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wWednesday, October 19, 2005

BELLOWING ABOUT MIERS: Boy, you know the National Review powers-that-be are fed up with the Bush administration when they publish an essay comparing the Bush clan to the mob. The author of the piece is one Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism. I reviewed it in August 2003 for the American Spectator and republish it here now because, well, why not?

Son of Saul

In the modern American vocabulary, "nepotism" has become a mildly dirty term, like "white trash" or "White House intern." The last presidential race, a contest between the sons of two political dynasties, prompted talking heads to worry that the country was regressing. Brit transplant Andrew Sullivan noted the countries other than the United States -- North Korea, Jordan, Syria -- that had recently passed power from father to son (never mind the Clinton interlude). In a spasm of the kind of selfless consideration that is characteristic of much of his writing, Sullivan asked, "I emigrated for this?" In a similar vein -- so to speak -- former National Review editor John O'Sullivan, contemplating a second Bush administration, put an old taunt by Walter Savage Landor to new use:

George the First was always reckoned Vile, but viler George the Second;
And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third?
When from earth the Fourth descended
(God be praised!) the Georges ended

However, the scandal of nepotism may be less, well, scandalous than the handwringers are making out. Though a series of man-on-the-street interviews will undoubtedly draw blanket condemnation of the practice (along, I learned, with plenty of blank stares, followed by "What does that mean?"), Americans are highly tolerant of nepotism in public and private life. Voters are more likely to support a candidate if they cast ballots for his father, and businesses have long preferred to hire family members of good employees on the assumption that they come from good stock or that they will keep their relatives in line. As one wag put it, "Like all good Americans, I am absolutely opposed to nepotism in any form, unless I benefit from it."

Getting an accurate measure on what people think about nepotism is made more difficult, says Adam Bellow in the introduction to In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, by the narrow, popular use of the term. They see nepotism at work only when someone hires a grossly incompetent relative over a more promising applicant. Pulling strings to get a relative a job, however, is not seen, ipso facto, as an act of nepotism, which "leaves us in the logically inconsistent position of saying that hiring a relative is not nepotism depending on the relative's performance."

The problem, as Bellow argues it, is a flaw in the language. We need to be able to distinguish between bad, or old, nepotism and good (i.e. "new") nepotism. The former was divisive and coercive. The new nepotism is an altogether slipperier fish: more voluntary and meritocratic, less blatant, unlikely to exclude whole classes of people.

But the book is not simply a polemic, and in fact it claims somewhat tongue in cheek to be a measured treatment of the subject. When Bellow set out to write a book on nepotism, he envisioned something along the lines of William Henry's wonderful, brief In Defense of Elitism, but the project shifted as he learned that virtually nothing had been written on nepotism. The research took much longer than anticipated and he ended up writing the book that he would have relied upon if he had written a shorter essay on the subject. The "natural history" of the subtitle thus determines the organization and style of the book-divided into two sections of almost equal length: "Nepotism in History" followed by "Nepotism in America."

Many readers will find the beginning of the first half rough going. It starts with a chapter on sociobiology which, depending on your point of view, is either a source of the latest cutting-edge insights or daffy theorizing passed off as legitimate science. Bellow rarely comes back to the subject in subsequent chapters but when he does, the results are not pleasant. Discussing the 22nd chapter of Genesis, Bellow explains that "Abraham's surprising readiness to sacrifice Isaac . . . suggest[s] that he is . . . a bad father but a first-rate patriarch, willing to trade off living sons against the promise of uncounted future offspring. Like a hymenopteran [ant] queen who may sacrifice some offspring to preserve the hive, Abraham has the long-term nepotistic vision that God requires." (It's not a man, not an ant, it's a . . . mant!)

This approach creates its own problems beyond easy mockery. The biological drive for nepotism -- that we advance our family's interests because that's how nature programmed us to help spread our genes -- runs into the historical tendency of people to expand the bounds of "family," whether through adoption, exchanges of small amounts of blood, or various religious rituals. The fact that these practices date back to the beginning of recorded history puts a mighty crimp in the idea that the desire to sacrifice for one's family is controlled by biology -- or controlled only by biology at any rate.

So, yes, this is a flawed work -- in some aspects deeply flawed -- but Bellow's dogged insistence on looking at history through the lens of family striving as an engine for both change and stability is quite useful. Thus we can see how African tribes were able to establish relative peace through intermarriage and polygamy (hint: it's harder to kill the in-laws, no matter how great the temptation); how the Rothschilds were able to first build up a vast fortune and use that bounty to help keep the peace in Europe for the latter half of the 19th century (revolution was bad for business and European rulers needed money); and how the American Revolution helped to turn nepotism, almost overnight, into something to be embarrassed about. (The king was seen by many as a father figure who doled out privileges to his more dutiful "sons.")

It's also an audacious work. The author's own literary upbringing, the title, and the cover -- a single silver spoon -- all scream a message that Bellow is reluctant to the point of denial to declare: the stigma that was once attached to nepotism is fading away and that's a good thing. He argues that it could be a good counterbalance to the arrogance that supposedly comes along with American meritocracy, because people chosen for their own skills don't owe a debt to anyone.

I could object to this on a number of grounds (e.g., kinship is far from the only basis for gratitude), but Bellow has a ready-made reply, firmly grounded in history and human nature: most opponents of nepotism are at least somewhat self-interested. In fact, once the corrupt unworthies have been purged, strict meritocrats often prove remarkably adept at practicing nepotism themselves.

posted by Jeremy at 6:14 PM