It's a little like the invariably shattering experience of overhearing your friends or family talk about you: How can they have got it so wrong? My analogy is to the miserable insights we in Washington are getting into the way we are regarded by the country as a whole, as the national debate gets under way on whether we should have full voting representation in Congress. I know that eavesdroppers are generally well advised to skulk away from the door in such situations, since dignity rarely survives one of those "Now just a damned minute!" bursts into the room. Still, I can't resist a few remarks in our collective self-defense. The fantasy of who and what we are has got completely out of hand.

This strikes me as being every bit as relevant to discussion of the proposed constitutional amendment granting us representation in the Senate and the House as all the learned disquisitions on the Constitution that have been set forth. Meaning no harm to its practitioners, constitutional law in these fights resembles nothing so much as psychiatric testimony in court: For every expert "yes" you can always get an expert "no" - and vice versa.

Naturally, I believe the lawyers and scholars who say the Constitution supports those of us who think the District of Columbia should be treated "as though it were a state" in these matters. And I know the arguments concerning our unique deprivation of political rights that can be used to counter those who reply that we are only a city trying unfairly to acquire the perquisites of statehood. But I don't think the gut opposition is based on a perception of Washington as a mere city, never mind how frequently the argument is made. On the contrary, in the opinion of many of the amendment's more devoted opponents, Washington seems not to be a city or place at all. Rather, it is an idea. Other jurisdictions, from Hollywood to Peoria to Timbuktu, have been similarly transmuted into ideas - but none, I think, into such a perfectly wretched and alarming idea as Washington.

Those of us who live here and dish up political commentary contribute to the misleading shorthand with our regular references to some kind of single-minded creature called "Washington" that "thinks" this and "feels" that and "hopes" for something else. Politicians, who are its essence and who thrive on its institutional ways, nonetheless excoriate "Washington" in an endless, not to say mindless, progression of speeches. Liberal and conservative journals are good at least once a year for a whomp at the fat, spoiled, arrogant and pricey world they believe the average bureaucrat to live in. The bureaucrats - clearly, that's one enormous part of it. The other - let's not be dainty - is the blacks . . . muggers all, to hear the out-of-towners tell it. We are everything you don't want your children to grow up to be.

Now if all that seems a little petulant and extreme, let me cite a couple of passages from the Senate debate on the D.C. amendment to illustrate how far the thing has gone. Here is Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi: "It is not anything like prejudice or not wanting them [D.C. residents] to have some representation; but, after all, no one has to live here. No one is being punished, unless they are prisoners, by having to stay here."

I don't know how much legislation Stennis has voted for over the years that increased the size of the Pentagon civilian work force and the non-Pentagon bureaucracy in general, but I will bet that it has plenty. And I will state it as a certainity that many of the blacks who live here come from families that migrated to Washington because under the federal jurisdiction they were able to live with much more dignity and opportunity than they get in Mississippi. That Stennis could be so insensitive to the role his own politics played in the growth of the community for which he now has such contempt, is a measure of the overwhelming power of the Washington "idea."

Or consider the contribution of Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California: " . . . there is a kind of fundamental conflict of interest between the District of Columbia and the 50 states if the 50 states undergo war, depression, a disaster of any kind. If a disaster is large enough, Washington automatically prospers. It is a fundamental conflict of interest, and disasters in the 50 states are of necessity and historically it is a fact benature for the District of Columbia." Hayakawa goes on to suggest that Washington existing, in a "parasitical" relationship to the rest of the country and profitting from its tribulations, would pressure its legislators to vote all manner of honors for the sake of its own wicked well-being.

But what kind of an argument is this? What sort of monstrous reading does it imply of the individuals who live here? Could it not be equally supposed on the basis of this logic, that Californians what with their economic dependence on [WORD ILLEGIBLE]manufacturing and wine processor, have an interest in [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]and widespread [WORD ILLEGIBLE]at home? Are we to wonder whether their elected representatives can be anything other than pre-make and pre-wind when the state's economic results improved?"

The insult and the absurdity are apparent. Why then are they not also apparent when the District of Columbia is the issue? Because, I think, the fantasy of [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]people has over-whelmed the unglamorous reality of the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]middle-class place that Washington really is. Washington's black majority (WORD ILLEGIBLE[means in an old and scuffy church (WORD ILLEGIBLE]culture. Politically, these blacks tend to be more conservative than much of the white citizenry that lives in the northwest quadrant of town. Similarly, the specter of the wildly experimenting and half-crazed bureaucrat is a figment of the popular and political imagination. Sure, such bureaucrats exist - but far and away the preponderance of these people are middle-income souls, black and white, trudging to routine and essential jobs in places like the Bureau of Engraving and the General Accounting Office every day, having little to do with the grand sweep of policy. They do not want war and disaster. They do not want to go some other place to live. They and their families live here - just as John Stennis lives in Mississippi.

Over the years, the population of the District has been alternately protected and exploited by the federal government; by the government provided here for blacks than they got elsewhere . . . it also provided cheap boome and taxi fares and other benefits for congressmen at the expense of the local population. At present, the district is part federal dependency and part self-governing political unit. We are pushing for the next step in political autonomy and representation. That is what the amendment fight is about. Or that's what it would be about, anyway, if the mythology were not so powerful.