Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Bob Dylan’s ‘Neighborhood Bully’ Gets Memory-Holed

Me, I romp and stomp/Thankful as I romp/Without freedom of speech/I might be in the swamp

Jacob Siegel
December 22, 2020
Original photo Daniel Janin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo Daniel Janin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo Daniel Janin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo Daniel Janin/AFP via Getty Images

I wanted to hear the Bob Dylan song “Neighborhood Bully” off his 1983 record Infidels. That’s how I discovered that YouTube won’t let you hear the song. It turns out that this man Bob Dylan, so beloved by the American cultural establishment and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, is guilty of hate speech. Sooner or later, they all are.

I wanted to hear “Neighborhood Bully”—a jaunty four-and-a -half minute rock ‘n’ roll number—but I can’t remember why. The song has its charms, including a driving three-chord electric guitar, but it’s nowhere near Dylan’s best and I’m not some kind of fanatic who enjoys wallowing in the master’s obscurities. The impulse might have come to me while I was trying to Google something else, and the search results triggered the association.

I can assure you that Googling “Neighborhood Bully” was in no way intended by me as a political statement or gesture. “Neighborhood Bully” is assumed to be a song about Israel being singled out and maligned among the world’s nations, but Dylan has rejected this interpretation just as he always denied narrow political readings of his work. “I’m not a political songwriter, he told an interviewer shortly after the record came out. “‘Neighborhood Bully,’ to me, is not a political song, because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talkin’ about it as an Israeli political song—in Israel alone, there’s maybe 20 political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, what party.”

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully

My intentions were not to make trouble. It’s not as if I started off the day seeking out banned materials and deviant songs. It’s just that one thing led to another. You know how it is: The links start thinking for themselves, the minutes turn into hours, and you end up watching some YouTube video with no connection to whatever you’d been looking for in the first place, hazily trying to recall how you got there like a drunk guy who’s woken up in a strange room. Only, I was brought up short. I couldn’t listen to “Neighborhood Bully” because the song wasn’t there. It had vanished.

Discovering that a cultural product of any note is not instantly available on one of the major internet content platforms is enough to trigger a state of mild alarm. You start to wonder whether it is you who has made some kind of mistake. That sensation turns into a full-on paranoid itch when the missing artifact in question is a song by one of the most legendary and popular musicians of the past century, on a site, YouTube, where one can easily watch pirated movies, Hitler’s speeches, and snuff films, and that’s owned by Google, whose business model is being the universal database that contains everything.

By putting “Bob Dylan Neighborhood Bully” in the YouTube search bar, what I found was a hole in the internet, the place where a song should have been that was filled instead by markers of its disappearance—little hints that the song had in fact once existed there. I looked elsewhere, and found a version of the song on the smaller, niche video-hosting platform Vimeo. There I found something really interesting: In the first frame before the song kicks in, a title card announces that a Russian version of the video was banned by YouTube as hate speech.

I reached out to the video’s uploader, Alexander Gendler, a Chicago book publisher who is active in the city’s community of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Gendler explained that he’d first tried to upload a version of “Neighborhood Bully” to YouTube in which he spoke the lyrics in Russian over Dylan’s original music. When that was banned as hate speech without explanation, he thought it might be an accident related to the Russian.

Screenshot of ‘hate speech’ notification from Youtube to Gendler.
Screenshot of ‘hate speech’ notification from Youtube to Gendler.Alexander Gendler

Gendler then tried again. He used the same background imagery for the new video—a montage showing scenes of Jews being persecuted, anti-Jewish propaganda, and a model of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem—but he dropped the Russian so this time the only audio was Dylan’s original rendition of his song. Same result. Once again the song was removed for inappropriate content. “A Nobel Prize laureate, Bob Dylan, and they call him a hate speech monger. This is amazing to me,” Gendler said, when I asked him what he made of the song’s disappearance.

Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
Because there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully

Gendler was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 so he knew enough about how the censors operate to stop there. He already had two strikes on his YouTube account for violating the opaque set of rules that the site calls “community guidelines” and enforces through the implacable authority of automated responses and algorithmic policing. He appealed the decision but his appeal was summarily rejected without explanation. A third violation could have prevented him from posting anything on YouTube ever again.

Screenshot of YouTube rejecting Gendler’s appeal.
Screenshot of YouTube rejecting Gendler’s appeal.Alexander Gendler

Now, the disappearance of a song from YouTube when it’s still available—as of now—on a dozen other websites, not to mention on CD and cassette, may seem like it’s just a minor inconvenience. Even the labeling of Dylan’s work as hate speech may be heavy-handed but who does it really bother? It’s not as if Dylan had to give his Nobel Prize back. He’s still rich and famous. Who did it bother when the Rolling Stones themselves removed the song “Under My Thumb” from their classic live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! because of rumblings that the song was patently offensive, due to its self-evident violation of some vague and ever-shifting standard of offensiveness that exists nowhere except inside some people’s heads, and not other people’s heads, which arguably makes it all the more effective as a means of censorship, or self-censorship, Bill Wyman’s strutting, ominous, celebratory bass-line be damned.

But the censorship is not ultimately the point. A platform like YouTube is not just a “content provider,” like a digital jukebox. It’s not an artist, which can choose which versions of which songs it chooses to make available to whom and when. It’s a ledger, on which the shared events and references that together add up to something like a social or cultural whole are recorded. Instantaneously altering that shared database based on nothing more than the half-formed political whims of whatever cadre of censors has been appointed to control the “hate speech” algorithms is the first step to controlling memory itself. I see it, and it scares me.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.