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Kansas newspaper’s post equates mask mandate with Holocaust

UPDATED: Sun., July 5, 2020

By John Hanna Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. – A Kansas county Republican Party chairman who owns a weekly newspaper apologized Sunday for a cartoon posted on the paper’s Facebook page that equated the Democratic governor’s coronavirus-inspired order for people to wear masks in public with the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Dane Hicks, owner and publisher of the Anderson County Review, said in a statement on Facebook that he was removing the cartoon after “some heartfelt and educational conversations with Jewish leaders in the U.S. and abroad.” The newspaper posted the cartoon Friday, and it drew dozens of critical responses and international attention. A blog post by Hicks on Saturday defending it also drew critical responses.

Hicks is the GOP chairman for Anderson County in eastern Kansas. The state party chairman deemed the cartoon “inappropriate.” Gov. Laura Kelly, who is Catholic, called for it to be removed and she and other critics called it anti-Semitic.

“I can acknowledge the imagery in my recent editorial cartoon describing state government overreach in Kansas with images of the Holocaust was deeply hurtful to members of a culture who’ve been dealt plenty of hurt throughout history — people to whom I never desired to be hurtful in the illustration of my point,” Hicks said in his statement.

The cartoon depicted Kelly wearing a mask with a Jewish Star of David on it, next to a digitally altered image of people being loaded onto train cars. Its caption is, “Lockdown Laura says: Put on your mask … and step onto the cattle car.”

Hicks said Saturday that he put the images together and planned to publish the cartoon in the paper’s next edition Tuesday.

His newspaper is based in the Anderson County seat of Garnett, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City and has a circulation of about 2,100, according to the Kansas Press Association.

Kelly did not immediately respond to Hicks’a apology, but her office said she could address the issue during a news conference Monday.

The governor issued the mask order because of resurgence in reported coronavirus cases that increased the state’s total to nearly 16,000 as of Friday, when Kansas finished its worst two-week spike since the pandemic began.

State law allows counties to opt out of her mask mandate, and Anderson County has done so. It has about 7,900 residents in a conservative swath of eastern Kansas, and President Donald Trump carried it with nearly 73% of the vote in 2016. The state health department has reported only four coronavirus cases for Anderson County, all of them since May 8.

State and local officials across the U.S. have faced resistance to mask requirements from Trump’s supporters. Fritzie Fritzshall, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp and president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, north of Chicago, said anti-mask protesters have often compared government actions during the pandemic to those of the Nazi regime. She called it “ignorant and offensive.”

“In this time of uncertainty and fear, imagery and slogans can be used to unite us in a common desire to return to civil discourse or divide us in ways that give a voice to hate and divisiveness,” she said in a statement.

Biff Rubin, a small business owner in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, who is Jewish, said the cartoon was painful for his family and the state’s Jewish community. He said he appreciated Hicks’ apology and is thankful that the U.S. is “in a time of learning and reflection.”

Rubin’s hometown was the site of three fatal shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home in April 2014 by an avowed anti-Semite who was sentenced to death for the crimes.

Rubin said the backlash against Hicks’ use of Holocaust imagery reflects “the impact the suffering will always have in our society.”

“I hope the voices being heard on this subject provoke empathy and persuade others to keep their heart open to change,” he texted The Associated Press.

Hicks had initially defended the posting as an example of how political cartoons are “gross over-caricatures designed to provoke debate” and “fodder for the marketplace of ideas.” He said the issue was the “governmental overreach” of Kelly’s administration.

But Hicks said in his statement Sunday that “it’s clear I should have chosen a less hurtful theme.”

“It is not my intention to heap more grief onto this historical burden, and it’s apparent I previously lacked an adequate understanding of the severity of their experience and the pain of its images,” he said. A weekly Kansas newspaper whose publisher is a county Republican Party chairman posted a cartoon on its Facebook page likening the Democratic governor’s order requiring people to wear masks in public to the roundup and murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

The cartoon on the Anderson County Review’s Facebook page depicts Gov. Laura Kelly wearing a mask with a Jewish Star of David on it, next to a drawing of people being loaded onto train cars. Its caption is, “Lockdown Laura says: Put on your mask … and step onto the cattle car.”

The newspaper posted the cartoon on Friday, the day that Kelly’s mask order aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus took effect. It’s drawn several hundred comments, many of them strongly critical. Dane Hicks, the paper’s owner and publisher, said in an email to The Associated Press that he plans to publish the cartoon in the newspaper’s next edition Tuesday.

Kelly, who is Catholic, issued a statement saying, “Mr. Hicks’ decision to publish anti-Semitic imagery is deeply offensive and he should remove it immediately.”

But Hicks said in an email that political cartoons are “gross over-caricatures designed to provoke debate” and “fodder for the marketplace of ideas.”

“The topic here is the governmental overreach which has been the hallmark of Governor Kelly’s administration,” he said.

As for the cartoon’s reference to the Holocaust, Hicks said critics of President Donald Trump have compared him to Adolf Hitler, and, “I certainly have more evidence of that kind of totalitarianism in Kelly’s actions, in an editorial cartoon sort of way, than Trump’s critics do, yet they persist in it daily.”

Hicks’ paper is based in the Anderson County seat of Garnett, 65 miles southwest of Kansas City.

and has a circulation of about 2,100, according to the Kansas Press Association.

Hicks also is Anderson County’s GOP chairman. Kansas Republican Party Chairman Michael Kuckelman said in a text that posting the cartoon is “inappropriate.”

But Kuckelman, also an attorney, added, “it is on the newspaper Facebook page and media has wide berth with (the) First Amendment (to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press).

Critics of the cartoon demanded that Republican Party and GOP legislative leaders to repudiate the cartoon and Hicks.

Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called the cartoon “appalling” and disgusting.” Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the cartoon’s rhetoric is “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” The press association’s president said the cartoon “falls far short of our values.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said most if not all comparisons of current political events to the Holocaust are “odious” and said it’s “incoherent” to equate an action designed to save lives with mass murder. Finally, he said, putting the Star of David on Kelly’s mask is anti-Semitic because it implies “nefarious Jews” are behind her actions.

“This thing is like the trifecta of garbage,” Rieber said.

Hicks said that if Holocaust survivors, their relatives or other Jews are offended, he would apologize to them because he means “no slight to them.”

“Then again, they better than anyone should appreciate the harbingers of governmental overreach and the present but tender seedlings of tyranny,” he added.

Hicks also derided some of his social media critics as “liberal Marxist parasites,” adding, “As a traditional American, they are my enemy.”

Some Republicans have criticized Kelly’s order as infringing on personal liberties, though Kansas law allows counties to opt out and Anderson County has done so.

The governor issued the order because of resurgence in reported coronavirus cases that increased the state’s total to nearly 16,000 as of Friday, when Kansas finished its worst two-week spike since the pandemic began. The state has reported 277 COVID-19-related deaths. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Hicks previously criticized Kelly in a blog post for taking a “one-size-fits-all approach to reopening what he called the state’s “bureaucracy-hammered” economy.

Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26 after weeks of criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she was moving too slowly to reopen the state’s economy. Some conservative GOP lawmakers also have accused her of being heavy-handed and even dictatorial in responding to the pandemic.

Anderson County, with about 7,900 residents, is part of a conservative swath of eastern Kansas. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1 and Trump carried it with nearly 73% of the vote in 2016.

The state health department has reported only four coronavirus cases for Anderson County, all of them since May 8. There have been no reported deaths there.

County Commission Chairman Jerry Howarter said of the more than 70 people who showed up to its meeting on the mask mandate Friday, all but one opposed it. He said he had not seen the cartoon.

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