The HuffPost hoax

Jeremy Gordin says Verashni Pillay shouldn't have had to carry the can for the whole affair

Never mind the cheese, what about the hole?

On Sunday night, tucked up and drowsy in Cape Town, I was shocked awake when I read that the editor-in-chief of the HuffPost, Verashni Pillay, had resigned.

Given the duplicitous way in which our world works, and especially the duplicitous manner in which not a few senior executives at Media24 (aka Naspers) have been known to operate, I am still unsure whether Pillay elected to jump, was nudged toward the edge, or was pushed very hard.

But, whatever actually happened, I do think it unfair that Pillay is carrying the can alone for the Shelley Garland fandango …the story of which we all pretty much know, don’t we?

Distressed, annoyed, maybe even outraged, by the obvious lack of basic fact-checking and the tedious, clichéd and facile left-wing ideology he was wont to encounter in the media, one Marius Roodt wrote a spoof of the codswallop generally found on HuffPost and elsewhere.

Roodt suggested that an answer to all our woes might be to disenfranchise white men for 20 years. This, by the way, is not the worst idea I have ever read, though I personally would argue for the disenfranchisement of all men. But we can debate this another time.

Incidentally, Roodt was not exactly inventing the wheel; similar piss-takes were penned before 2017. Just one example of many: in 1996, when Pillay was probably in grade seven, Alan Sokal published Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Check it out on Amazon.com.

Roodtjie went to a fair bit of trouble. He created the persona of Ms. Shelley Garland, an MA student of Feminism at UCT, and he had a photograph taken of himself following a fulsome make-over and the addition of a wig.

Let’s dwell for a moment on Garland’s (Roodt’s) photo. I have to say, as my bubbe Sarah might have said in Yinglish: “To want to shtup that one, boychik, daft hoben a kupfere yetzer ha-rah”. I.e., “To want to bed that one, my boy, you’d need an iron-clad evil inclination”.

Now, given that this photo was sent, along with the written piece, to HuffPost, what puzzles me is how Roodt even managed to get to first base. One possibility is this. So pervasively, my friends, has the appalling stereotypical thinking of male chauvinist piggery infiltrated our collective psyche that even its sworn opponents – e.g., Pillay et al at the HuffPost – unknowingly take it for granted that a “feminist thinker” must look like this.

Alternatively: so bedevilled are people such as Pillay et al by political correctness that they couldn’t even begin to consider – it was simply beyond their ken – that Shelley might really be Sheldon. They weren’t really looking or seeing, you see; their eyes were stuck too far up their own rectitudes.

A third possibility – given that Shelley Garland looked very much like everyone’s favourite rebbetzin – is that Pillay et al are closet anti-Semites,  not of course because they are anti-Semites, perish the thought, but due to the oppression of the Palestinian people, you understand, which has subliminally turned people willy-nilly against Jews. And given, as I say, that Garland looked like nearly every female person that you see on the streets of Mea Shearim, if not Glenhazel, Pillay et al subconsciously rebelled at interrogating the picture further. But let me shut up before I get excommunicated or expelled from my shul.

Anyway, Roodt’s written piece was well crafted and the powers-that-were at the HuffPost – Pillay et al – bought it lock, stock and barrel and Roodt made a nice little puncture in the fabric of politically correct posturing and preciousness. It was, as my parents might have said, a jolly good joke and a nice little satire; and all those, such as I, who find that publications such as the HuffPost have the same effect on our intellectual processes as matzah does on our bowels, had a smile on our faces and a spring in our steps for a day or two.

If you wanted to be serious about it (which is your constitutional right and a major Seffrican inclination), I suppose you could say that Roodt’s caper contextualised and demonstrated the bullsXit content and agenda of the HuffPost and PC folk in general – especially after young Pillay defended the piece. She did this even after someone called Laura Twiggs had pointed out that Garland seemed not to appear on the national population register or UCT’s records. Pillay then informed us gravely that Ms. Garland’s view was “pretty standard for feminist theory”; why were we even questioning its arguments? Why indeed.

But then – o dearie me, oy-va-voy – the po-faces climbed in with a vengeance. Esmare Weideman, the CEO of Media24, issued a righteous statement about Media24 and journalistic ethics. Ho-ho-ho; maybe Weideman is a better parodist than one realizes. Additionally, the usual suspects complained to the Press Ombud about “hate speech” – a complaint which Johan Retief would later uphold with his usual breath-taking mixture of banality and anality.

Matters deteriorated further. Pillay and the HuffPost could have attempted to wipe the egg off their faces with as much dignity as they could muster and have said, “O dear, o bother, we made a boo-boo,” and “I’m sorry, we’ll start paying a bit more attention in future and maybe even go on a re-education course with David Bullard”. Instead, Ferial Haffajee, an editor-at-large (whatever that is), and Pieter du Toit, a Media24 handlanger, managed to trace Roodt to the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a somewhat self-important NGO, where he was a researcher.

They bearded the poor fellow at his work place – behaving for all the world as if they were Nazi-hunters who’d triumphantly cornered Adolf in Argentina in 1946 – video-taped him, and for good measure Haffajee called him a “doos”, which seems rather infelicitous not to mention physically inaccurate. Maybe Haffajee was confused by his earlier disguise. Roodt then also allegedly offered to resign (but maybe he was told to, we don’t know) – and this was accepted by CDE boss, Ann Bernstein.

This was all rather sad in many ways – not least for me. I thought Roodt had done a funny and clever thing and, had I been him, I’d have told the salivating cub-pack to take their I-phones and get the fxxk out of my space. But alas. Also, I have known Bernstein for many years and used to respect her, but now ... And, during my stint at Media24, I’d also grown almost to respect Haffajee, but now …

But this saga, needless to say, is not about me. Point is this: Roodt’s article was a spoof. Shall we at this point remind ourselves of the definition of “spoof”? “A humorous (sic) imitation of something, in which its characteristic features are exaggerated for comic (sic) effect; a parody, pastiche, take-off, imitation; informal send-up; piss-take (vulgar)”.

Roodt’s piece, and what he did to get it published, was funny – FUNNEE! Hello? – besides being witty and pertinent. It was high time that someone pointed out – not that the emperor or empress has no clothes, but that the emperor is wearing his pants on his head, his underpants as a hat, and the empress is wearing her shoes on her ears.

Didn’t anyone get this? Bernstein should have given the lad a pat on the back, if not a medal, for producing the first exciting enterprise to have emerged from the CDE for years. Deputy-sheriff Retief should have recused himself on the basis of laughter. Weideman should have had another drink and noted that Media24 editors have editorial independence (they don’t, but that’s another matter), and so on.

All of which is to say: everybody needs to go on a Laughter Management course, to take a chill pill, and to appreciate satirical talent when it shows its grinning face. More importantly, Pillay and the HuffPost were given a right smart kick in the tuchis – deservedly so. So take your punches on the chin (or tuchis) like a grown-up, get over yourselves, apologize if you need to, and promise to learn something from it (as unlikely as this might be).

Above all, there’s no need for Pillay to go. I’ll tell you why. First off, as mentioned, what happened was funny, satirical. Let’s all enjoy it when the emperor or empress get his/her comeuppance, but no need to kick him/her in the face when s/he’s on the ground.

Second, the drivel of the sort satirised by Roodt is de rigueur in Seffrica these days. Pillay didn’t invent it; she was simply doing what everyone else does. Consider much of the “national discourse” (for want of a better phrase): the stuff to which the chattering classes pay attention in print, on radio, and on sites, blogs and Twitter threads. For a number of reasons, this has been mostly been taken over by folk (for want of a better word) whose interest is not to present issues in as fair and impartial a way as possible (and perhaps with a soupçon of empathy), but to grind their little axes.

Mostly they are irrational, biased, frighteningly ignorant (especially of history, culture and context, even if some have attended overseas universities – they have heard of Franz Fanon but haven’t actually read him), reverse-racist (they don’t like whites simply because they’re white), reverse-sexist (they don’t like men simply because they’re male), chock-full of themselves, often vindictive (and of course wonderfully ludicrous). You know who they are; you listen to some on Radio 702; you read others on various well-known websites and HuffPost, in various newspapers, and on your Twitter feed.

Most importantly, though, let me ask you a question: why did Media24’s Weideman hire Pillay in November 2016? Doubtless, Pillay was (and is) bright and talented, albeit inexperienced. But it is also no secret that some of Media24’s senior editorial executives and Weideman in particular are permanently on the defensive about Naspers (now the holding company of Media24) having been the unabashed chattel of the National Party. Weideman has publicly grovelled for Naspers’ sins of the past and she drives the group’s “transformation agenda” relentlessly and, some of its staff would say, in a particularly cringeworthy manner. What could be better – especially given that the group’s mainstream newspapers have all disappeared into the doldrums – than to have a young female person of colour to head up the sexy new addition to the stable, the mighty HuffPost? A young person, nogal, ostensibly familiar with standard feminist theory?

In other words, what in fact was Pillay’s job? Well, blow me down with a feather: it was, not to put too fine a point on it, to publish the sort of cutting-edge twaddle that is de rigueur at the moment and that Roodt kindly provided.

In the Talmud (Gittin 45a), during a discussion about culpability, blind Rav Yosef ben Hiyya famously and acerbically remarked to Rabbi Abaye: “It is not the mouse that is the thief but the hole.” I.e., if a mouse steals cheese, why only blame the mouse? Why not also blame the hole in which the mouse is hiding? In yet other words, if a person commits a wrong, why only blame the person concerned and not also the circumstances that made it possible for her/him to sin?

Given that Pillay was doing precisely what she was hired to do, why should she take the fall alone?