- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

IN PRAISE OF NEPOTISM: A NATURAL HISTORY

By Adam Bellow

Doubleday, $30, 565 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP GOLD

So Adam, Son of Saul, has written a 576-page volume entitled “In Praise of Nepotism.” Not exactly the kind of book you’d take to the beach with you.Actually, it is. “In Praise of Nepotism” would do fine at the beach. Also on airplanes, patios, and in libraries. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, the kind of specialized history that makes you see the larger issues and events rather, and sometimes surprisingly, differently. The book is fluid, readable, and fun. It also makes a lot of sense. And if the narrative tends to get a bit overdense, and if the final chapters meander between list-making and rhapsody — sure signs of authorial burnout — no matter. “In Praise of Nepotism” works.

Adam Bellow came by his interest in nepotism the old-fashioned way. He was born to it. Scion of novelist Saul Bellow, Bellow fils has made his career and reputation as an editor (He’s now at Doubleday). Mr. Bellow claims that, when he set out to write a defense of nepotism, he discovered that no one had ever written a history of the subject. So, as he puts it, he had to write the book he should have read before writing the book he wanted to write.

He may not have written the book he set out to write. His story stops just when it starts to get really interesting — with the progeny of the famous who now seem to be taking over everything from politics to media to sports. Perhaps it’s still too early to assess their performance; perhaps it gets a bit too close to home and the New York cocktail party circuit. But it definitely leaves you with a sense of, yes, yes, yes, tell us more.

But why would he want to write such a work at all? Two obvious reasons, and one that doesn’t become clear until the end.

The first obvious reason is his own experience, which he acknowledges but never discusses. Nothing about his father at all. His second reason: Nepotism seems to be on the rise in America, both among the celebrities and via the creation of a merit-based professional “overclass” that provides its progeny with enormous genetic, educational, economic, and access advantages. Drs. Mom & Dad, Barristers Dad & Mom, Profs. Whatever, spawning the next generation of physicians, attorneys, and intellectual goofballs. This may well turn out to be the more important phenomenon. It’s also far more scary.

However, Mr. Bellow sees this “New Nepotism” as very different from the Old. His sense is that, instead of imperious patriarchs and conniving matriarchs forcing their children into some predetermined life, now it’s the young who choose to follow their parents’ paths and, whatever their initial advantages, make their careers on their own.

But what exactly is nepotism? Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin “nepos,” meaning nephew or grandson (I’d always assumed it came from Nepo, one of the lesser-known and talented Marx Brothers.) “Nepotismo” first appeared during the Renaissance as a condemnatory term regarding the papal practice of appointing relatives, including illegitimate sons, (sometimes aka “nephews”) to church positions.

In modern usage, it means to show favoritism to kin — a word that connotes the unsavory, the selfish, the manipulative, the unethical, the illegal. It also alludes to every jerk who ever got where he or she was because of family connections. All in all, according to the common understanding, it’s a venal, ugly, undemocratic and inefficient practice that should have died out, or been legislated out of existence, long before Al “Lockbox” Gore and George “Ask Me Anything” Bush ever gave “Saturday Night Live” all that irresistible material.

Or maybe not.

Nepotism, as Mr. Bellow shows in fine detail, involves far more than mere favoritism and corruption. It’s also based upon more than the natural and laudable desire to help one’s offspring and family. For most of human history, nepotism, i.e., reliance on the family, clan, and tribe for physical survival and economic prosperity, has made eminent practical sense. In most of the world today, it still does. When family size is a guarantor of power as well as a measure of wealth and influence, when governments are corrupt and economies primitive, it’s natural and effective.

Moreover, the history of nepotism reveals that it can have major political benefits. Realms in chaos may rationally choose the stability that dynasties and hereditary bureaucracies bring. Mr. Bellow shows that in the West, far from turning dysfunctional with the advent of market economies and political democracies, nepotism actually advanced those systems. For the essence of nepotism — of Good Nepotism, anyway — is the creation of ever-widening circles of mutual support and ever-greater relationships of reciprocity via marriage, legal and de facto adoption, mentoring, philanthropy, and other exchange relationships.

But it’s tricky, finding the right mix of state and family, of family and business. Some eras do it better than others. And in the end, few arrangements work well for more than two or three generations.

After opening with an extensive analysis of real and fictional nepotism in one enterprise, the Mafia, Mr. Bellow gets into his history. Nepotism may have biological roots, but civilization provides the fertilizer. After assessing the Chinese, Greek, Roman, Merovingian, Carolingian, medieval, Renaissance, Napoleonic and Rothschild experiences (Told you this was a long book), he gets to the main section: Us.

The American experience reveals two things. First, it works well at both ends of the social spectrum. Immigrant groups survived and prospered this way; some still do. When we speak with post-September 11 admiration of “four generations of New York firefighters,” we’re also praising nepotism. And it’s a great way to build dynasties … even if, rather often, the founding dynasts owe far more to their families than they, or history, cares to admit.

Indeed, American dynasties, both family and social (Boston brahmins, Tidewater planters, etc.) are the focus of this book. Mr. Bellow, more a story teller than a social scientist, tells fine stories of the colonists, the Founders, Andy Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts, plus the obligatory more-in-sorrow assessment of the Kennedys. In every case, the conclusion is the same. Healthy nepotism adapts to changing circumstances and makes room for new blood. Unhealthy nepotism seeks to perpetuate a dysfunctional family or a closed elite, and usually fails.

Which brings us to Mr. Bellow’s final point. For him, the New Nepotism may actually be a good thing if it brings about the reinvigoration of the family as a social and economic unit. The old patriarchy may be gone, but neither the welfare state nor all the rights and possibilities of the unencumbered individual can take the place of the primal unit of nurture and belonging. And if the day should come when some emergency or change forces us back to greater reliance on the family, we’ll be able to transition back because the family’s a very flexible affair and, after all, it’s innate.

Amen to that. Now, about that next book on how the kids are doing …

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based public and cultural affairs center.


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