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In Praise of Nepotism?

Legacies can have value, when they're not abused.
 
 
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Given the criticism over President Bush picking his personal lawyer to fill the shoes of Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S Supreme Court, the word for this week is "nepotism."

Nepotism is defined by Webster's as "favoritism shown by persons in high office to relatives or close friends, esp. in granting jobs."

And it's as American as jazz and baseball to publicly denounce instances of nepotism, sometimes couching the criticism in high-sounding "meritocracy" rhetoric.

But, if you read Adam Bellow's interesting book "In Praise of Nepotism," you'll never think about the issue the same way again. Or at the very least, you'll have to refine your arguments against it.

Bellow delves into the history of family dynasties "from King David to George W. Bush." What I like most about the book is how it exposes the dishonesty of those who selectively rail against the persistent social habit.

Many Americans see nepotism as a way for the rich to protect their privilege at the expense of the less affluent. And many, if not most, black Americans see the practice as evidence of racism, Bellow acknowledges. However (and black folks should chew on this for a while) Bellow points to an observation made by economist Matthew Goldberg. "Racial nepotism, rather than racial animus (hatred), is the major motivation for much of the discrimination blacks experience."

Throughout his 508-page book, Bellow points out, in great detail, just how widespread nepotism is across all social groups and categories -- from politics, business and the arts to sports and academic life.

For example, 90 percent of all American businesses are family owned or controlled, including 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies.

Pro sports and Hollywood provide the most recognizable instances. Did quarterback Peyton Manning have an advantage over other athletes because his father is Archie Manning? Of course. But would anyone argue that the NFL is worse off with Peyton Manning following in his father's footsteps?

The Alomar and Alou families have earned their place in Major League Baseball. And despite his off-court troubles, Kobe Bryant, son of former NBA baller Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, is one of, if not, the best all-around hoopster in the game today.

Think about Hollwood's Douglas and Fonda families. Jazz owes a huge debt to the multi-generational contributions of the Marsalis family.

These examples merely scratch the surface. The point is, Bellow argues, "the reason we have tied ourselves in knots around this question is really quite simple: there is a missing distinction in our lexicon between good and bad nepotism."

In one of the book's final chapters -- "The Art of Nepotism" -- Bellow says "the solution is not to keep banging (the practice of nepotism) with a hammer like a glob of mercury but to bring it out into the open and subject it to the highest possible standards.

To do this, he continues, we must recognize three basic unwritten rules. 1) Don't embarrass me, meaning nepotism is a privilege, not a right. 2) Don't embarrass yourself, i.e., you have to work harder than anyone else. And 3) Pass it on. "Although nepotism is considered selfish, it proceeds from a generous impulse (what anthropologists call the 'gift' economy) to pass something on to one's children, and this we think of as entirely praiseworthy."

"What does all this have to do with whether or not you should hire your nephew?...Since people are going to do it anyway, we may as well infuse nepotism with meritocratic principles so all of us may benefit," Bellow concludes.

Bellow's book helps be more honest with ourselves and focus on the real question. "The real question," Bellow writes, "is not whether nepotism should continue, but how we can guarantee that it will be practiced in its place and not where it doesn't belong."

By the way, Adam Bellow is the son of the famous writer Saul Bellow.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.