Monday, August 30, 2010

In Praise of Nepotism by Adam Bellow

In Praise of Nepotism : A Natural HistoryIn a blurb on the back of this book, John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History at The City University of New York, says, "I read In Praise of Nepotism straight through in about a day and a half." I must confess, it's taking me more like a month and a half to finish it. This is not "fluff". Bellow really digs into history to lay out some (some? more like ALL!) of the nepotistic heritage of mankind and a few other species, besides.

For example, mole rats are, according to Bellow, "the world's most nepotistic animal". Their reproductive strategy is almost the same as an ant colony. Only one female in a colony is allowed to bear young, while all the others work as if they were drones digging burrows, gathering food, and starting new colonies. This is the only mammal that behaves in this fashion.

A more recent champion of nepotism is Greek prime minister Andreas Panadreou. After running an anti-corruption campaign, he appointed his wife, a thirty eight year old former flight attendant, chief policy advisor. His son was appointed deputy foreign minister, his wife's cousin deputy culture minister, and his personal physician minister of health.

Bellow takes us back to the Chou dynasty of China and mentions an odd and disturbing practice. During a famine in 593 B.C., the citizens of Sung were reduced to eating their children. "Because they couldn't bear to eat their own, however, they exchanged children with their neighbors before killing them." Huh? In latter day China, the Communist Party had denounced nepotism and hoped to end the practice, but most (over five thousand) of the recent  communist leadership got their positions in the government due to family connections. Bellow asks, "If even the Chinese Communists couldn't get rid of it, what realistic hope have we of doing so?"

He also uses the Bible to illustrate nepotism in history. He claims that much of the Old Testament is a series of "nepotistic parables that explore different aspects of Jewish family dynamics." I'd never looked at it in that light before, but it's substantially correct. Oddly enough, the New Testament Christian church under Saint Augustine, opposed the practice of adoption. Wow! Isn't the Catholic Church heavily involved in adoptions now? The basis for this seemed to be that leaving one's property to an adopted heir was an attempt to cheat God of what was rightfully his - read The Church's - money.

Eventually Bellow moves to the New World, after brief (who am I kidding?) stops in Africa, India, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. As a shout out to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, whom I know have read it, he references Albion's Seed in describing the four different migrations from the British Isles between 1629 and 1675. Each of these migrations brought with it a distinct culture, and a distinct style of nepotism. These differences, claims Bellow, would eventually lead to irreconcilable differences culminating in the Civil War.

Bellow also discusses our founding fathers, such as Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Hamilton, in terms of their nepotistic tendencies and strategies. Jefferson's administration, compared to the previous two, had the fewest nepotistic ties. However, once a representative of a family got appointed to a government position, it ended up as an inheritance to be passed along to other members of the family.

Painstaking research, broadening the definition of nepotism, and mining history have allowed Bellow to produce a definitive text on the subject. Maybe nepotism had something to do with it, though. Wasn't his father Saul Bellow? I think his talent stands on its own, but it might have gotten a nudge or two from Poppa somewhere along the line to get him noticed and published. I'm just sayin'.

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