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France Has Charged Bob Dylan With Breaking the Country's Most Ridiculous Law

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Someone’s got it in for him …

News broke Monday that while in France last month to receive the Legion d’Honneur, Bob Dylan was charged with “incitement to hatred” over remarks he made in a Rolling Stone interview published last year. Here’s the relevant passage:

Do you see any parallels between the 1860s and present-day America?

Mmm, I don't know how to put it. It's like … 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 fucked 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.

The Serbs/Croatian part is what is alleged to have crossed the legal line. Investigations commenced after a Croatian community group, the CRICCF—which appears to be associated with the state of Croatia—filed a complaint.

There is a lot to unpack here, about ethnic and religious hatred and violence, the Balkans’ history, Dylan’s ambivalent (but I’ve always felt underrated) relationship to his Jewishness, and more. But in this context, that stuff actually really isn’t all that important. Because when someone is not telling demonstrable, malicious, and deliberate lies about individuals or actively and explicitly cultivating a climate of violence, then from a legal perspective the interestingness and the correctness of what he says shouldn’t matter. In the United States, it does not matter, which is why Dylan has not been sued here for the earlier, and far more incendiary, part of his above remarks.

The existence of a French law prohibiting such speech is a cousin of France’s famous laïcitéan official secularism that is actively, if equally, biased against all religions—which is currently serving as a not-insignificant obstacle to assimilating millions of France’s devout Muslim inhabitants and citizens. And it’s not unrelated to the spectacle that unfolded in the Parliament of the United Kingdom on Tuesday, in which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was subjected to a shameful interrogation in connection to his paper’s publication of several secrets related to the Edward Snowden leaks; at one point, the committee chairman asked him, "Do you love this country?" In short, for all the United States’ shortcomings, this is not how we roll—and thank God. ("Obscenity, who really cares.")

When Bob Dylan went on his 1966 tour through Great Britain, he was frequently booed; during the famous “Royal Albert Hall show” (which was not actually at the Royal Albert Hall), an audience member even called him a “Judas.” The common reading is that, as in America, British folk fans were upset that their former hero had gone electric. But I wonder if they weren’t also provoked by the gigantic American flag he conspicuously hung behind him and his band. During one of the ‘66 shows, in footage that can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, Dylan told the hostile crowd, “This is not British music. This is American music.”