Last month, France presented Bob Dylan with its highest civilian prize, the Legion of Honor. At the ceremony, the French culture minister gushed about how Dylan had inspired a whole generation to push for peace and civil rights, about how he was inspired by Verlaine and Rimbaud in his fight for justice and freedom.
It turns out that just days before the award was pinned on Dylan’s lapel, a Parisian prosecutor had filed preliminary charges against Dylan for violating a law that restricts free speech. The French authorities are investigating Dylan for “public injury” and “incitement to hatred.”
The timing was strange, since the inquiry involves comments made more than a year ago to Rolling Stone magazine. Also, the full transcript of his remarks makes it clear he was decrying racism rather than trying to incite racial hatred.
“It’s a distraction,” the singer-provocateur said in the September 2012 interview. “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. It’s doubtful that America’s ever going to get rid of that stigmatization. It’s a country founded on the backs of slaves.”
The Croatians objected, complaining that his comment smears all Croatians, past and present. Following publication of the comment, the Representative Council of the Croatian Community and Institutions in France filed a complaint under France’s hate-speech law. The council says it wants a public apology. So far, Dylan has not responded.
Dylan could have phrased his thoughts better, but this should not be a case for the courts.