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Newsday, 3 August 2003

IN PRAISE OF NEPOTISM: A Natural History, by Adam Bellow. Doubleday, 565 pp., $30.

Adam Bellow has written a defense of nepotism, as well he might. Whatever his own gifts as a writer -- and after reading several hundred pages of his prose, one concludes that stamina is, by far, the greatest of them -- Adam, son of Saul, must remain forever in the shadow of his father's Nobel Prize. Or rather, as it is perhaps more accurate to say, illuminated by its borrowed glow.

Adam Bellow is, to use his own terms, a product of the New Nepotism -- in which children enjoy the benefits of familial prestige, rather than the more overt kinds of string-pulling practiced under the Old Nepotism. It was not the case that Saul Bellow asked his publisher to give Adam a job (the way that, say, Susan Sontag arranged to get her son, David Rieff, a position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux). When he became an editor at the Free Press, Bellow writes, "my employers ... undoubtedly assumed not only that I had 'the right stuff' to be an editor by virtue of my parentage, but that my name and social background would be useful in my publishing career.... Nor is it likely that I could have written and published this book without the added value that my name brings to the project."

This is shameless -- to use a term that is very much to the point. Bellow wants to convince readers that our culture's habit of contempt for nepotism is misguided, anomalous and unnatural. Traditionally, Americans prefer to think that everyone should start out with an even shot at success. Trading on the status of one's relatives, then, is a violation of the rules, to be punished by scorn.

And yet we routinely practice what we condemn, as Bellow shows through endless lists of dynasties in American business, politics, arts, entertainment, sports and the professions. Besides the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Fondas, the Van Dorens and so on -- the crowned nobility of their respective occupational tribes -- there are countless smaller family cohorts who transfer wealth and prestige down the generations. The praise of self-reliance is feeble indeed by contrast with the almost mythological resonance of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films, with their vision of family loyalty, patriarchal honor and related thuggish-communitarian virtues.

All this is as it should be, Bellow argues, for nepotism is an instinct far deeper than any hypocritical principles or democratic prejudices. Part of the argument is sociobiological: It's in our genes. "Nepotism is the hallmark of what are called 'social species,'" he writes, "those that display a capacity for cooperation in mating, provisioning, defense and the rearing of young." The countless varieties of human society all ultimately rest on those genetically sanctioned behaviors that dispose us to attend to the well-being of our kin. It is "an aspect of what anthropologists call the gift economy - the system of noncommercial exchanges that serves to regulate moral relations between individuals, families and groups" in civil society.

Over the course of several chapters, Bellow presents a cross-cultural, millennia-spanning survey of how this hardwired propensity has shaped the world. Birds do it, bees do it, even the Corleones do it. So why fight it? From hunter-gatherer societies through the Bush administrations, it has served us well - even though The Godfather Part III is pretty much unwatchable because Coppola gave a leading role to his daughter, a woman singularly unburdened by acting talent.

Such lapses -- the occasions when nepotism lives up to its scurvy reputation as "favoritism for the undeserving" -- are unfortunate, but do not gainsay the importance of nepotism as the very bedrock of human endeavor: "We have a duty to be nepotistic, and if we fail to put our families first we may destroy the very sources of altruism on which society depends." It is part of the matrix of values and practices that "gives dignity and meaning to our lives" and "links the generations in a chain of generosity and gratitude. We would all be better off if we reflected more consistently and deeply not only on our debt to our ancestors, but also on what we owe to our descendents."

The author's explicit goal is to undo a tendency that was noted in the 19th century by Henry Maine, a legal historian who saw the course of modern civilization as one through which "the Individual is steadily substituted for the Family, as the unity of which civil laws take account." This was useful for a while, Bellow argues, but it has left us in a state of anomie. Lawless hordes of atomized individuals roam the Earth, demanding the equality and entitlements handed down by the state. This must be changed.

"It is not my place to say exactly how," Bellow writes -- except to indicate that it would require "returning certain governmental powers to the family and de-emphasizing institutional answers to problems that can be managed more humanely by families and kin-based social networks."

Okay, I've been as dispassionate and fair as possible, so far, in reconstructing Bellow's argument, with its tone of social-scientific rationality at its blandest and most perfectly value-neutral. But patience has its limits. The image of a silver spoon on the cover of In Praise of Nepotism is an awfully cute touch, but to someone born without one, it looks like a weapon.

The premise and the consequences are ultimately not so distinct from the logic of The Bell Curve, the volume that Bellow edited at the pinnacle (or nadir) of his career until now. In short: Equality is an illusion and an impossibility. The very idea is pernicious. It saps the vital force of all that is good and necessary in the world. We need to square our meritocratic values with a realization that some people really do deserve the manor to which they are born. Or plantation, as the case may be.

Bellow's talk of giving the powers of the state back to the family may be as benign-sounding as "a thousand points of light." But let's at least be clear about what it really means. "De-emphasizing" access to resources available to everyone, regardless of who their kin may be, translates into less of a tax burden for the wealthy. And that means shiny new spoons for those who already have them. No doubt they will pass the old ones down -- once they've stripped the silver off -- to keep it all in the family.