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.)