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Les Pistons in our Genes

Most Moroccans, like many other people in the so-called “developing nations” or “emerging democracies,” aspire to a more transparent and fair society. They want to end corruption and take away the undeserved privileges of families who seem to reproduce themselves in politics and business ad infinitum.  We have all watched in horror as the son of so-and-so was appointed to an executive post simply because he was his father’s son.  But the democrats’ aspirations keep coming up against something more fundamental in human nature:  The drive to look after one’s own. Moroccans, like all humans, have a strong tribal mentality, one that clashes with the bureaucratic demands of a modern economy and new political system.  What to do?  How to compromise? Alas, a new book on nepotism (favoring family members and relatives) tells us that committed democrats have no chance, partly because they themselves, when it comes down to it, are nepotistic, too.

After reading Adam Bellow’s recently published book, In Praise of Nepotism, I now wonder whether democracy is a myth that won’t do more than frustrate Moroccans and others as they long to become more egalitarian.  Parents simply don’t care much about equal opportunities and groom their children to replace them once they die or grow disabled.  Doing so, to them, is good parenting. It’s happening at all levels of government and business, as if state and private enterprises were no more than cash machines to be exploited for the benefit of private families.  Who cares about public service? That’s too abstract of a notion for most people.  If you think the problem of nepotism is specific to Third World societies, think again. The U.S., beacon of democracy, is, awash in it, and this trend, despite safeguards, is getting worse.  The Godfather or Tony Soprano got it right—family does come first.

According to Adam Bellow, the son of a Nobel-prize novelist, American society is increasingly being marked by “dynastic tendencies.” Upon his election, the son of a former president and sibling of a state governor, appointed dozens of friends, their spouses and relatives to administrative offices.  Similarly, “something like 95 percent of all American business are still family controlled, including 40 percent of the Fortune 500.” Sean Lennon, Jakob Dylan, and Enrique Iglesias, to name only three, are fast rising to stardom on the cachet of their family names in the industry. Generations of family members occupy center stage in Hollywood. TV producers often hire friends and significant others.

Nepotism, in Bellow’s study, is ineradicable because it is “a basic human instinct, like sex and aggression” and a “profoundly moral relationship” binding generations. It is the biological norm in the animal world. And it is not all bad. The concern for one’s children can be a powerful drive for innovation and may, in fact, be at the base of the three Abrahamic religions. Monotheism, as a religious concept introduced by the Jews, is the ideology of a family clan writ large, complete with a father figure and genealogical trees. Jesus is, in Christianity, the son of God. Biological lineages are vitally important in the Bible and, if you think about it, Islam.  Those who can trace their lineage to a holy figure (such as a prophet) are often given higher esteem.  Families are also behind the rise of finance capitalism. The Rothschilds of the 18th century, like the Kennedys of the 20th, built their extensive reach by carefully maintaining close ties.

The author shows how Americans tried to abolish nepotism after the Revolution by gradually outlawing bigamy, enfranchising women, creating a national merit system, introducing social security, creating assessment tests such as SATs, legislating the Civil Rights Act, and diversifying immigration.  College acceptances were open to more people and so were job opportunities.  But such access produced a middle class that wanted the same privileges for its children, and so the nepotistic race began in earnest once again.  Our “selfish” gene is simply too powerful for any legislation to control.

This being the case, why then aspire to a more open and democratic society?  Because, according to Bellow, in a system of “new” or “postmodern” nepotism, only those who are qualified in the first place can last.  The beneficiaries will initially be resented and accepted only grudgingly by co-workers; but if they prove themselves, all will eventually be forgiven.  Such was the case of Bobby Kennedy who was appointed attorney general by his brother John F. Kennedy, despite his lack of experience.  JFK’s father, Joe Kennedy, described in the book as America’s biggest nepotist of the 20th century, wanted that appointment and didn’t give a hoot about public opinion or accusations of nepotism.  The media denounced the appointment, but two years later, most people agreed that that was JFK’s best appointment.

This is probably the difference between low-income countries and advanced “democracies.” The U.S. practices “new” or “postmodern” nepotism, while we still cling on to the old variety. Old nepotism is unproductive and a major drain on national or business resources. It perpetuates political buffoonery by making mediocre people pompous and insufferable. It keeps nations backward.

Having said this, don’t imagine that absolute fairness or equal opportunity are ever possible under any political system (although recent scientific studies on capuchin monkeys seem to reveal that humans are also genetically programmed to be fair).  Some societies come closer than others, but no society is perfect.  Occasionally, we come across astonishing cases of pure altruism (the subject of my next column), but the science of evolutionary psychology and history show that most people are simply too human to ever rise above their basic biological drives.

If we are more biological than intellectual, how we do we domesticate our animal instincts in order to live in a more harmonious society?  We all dream of establishing a perfect community, but fact is our histories are messy and bloody.  We just have to continue seeking social justice even as we know that our survival is in selfishly perpetuating our genes.

About the Author

Anouar Majid is editor of Tingis.

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