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Kill Oswald
The problem of American roundsmanship.


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Charles Krauthammer

ROUNDS: the ritual whereby a senior doctor goes from bed to bed seeing patients, trailed by a gaggle of students.

ROUNDSMANSHIP: the art of distinguishing oneself from the gaggle with relentless displays of erudition.

The roundsman is the guy who, with the class huddled at the bed of a patient who has developed a rash after taking penicillin, raises his hand to ask the professor — obnoxious ingratiation is best expressed in the form of a question — whether this might not instead be a case of Shmendrick’s Syndrome reported in the latest issue of The Journal of Ridiculously Obscure Tropical Diseases.

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None of the rest of us gathered around the bed has ever heard of Shmendrick’s. But that’s the point. The point is for the prof to remember this hyper-motivated stiff who stays up nights reading journals in preparation for rounds. That’s the upside. The downside, which the roundsman, let’s call him Oswald, ignores at his peril, is that this apple polishing does not endear him to his colleagues, a slovenly lot, mostly hung over from a terrific night at the Blue Parrot.

The general feeling among the rest of us is that we should have Oswald killed. A physiology major suggests a simple potassium injection that would stop his heart and leave no trace. We agree this is a splendid idea, and entirely just. But it would not solve the problem. Kill him and another Oswald will arise in his place.

There’s always an Oswald. There’s always the husband who takes his wife to Paris for Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day? The rest of us schlubs can barely remember to come home with a single long stem rose. What does he think he’s doing? And love is no defense. We don’t care how much you love her — you don’t do Paris. It’s bad for the team.

Baseball has its own way of taking care of those who commit the capital offense of showing up another player. Drop your bat to admire the trajectory of your home run and, chances are, the next time up the unappreciative pitcher tries to take your head off with high cheese that whistles behind your skull.

Now, you might take this the wrong way and think that I am making the case for mediocrity — what Australians call the “the tall poppy syndrome” of unspoken bias against achievement, lest one presume to be elevated above one’s mates. No. There is a distinction between show and substance. It is the ostentation that rankles, not the achievement. I’m talking about dancing in the end zone. Find a cure for cancer, and you deserve whatever honors and riches come your way. But the check-writer who wears blinding bling to the cancer ball is quite another manner.

Americans abroad have long been accused of such blinging arrogance and display. I find the charge generally unfair. Arrogance is incorrectly ascribed to what is really the cultural clumsiness of an insular (if continental) people less exposed to foreign ways and languages than most other people on earth.

True, America as a nation is not very good at humility. But it would be completely unnatural for the dominant military, cultural, and technological power on the planet to adopt the demeanor of, say, Liechtenstein. The ensuing criticism is particularly grating when it comes from the likes of the French, British, Spanish, Dutch (there are many others) who just yesterday claimed dominion over every land and people their Captain Cooks ever stumbled upon.

My beef with American arrogance is not that we act like a traditional great power, occasionally knocking off foreign bad guys who richly deserve it. My problem is that we don’t know where to stop — the trivial victories we insist on having in arenas that are quite superfluous. Like that women’s hockey game in the 2002 Winter Olympics. Did the U.S. team really have to beat China 12-1? Can’t we get the coaches — there’s gotta be some provision in the Patriot Act authorizing the CIA to engineer this — to throw a game or two, or at least make it close? We’re trying to contain China. Why then gratuitously crush them in something Americans don’t even care about? Why not throw them a bone?

I say we keep the big ones for ourselves — laser-guided munitions, Google, Warren Buffett — and let the rest of the world have ice hockey, ballroom dancing, and every Nobel Peace Prize. And throw in the Ryder Cup. I always root for the Europeans in that one. They lost entire empires, for God’s sake; let them have golf supremacy for one weekend. No one likes an Oswald.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post Writers Group



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