Favor of the Month

Nepotism has existed from time immemorial, but the expression as such originates from the Italian word for nephew - 'nipote.' The notoriously corrupt and venal Renaissance popes referred to their illegitimate children as their nephews and shamelessly advanced their interests.

BSkyB is Europe's largest satellite broadcaster. When the post of its chief executive recently fell vacant, this publicly listed company appointed a nominations committee to find his replacement. An executive-search firm was then hired to produce a list of candidates. The committee conducted "an arduous search," in the words of its chairman, the Lord St. John of Fawsley. The search produced only one name: that of James Murdoch, who just happened to be the 30-year-old son of Rupert Murdoch, BSkyB's controlling shareholder. The satirical magazine Private Eye claimed that candidates were required to leave their applications on the breakfast table in an envelope addressed to Dad.

If your father owns a bank, a newspaper or a country, the good news is that nepotism is back. I do not want you to think that this is sour grapes on my part. I muffed my own opportunity for preferment. At the time that the Digger moved his papers from Fleet Street to Wapping in London's East End, the Fox empire - alas not listed on the stock exchange - was already well ensconced in that part of the capital. Indeed, thanks to the farsighted strategic vision of its founders, it had never left there. When the nominations committee, consisting of my father and my uncle, who also owned, managed and exclusively staffed their woolens business from its corporate headquarters at 250 Commercial Road E.1, looked for an executive to share their not over-burdensome load, I was told gently that I was overqualified. I became a lawyer instead.

My interest in the subject of nepotism was aroused some months ago when I read that Saadi Gadhafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, had been named to Libya's football squad for the African Nations Cup. Uncharitable thoughts of nepotism seemed ill-founded when young Saadi was signed on by the professional Italian team Perugia last summer. But never fear. Three months into the Italian soccer season, the 30-year-old Gadhafi has not yet played for Perugia and, to add insult to injury, has recently tested positive for steroid use. So, one strike against nepotism.

Nepotism is, of course, rife throughout the Middle East. When the late unlamented Uday Hussein was appointed president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, nobody bothered with a search committee, although, had he wanted to, father Saddam would undoubtedly have been able to find an English Lord to make it kosher. Uday had a way of stimulating the competitive spirit of his players that would give pause even to Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex, it will be recalled, sent a boot flying to the head of the iconic David Beckham, causing a cut eye which necessitated the insertion of stitches. Uday did better. He executed athletes for fun and would torture his footballers for losing games. These original training methods do not seem to have resulted in improved performances, but maybe it was worth a try. Certainly the players who were terminally dropped from the team never complained. One is reminded of the line in Voltaire's "Candide" apropos the execution of the English Admiral Byng for losing a battle: "In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time pour encourager les autres."

Not that nepotism is confined to the third world. It flourishes too in the land of the free and the home of the brave. When reproached for having appointed his brother Robert attorney general, John F. Kennedy retorted that he wanted to give him some legal experience before he went out to practice law. And it is well to recall that the current occupant of the White House was elected with the assistance of the votes of justices of the Supreme Court who had been appointed by his daddy.

Of course, there have been rulers and men of influence who did not practice nepotism. Take for example our own King Herod. History has given him a bad press. With good reason you might say. It seems that he kept a kosher home, but like Uday Hussein, he had what you might call antisocial tendencies. It cannot have been much fun being his son. An adherent of the "tall poppy" doctrine centuries before Stalin, Herod executed two stepsons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and then, for good measure, his own son Antipater. Herod's penchant for filicide coupled with his observance of the dietary laws prompted the emperor, Augustus, to remark that he would rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son.

The story in one of the Gospels that Herod carried out a massacre of children is unfounded, but he did give orders - happily disobeyed - that on his own death the heads of the leading families of Judea be killed; that way his death would not be an occasion for rejoicing. Suspicious of his wife Mariamne, the last Hasmonean princess, he had her put to death. But he loved her in his fashion. After her death he had her body embalmed in honey, and according to the report in Josephus, repeated in the Talmud, continued exercising his conjugal rights on her corpse.

Nepotism has existed from time immemorial, but the expression as such originates from the Italian word for nephew - "nipote." The notoriously corrupt and venal Renaissance popes referred to their illegitimate children as their nephews and shamelessly advanced their interests. By far the most colorful papal family was the Borgias, leading candidates for the nepotism hall of fame. When people referred to Pope Alexander VI - Rodrigo Borgia before his accession to the papacy - as the Holy Father, they were talking literally. Of his many children by a succession of mistresses, those best known to history are Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. His father elevated Cesare to cardinal when Cesare was 22. The model for Machiavelli's Prince, he was an able ruler but his spirituality left much to be desired. Perhaps he never made a graven image, but he left none of the other commandments unviolated. His sister Lucrezia shared the family propensity for homicide, though her thing was poison. But she certainly loved her family. She is said to have bestowed her favors on her father and her brother, those less than perfect princes of the church.

Yet the Borgias' nepotism was confined to Italy. For a world-class nepotist we need to wait for Napoleon Bonaparte, whose blatant exercise of imperial power in advancing the interests of his family most certainly contributed to his downfall. Europe was his family business and he made three of his brothers kings. He did well by his favorite generals as well. The descendants of Marshal Bernadotte sit on the throne of Sweden to this day.

You might think that an institution with an ancestry as ancient as nepotism would have been the subject of numerous books, theses and doctorates over the years. We are assured, however, by Adam Bellow, the author of a book published only this year entitled "In Praise of Nepotism," that the subject has never before been treated at book length. It is sad to report that this book has not filled the gap. Much of this long and - it has to be said - tedious apologia for an indefensible practice is given over to a history of dynasties and to lists of people who have inherited their genius from similarly gifted forebears. Yet in what sense can, say, Martin Amis or Lucian Freud be said to have benefited from nepotism? They may owe their talents to their genes, but surely not to any kind of family preferment. Disarmingly, the author claims that he himself is the beneficiary of nepotism. Were he not the son of Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow, he suggests, he might have found it difficult to find a publisher. It is hard to disagree.

In making his case, the younger Bellow invokes the theory of kin selection, a favored explanation of the evolutionary problem of altruism. He shows convincingly that it is natural for us to favor our relatives. But you knew that already, didn't you? It is apparent that the author has fallen prey to the naturalistic fallacy: the belief that what is "natural" is therefore good. As Steven Pinker devastatingly demonstrates in his book "The Blank Slate," this conflation of "is" and "ought" underlies some of the most pernicious doctrines of modern times. It bedevils any rational study of differences between the sexes and races for fear that if differences were shown to exist they would justify discrimination. Even worse, the naturalistic fallacy is responsible for Social Darwinism, the theory beloved of Nazi ideologues that because nature favors the fittest, might is right.

For Bellow, nepotism "feels good" and "represents a valuable corrective to the extreme tendencies of meritocracy." What next? "The Case for Bribery and Corruption"? "The Pros and Cons of Pedophilia"? Having read the book, it is hard to believe that any objective reader will find himself convinced by this defense of a practice that is reprehensible, inefficient and a scourge of good government.

That includes you, Omri.