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An insider reviews...

Christine Harland is director of Camden Writers.

In Praise of Nepotism,
By Adam Bellow, Doubleday

A recent American radio broadcast focused on a group of eastern Europeans who had been given visas to immigrate into the US. The commentator finished his coverage by stating that this group of immigrants would have, in America, the chance, given appropriate skills, to be whatever they wanted to be. In this land of opportunity, they could become shop owners, farmers, businessmen or politicians. I wondered to myself just how easy it would be to achieve their dreams.

What success may come down to more than skill levels is connections. In his book, In Praise of Nepotism, Adam Bellow argues that reliance on connections is neither good nor bad. Nepotism, he asserts, is a fact of life and has been so throughout history. Bellow argues that we shouldn't condemn nepotism as a practice but rather understand it for what it is.

Bellow establishes a much wider context for the practice of nepotism than the typical image of the rich and powerful appointing family and friends to positions for which they may or may not be qualified. In the course of 500 detailed pages, Adam Bellow shines light on the practice of nepotism from all angles, including the mafia, the animal kingdom, Colonial America and Ancient Greece. Staking the claim that nepotism is in the genes, Bellow also dedicates a chapter to the biological roots of nepotism with illustrations ranging from the great – the elephant – to the small – the ant and the slime mould.

Bellow's section on the Kennedys and the Rothschilds makes good reading. John F Kennedy, whose presidency was defined by the merit-based slogan the "Brightest and the Best," appointed his brother, Bobby, as his Attorney General. On paper Bobby was not highly qualified for the job. But as political philosopher Michael Walzer is quoted as saying: "This appointment was, without doubt, an example of nepotism, but not of the sort that we need to be concerned to ban. Robert F Kennedy was qualified enough, and his closeness to his brother helped him do the work he had to do."

There is a lot to be said for going with the devil one knows. Working closely with someone with whom you are familiar, their strengths as well as their weaknesses, can add greatly to one's comfort level.

Bellow points out that the family wealth and the President's patronage allowed Bobby Kennedy to become a "powerful and inspiring agent of change," bestowing on him the "luxury" of being uncompromising without an eye to the popular stance.

The Kennedy story illustrates one of Bellows' points – that on the whole we are quite willing to accept acts of nepotism as long as the recipient of the favour proves his or her worth in the long run. With merit-based selection, the appointee proves his or her worth in advance, whereas the beneficiary of nepotistic selection must prove his or her worthiness after the fact. Bellow also points out that if we are incensed by a particular act of nepotism, we probably just need to wait a little while for it to self-destruct. "Nepotism practiced badly," according to Bellow, "is a self-punishing offence."

As proof that the "fruits of nepotistic malpractice come home to roost on the heads of its practitioners", Bellow serves up the examples of Edsel Ford, Walt Disney Jr and Edgar Bronfman, all of whom took a beating when they failed to live up to expectations.

The chapter entitled The Art of Nepotism, for example, eloquently points out that what we sometimes consider as "selfish," stems from a "generous impulse to pass something on to one's children". It is worth buying Bellow's book simply to read this chapter.

Bottom line: nepotism is alive and well and instead of fighting it, one is better off trying to understand and refine its application. Founding fathers, Bellow asserts, "establish a complex of habit, values, attitudes, traditions and ideas" that become a living legacy. It is not unusual that "keeping it in the family" is a natural inclination.

Rather than disparage nepotism as a practice, he urges, decide to make a distinction between good nepotism and bad and if you are going to practice it, do so responsibly. The perfect model of 'bad nepotism' is served up in a new film release, The Manchurian Candidate, in the character played by Meryl Streep. When asked recently how she felt about her role as Senator Prentice Shaw, Streep said that, as unbalanced as her character was, it was difficult to hate her.

"After all," she said, "most mothers would do anything they could to see their sons become president."

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