor … as is possible to imagine…. He believes affirmation action policies are “disastrous”, Parliament is “weak”, and the South African government’s foreign policy from the time of Mandela is “bizarre”.” There are errors of omission and commission in this description of Pollak’s views on South Africa. The 2013 article from which these quotes are drawn is actually headed “Why Conservatives Should Celebrate Nelson Mandela” and the relevant passage reads as follows:
“Mandela set an example for humble leadership, in contrast to many other African leaders–and many in the West as well. He lived simply, taking walks along public roads and highways, dropping in to pay visits to ordinary people (and causing headaches for his security detail). He respected the independence of the courts, even agreeing to appear as a witness while serving as president, and accepting contrary decisions with grace. He left office after a single term, though he could have been re-elected for the rest of his life. Conservatives are right to be sceptical about the iconography that sprung up around Mandela. He is a man with flaws and frailties, and despite his successes, many of South Africa’s problems today–crime, HIV/Aids, disastrous affirmative action policies, a weak parliament–took root during his time in office. In addition, Mandela’s bizarre foreign alliances–which included the likes of Arafat, Castro and Gaddafi–maintained Soviet-era solidarity abroad at the expense of the principles of freedom for which Mandela fought at home.”
Read as a whole this is a perfectly reasonable and fair description of President Mandela’s record in office. Curiously, given her eagerness to include Breitbart headlines written by other people in her article, Davis fails to mention the headline to this one, and does not provide a link to the article either. Where Davis is probably right is in saying that Pollak, if appointed, would be a very different ambassador to Gaspard. For one thing he would bring to the position a far deeper knowledge and understanding of South Africa and its challenges than his predecessor did. For another, Pollak’s approach would (hopefully) be informed by values of liberal non-racialism. By contrast, Gaspard’s sympathies, if his Twitter feed was any guide, appeared to be with the black nationalist elements in our society.
Joel B. Pollak, “A ‘FRANK’ Exchange: The tale of my political conversion”, in Jonah Goldberg (ed.) Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. (Harper Collins: New York, 2010)