Like most of us in journalism, Citizen Times cartoonist David Cohen has developed quite thick skin over the years.
More like a hideout, you might call it. When you skewer politicians, civil servants, and other prominent people in your editorial cartoons for 17 years, you’re going to ruffle some feathers, irritate some people, and generate the occasional hate mail. Believe me, I’ve been writing a column here for over 20 years, so I know.
So when Cohen received a letter in the mail — anonymously, of course, because that’s the way of cowards — he didn’t expect a strong enough dose of anti-Semitism. As he himself notes, he has the most Jewish surname there is, so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to find out about his heritage.
But in 17 years of drawing for us, and 25 years of political cartooning in general, Cohen has never been touched by this garbage before. In this case, someone cut out a cartoon that Cohen had drawn depicting defeated arch-conservative Congressman Madison Cawthorn heading into the sunset and drew what is supposed to be a caricature of Cohen, but with a large hooked nose and a Star of David pendant.
The character also appears to be picking his nose with his left hand, while the more claw-like right is wrapped around a pencil. The speech bubble reads: “Let’s see – without more Cawthorn, who can I scribble and daub on? Oy!”
I decided to report it
Initially, Cohen said, it made him laugh a little.
“Other people were more offended by it than I was,” Cohen told me. “I just figured it had to be someone who is a Cawthorn supporter and prejudiced. I didn’t feel in danger. I didn’t feel threatened.”
After numerous comments on his Facebook page and elsewhere, however, Cohen decided to report it to the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League.
“I don’t know if I mean I was laughing about it, because it’s pretty ignorant,” Cohen said. “As I’ve always said, I have the freedom to voice my opinions in the world, so I can’t really stop someone else from doing the same thing. It’s not quite that, however – it’s a bit more ignorant but also detestable.”
It’s not like Cawthorn losing an election would mean Cohen (and yours truly) would run out of material.
“There’s a lot of other ignorant, stupid people I can cartoon about, so I don’t have to worry about not having Cawthorn around anymore,” Cohen said.
Hate, incidents of bigotry on the rise
While this may seem like a minor incident in the grand scheme of things, I am highlighting it today because anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, as this April 25 headline from the Anti-Defamation League attests: “ADL Audit Finds Anti-Semitic Incidents in the United States hit an all-time high in 2021.”
The article notes that a “total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism” were reported to the Anti-Defamation League.
“This represents the highest number of incidents recorded since the ADL began tracking anti-Semitic incidents in 1979 – an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34% year-over-year increase.” , says the ADL.
As Cohen well knows, this kind of hatred can turn deadly, with gunmen targeting synagogues and Jewish markets. I wrote about the ultimate form of anti-Semitism in March, when a cattle car exhibit came to Asheville and offered an immersive experience of what Jews endured when the Nazis sent them to concentration camps.
Of course, this kind of hatred is directed against all kinds of minorities, as the attack on a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 African Americans dead showed all too clearly.
An NPR article last September had this headline: “Hate Crimes Hit Highest Level in Over a Decade.”
“The spike in hate crimes in 2020 follows a recent upward trend in bias incidents, and this is a 6% increase from the 7,287 bias-related offenses reported in 2019,” noted NPR. “There were 7,759 reported hate crimes in the United States (in 2020) – the most in 12 years, the FBI reported this week. But some experts and advocacy groups say the true number is likely even higher .”
Especially since the pandemic, which a certain former president kept calling “the Chinese virus”, Asians are under attack.
While those of us in the media are no more at risk than minorities, it has become significantly more difficult here for those who report the news. It doesn’t help that Trump has been telling lies for four years and decrying “fake news,” which he called something negative about him.
So this headline on the International Press Institute website didn’t surprise me: “Rising Violence against Reporters in the US.” The article notes:
“January 6 is an inflection point where more than 10 years of escalating attacks (both physical and digital) against journalists, media professionals and media organizations have reached a critical peak. These attacks are occurring in all states and territories and involve multiple actors. They demand coordinated media action to provide a safe working environment for American media workers, whether employed or self-employed.”
I reported such a threat after the January 6 uprising in which an anonymous caller said that if I wrote another critical Cawthorn column, I would not write for the paper again. It was just cryptic enough to likely avoid any form of prosecution, police said, so I didn’t prosecute except to keep a handgun on my desk at home.
Again, it’s hard not to relate to Trump in this growing hatred in America. This is the same man who said Mexico was sending ‘rapists’ here, and claimed there were ‘very good people’ on both sides of the Charlottesville protests over the removal of a Confederate monument, even if one side featured anti-Semitic marchers carrying torches and shouting, “Jews won’t replace us.”
But of course, Trump is just the agitator, the magician who brings these feelings to the surface. It allowed angry Americans to express their hatred of minorities, whether ethnic or religious, and to espouse crazy ideas like the nonsense or QAnon replacement theory.
Undoubtedly, the level of hatred and anger has increased in recent years. Cohen says he’s had criticism of his cartoons in the past, “but not because I’m Jewish.”
“I’ve lived a very clean life when it comes to this kind of discrimination,” Cohen said. “Once, in her early twenties, an elderly woman said something about ‘throwing someone up’ about the price.”
Cohen agrees that Trump was the catalyst for this slide into incivility, and Jan. 6 was the culmination of it.
“Him and McConnell and all the other Republicans, they don’t care what you think of them and if they have to express their hatred other than, ‘If you don’t like that, well, do something about it. about it,” Cohen said. “Trump gave all these people the right to show their hate.”
Yes, Democrats sometimes behave badly and rudely (see the guy who was arrested outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house last week, with a gun), but the hard truth is that most of this kind of hate comes from the far right.
Don’t back down
We also live in a country awash with guns, where information about everyone is readily available online. So yeah, it does make you a little pissed off as a minority, or a Jew, or a journalist, especially in a country where mass shootings happen almost daily.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I don’t want to leave the house,'” Cohen said. “All those people who were killed in church or at the grocery store probably weren’t thinking, ‘This is my last day.’ The only thing that crossed my mind if this person wants to find me and do some damage is that they probably can.”
But then again, Cohen, 68, has thick skin. Like many of us journalists, he is not going to run away.
We love this country and deeply believe in democracy. Personally, I think it is under threat now, and now more than ever we need to keep the public informed and call out bigotry, wrongdoing and budding fascism wherever we see it.
Cohen said it better than me.
“Things like this only strengthen my resolve to expose prejudice, injustice and ignorance in the world with my work,” he said. “I will continue to highlight these things in my cartoons. What it showed me is that I still have a lot of work to do.”
Amen, my brother.
This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at 828-232-5847 or [email protected]