Liberal-Conservative Gridlock, Genes, and Hope

black hole at center of universe

I found my fire-breathing liberal journalist father 220 light years away, in the constellation Perseus, on the edge of a black hole with the mass of 17 billion Suns. It didn’t surprise me he’d ended up here, about to be sucked into the biggest black hole ever just so he could check out dark matter. He was like that.

I skipped the preliminaries: happy to see me after forty two years? Want to know how things turned out for the family back on earth? The edge of the black hole was drawing perilously close.

“Dad,” I rushed. “Have you read the recent Genome-Wide Analysis of Liberal and Conservative Political Attitudes? I’ve got a few questions for you.”

A lopsided grin, a tilt of his fedora, and he whipped out his reporter’s notebook. I hurried on.

“Behavioral geneticists collected DNA from 13,000 respondents. Each one filled out a 50-item sociopolitical attitude questionnaire. The geneticists identified several significant linkage peaks and discussed potential candidate genes and it all led to the conclusion that the reasons why people are liberal or conservative are genetic. What do you think?”

It made sense to me. My sister Lucey had even traveled to Ireland to research it. Our father had come from a line of politically outspoken Irishmen: James McCarthy, who took on the British in famine-racked 19th C. Ireland. Jack Boyd-Barrett S.J., who blasted his own order for their devious and power-hungry ways. Any surprise that Dad’s whole career had been an exercise in just how much he could get away with? The Jesuits expelled Boyd Barrett. James McCarthy took his first step in exile onto a New Orleans dock. Seems a pattern there.

I had a big reason for asking, too. Back on earth, liberals and conservatives had been hurling epithets back and forth for decades: red states, blue states, conservatives against liberals, liberals against conservatives, the press polarized, and no middle ground. Congress in a stalemate.  To the social scientists, it all had to do with environment: learning to conform to a cultural and social group. And now the behavioral geneticists were saying it’s all heredity.

“So what is it you want to know?”

“Dad, if the genetic loci that influence flexibility in information processing and cognition and the biological systems that regulate fear and anxiety both have significant logarithm of odds (LOD) scores, and if a British study showed  that on MRI, liberals have higher gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex,  where conflicting information gets processed, and conservatives have higher gray matter volume in the right amygdala, the seat of fear and anxiety, then why should we even try to persuade each other? It just can’t be done.”

“How do you spell amygdala?”

There was no time to answer. His fedora had just flown off into the black hole. I had to speak fast. “What I’m getting at is, do you think you ever really persuaded anyone?” His Brooks Brothers trousers flapped against his shins and his neck was stretching out, his voice growing dimmer.

His voice wafted back to me. “Just teach the amygdala how to talk to the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex how to talk to the amygdala.”

Then he was gone. I headed back to earth with a heavy heart. How would it ever be possible to do that?

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