11790881. The New Nepotism (book)

11790881. The New Nepotism (book) - R E VIE W The new...

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Unformatted text preview: R E VIE W The new nepotism BR EN DAN CONWAY MERICANS cherish the idea of the meritorious sell- made man. “A man who makes boast of his ancestors doth but advertise his own insignificancc." Benjamin Franklin. the original self-made man, once wrote. The sen— timent has stuck. Merit makes sense to as intuitively. and is almost demanded by our political principles. Jefferson's "natural aristocracy." the rule of the worthy. is what we strive for. In spite of this. as Adam Bellow shows in his provocatively titled In Praise nf‘Nepolism: A Natural His- torial Americans' ntcritocratic instincts are not absolute. Bellow contends that Americans are more comfortable with nepotism than our republican and egalitarian principles commonly have us presume. and he devotes the better part of his book to explaining how and why. In Praise quc‘an'sm is a sweeping Still-page survey of a cultural phenomenon: it is also a sociological tract attd political commentary. In the tradition of amateur histori- ans like Sir Henry Maine. Bellow has studied his subject widely: He traces nepotism in early human history. across ancient China. India. and Africa. parses its evolution over time in classical Judac-a. Greece. and Rome. through the Middle Ages. discusses the era of the Enlighten- ment. and offers a prolonged meditation on nepotism in America. The section on America. in which Bellow calls for a reconsideration of what we think nepotism is and whether we should continue despising it. gives a novel reading of American history which places generational im- peratives at the very heart of our political. social. and economic life. To top it all oil". the author concludes with a how-to manual advising would—be American nepotists and nepotees on the do‘s and don'ts of advancing kinl‘olk i Doubleday. 576 pp. 53mm. |30 'l'liIi NIIW NEl’t’HISM and bolstering the family name. Is Bellow serious”? A nepotism that comports with our egalitarian pl’lttClplcskis this even possible'.l Yes. but it is a different kind of nepotistn titan the one that occupies such an odious place in our minds. Bellow departs from conventional thinking by defining ttepotism in broad terms as “doing things with kinship." such as the passing of a family business between generations. or following in a relative's‘ footsteps. He finds in the typical dictionary defi- nilion—"patronage bestowed or favoritism shown on the basis of famin relationship." according to Random House dictionary—a fttnctional Core for his more eapacious under— standing of this social phenomenon. People recognize a promi+ nettt name. Bellow reasons. and they tend to conclude that a child by that name “has the right stuff" to succeed. Bellotr‘s fortunate birth as the. son of a Nobel Prizevxs-inning trove-list benefited him greatly. he notes. since colleagues assumed he would succeed on the basis of his parentage. They con- cludcdicorrcctly—that his name would open doors for him. This is nepotism for Bellow. since its consequences are the same as if his father had pulled strings and worked conneel tions to promote his career. Htlt‘. hardly .leffet‘sonian. Bellow gites reasons to believe. that this is not the old. malodorous nepotism that. as he writes. "burdened the economy. corrupted gov- ernment. reduced women and children to chattels. disad- vantaged blacks and other minorities. throttled meritoct‘acy. promoted amoral selfishness. and reinforced the American class system." The old nepotism promoted unqualified cro- nies ot-er meritorious rivals. injustice was its trademark. and merit its enemy. Bttt the “new nepotism." as Bellow calls the phenomenon. "conibinlesl the privileges of birth with the iron rule of merit” in ways that do not offend our sensibilities nearly as much as the old nepotism did. This new variant is on the rise everywhere in America. he contends: it is not lintited to Bushes and Gores. Bellow's “new nepotism" exhibits several features that older notions of nepotism lypically lack. First. it is meritocratic. It tests nepolees‘ performance against high standards. If it finds them unworthy. it punishes them mercilessly. "Dynastic heirs walk on very thin ice in our society." Bellow writes. “We subject them to extremely ltigh standards. and at the first sign of failing to meet l32 THE PUBLIC“ INTEREST 1 WINTER 2mm those expectations. the hammer comes down very hard." Second. the "new nepotism" is opportunistic. Whereas im- perious fathers once forced the old nepotism on their chil- dren. the new variant "springs from the motives of chil- dren" to exploit their fortunate birth. Al Gore and George W. Bush are examples of just such children who foIIOWed voluntarin in their fathers‘ footsteps. and knew the famin name Would work to their advantage. And third, rather than serving the private interests of its practitioners exclu- siver like in earlier times. the "new nepotism" promotes high ideals. lts archetypes are [he Kennedys and Roosevelts. HAT to make of Bellow’s argument? As good demo- crats. we are rightly distrustful of dynasticism in our affairs. But contemporary American experience seems to confirm much of Bellow's case. We simply are not as distrustful of this phenomenon as we may tend to think. For instance. Robert F. Kennedy is remembered as a cou- rageous and lransformatix-"e crusader for civil rights. not as his brother's crony in the Department of Justice. John Quincy Adams. son of president John Adams. is recalled as a president and great thinker. not as scion of the "House of Braintree." as his critics lampooned hint. Countless other examples exist of well-remembered dynasts in Ameri- can politics. though we tend to distrust dynasticism in the abstract. The same is true in business. where we think of genera- tions of Fords. Coorscs. Graces. Sulzbergers. and Goldmans as successful businessmen who carried on traditions of excellence in the. auto industry. in consumer products. neWspapers. and investments respectively—not as clannish opportunists who profited from the influence of their fore- bears. Even in academia. we have favorable impressions of dynasticism. lnlcllectualism ran in generations of Calmts and Lowells who forged Harvard's reputation in the eigh- teenth and nineteenth centuries. Today. new dynasties of Kagans and Schlesingers have emerged on the academic stage. In journalism. there are Buckleys. Koppcls. and Podhoretaes. ln literary pursuits. Amises. Updikes. and Vonneguts (and. of course. Bellows}. In pop culture there are Baldwins and Coppolas. and in sports there are Bondses and Ripkens. among others. How does this persist inside the American market economy? Shouldn't the market's dictates punish nepotism's inefficien- THE NEW NEI’U'I'ISM l33 cies'? Yes. Bellow argues. but not to the extent commonly supposed. “The record of family contributions to the history of capitalism has been overwhelmingly positive." he argues. and the disproportionate contributions of families like the Rothschilds and Morgans prove it. Even today. a full 95 percent of American businesses are family-owned or con- trolled. This includes 40 percent of the Fortune 500 compa— nies. “There is no necessary contradiction between corporate organization and family management." Bellow argues. EST it be claimed that nepotism is limited to elite circles of American politics and business. Bellow tells readers that “there is no inherent class bias in nepotism: all social classes practice it freely.“ "While nepotism is thought of as a practice of the rich." he argues. "institutionalized nepotism represents in many cases the workingman's only chance to do for his son what the rich man does for his as a matter of course." Indeed. Bellow reports that unions and traditionally blue-collar jobs in manufacturing. policing and firefighting, carpentry, and electrical work are among the professional areas where dynasticism is most likely to take root. Nepo— tisrn seems less insidious. less elitist in light of its wide- spread nature. This is not to say the country is plagued by undeserved favoritism. But Bellow is clearly onto something important when he points out records of family succession everywhere from Detroit fire stations to corporate hoard- rooms in New York. They “obviously didn't happen by acci- dent." They seem to reinforce the idea that “doing things with kinship" often seems to have mattered in most protes- sions. not just in elite spheres. "In all these areas there is a remarkable sameness in the accounts successors give about the process of succession," Bellow reports. “They grew up around the business and deveIOped an early interest in it doors were sometimes opened. and people often proved happy to do favors for the children of important and powerful colleagues.“ But once the doors are opened. Bellow says. the "new nepo- tism" hands beneficiaries in stark choice: perform or be discredited. Heirs “often feel the need to go on proving themselves and are haunted by the fear that nothing they do will ever be good enough." When nepotees do fail. they face a fate much worse titan their unpedigreed col- leagues. "So long as you play the good son and behave responsiny with yottr patrimony. Americans are happy to l34 THE PUBLIC INTEREST I WINTER 200-1 acknowledge you." Bellow argues. "But when you over- reach. the corrosive envy that drives so much of our egali— tarian culture thrills to announce your destruction." 5 Bellow‘s nepotism something alien to our founding traditions. or can it play a principled role in our na- tional life? Interestingly. as Bellow shows. the “new nepo- tism" is in reality not so new. It dates to the American Revolution. and has long coexisted with our democratic institutions. The Revolution. he argues. initiated a long process of "disentangling the family from American poli- tics." one which "was neither as swift nor. ultimately. as successful as we tend to assume." Enlightenment ideas inspired the Revolution—ideas that questioned not just political regimes but social arrangements as well. John Locke's Thoughts on Education. popular among revolu- tionaries. was a touchstone of the new thinking. With Locke. good republicans began to believe that “local and private attachments" were "the preoccupation of inferior and narrow-minded persons." Hereditary privilege and its monarchical overtones were out. But because the revolt against patriarchy was not absolute. America came to pos- sess features of both the new family thinking and the old. Some novel combinations of merit and heredity were the result. For instance. Bellow reminds readers that a self- made American like Benjamin Franklin turns out to have been a prodigious nepotist in spite of himself. Franklin packed city offices with kin and protégés alike. Even though he exhorted peers to favor merit over birth as a rule of principle. Franklin “remained a product of the old re- gime." Andrew Jackson. too. the first self—made American politician. was a family empire—builder. Jackson rose from humble Scots-Irish Tennessee and Carolina by forging marital alliances with influential clans. Self-made men like Franklin and Jackson built vast family-based patronage networks to compensate for earlier lackings. Each clearly appreciated older ways of doing business. and used nepo- [ism accordingly. America has also seen scions of privilege who would in paradoxical turns become the greatest of meritocrats. Theodore Roosevelt. few remember. was the son of a wealthy New York patrician whom Republicans initially "put up purely on the strength of his name." On his surname's provenance. Roosevelt was embraced by exalu— THE NEW NEPUTISM l35 sive circles of Cabots and Saltonstalls while a student at Harvard. But once in power. Roosevelt would be labeled a "traitor to his caste" for his anti—crony. trust-bustng pro- gressive policies. which are routiner credited with de- mocratizng American business. Similarly. the lessepknown but hugely influential James B. Conant. president of Harvard University during the Depression, World War ll. and the early [950s. rose to prominence from within the East Coast elite. but became a key figure in its demise. Conant “launch[ed] the greatest experiment in meritocracy the world had ever seen." He sought to make good on the Jeffersonian promise of a natural aristocracy by “replaclingl the he- reditary WASP elite with a new one of trained profession- als selected by objective tests of knowledge and intelligence." In the late 19305. Conant persuaded other Ivy League schools to follow his lead. After World War II. he “Oversaw the creation of the Educational Testing Service." the entity that would later develop the Scholastic Aptitude Test. HE upshot of all this is that in America nepotism has played a greater and more acceptable role in our na- tional life than is commonly imagined. Our privileged have acted more meritocratically than we tend to think. and our meritocrats have used nepotism more often than we typi— cally remember. If America was founded on Enlighten- ment ideals that enshrined incritocracy as an organizing principle for the country. older. somewhat antithetical ideas and practices have nevertheless persisted. They seem to have their roots in fundamental human imperatives. and have certain beneficial qualities that our republican and meritocratic culture frequently causes us to overlook. Still. to conclude that nepotism and meritocracy are the yin and the yang of American politics and society is sim- ply a bridge too far. In the nation‘s two most trying moments. Americans turned to self-made men. and that is surely no accident. In revolution. it was George Washing~ ton; in civil war. Abraham Lincoln. And one can think of lesser but still important examples of sach men: Harry Truman. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan. Merit is an ideal Americans have always taken seriously. and for good reasons. That's why nepotism is still to be held at arm's length. despite the virtues Adam Bellow has shown it to possess. Copyright of Public Interest is the property of Public Interest and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listsenr without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. ...
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This note was uploaded on 02/11/2012 for the course BUSINESS 495 taught by Professor Isaacs during the Spring '11 term at Berea.

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11790881. The New Nepotism (book) - R E VIE W The new...

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