The Downtrodden Rulers

Robert Musil has penned a memorable description of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which he calls “Kakania” – from kaiserlich und königlich, but perhaps also echoing cacophony or something even worse) on the eve of the Great War that destroyed it. Every single ethnic group, not excluding the Germans (whom everybody outside thought ran the place), had a towering sense of sacred victimhood. Some called themselves the “Unredeemed Nations”. Well, in 1919 they were redeemed, and much good did it do them.

It occurs to me that precisely the same sensibility dominates our own time. “No man is a villain to himself”, and the same principle holds true of the social groups that others perceive as top of the pecking order. For example, many men consider themselves oppressed by women as the politically dominant sex, many heterosexuals are terrified of being somehow coerced into homosexuality (don’t ask me how this will be done), and above all, the white supremacists regard themselves as being on the verge of extinction. In just the same way, the Nazis did not think of the Jews as the weaker side, but saw themselves making a desperate last stand against a immensely powerful global Jewish conspiracy that mysteriously used both capitalism and communism as weapons against the Volk. The Jews stuffed into the death camps did not see themselves as deposed masters in this way, but that is honestly how the stuffers saw them. Similarly, it must be hard for an American woman of colour to perceive her white-male persecutor as an endangered species, but honestly, that is how he does – doubly – think of himself.

The main difference between the aggrieved ethno-nationalism of Musil’s Kakania and ourselves is that the competitively more-victimised-than-thou mentality led to two global interstate wars, whereas ours is more likely to lead to civil war, perhaps a global civil war. Which in some ways is what the last one was. So maybe there won’t be so much difference after all.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2012)

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