Magistrates in Paris have accepted a case of inciting racial hatred against Bob Dylan, writer of some of the most moving anti-racist songs in music history, such as "Hurricane" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
You have to ask what's up with a legal system that would want to put a man like Dylan on trial for bigotry, punishable with a maximum fine of 45,000 euros ($61,000) or a year in prison. There is, however, an answer of sorts to that question.
The complaint against Dylan was brought by a French organization called the Representative Council of the Croat Community and Institutions of France, and stems from a September 2012 interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine. In the piece, Dylan said this:
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. You know what I mean?
The Criccf's complaint should probably be filed with other frivolous legal attacks on celebrities, such as Russian homophobes' unsuccessful lawsuit against Madonna (they demanded $10 million for moral damage inflicted by the "homosexual propaganda" she supposedly spewed during a show in St. Petersburg), or Allen Ray Heckard's ridiculous suit against Michael Jordan and Nike (Heckard, who looks a lot like Jordan, demanded $832 million as reparations for the distress caused by people always confusing him with the basketball star). Still, Dylan was in the wrong, even if a court case isn't the right response.
In the cases of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis, the singer named specific criminal organizations, not Americans or Germans as a whole. Within that logic he should have talked about the Ustasha, an ultranationalist terrorist organization that the Nazis and Italian fascists tapped to run occupied Croatia in 1941, instead of Croats as a nation. The Ustasha went on to conduct genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romani people, so they belonged in the same sentence with their Nazi masters and the Klan. Many Croats, however, opposed the Ustasha and fought the Nazis alongside Serbs as part of Europe's most powerful resistance movement, Josip Broz Tito's Partisans. By 1943, Croats constituted a majority of the anti-Nazi Partisan troops in Croatia.
A year ago, when Dylan's interview first appeared, a virtual war between Serbs and Croats unfolded in comment threads on websites that carried the quote. Obscure points of World War II history were argued. Dylan was alternately accused of militant ignorance and commended for sympathy toward Serb victims. Such flame wars are always breaking out between Armenians and Turks, Russians and Ukrainians, Palestinian sympathizers and Israelis. People vent at each other and go their separate ways. Dylan, however, was unlucky enough to offend a French law professor of Croatian descent, Marc Gjidara, in a country with stringent laws against hate speech.
Gjidara is one of the founders of Criccf and has devoted much of his life to proving that Serbs have been more guilty of ethnic cleansing than Croats. He published a book, with two co-authors, called "Ethnic Cleansing: Historical Documents of a Serb Ideology." In a lengthy, angry letter to the French Academy last year, he set out to prove that Croatia's Ustasha were not, as widely believed, involved in plotting the 1934 assassination of the Serb King of Yugoslavia, Alexander I.
In discussing the Dylan case, Gjidara told the Croatian newspaper Jutarjni List that "comparing the whole Croat people with criminal organizations is unacceptable." He went on: "Just because he is so famous he should be careful what he says," adding that he doesn't want musician jailed or fined: An apology would be enough.
Let's put aside for a moment the broad-brush nature of Gjidara's own talk of ethnic cleansing as a "Serb" ideology, which makes his charge against Dylan appear hypocritical and opportunist. Equally, let's ignore the impossibility of keeping Serbian or Croatian nationalists happy. Dylan's mistake was easily made by anyone not steeped in Balkan history, but he should acknowledge it and move on.
All Dylan has to say is that, clearly, he didn't intend to slight the entire Croatian nation in his remarks, just the genocidal, fascist Ustasha. If the French magistrates need evidence to support that claim, they can listen to his collected works.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)