The chances of the French authorities attempting to arrest Bob Dylan are probably remote. Slapping the cuffs on a superstar to whom you have just pinned a shiny Légion d’honneur badge would a little look perverse, even by Gallic standards.
It would seem sillier still if you were pursuing a figure who has had one or two things to say about human dignity down the years. To place him “under investigation” for alleged racism over remarks damning racial hatred would knock satire on its ear. France has just landed that punch.
If he’s in the mood, Dylan might be amused to see the paradoxes of liberty illustrated so perfectly. Striving to protect people from oppression, the French have put in place laws liable to oppress any poet likely to talk too freely about, well, the history of oppression.
According to the Council of Croats in France (CRICCF), that was precisely Dylan’s offense in an interview published by Rolling Stone magazine in September last year. Observing that the United States is “just too fucked up about color,” the singer added: “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.”
Most people don’t take kindly to seeing their country mentioned alongside the Holocaust’s instigators, but for Croats there are a couple of historical difficulties. One has to do with World War II, when their country’s fascist Ustashe regime allied itself with Hitler and ran hellish concentration camps. Another is rooted in atrocities committed during the Balkan conflicts of the 90s.
Undaunted, the CRICCF lodged its complaint against both Dylan and the French publishers of Rolling Stone. While radio stations in Croatia were reported to be pulling the American’s anthems from playlists, Vlatko Maric, secretary general of the community group said, “We have nothing against Rolling Stone magazine or Bob Dylan as a singer, [but] you cannot equate Croatian criminals with all Croats.”
The artist who has spent decades disavowing any interest in organized politics was informed of the complaint while he was in Paris in November to perform and collect his Légion d’honneur. As is usual when controversy engulfs him, he made no public comment. This time he might have found it hard to know where to start.
France, as befits the country that came up with the rights of man, doesn’t like hate speech. Holocaust denial and racist insults are taken seriously and punished accordingly. Convictions are common. But while most cases are patently open and shut, some raise questions of definition. Dylan’s case is one. When does a society’s bulwark against hatred become an offence to free speech?
Would the singer have given Germans grounds for complaint by pointing out that the Nazis contained more than a few of their compatriots within the ranks? Does it become impossible to mention the historic crimes of Ustashe thugs lest law-abiding Croats take offense? It is very like telling Americans to put the sensitivities of the Klan before the truth.
The French have been fond of Dylan since the very early 60s. Typically, they gave him his due as an intellectual and poet while the English-speaking world was still wondering if a rock star deserved that kind of attention. The Légion d’honneur, bestowed by the Minister of Culture, Aurelie Filippetti, was a mark of that esteem. As she remarked, Dylan embodies for the French a “subversive cultural force that can change people and the world.”
You could say that. You could also say that a world attuned to offense is less keen on being subverted than it was when Dylan was starting out. Then you would have to remember that he has been wandering into controversies, sometimes naively, since his earliest days. Political trouble finds him even when he is denouncing politics as a fraud.
As early as 1963, then 22, Dylan walked into a storm among people he thought were allies. In the aftermath of the killing of President Kennedy, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee had decided to give the singer the Tom Paine Award. He had been as stunned and horrified by the assassination as anyone, but he had taken a few drinks to calm his nerves before the ceremony.
He didn’t set out to offend. His acceptance of the award on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee might even have been calculated to appeal to a liberal crowd. But Dylan chose to be honest. Talking of Lee Harvey Oswald, the poet said: “I saw some of myself in him.” The grand ballroom of New York’s Americana hotel duly erupted in catcalls and boos.
Two years ago, media commentators across the western world all but followed suit when the claim was made that Dylan’s set list for a concert in Beijing had been censored by the Chinese authorities. This was during still another crackdown on the country’s intellectuals and dissidents. The sell-out, ran the charge, had failed to perform the likes of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Chimes of Freedom.”
As it transpired, Dylan had performed songs in Shanghai that had supposedly been “dropped” in Beijing. Certain of the allegedly suppressed songs had also been omitted during performances in Australia, that well-known totalitarian state. Such, nevertheless, has been the singer’s problem since first he found the words people wanted to hear: their causes and grievances become his burden, like it or not. Invariably, he doesn’t like it in the slightest.
The betting still says that the French will not tarnish the Légion d’honneur by hauling a beloved and famous recipient through the courts. Dylan, oblivious, might even have done France a favor by forcing the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité to ponder his songs of freedom just a little harder.
“To live outside the law,” as he observed famously, “you must be honest.” For French investigators, as for the Croat Council, Dylan might be an outlaw again, but he has never stopped being honest when it matters.
Ian Bell is the author of Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan (Pegasus).