Nascar driver Bubba Wallace speaks to the media in Talladega, Ala., June 22.

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s not unusual to put a loop at the end of a rope to pull down a garage door at a Nascar track (which has lots of garages). But one at Talladega was made using a hangman’s knot. If directed at Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a black driver who has championed antiracist causes, it would have been an ugly racist taunt. But it wasn’t. The rope had been hanging in the garage stall for months before anyone knew Mr. Wallace would occupy it.

All’s well that ends well. One point survives the column I would have written last Wednesday but didn’t for fear the matter would be resolved before the paper reached your breakfast table: The media’s instant theory of the case assumed good faith on the culprit’s part. He or she might have had offensive intent toward Mr. Wallace, but certainly no nefarious intent toward the media and its predictable hot buttons.

Of course the assumption was absurd. That’s why many Nascar fans were skeptical and smelled a pseudo-event—one cooked up to create a media furor.

As it turned out, the FBI was called in and the rope was just a rope. Mr. Wallace is now a different kind of victim, explaining that he didn’t find the noose or complain about it—Nascar called him in and tearfully declared that there had been a heinous racial incident.

When a single team member noticed the rope, Nascar, instead of investigating, pawned the issue off on the Feds, vaguely murmuring about a possible hate crime. This was not brave. Nascar is a surveillance organization, tightly controlling access to its garages for competition purposes. Its leaders likely could have discovered the truth in 15 minutes by examining video and questioning garage habitués. But a racing body once run by people unafraid to make a decision may have worried because Nascar itself had assigned Mr. Wallace a garage space that came pre-equipped with a racist noose.

When a meteorite crashes through somebody’s roof, that’s a real news event. Real news events still happen. But the pre-emptory powers of media attention and media “narratives” have become dominant forces in their own right.

The story has heroes but they are the many Americans who resisted rushing to judgment even at the expense of being called names on Twitter. Al Sharpton and driver Jimmie Johnson also managed to convey disapproval with nuance. Both insisted, in so many words, that Nascar find out not only “who” but “why,” as if motive might still be up for debate.

Sadly, once the truth was revealed, Mr. Sharpton decided the absence of intent was not a defense. “It’s clear what a noose represents,” he told MSNBC. A writer at the Atlantic, in the manner of sophisticates everywhere, relied on emphasis in place of argument, tweeting: “It. Was. A. Noose.” An unnamed Nascar official told ESPN.com: “There [are] a lot of ways to tie a rope. This was unquestionably a noose. So, why?” Mr. Wallace himself on CNN ruled that any noose is offensive by virtue of being a noose.

OK, we can partly lay this off on people being made to feel foolish by this episode. But we are also witnessing something that might be called the closing of the doors of perception—or maybe the birth of the stupid.

A noose can mean anything or nothing. We need to retain all the possibilities. Some of us will never be able to see one without thinking of Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood. My fingers still regularly tie a hangman’s knot because, as Wikipedia notes, “it can be left with a larger loop that gives [a fishing] lure more freedom of movement.” Wikipedia even provides an animated GIF showing how to tie one. Nowhere in its entry, at least for now, does it say a hangman’s knot is always and only a symbol of racist hate.

Consider the reification fallacy (not to mention anachronism) of this sentence in my favorite newspaper, giving preference to the reduced and impoverished world of symbols over the large and encompassing world of the concrete: “A noose, one of the country’s starkest symbols of hatred and racism, had been on display in a working area at one of racing’s premier venues for months.”

Uh huh. The rope was just a rope until the 1 in 43 chance of Mr. Wallace being assigned a particular garage slot at last weekend’s race. If nobody had called attention to it, by Sunday passersby might have interpreted it as Mr. Wallace’s message of what he intended to do to fellow drivers.

Yes, we should be on the lookout for racial insults, but not to the point of robbing the world of its richness in the way that neurosis (so plentiful in this episode) robs personality of its richness.

Wonder Land: The pre-liberal idea of settling issues with coercion has made a comeback in the U.S. Image: Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

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