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UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT

Tillman Critic Gets "What’s Coming to him"

by Matt Taibbi


SOMETHING TOOK PLACE last week that I previously would have thought scientifically impossible. The whole country stood up and actually paid attention to the opinions of a college editorialist.

The story of Rene Gonzalez, a contributor for UMass-Amherst's Daily Collegian who criticized Pat Tillman and paid for it, served as a classic example of what happens in  this country when you think bad thoughts out loud. We have developed a rapid-response system in the national media that guarantees that certain inviolable cliches are never questioned or threatened—and that anyone of a mind to do so is made aware that they can be crushed like a bug at a moment's notice.

On April 28, Gonzalez published an article in the Collegian entitled, "Pat Tillman Is Not a Hero: He Got What Was Coming to Him." The uglier passages of the article, which would become the bullet points in most of the voluminous talk-radio and newspaper treatments of it, were that Tillman was a "real Rambo"—not a hero, but a "pendejo" who was "acting out of nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged during years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies" and who died, getting what he deserved, because "someone with a bigger gun did him in."

In between these sensational passages, Gonzalez tried to make salient points about the wars Tillman had fought in, about the pointlessness of the Afghan mission, and about the perspective of other peoples on visiting American troops. He came closest to making sense when he wrote that "the Taliban is more Afghani than we are" and "their resistance is more legitimate than our invasion." He also added, with seeming justice but with dubious relevance to the article's thesis, that al Qaeda would never be eradicated by force, but only through "careful and logical changing of the underlying conditions that allow for the ideology to foster." What started out as a completely gratuitous attack on Pat Tillman therefore ended as a kind of belatedly sincere antiwar essay; it began with the news of Tillman's death and dribbled to a halt in the midst of a fractured passage about the futility of the War on Terror.

The article was badly written and its rhetoric was incoherent. In the hands of a more skillful essayist, there would probably be room to do a good column on the theme of "Fuck Pat Tillman"—the grossly overdone hero-worship routine about Tillman in the news clearly opened the door for something like that. But Gonzalez, though properly locating the source of his antagonism in the "knee-jerk 'He's a hero' response," ended up attacking not that response, but Tillman himself. The result was a piece whose provocations were pointlessly offensive and mean-spirited, and whose political meanderings came off as the work of a confused dilettante.

The idea that this piece was going to convince anyone of anything is absurd. Nonetheless, within a day after it came out, it was national news. Tucker Carlson did a segment on it on CNN, even posting the email address of the Collegian and imploring watchers to send in complaints (the Collegian site froze as a result of the traffic). Boston sports radio WEEI did an entire afternoon segment on it; it was covered on ESPN, in the Boston Globe and in tabloidsand dailies across the country, with every news outlet expressing equal outrage. The response in the Boston Herald was typical: The Murdoch paper wrote that the Gonzalez piece "makes us wish there was a law against outright idiocy appearing in print."

It didn't stop there. The UMass Student Government Association demanded that Gonzalez resign his position from the minority affairs office where he works. Then the president of UMass, Jack Wilson, piled on and issued an extraordinary denunciation of his student's opinion, calling it "disgusting, arrogant, and intellectually immature." Finally, Gonzalez began receiving death threats; so many, in fact, that he had to leave campus and is apparently, at this writing, in hiding somewhere.

By April 30, two days after the piece was published, Gonzalez was issuing his obligatory apology. The power to almost instantaneously command an apology—whether it be from Shaquille O'Neal (for making fun of Chinese people), Trent Lott or a small-time loser like Gonzalez—is one of the key ways the media guarantees the monolithic national attitude. When someone steps out of line, you pile on with full force until he squeaks.

Gonzalez squeaked pretty fast. Apparently not wanting to show his face, he sent an email to WBZ-TV in Boston that read like one of the self-denunciations by American flyboys in the first Gulf war. "I offer my apologies to the Tillman family," he wrote. "Despite my disagreements with them over the meaning of their son's death and the wars that we are fighting, I shouldn't have been so insensitive."

There are several questions that everybody ought to be asking about this whole incident. The first is, why in God's name would Tucker Carlson, ESPN and the rest of the country give a shit about what some kid at UMass writes for his school newspaper? Hell, I went to college, and I don't seem to remember anyone at my own school caring about what was in the campus paper.

The answer to that is that Rene Gonzalez the human being was totally irrelevant to the entire exercise. Gonzalez himself is a speck, his piece a puff of dandelion dander blowing in the national wind, but the apparatus that crushes it is mighty and can easily carry a lead role in a primetime drama.

It was precisely because Gonzalez was naive, vulnerable, sincere and easily smashed that he made a perfect target. If someone like me had written that piece, it wouldn't have even registered a blip on the national radar screen—because I'm clearly not going away, which is no fun, and beyond that everyone knows my editors would be all too glad for the attention. But Gonzalez is a student, an isolated amateur, easily blown into asteroid bits. One can make life hell for a person like that. And creating that hell makes great theater for the status quo. The public hanging of the dissenter who refused to kneel at the altar of our latest cardboard hero, Pat Tillman.

That is what makes the denunciation of Gonzalez by the UMass president, Jack Wilson, so shocking. As an academic he ought to have recognized that as stupid and misguided as Gonzalez's piece was, his transgression paled in comparison to the anti-intellectual media pogrom that swept in to punish him. That was the real story here, the enforcement of obligatory attitudes—not some college kid's indulgent meanderings. As Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a journal of media criticism, said, when I called him about this story: "The point is that if you can't say that someone isn't a hero, then nobody is a hero."

But Wilson sold Gonzalez out by not calling for restraint and immediately saluting once the Tucker Carlson alarm went up the flagpole, saying: "It is Mr. Gonzalez's right to be wrong, as he is in this case. It is a right that Pat Tillman and many others have fought to defend."

Wilson, a teacher in the cradle of American liberty, is wrong. Armies don't defend rights; people insist on them. And when they succeed, they make the mission of armies noble. When they fail, an army is just an army. Who knows what it means when one of its soldiers dies?




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