Whatever I mean, I mean it

December 21, 1999

Perhaps the major perk of this job is being the only person who knows for sure when I'm being serious. Not always, but some of the time.

This was highlighted last week after a column on the County Commissioners' solution for paying for a new stadium with a 2 percentage point increase in the county's room tax. I heard from both pro- and anti-stadium people who applauded the column and from both pro- and anti-stadium people who disparaged the column.

This always puts the writer in the somewhat compromising position of having to go back and reread it to figure out "what did I mean, anyway?"

After rereading, this was one of those cases where I still didn't know. So when people phone this sort of puts me in a position not unlike how Jerry Ford's press secretary must have felt. Remember all those sentences that started with


"What the president really said was..."

"What the president was trying to say was..."

"What the president meant to say was..."

And my favorite, "What the president should have said was..."

When people call for clarification, I handle them the same way. They say, "What side were you taking?" and I reply, "Well, what side do you take?" They tell me and I say "Well, what do you know, that's the side I was taking, too." And everyone goes away happy.

I am aware that this failure to stand behind my convictions is a little like not making a fuss when the woman in front of you in the supermarket has 15 items in the eight-item line. But it's quicker than arguing.

The point is, as long as people are wondering and as long as people are thinking, it doesn't matter.

The Economist magazine spoke of British irony this week, in much the same way, to the point of quoting Foreign Officer Robert Cooper, who suggested irony may form a logical basis for foreign policy.

"What else is there left for the citizens of a post-heroic, post-imperial, post-modern society? Provided it is tinged with humanity, irony is not such a bad thing. It suggests a certain modesty about oneself, one's values and one's aspirations. At least irony is unlikely to be used to justify programs of conquest or extermination."

I agree. Except for the part about extermination. Irony as a means of eliciting a little good, healthy conquest sets ablaze this little glimmer of possibility in my eye.

But in considering foreign policy, or stadiums or other monumental undertakings, at least irony prevents self-righteous weightiness from creeping in, as the magazine demonstrates in the following anecdote.

"The British urge to puncture grandiose visions is captured in a (possibly apocryphal) story about Sir Oliver Franks, when he was Britain's ambassador in Washington after the war. A journalist asked leading ambassadors what they desired in the coming year. The Russian ambassador mentioned the liberation of colonial peoples; the French ambassador spoke of a new era of peace and international cooperation. Sir Oliver expressed a desire for a small box of crystallized fruit."

So there you go. If we can't have the stadium, perhaps local government will at least treat us to crystallized fruit.

In the meantime, how you choose to interpret the remarks in this space, stadium or otherwise, is up to you. And that should be a good thing, for as the Economist says, "those who realize that an ironic remark has been made are instantly complicit, and they can enjoy the fact that there are others who have missed the joke."

Whatever that means.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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