By Jay Michaelson
Published December 05, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013
Controversy Over Odd Interview Sheds Light on Old Atrocities
Bob Dylan / Getty Images
Where Men Bathe in Perfume and Celebrate Free Speech: Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, is being investigated for engaging in hate speech.
Bob Dylan uttered hate speech?! Not so fast. In fact, it’s his accusers are engaged in hate speech: specifically, denying the Holocaust.
The blogosphere was abuzz with the news Tuesday that Dylan was being investigated by French authorities for comments he’d made in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, published in English in September, 2012, and in French a month later.
Those remarks are alleged to have insulted Croatians. But a close look at what Dylan actually said should clear him of all charges, even under the notoriously draconian French laws, and in fact, implicates his accusers.
Here’s what Dylan said, in context:
“The United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery. The USA wouldn’t give it up. It had to be grinded out. The whole system had to be ripped out with force. A lot of killing. What, like, 500,000 people? A lot of destruction to end slavery. And that’s what it really was all about. This country is just too f–ked up about color. It’s a distraction. People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery – that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or 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.”
Actually, perhaps a little more context is relevant. The Rolling Stone interview in question is an exceedingly weird conversation, even by Bob Dylan standards. Though the interviewer doesn’t say so, it seems like Dylan must have been under the influence of some substance or other – he rambles, goes on wacky digressions, and, several times, refers to his “transfiguration,” which may or may not be a quasi-messianic reincarnation, but which seems to have something to do with his near-fatal 1966 motorcycle crash. It’s a weird read, and the above excerpt is typical.
So, let’s parse out what Dylan was actually talking about: the legacy of slavery in America, and how it lingers on, particularly in the South. Dylan frames it in a peculiar, somewhat mystical way: that African Americans can “sense” if a white person has “slave master or Klan in your blood.” That is part of the weirdness of the interview. But his point is clear enough: that the legacy of slavery lives on, and leaves its traces today. (I made the same point myself, in a recent editorial in these pages, about how some Southerners are unrepentant about slavery and its legacy.)
And then there’s the comparison that, according to a French-Croatian group, is hate speech: that as blacks are to ex-slaveholders, Jews are to ex-Nazis, and Serbs are to Croats.
Probably, Dylan will quickly apologize for this analogy – which is all the group, the Representative Council of Croat Institutions of France, is actually asking for. But in fact, it’s the RCCIF that is evading the truth.
Incredibly, the organization is alleging that Dylan is referring to the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But this is obviously not the case. What Dylan is surely referring to is the genocide against Serbs perpetrated by the Croatian Revolutionary Movement, or Ustasha, in the 1940s. From 1941-1945, the Ustasha set up a system of concentration camp, murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma, and others. The Ustasha were fascists, allies of the Nazis and of Mussolini. At least 300,000 ethnic Serbs were murdered during this period.
Amazingly, even the Nazis were shocked at the Ustasha’s brutality – according to one source, a report given to Heinrich Himmler described victims as “sadistically tortured to death” in a “bestial manner.”
Obviously, that is what Dylan was referring to in his remarks: a genocide, on par (in quality, if not in scale) with the Nazi genocide against the Jews and the enslavement of Africans by white Americans. To imagine that Dylan was referring to the 1990s is ludicrous. It is so ludicrous, in fact, as to invite one to wonder what the RCCIF could possibly be thinking. Or refusing to think.
Now, Dylan did over-generalize. Notice that he didn’t say “whites” and “Germans”; he said “slaveholders” and “Nazis.” But he did say “Croatians.” In this slip, he did indeed cast aspersions on all Croats, as opposed to those who supported the Ustasha. And so some apology is warranted.
On the other hand, how many of us even know the word “Ustasha”? Dylan was searching for examples of historical memory, and he mentioned two of them. He should have been more specific. But it’s impressive that, in whatever altered state he seemed to have been during the interview, he remembered the Serbian genocide at all.
Under French hate-speech law, it is a crime to incite violence against any group: Jews, Muslims, French Nationalists, anyone. But all Dylan said is that victims of historical genocide remember the past, and perhaps can ‘sense’ it in the descendants of the perpetrators.
Surely many Jews can appreciate this comment. How many of us still won’t drive German cars? Or feel vaguely uneasy when we hear people shouting in German. I have German friends, and yet I still can feel that way, particularly when I’m in Germany itself. The past casts a shadow.
And indeed, the same is true for Serbs. I remember how a Serbian-American friend recounted the history of the genocide when I confronted him about Serbia’s own ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. Serbs, like everyone else, remember.
Indeed, it seems the only ones who choose not to remember is the French Croatian council. By falsely accusing an icon, they have shined a harsh light on their own selective amnesia.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor for the Forward.
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