"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Genetic Basis For Southern Conservatism

Thomas Edsall writing in the New York Times (7.9.14) cites a number of studies which have linked conservatism – especially religious conservatism – to genes:

In Obedience to Traditional Authority: A heritable factor underlying authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness, three psychologists  write that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.” According to the authors all three traits are reflections of “a single, underlying tendency called…. “traditionalism.” Traditionalists are defined as “having strict moral standards and child-rearing practices, valuing conventional propriety and reputation, opposing rebelliousness and selfish disregard of others, and valuing religious institutions and practices.” (Ludeke, Bouchard, Johnson)

Other researchers have arrived at similar findings:

The substantial “genetic component in these relationships suggests that there may be a common underlying predisposition that leads individuals to adopt conservative bedrock social principles and political ideologies while simultaneously feeling the need for religious experiences.” (Ksiazkiewicz, Friesen)

This means that a huge swath of the South is acting out a genetic destiny and really can’t help rejecting Evolution, believing in the literal truth of the Bible, loving reprobate Uncle Bob, and voting conservative Republican every chance they can get.  An invisible hand guides the steering wheel to church every Sunday, turns them away from the Ape House at the zoo, and makes them shudder whenever they visit  San Francisco.

“Mommy, why can’t we visit the Ape House?”, little Jennifer asks.

“We just can’t, sweetheart”, her mother responds. “I always get a creepy feeling when I go in there.  They look so…human”.

All these genetic suppositions are all well and good; but I don’t know what to do with Billy Varner.  He goes to the Fairview Baptist Church and prays.  In fact he has had more than one charismatic epiphanies there.  He has walked up the aisle to Pastor John, tears streaming down his face, his hands aloft and trembling, shouting, “I’ve found Jesus!”. 


Yet he’s the orneriest son-of-a-bitch in all of Vernon, an unreconstructed racist with a den full of assault rifles to fight the Government with when they come South again.  “Those goddam Yankees have come down here one time too many”, said Varner as he shredded a target with his AR-15.

Varner was also a family man, subscribed to family values, and loved his wife and children.  Yes, he had to beat her every so often to keep her in line, and locking Billy Jr. in the old coal cellar was the only way to teach him manners, but that’s what hard love was all about.

He was selfish and hateful. “I worked for what I got”, he said, “and no (unprintable) goddam (unprintable) is going to get a red cent of my hard-earned money”.

Billy Varner was religious to a fault, accepted the supremacy and absolute authority of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Bible; had been married for 30 years with three wonderful children; believed in private property and monogamy; but at heart he was a mean cocksucker who had no respect for anyone, railed against the rich bankers living out on the Prairie, and rebelled against the whole North.  So where do we put him? 

He certainly was very religious, and valued family and traditional ways of life; but cared nothing about friends and neighbors and truly would have joined an armed insurrection against federal troops if the threat presented itself. He also was a bit nuts.  He felt that he was a reincarnation of William Reynolds, a fusilier in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Reynolds was a redneck just like Varner, came down out of the hills to fight the Yankees, fought alongside rich boys from the big plantations down on the Delta, and was recognized by Lee himself for heroic service.

In actuality, Reynolds was a savage half-wit who had been beaten by his father until his brains were scrambled, and joining the Confederate Army was the only way out of Pickens Mill. He not only killed Yankees but disemboweled them, skewered them with his bayonet, and licked the blade. His reputation had spread up and down the Union lines and even his Rebel buddies were afraid of him.  Someone wrote a camp song about him, mythologized him and turned his bloody savagery into heroic exploits; but those soldiers who had fought with him at Petersburg and who had seen his wild-eyed butchery knew better.

“I am William Reynolds”, Billy Varner claimed proudly.

So where do we put him in the psychologists’ scheme of things.  He fit many bills, but not all; and the researchers did not prioritize.  If you were religious, cherished family values, and the authority of God the Father; but hated black people, beat your children, and were armed to the teeth to kill Yankees were you still a “traditionalist”?

To be fair to the psychologists, it could be that Billy Varner did indeed have a few strands of good DNA on his double helix, but so many deformed and twisted bits that his traditionalism came out all wrong – good genetic intentions but bad empirical outcomes.

More than likely, however, Varner was not unlike ten million other Southerners who have come by their traditionalism honestly.  The South can still be insular, defensive, and socially timid after defeat by the Union forces, a brutal and vengeful period of Reconstruction, a heavy-handed attack on States Rights and a constant whipping at the hands of Northern liberals.  Many parts of the South remain poor and disenfranchised. The legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism has not completely disappeared. It is not unreasonable, therefore, for good people to clamber into the pews on Sunday, keep firearms at the ready, and defend property, family, and individual rights to the last man.

This is not to say that nature has to take a back seat to nurture.  If I were to believe my mother, I inherited not a few bits of nasty genetic material from my Great Uncle Harry.  “You’re the spitting image of him”, my mother said.  It was true. If you took away the handlebar mustache and the flattened hair parted in the middle, there was the family nose, the off-kilter look of the eyes, and the slightly cocked head.  Family lore had it that Harry was a reprobate, a philanderer, and a ne’er-do-well who hustled his way from the Bowery to Albany, made more money than the whole family combined, and died peacefully in his estate on the Peekskill. 

My mother was referring to Harry’s bad genes, but I always admired Uncle Harry.  Whatever his own personal tangle of genes, twisted and tied in Santa Maria Apostolica the village perched over the Tyrrhenian Sea where his own grandparents were born; or the first filaments of rebellion and philandering back in the days of the Prince of Naples when his ancestors worked in the royal vineyards; Uncle Harry had turned out just fine indeed.

There is no doubt that we all have a genetic destiny, and science is only beginning to discover which of our human compulsions are linked to what sequence on the helix; but to throw all Southern conservatives into one, big, leaky basket is nonsense.  Northern liberals, as we all know, are a prejudiced lot, and for years prior to this study have rolled all Southern characteristics – religious fundamentalism, Second Amendment rights, social conservatism, and anti-collective individualism – into one.  Southerners are all cornpone-eating, duck-hunting, racist ignoramuses.  No two ways about it. Northern liberals have always believed that the South is retrograde, irremediable sinkhole of injustice and ignorance; and now they find that not only were they right in their judgments, but the buggers are fucking hard-wired!

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