December 6, 2013

Bob Dylan a promulgator of racial hatred?

A sentence I never thought I’d type: Bob Dylan is under investigation in France for inciting racial hatred because of comments he made about Croatians.

The comments in question came a year ago in an interview with Rolling Stone, in which the legendary singer and civil rights campaigner said, “If you got a slave master or (Ku Klux) Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood, and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”

For most Dylan fans, it seems like the kind of free-associative weirdness he always spins off in interviews, but a Croatian community group in France felt (somewhat understandably) that the statement unfairly implied that all Croatians are the equivalent of Nazis or Klansmen and (less understandably) decided to take him to court over it.

A lawyer for the group said they are not seeking damages but would like “a singer who is liked and respected in Croatia to present an apology to the Croatian people.”

A spokesman for the Paris Prosecutor’s Office said that it has placed Dylan under judicial investigation for “public insult and inciting hate.” This comes just a few weeks after he was given the country’s highest award, the Legion of Honor.

Commentators have pointed to the story (some quite creatively) as an example of France’s overzealous prosecution of hate speech. As Foreign Policy’s Katelyn Fossett points out, France charges an awful lot of people with crimes like inciting racial hatred or denying the Holocaust. High-profile cases have included actress (and past Dylan lyrical subject) Brigitte Bardot, as well as the controversial investigation of an anti-Semitic Twitter hashtag earlier this year.

But the more salient fact in this case may be that, as a Reuters story notes, in France, “racism complaints automatically trigger formal investigations, irrespective of the merits of the case.”

Given that this took place in an American magazine, I have a hard time believing that the Paris Prosecutor’s Office wants to set a precedent of having to prosecute anyone who says anything nasty about Croatians anywhere in the world, I’d say the chances of Dylan seeing the inside of a courtroom are pretty low.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. This column appeared on Slate.com, an online current affairs and culture magazine owned by The Washington Post.

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