MacTavish, a 28-year-old undergrad in his eighth year finishing a liberal-studies degree at Portland State University, landed in that spot by writing a column this term for the student-run Daily Vanguard using what he calls his technique of "aggression."
That style had worked well in a year's worth of past columns skewering corporations, marijuana prohibition and the war in Iraq. But this time his subject was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And his take was flippant and replete with remarks like "The Jews did not like to integrate with other peoples," and "Leaving Palestinians in little more than cages is not an appropriate act for a race released from concentration camps."
The column—titled "A City Divided"—was published Oct. 18. The backlash took a while to develop, but letters eventually started to trickle in, and that response soon generated more debate than the column itself.
Ten days after publication, the Vanguard published a full-scale retraction, accompanied by a letter of protest signed by 37 professors. Also in that critical mix: letters from the university's president, Dan Bernstine; its Jewish student union; and CAMERA, a Boston-based pro-Israeli media watchdog group. Unpublished were a few unsigned letters from fringe right-wingers praising MacTavish and claiming the Holocaust was a hoax.
In a pre-Internet world, that might have been the end of it. But the website Daily Kos—rated the fourth-most influential blog in America by Blogstreet.com—posted a piece Oct. 25 about MacTavish's column.
Cue the shitstorm.
The Vanguard began to get letters from Iowa, Australia and Tel Aviv. Then accounts of the flap began appearing on other blogs—including libertyforum.org, a far-right website frequented by real-deal anti-Semites.
MacTavish, who says he harbors no racist or anti-Semitic views, tried to atone. He wrote an apology that acknowledged his ignorance and invited others to educate him.
He wrote back privately to every critic he could find on the Internet. And he called Paul Haist, editor of the local Jewish Review, seeking to clear his name. Haist spoke with him and acquitted MacTavish of being an anti-Semite.
"The column is full of classic anti-Semitic canards," Haist says. "He was just uninformed."
MacTavish's interview with Haist was the last straw for Vanguard editor-in-chief Matt Petrie, who had told the columnist not to talk to the press. Petrie fired MacTavish in early November.
MacTavish isn't as upset over losing his $200-a-month column-writing gig as he is over losing the chance to apologize directly to his Vanguard readership.
"All I want is for my intentions to be known," MacTavish says. The column's basic point was that the United Nations should take control of Jerusalem, "but it came out as a totally racist and ignorant statement."
Petrie didn't like the tone of MacTavish's mea culpa and refused to publish it. So MacTavish published it himself on a blog he set up: acitydivided.blogspot.com. And he's still seeking out anyone willing to educate him on Jewish history and politics, including Michael Weingrad, who wrote and circulated the faculty letter.
Last week, Weingrad, head of PSU's Judaic Studies program, met MacTavish and found him genuinely contrite and eager to learn.
Petrie said the column got through largely because the editors were completely absorbed that day with putting together a dining guide.
Though the column was pulled from the Vanguard website, the paper left three dozen letters responding to it. Included are vitriolic posts like the one from "RadAntelope" of Philadelphia, which mocks Palestinians as "Paleostinian koranimals."
But the removal didn't quash the column online, as bloggers found cached versions on Google and republished them. It also appears on the site of the Portland State College Republicans, one of the campus groups that denounced MacTavish.
Had MacTavish been a conservative, fired for insensitive remarks targeting another minority, the Republican talk-radio machine might have made him a cause célèbre.
But MacTavish, an occasional contributor to the progressive blog BlueOregon, is a proud liberal. A term away from graduation and with a baby due in May, MacTavish just wants this behind him.
After graduation, MacTavish plans to stick to writing fiction.