Adam Bellow

In Praise of Nepotism

VTR Date: December 10, 2003

Doubleday publisher Adam Bellow explores the phenomenon of nepotism.


GUEST: Adam Bellow
VTR: 12/10/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Adam Bellow, formerly Editorial Director of the Free Press, currently an Editor-at-Large at Doubleday, which recently published his massive “natural history”, as he calls it, “In Praise of Nepotism”.

Indeed, thinking about nepotism, I can’t help but wonder which of the two of us at this table was helped more by his book-related father. Adam’s father writes books, is Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Saul Bellow.

My father on the other hand, made “book”, was racetrack bookie Al Heffner, and while my guest writes that he got his first job in publishing through a friend of his father, my first book got a blessed mention in Walter Winchell’s Broadway column, for he was a friend of my father.

But, so what? Three cheers for nepotism. And I would begin our program today by asking my guest just why it has taken so long for a scholar to write its “natural history”, to trace it biologically, as well as historically, and why its definition, as least here in America seems to be, as he writes, “favoritism for the undeserving.” What’s … why, why is that the case here?

BELLOW: Well, when I first began to look into this subject … I … the first discovery I made was that no one has ever written a book about nepotism and I thought that was an extraordinary fact.

HEFFNER: Pretty astonishing.

BELLOW: It is astonishing. After all, there’s nothing else that hasn’t been studied, as you know if you look through the, through the pages of any sociology catalog. There’s absolutely no aspect, or facet of human behavior that has not been catalogued, chronicled, dissected and studied.

Nepotism somehow just seems to be ignored. Why is that? Well, as I, as I speculated, I think it has something to do with the hypocrisy that surrounds the practice of nepotism, in American society in particular. It’s just something that we would rather not pay any attention to. I, I often say that we’re really somewhat schizophrenic about nepotism in American society. That is we … publicly we deny it, denounce it, condemn it. Privately we practice it as much as we can get away with.

HEFFNER: What … what justification would there be on my part, thinking that … well, Adam Bellow, Conservative gent … gentleman used to thinking in terms of family values. Nepotism to him is not this inappropriate activity, indeed, it is an extension of good family values. Fair enough?

BELLOW: Well, I think it depends on how you define family values. There’s, there’s Kennedy family values; there’s Borgia family values; there are the family values of the Emperor Augustus and his wife. You know, not all families are happy or, or harmonious.

HEFFNER: But we, generally here in this country now … refer to as family values … “good old values”.

BELLOW: Well, what I find is that nepotism is, as you, you mentioned earlier, that we defined it in a very specific and narrow way. I think this is really … gets to the heart of the matter. Nepotism is something that, that we have defined in a very negative and narrow way. The dictionary defines it in a sort neutral way as “preference for relatives; or favoritism to kin”. But if you ask Americans how they feel about nepotism, they’ll tell you that they, they want to apply it even more narrowly. They want nepotism to mean not just preference for a relative, but preference for relatives who are incompetent. I mean this is the conventional sense of the term.

And yet, I find … when I started to look into it, I find that we don’t really apply that judgment uniformly. In a word, when nepotism works … when it works well, when it succeeds, we don’t see nepotism. We see something that we call “family tradition”. And we say … and we have many aphorisms and proverbs that, that reflect this …”he’s a chip off the old block; you know, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. This is, these are ways that we have of expressing our approval of people who follow in their family tradition.

But when nepotism fails, when it, when it doesn’t work out … then we, we all join in condemning it. So what … when you ask me about family values, what I would say is … everybody accepts as an axiom of human behavior and of family life …that you do what you can for your children. I mean this is the most natural thing in the world and everybody understands it. Where we have a problem, and I think it’s, it’s justified to be concerned about it, is when those family ties overstep what we consider to be their proper bounds and that … when we start to pull strings for people in, in a kind of illegitimate way. We try to cut corners for them, particularly in the public sphere, and this is where I think people have the biggest problem.

So it’s really always … let me put it this way. Nepotism is kind of a biological instinct; it’s as I say in my book, “it’s as basic to human, to human life as sex or aggression.” And when we condemn nepotism it’s … we’re really just sort of focusing on a very narrow manifestation of family, or family feeling and expression. It’s sort of like … if you compare it to sex, it’s like saying, you know “adultery is bad”. Okay. That doesn’t mean that we are going to stop having sex. And the same thing is true of nepotism.

You know, nepotism, when it’s practiced badly is something that we condemn. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop trying to help our children, nor should we.

HEFFNER: But let’s go back to this “when it’s practiced, because you make a good deal here, in this wonderful book about nepotism practiced well. When is it really practiced badly?

BELLOW: Well, I, I give plenty of examples of, of both. Of nepotism practiced well or badly. And, and what I, what I find is that there really are some very simple rules that, that people have to follow if they want it to turn out well. Or to put it, to put it somewhat differently … when nepotism is practiced badly, the people who are mostly hurt by it are the practitioners themselves, as I put it. Nepotism is a self-punishing offense. But it’s often very ambiguous …

HEFFNER: Bad nepotism.

BELLOW: Bad nepotism … well I make …I do try to make a distinction, and this is, this is really … a large part of the argument about this book is really, really comes down to semantics. You know, what do we mean by this word? Can it mean anything positive? And people are resistant to having it mean anything other than something bad. But my argument is that nepotism … helping a relative in any sense is nepotism, whether that person is qualified or not. So technically, even if, even if it works out, it’s still nepotism. So what I’m arguing is that we have to broaden our, our vision of this practice and not stigmatize it; but understand that it’s going to go on no matter what we do.

HEFFNER: You know, when I first picked up “In Praise of Nepotism”, I thought to myself, well why doesn’t Adam Bellow just give them this word “nepotism”; let it be a “bad” word and think of something else. And that’s why I started to talk about “family values” …

BELLOW: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … loving one’s children; loving one’s relatives; loving one’s friends and being helpful to them. That has a much more positive connotation. And just give up on this question of trying to make nepotism mean something other than what Americans think it means.

BELLOW: Well, ahmmm, I’ve thought about; I’ve thought about that. Of course it’s hard to come up with a word that does that. I mean the closest alternative would be “familism”, but “familism” has an even worse reputation. “Familism” is what we, is what we use … the term “a moral familism” is … was coined by a social scientist named Edward Banfield (CHECK SPELLING) to explain the backwardness of, of Sicilian culture and why, why the Mafia flourishes in the sort of low-trust society of Southern Italy. So I didn’t, I didn’t succeed in coming up with another word for it.

And actually, I think it’s … it’s better because …it’s better to challenge the American use of the word nepotism because it … the object is really to force people to think more broadly and less ideologically about family, family values and family patterns in general.

Now one of the things I find, there are many prejudices surrounding nepotism; one of them, I think, is very common … is that people think of nepotism as something only practiced by the wealthy; by the upper classes.

HEFFNER: You make the point that that’s not true.

BELLOW: That’s very much the case. And as the, as the descent of a family of immigrants, I’m very well aware of it. What I found was that nepotism is … does not have merely an individual manifestation. It’s not just a matter of a father and son, or an uncle and a nephew. It also has a collective form; that is it can, it can appear at the level of the ethnic group, or the clan or the tribe. And in American history, what it turns out … and this is … again, this is something that no one has apparently … as far as I know, no one else has, has studied this phenomenon or at looked at it from this angle. But what I found was that nepotism is used at every … it’s practiced very, very widely at every level of society. It has been practiced most commonly by … not by the wealthy, but by the working and immigrant classes.

And what happened was, in this country, when immigrants began to arrive in large numbers … they found that they were excluded from the institutions that had been created by the, the “native” inhabitants … the … what came to be called the “WASP” elite, or the Brahman aristocracy in Boston. And so, the Irish, for example, came over in the 1840s and 1850s. They were, they were not welcomed famously; they were told to “go home”. They didn’t go home; what they did instead was they created their own set of parallel institutions. Most famously the American Catholic Church, the urban political machine and the labor movement.

And these institutions allowed them to provide themselves with educational and welfare services that were not available from the government at that time. And they also served as ladders of upward mobility for their children and grandchildren and allowed them to create a kind of, you know, ethnic foothold in the police department, the fire department and City government in various craft and trade unions. And, of course, these institutions were defined by their nepotism. This is one of the things I think is so surprising and interesting to, to point out to people who largely descend from immigrants. You know, people forget. I think this is one of my main points … you know nepotism is really a middle class hang-up.

You know the people who, who object to nepotism are not the people in the upper class and they are not the people in the working class. They’re the people in the middle classes. And the reason they object to it, is that they think of themselves in a very self-flattering way. As “self-made” men and women. You know, they, they … which is a natural thing for them to think; these are people who are … who have … work in the various professions; who have, who have attained their place in their professional calling by going through an arduous process of education, they have all kinds of degrees hanging on their wall; so it’s natural for them to think that they got where they are today by, by individual effort.

HEFFNER: We know better.

BELLOW: We know better because we … why because we have a little bit of a longer memory or because we’ve made a study of the, of the sociology of the immigrant experience and what we, what we know … which is what many middle class people have forgotten is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman in the, in the final sense. Everybody is the beneficiary of some kind of family tradition or, you know, passage of advantages … what’s called the “accumulation of advantages”; advantages accumulate or social capital accumulates in families and people; this is what people inherit. And they, they take that inheritance and they, they build on it and they try to pass something on to their children that’s, that’s even greater. The American dream, of course, is to make a better life for your children.

HEFFNER: Yes, but isn’t the American dream also, and don’t you make this point; the American dream has to do with mobility ….

BELLOW: … MmmHmm

HEFFNER: … and it perhaps was mobility and the fact of, not just the frontier, but the movement West certainly after the Second World War when so many people left those old homes and went out and made it, they thought, for themselves, by themselves … didn’t … but it must have left them with a greater and greater disdain for nepotism.

BELLOW: Well, of course, that’s, that’s quite right. Americans … American society has been … the continent was, you know, was settled and peopled by immigrants who kept moving. And every time they moved, the left behind more of their relatives. So they, by the time you get to the, to the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains, you know, you’ve left behind two or three generations of your family. But that doesn’t mean that, that they did without kinship.

In fact, one of the things that I, that I found was so particularly interesting is that the, the phenomenon known as “chain migration” was really the key to the settlement of the country. What that means is that people would come to a new territory, they’d carve out a homestead and then they’ve send for their relatives. And those people would come. And in fact, all over America, all the towns and villages founded by, by the pioneers bear the names of their founding families. And those people often remain there for generations and where their extended family networks expanded across the plains.

So there’s no, there’s no … I think it’s very deceptive to think of America … this is one of our … it’s one of our key myths of our American society that somehow this is a nation founded by, by individuals … striving individuals, self-reliant who had no need for any kind of, for any kind of help. And it turns out that they did very much rely on their relatives. Those were the only people you had to rely on.

And one … for example … a great way of illustrating this is to look at crime and punishment in the American West. We know, for example, that many of the, many of the criminal gangs of the American West were groups of brothers … you know, the Daltons, the Bonneys, the Clantons … all of these people were practicing crime with their relatives. We also know that many sheriffs deputized their relatives. So the great fight at the OK Corral between the Earps and the Clantons illustrates this. I mean who else is there … basically, the bottom line is …

HEFFNER: Who can you trust?

BELLOW: … who can you trust? And furthermore, who will work, who will work for you for long hours and little play?

HEFFNER: You have this wonderful bit in your book on “In Praise of Nepotism” about Oakland, California and the great fire that took place there.


HEFFNER: And ultimately the people’s whose homes went up in flames so quickly … ultimately they depended in very large part upon … who else are you going to depend upon … but your family … who may have come from far and wide.

BELLOW: That’s right. I’m glad you brought it up because for one thing it tells me that you actually read my book to the end, which is very flattering and I appreciate that.

HEFFNER: But, it’s such an important point and I wonder what you think now is going to be the fate of nepotism; you refer to so many … political families, for instance …


HEFFNER: … in our own times, this year … whether your talking about Kennedys or Doles or whoever it might be; what do you think the fate of nepotism is? Even though you also point out and I really wanted to ask you about this, the, the number of people who have abandoned, the number of fathers who have not taken on the responsibility for their kind, but indeed have run out on …


HEFFNER: … their families. But let’s go back to the question of what’s the fate of nepotism.

BELLOW: Well, the questions are related because the fact of … the fact that we condemn deadbeat dads, the fact that we approve of the Federal government actually going after …


BELLOW: … fathers who have run out on their children, means that the bedrock value of nepotism is still, is still sound. That is, this is what it all comes down to … are the mutual obligations of parents and children. And as a society we clearly feel that its important to, to support those obligations and to demand that they be fulfilled. And this is something that every society must do, otherwise it cannot reproduce itself. And that’s important.

HEFFNER: I was delighted with your indication that it has to be practiced well and your reference to King Lear, who in a sense got what he deserved.

BELLOW: Yes, you know … exactly. This is what I call … King Lear is an example of what I call “nepotistic malpractice”. We don’t have to go into detail about it, I think people know the story. You asked me about the future of nepotism and I think that the way I would answer you is to say that America has gone about a far as we want to go in the direction of individual autonomy … sovereign individualism.

And the, the story of the Oakland fire illustrates the, the tension in our, in our minds about this. Oakland is a community in California settled by people who really, for the most part didn’t, didn’t come from there … they all came from somewhere else. They had migrated, in most cases, many times and like the pioneers of the nineteenth century, they had left behind their families. In many cases hadn’t see them for decades.

When the fire broke out that devastated this neighborhood, wiped out their homes, it was a tremendous … obviously a tremendous crisis …and, and challenge to that community. What happened, however, was that … what people were most upset about, far more than the lose of their homes and property were the collapse of their friendships, which was very traumatic. This was a community completely based on, sort of elective affinities, you know, spiritual affinities, rather than, rather than blood ties. Blood ties are always denigrated, they’re seen to be inferior to the chosen ties of friendship.

But when the chips are down, the question is who can you count on? And in the case of the Oakland fire what happened was that people found that their friendships did not survive, whereas relatives, long-lost, unheard from, relatives … many people who had not been seen for, for decades, materialized out of thin air. They came out of the woodwork with money, food, clothing, shelter, assistance of every kind.

So, the answer to your question is we remain natural beings and there is, fundamentally, I think, no way for us to get away from that. Nor do we really want to get away from it. What we do want is to balance our … the importance of family with the, with the equally important value of individual autonomy. We, we want our children to have their own lives, to choose their own way. And this is one of the things that distinguishes what I call “the old nepotism”, from the “new”; it’s a very important distinction in my book.

I myself am an example of what I describe as the “new nepotism”. In the old nepotism which we all know very well, which I describe as an aspect of the old-fashioned patriarchal family … the father is the dominating figure, the old … in the old system the father would make every decision for the family, he would tell you what you were going to do for a living, where you were going to live, who you were going to marry, and this was the way things were in most human societies for most of human history.

In the last hundred years or so this model, this patriarchal model, has declined, and in particular in America where I describe a war against this kind of patriarchal authority, which we have waged for several centuries. The result of our war against the old nepotism has not been to get rid of nepotism altogether; we have not succeeded in stamping it out, although we have tried; we’ve given it the old college try. But we haven’t really succeeded in doing that.

What we have succeeded in doing, I argue, is in transforming the old nepotistic impulse into something new. And that new nepotism is a, is a form of nepotism distinct to American society which tries to balance the traditional value of family solidarity with the modern American value of merit and equality. The result of it is somebody like … someone who comes out of a particular background, whose parents never overtly pressured me to, to go into publishing or become a writer; nevertheless, this was, this exercise, this background that I came from, exercised a tremendous shaping and an informing influence on me and it became difficult for me to do or be anything else.

HEFFNER: Well, I think as you say that, of course, knowing how beautifully you write, that genetically I have to find Saul Bellow in what Adam Bellow writes. Now, I don’t know whether that resonates with you; whether you approve or dislike or like what I say, but I find that I just … in this half hour and I’m getting a signal over there that we have two minutes left … I realize more than ever before it is such a negative damn word and that your effort to make it more intelligible, more acceptable … noble as that effort is … ain’t going to work.

BELLOW: Well, ah, yes, of course, you’re right. I’m destined to fail in that, in that regard and that’s fine. My purpose is not really to get people to give up their, their resistance to nepotism. I think, in fact, we should continue to judge it negatively when it deserves to be judged negative. But I am trying to illuminate what I, what I think of as the darkened half of the stage and to get us not to just focus on the bad aspects of nepotism, but to consider its positive and constructive contributions over human history.

HEFFNER: And, at that point, I know we’re going to consider that. And I do recommend and I avoid doing that as much as possible, but I do recommend so much that people read this beautifully written history, sociology, call it what you will … “In Praise of Nepotism”. Adam Bellow, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

BELLOW: Well, thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.