- By Katelyn FossettKatelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
Bob Dylan may be an icon of the American civil rights movement, but that hasn’t stopped a Croatian community group in France from suing the folk singer over allegedly racist comments he made last year.
With songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Oxford Town," and "Hurricane," Dylan established himself as an eloquent chronicler of issues of race in America. The same probably can’t be said about the internecine conflicts of the Balkans. In an interview with the French edition of Rolling Stone, Dylan waded into a conflict he would probably have been better advised to stay out of. "[The United States] is just too fucked up about [skin] color," Dylan said. "… If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that … Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood."
That throwaway line about Serbs being able to sense Croat blood has landed the singer-songwriter in some hot water and has infuriated a group of Croats who aren’t too happy about being lumped with slave masters, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis.
In the words of Vlatko Maric, the secretary general of the Council of Croats in France (CRICCF), Dylan managed to "equate Croatian [war] criminals with all Croats." But there seems to be some confusion as to what alleged crimes the songwriter was referring to. Slate‘s French edition points out that Dylan is most likely referring to one of two dark periods in Balkan history. He may have been referring to the period between 1940 and 1945, when the Ustasha regime in Croatia, which was then a satellite state of the Nazi Third Reich, built 24 concentration camps for hundreds of thousands of deported Serbs. He could also have been referring to the Balkan wars and genocide of the 1990s, one starting shot of which came in May 1991 when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government, unleashing a brutal ethnic conflict.
The legal action taken in response to the comments highlights the strictness of hate speech laws in France, where the right to freedom of expression is often trumped by concerns about protecting minorities from racial slurs and other discriminatory speech. In France, denying the Holocaust is strictly prohibited, and France’s criminalization of "hate speech" — and the unclear definitions of hate speech itself — has long been a point of contention for staunch free speech advocates. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, for instance, sees it as a free pass for governments to criminalize "ideas they dislike." Regardless of the criticism, punishment for using such speech is taken seriously. In 1997, there were 88 convictions of racist speech with prison sentences averaging two months. In a high-profile 2008 case, the actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot was fined $23,000 for criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a right-wing French politician, has been convicted and fined multiple times for hate speech.
Of course, these qualities of French hate speech laws stand in stark contrast to those of the United States, where the government has been unable to stop marches by American Nazi groups and where courts generally invoke the First Amendment to protect the rights of groups like the Ku Klux Klan to spew racist rhetoric as long as it does not directly incite violence. It seems that Bob Dylan, a singer-songwriter whose musical ethos is rooted so deeply in American culture, was unprepared for the possibility of legal action in response to his comments. Peppered with casual swear words, they seem to have been delivered rather off-the-cuff.
Now, in a simple twist of fate, the tables look to have been turned on the man who performed at the 1963 March on Washington and became a symbol of resistance against a range of injustices in the United States.