There are many people in our great land aggrieved over the idea that Hillary Clinton thinks Martin Luther King Jr. was not the hero of the civil rights movement.
This idea seems so illogical that the only way to understand it is to approach it as a puzzle. After all, why would a white person running for president in 2008 dismiss the legacy of King near his birthday, which is celebrated as a national holiday, and right before a primary in a state with a large black vote?
To do such a thing would suggest inability to tie one's shoes. Let's imagine that in private Sen. Clinton thought little of King, which is vastly unlikely for someone of her background. Still, the puzzle remains: Why would she, an intelligent person, say it in public?
Yet there she was on "Meet the Press" Sunday, having to defend herself for simply saying that while King laid the groundwork (which she acknowledged), another part of the civil rights revolution was Lyndon B. Johnson's masterful stewardship of the relevant legislation through Congress. She was arguing that she is more experienced in getting laws passed in Washington than is Barack Obamaâ€”which is true.
Why do people like op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and countless black bloggers hear a grievous insult in her simple observation? The outcry is so disproportionate to the stimulus that one can barely help suspecting something outright irregular.
I think of a study published last year in the Journal of Black Psychology. It documented that the extent to which black Americans perceive their lives to be affected by racism correlates with symptoms of general paranoia disconnected from racial issues.
To be able to hold in one's mind the notion that Mrs. Clinton would attack King suggests a bone-deep hypersensitivity that overrides sequential reasoning. "We have to be very, very careful how we speak about that era," Rep. Clyburn explains.
But why so very, very careful? What effect does it have on anyone's life if that era is occasionally discussed in less than perfectly genuflective phraseology? Is the Klan waiting behind a hill? Will a black man working at an insurance company in Cleveland have a breakdown because someone didn't give King precisely enough credit in a quick statement?
There is a willful frailty, a lack of self-confidence, in this kind of thinking. It suggests someone almost searching for things to claim injury about, donning the mantle of the noble victim in order to assuage a bruised ego.
Of course, there is a less depressing interpretation of the current uproar: Mrs. Clinton's critics are playing political hardball. You know, let's get blacks to vote for Mr. Obama by playing the race card to pretend Mrs. Clinton is dumping on King. John Edwards, for example, is obviously not mouthing agreement with these people out of insecurity about his blackness.
Well, politics is rarely pretty, but in this case the price is too high. For one, misinterpretation of statements in this vein makes black people look disinclined to process detail and contextâ€”in other words, dim. It only gives that much more fodder to views on black intelligence like those uttered by James Watson.
Think, for example, how utterly unreal the notion is that Bill Clinton, our "first black president," would call Mr. Obama's whole candidacy a "fairytale" rather than referring, specifically, to perceptions of his record on the Iraq war. It's as if the outraged crowd is only capable of processing seven words at a time.
In an election that is supposed to focus on larger issues such as America's role in a violent world, playing the race card in this fashion distracts us from real problems. When most new AIDS cases are black and the murder rate among young black males is sky high, what kind of black representative throws tantrums over extremely unlikely implications of something someone said?
In the name of speaking for Mr. Obama, the people throwing these tantrums are presenting a parochial, cynical face, rather than the thoughtful, cosmopolitan one that the candidate himself is trying to show.
Overall, Mr. Obama has not run a "black" campaign. The past few days suggest that if he did, many would consider it a favor to him to churn up 10 more months of dustups over phrases carefully lifted out of context and held up as evidence of racism. Hopefully Mr. Obama is too smart, and too much a man of the world, to succumb to this twisted rendition of black identity.