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Is Bob Dylan a racist?

NORMAN MARKOWITZ says recent claims by the so-called Council of Croats in France are not what they seem

I recently circulated a petition calling for Fifa to suspend the Croatian football team from upcoming World Cup games in Brazil because of its use of World War II Croat fascist slogans.

There's another story relating to Croatia's wartime role which has received greater international attention, however - people claiming to be representative of the Croatian community in France have sued Bob Dylan.

Their accusation is that this great singer, whose songs of social criticism such as Masters of War, Blowin' In the Wind and The Times They Are A'Changin' have made him one of the best-known and most admired US artists of the last 50 years, has made offensive and even racist remarks about Croats in Rolling Stone magazine.

Dylan's attackers share one thing with the defenders of the Croatian football team - a desire to celebrate or deny a barbarous past.

Vlatko Maric, the secretary-general of something called the Council of Croats in France, tells Croatian daily Vecernji List that the council has decided to "file criminal charges against Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, and the French publisher of Rolling Stone magazine for inciting racism and hatred against Croats and the Croatian people."

Dylan ruffled feathers in a discourse on US politics, in which he remarked as an aside while commenting on still tense relations between African-Americans and white people: "If you've got a slave master or the [Ku Klux] Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that, just like Jews can sense nazi blood and Serbs can sense Croatian blood."

The comments have seen some radio stations in Croatia such as Radio Split banning Dylan's songs from their playlists. And Maric says they "without any doubt incite hatred against Croatians."

But do they?

Dylan's use of the term "blood" is clearly very inappropriate. All human blood is the same. He would have been wiser too to refer to the Ustasha or Croatians fascists rather than Croatians in general.

But there are reasons to be sceptical about his critics. The reference to "Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan" is reminiscent of nazi, Ku Klux Klan and House Un-American Activities Committee language when dealing with public figures of Jewish background who had changed their names.

The nazis, for example, referred to the prominent Jewish-German writer Emil Ludwig as Emil Ludwig "Cohen."

Segregationists and racists in the US would traditionally refer to prominent Jewish figures in the arts as "Melvin Hesselberg, aka Melvin Douglas," "Julius Garfinkle, aka John Garfield" and "David Kaminski, aka Danny Kaye," as if simply citing a Jewish name was enough to discredit an individual.

 

And the crimes committed by German fascists and their allies - among whom the Croatian Ustasha was one of the most notorious - became the basis for the anti-racist laws that right-wing Croats are hypocritically seeking to invoke.

Actually similar suits have been launched in a number of countries by "rehabilitated" organisations such as Waffen-SS veteran groups in the Baltic countries against critics including Holocaust survivors.

In Germany nazi symbols, Hitlerite tracts and films such as Jud Suss and The Eternal Jew remain banned.

In the US even right-wing "tea party" Republicans do not celebrate the Klan as it was once celebrated in DW Griffiths's silent film Birth of a Nation.

There are of course Holocaust deniers throughout the world. But Franjo Tudjman, the anti-communist Thatcher ally who became first president of Croatia when it broke away from Yugoslavia and who was implicated in many of the war crimes against Bosniaks during the ensuing conflict, is one of only two heads of state worldwide who openly joined the Holocaust deniers.

The other was former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose statements were far more widely publicised and condemned.

Bans on Dylan's music are very much in the tradition of the US House Un-American Activities Committee which highlighted Jews, African-Americans and people born abroad in attacks on cultural figures. The committee played a role in blacklisting Pete Seeger, the Weavers and other artists who inspired Dylan's early work, though it had lost most of its power by the time Dylan's career took off.

Dylan doesn't have much to worry about from this suit, or from the establishment of any Un-Croatian Activities Committee which might go after him as well as former partisans and anti-fascists while celebrating the football team.

It would be nice, though, if those who have brought this suit against him would repudiate the mass murder carried out against Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist resistance fighters at the Jasenovac death camp, run by the Ustasha as a human slaughterhouse during the second world war.

Then perhaps Dylan might clarify his statement. Then it would be easier to separate the wartime fascist regime from modern Croatian nationalism.

Until the Croatian government faces up to this ugly chapter in the country's history it will continue to be associated with it.

 

This article appeared in People's World

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