Some greeted news of Rupert Murdoch's apology for an allegedly antisemitic cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times with a sigh of deep weariness. Note, first, that Murdoch's apology was to Binyamin Netanyahu personally, as one member of the global elite showing solidarity to another. Remember, also, that Bibi is a favourite posterboy for Murdoch's brand of neo-conservative cheerleading.
As to Scarfe's cartoon specifically, it seems to me almost identical to every other blood-spattered pictorial lament for man's inhumanity to man he's knocked out over the past 40 years. Except in this case, because of the Holocaust memorial day – things were different.
If, like me and other cartoonists, you've produced cartoons critical of the actions of the state of Israel and then received thousands of emails, most of which read "Fuck off you antisemitic cunt", you tend to get a bit jaded. But over the years I've received similar responses – and worse, including death threats – from Muslims, Catholics, US Republicans, US Democrats, Serbs, atheists and the obese, as well as from supporters of Israel. After a while, the uniformity of the response can tempt you into thinking that this is all contrived and orchestrated, and certainly a lot of it is.
But then again, you may know that the standard complaint – "This is the most disgracefully antisemitic cartoon to be published since the closure of Der Stürmer" – can only be made because Julius Streicher's foul Nazi rag regularly published the vilest antisemitic cartoons imaginable, which prepared the ground for and then cheered on the greatest crime in human history. In the long shadow of the Holocaust, perhaps it's just about understandable – if not forgivable – that each time I drew Ariel Sharon, a fat man with a big nose, as being fat and having a big nose, it was therefore considered reasonable for me to be equated with mass murderers.
The responses, though, probably have more to do with the nature of the medium than its content. Visual satire is a dark, primitive magic. On top of the universal propensity to laugh at those in power over us, cartoons add something else: the capacity to capture someone's likeness, recreate them through caricature, and thereby take control of them. This is voodoo – though the sharp instrument with which you damage your victim at a distance is a pen. None of this is benign. It's meant to ridicule and demean, and almost all political cartooning is assassination without the blood.
But add to that the way we consume this stuff and you get the perfect recipe for offence. In newspapers, cartoons squat like gargoyles on top of the columns, and while you nibble your way through the columnists' prose for several minutes, you swallow the cartoon whole in seconds. The internet has also changed things. British cartoonists find their work being consumed, via the web, by people in nations who haven't had more than 300 years of rude portrayals of the elite.