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Political Genetics: Israeli Nazis and Liberal/Conservative Brain Scans

by Micah Tillman

Our political views are hardwired but have nothing to do with our genes. This is the paradoxical message the news media has given us over the last few days. Brain scans show different neural activity in liberals and conservatives, and people who became Israeli citizens on the basis of genetics have reportedly turned neo-National-Socialist. “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

Misconceptions surround both stories. The study of liberal and conservative brain-function depended on placing subjects along a single scale of opinion. But social conservatism and political conservatism, for example, are radically different things. They fall on different spectra.

The social conservative is concerned with ways of life, supposedly feeling there to be fewer good lifestyles than the social liberal does. But the political conservative is concerned with government interference. And, she feels there to be fewer good ways in which the government can be involved in her life than she thinks the political liberal would.

How many ways of life are healthy and how many issues should be under government purview are separate questions. Opinions about them belong on different psychological axes. The political conservative is supposed to loathe government interference, and is therefore supposed to want everyone to be able to decide for themselves how to live. They don’t want a Big Brother guiding them through the tough times in life. We would expect people who think this way to be flexible and ready for change. Yet the brain scan study tells us that all conservatives are stodgy stay-the-coursers.

The social conservative, on the other hand, is supposed to think that only the way she lives is right. You might expect people who think this way to be inflexible, and unable to change. And since this is how the brain scan study describes conservatives, you might conclude that the researchers were actually talking about social conservatism.

But imagine that conservatives — whether political, social, or both — didn’t get offended by this study, but decided to use it to their advantage. After all, if conservatism is hardwired into your brain, you can’t help it. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a natural orientation. This might lend some weight to their fight against the media’s anti-conservative discrimination. They could make signs that read, “The Media are Conservaphobes.”

There are two questions, then, about the brain scan study. First is, “What kind of conservative are they talking about?” Second is, “Doesn’t this study actually help the conservative cause, whichever kind of conservative is meant?” Until those questions are answered, we don’t actually know what the story is.

Neither do we know what the story really is regarding the alleged Israeli neo-Nazis. Israel is “shocked,” wrote the Daily Mail’s Matthew Kalman. But the backlash against them reported by the Jerusalem Post centers around the law that let them become Israeli citizens — a law which only required them to have a small amount of Jewish blood. So, are they genetically Jewish in any significant way? And if not, why be shocked that people from one ethnic group hate another? It seems to happen all the time.

But even if they were ethnically Jewish, they may not see themselves that way. And even if they saw themselves as Jewish, there’d be no guarantee that they wouldn’t hate Jews. Anyone who has seen Ryan Gosling’s brilliant performance in The Believer or listened to grunge during the 90’s can understand how anger and guilt can lead to self-loathing. And if you hang around anyone who uses the word “we” frequently, you’ll eventually hear them start to beat up on themselves.

There are two questions, then, about the Israeli neo-Nazi story. First is, “What kind of people is it actually about?” Second is, “Should we really be surprised that people of whatever kind hate other people, or that they might even hate themselves?”

As every person who masters the art of self-loathing, and every liberal born to conservative parents (and vice-versa) shows, even genes and “hardwiring” can leave plenty of wiggle-room. What we do with who we are and what we’re given is up to us. Maybe that’s what these stories are really about.

Micah Tillman is an instructor at The Catholic University of America. Links to his articles and a list of upcoming titles can be found at