Quick multiple choice quiz. Throughout much of human history:
(a) Men have oppressed women.
(b) Slavery has been a feature of many societies.
(c) Jews have been persecuted.
(d) Rape, murder, robbery, and fraud have gone on, even when outlawed.
(e) All of the above.
The correct answer is (e) All of the above. Now, for extra credit, please complete the following statement: Because the aforementioned conditions and activities have been so ubiquitous and long-enduring:
(a) We should feel lucky to live at a time when they are finally on the wane.
(b) We should realize that they must be good things because they have been with us so long.
If you answered (b), you may well enjoy Adam Bellow's amazingly wrongheaded opus "In Praise of Nepotism," a book that gives new meaning to the word "slippery."
An editor at large for Doubleday (which publishes this book) and a son of the more famous Saul, Adam Bellow admits that his initial plan was to write a polemical defense of nepotism along the lines of the late William Henry's "In Defense of Elitism."
Along the way, though, he changed his mind and decided instead to offer a full-scale history of the phenomenon, which, rather than praising nepotism would simply present what Bellow considers a balanced view of it.
But if the book is intended to serve as a history, why, one wonders, does it bear the title that it does? Is it merely a device to grab some attention?
Yes and no. It is true that as one wends through the historical, sociobiological, anecdotal, and journalistic material that Bellow has amassed, one encounters not only praise of nepotism, but criticism, too.
Certainly, no sentient historian of nepotism could fail to notice that it is far more prevalent in what sociologists call "low-trust" societies, "where," as Bellow explains, "everyone who is not a relative or friend is necessarily an enemy...." Bellow contrasts "poor, agrarian" southern Italy, where Mafia-style "amoral familism" has been the rule, with "wealthy, modern" northern Italy. "Found for the most part in conditions of extreme privation," he aptly sums up, "amoral familism promotes cooperation within families but undermines cooperation between families; it thereby perpetuates the very culture of poverty that produced it."
Conversely, he notes, societies where people have learned to suspend their distrust of outsiders and to cooperate with strangers are the ones in which civil society, capitalist expansion, and liberal political institutions flourish.
But despite the overwhelming evidence (which he himself presents!) that nepotism is associated with distrust, backwardness, violent codes of personal and familial "honor" found among Mafiosi and in other neofeudal societies, and contempt for law and fair play, Bellow nonetheless comes to the following conclusion: "In short, nepotism works, it feels good, and it is generally the right thing to do.... Nor, despite our best efforts over hundreds of years, have we succeeded in stamping it out. And a good thing, too. For if we have not made as much progress as we like to believe in our misguided war on nepotism, we have in some respects already gone too far."
"What war on nepotism?" one wants to ask. Bellow's survey of nepotism in America takes note of the reforms of the political-spoils system and the institution of civil-service exams. Is this what he means by "going too far"?
It is also his contention that Americans harbor an unreasonable fear of nepotism. If so, why did so many support George W. Bush instead of John McCain or Orrin Hatch in the Republican primaries? Why did New Yorkers elect Hillary Clinton to the Senate?
The question remains: How well does this book serve as history, apart from its limp but still palpable polemic? Although Bellow's inspirational model, the late William Henry, may have tried to defend elitism, Bellow is eager to plunge us right into popular culture: The first stop on his secondhand tour of natural and human history is Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" film trilogy, on which Bellow expends an inordinate amount of time and energy.
Subsequent chapters dish up warmed-over discourse on kinship from the fields of sociobiology and anthropology; discussion of nepotism among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans; and a survey of nepotism in non-Western societies conducted with the kind of cultural relativism that invites us not only to understand but also to admire institutions like the Indian caste system. The most attention, however, is given to the history of nepotism in America - which, unfortunately, is the least interesting part of the book.
Bellow wants to draw a distinction between "good" and "bad" nepotism. The latter involves blindly favoring family members who are utterly unqualified for the positions they are given, and worse yet, ungrateful. "Good" nepotism seems to involve helping members of one's family, instilling loyalty and other "family values" in one's offspring, and helping them learn the ropes of the familial business, trade, or profession. As Bellow defines it, good nepotism can also mean mentoring protégés who are not actually family members. In his view, "nepotism" might even mean having a sense of loyalty to one's religion, ethnic group, race, or nation.
The trouble is, he ends up defining the term so broadly as to render it meaningless. Bellow may want to see "good nepotism" in the actions of parents who sacrifice to send their children to college, but that is not what the term commonly signifies.
Lastly, Bellow's claim that nepotism is endangered seems at best nonsensical, particularly at a time when there is a widening gap between rich and poor and a corresponding tendency to consolidate dynastic wealth (by abolishing the inheritance tax, for instance). Far from damping down our anxieties about nepotism, let alone praising it, what's needed is a book to sound an alarm against it.
• Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.