It's become a familiar semantic game, particularly in the wake of controversy over Hillary Clinton's comments seeming to minimize Martin Luther King Jr.'s importance in achieving civil rights gains in the 1960s.
Still, as we all head to breakfasts and parades today celebrating the birth of the nation's greatest civil rights leader, it is a question worth asking. WWMT: What Would Martin Think?
The thought came to me watching news accounts on Clinton supporter Bob Johnson, a black man who made $1 billion cynically pandering to black viewers through his Black Entertainment Television, clumsily trying to make an argument against Barack Obama that the former First Lady never could.
It's something that's happened with increasing regularity as the South Carolina primary approaches, with its huge black vote. Established black leaders who know the Clintons will owe them big if they move black voters away from Barack Obama have begun taking potshots -- from Johnson and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young to Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Here's what Johnson said, while trying to avoid the apology he eventually delivered for a ham-handed insult referring to Barack Obama's admitted past drug use: "We've always said we need a perfect, well-spoken, Harvard-educated black candidate who would prove we've transcended race. Well, now we've got him and nobody knows how to campaign against him."
So, now that there's the kind of candidate for president folks like Martin Luther King probably dreamed about in 1964, the first black American billionaire thinks it makes sense to take him down?
I also wonder what Dr. King would make of the dustup over Golf Week magazine's decision to feature a noose on its front cover. According to blogger and Men's fitness editor in chief Roy Johnson, the magazine's now-fired editor initially wanted to create the image placing a noose around the neck of a suspended TV personality who said in a fleeting joke that Tiger Woods should be lynched by younger golfers hoping to match him.
I didn't write about the initial comment when it happened because it seemed like an ill-chosen joke, not a pattern of discrimination worthy of dissection. But Golf Week's decision compounded the mistake by amplifying the central error -- refusing to acknowledge or respect the intense power nooses and lynching have always had in our racial history. Fortunately, one of the magazine's biggest advertisers, which Roy says pulled serious dollars after the noose cover hit newsstands, understands the power of symbol much better.
And what might our greatest civil rights advocate make of how certain male pundits have treated Clinton herself?
The liberal watchdog Web site Media Matters has gathered a damning litany of references MSNBC host Chris Matthews has made about Clinton -- comments centered on her gender which seem to alternate between patronizing and pejorative.
Matthews in particular has been a lightning rod for this kind of criticism, both for being tone deaf to how awful some of his comments sound (though he did recently apologize for implying Clinton's entire political career stems from sympathy over her husband's infidelity) and for his longstanding resistance to admitting any wrongdoing.
He sounds like somebody from the 1950s trying to get used to liberated women. But at a time when we have a female House Speaker, female Secretary of State and a female front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, this stuff just can't go on.
At least, that's what I hope Martin Might Think.