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‘In Praise of Nepotism’

New book by Adam Bellow, looks at the roots of nepotism and seeks to shed new light on the often misunderstood and stigmatized practice.
/ Source: TODAY

There are very few subjects which elicit such a fierce response on one side or the other than nepotism, yet there has never been a book written on the subject. Adam Bellow, the son of Saul Bellow, has changed all that with his new book “In Praise of Nepotism.” Bellow discusses his book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:


Most Americans have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, a Hollywood epic that celebrates three generations of an American mafia dynasty. Based on an equally popular novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather’s astonishing success fueled the rise of its director and his stars and spawned a host of imitations, establishing the gangster movie as the definitive American film genre of the late twentieth century. References to The Godfather permeate popular culture. Many people know the script almost by heart. Real gangsters are even said to have adopted the rituals and language of the Corleone family — a strange case of life imitating art.

Most influential of all was The Godfather’s humanizing vision of the mafia itself. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the public perception of the mafia was formed by grainy images of gangsters lying sprawled in pools of blood or twisting their guilt-ridden hands during televised anticrime hearings. Puzo and Coppola took us inside the feared and hated Cosa Nostra to show us the mafia as not only an ethnic phenomenon but also, and more importantly, a family affair.* From the exuberant opening scene — the backyard wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter Connie, with its boisterous singing and dancing, its manly hugs and kisses, its copious eating and drinking, and its envelopes stuffed with cash for the new bride and groom — Americans fell in love with the vitality, passion, and loyalty of the tightly knit Corleone clan.

As befits the saga of a dynastic family struggling to survive amid drastically changing conditions, the first Godfather movie showed us the passage of authority from one generation to the next. The second combined two narratives: Michael Corleone’s attempt to move the family into legitimate enterprise in the 1950s, and his father’s earlier rise from penniless orphan to mafia potentate. Thus it is that in The Godfather Part II we find the future Don Corleone working in a small family-owned grocery store in New York’s Italian immigrant neighborhood, sometime after the turn of the century. The grocer treats him like a son, and it is easy to see why: Vito Corleone (played by Robert DeNiro) is an honest, hardworking young man who is struggling to support a wife and child.

Into the store comes Fanucci, a swaggering neighborhood tough in a white linen suit and wide-brimmed hat. Fanucci belongs to the Mano Nero, the grocer’s son explains—the extortionist Black Hand: he shakes down all the local merchants. Fanucci takes the grocer aside. “Quest’ * il mio nepote” (“This is my nephew”) he explains, indicating a slack-jawed young man who stands slouched in the doorway. Apparently the nephew needs a job. Wringing his hands in distress — but what else can he do? — the kindly grocer fires Vito.

In this scene the young immigrant’s faith in the American promise of equal opportunity and justice for all is exploded. The truth about the New World is exposed — it is just like the old one. The strong exploit the weak and the authorities do nothing. Vito therefore turns to crime without compunction. He smuggles liquor during Prohibition and quickly branches out into loan-sharking, gambling, extortion, and labor racketeering. In his dealings with the outside world, it’s fair to say, he is exceedingly harsh and uncompromising. Yet we sense that he remains a man of honor, because within his family and among those who respect and value his friendship, he upholds the kind of justice that the laws will not enforce.

Despite the reams of criticism attendant on Coppola’s films, no one seems to have noticed that Vito Corleone begins his criminal career after being victimized by an outrageous act of nepotism. Americans can sympathize with this: what happens to young Vito is unjust; it offends our deepest instincts about fairness and equality. We hate the bully Fanucci and despise his young lout of a nephew. We think people should be rewarded on their merits and that everyone should make it on their own. But the lesson Vito derives from this experience is not what we expect. Instead of cursing Fanucci’s nepotism like any other red-blooded American, he apparently concludes that Fanucci is right: the secret to succeeding in this country is to practice your own brand of nepotism, and thereby beat your rivals at their own game.

If Vito Corleone is the kind of self-made man Americans profess to admire, he has achieved his success by relying first and foremost on his kin. The criminal organization he creates is an extension of his family, and it is run on the same basic terms. To emphasize this theme, The Godfather opens on the day of his daughter’s wedding, a day on which, by Sicilian tradition, a man must grant whatever favor he is asked. A line has already formed outside his office for this purpose, and it is in these initial encounters in the Don’s darkened study that we first measure the importance of “family values” like friendship, honor, and respect to Vito Corleone.

First up is Amerigo Bonasera, a local mortician. The two men’s wives are lifelong friends, and Signora Corleone is godmother to their daughter. This unfortunate girl has been beaten and disfigured by two thugs who tried to rape her. The boys have been arrested and found guilty, but one of them is the son of a local politician and the judge has let them off with a suspended sentence. Now the wretched father comes to the Don seeking vengeance. He asks him to kill the young men.

The Don listens to this woeful tale in inscrutable silence. Then, somewhat surprisingly, he rebukes the poor man with a lecture on civic ideals. Bonasera has tried to be a good American, to live according to the law like other citizens. All very well. But now he sees the error of his ways. “You accept judgment from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets,” says Corleone contemptuously. Why should the Don help him now? In the past, when Bonasera needed money, he had borrowed from banks, like a beggar, at ruinous interest. “But if you had come to me,” the Don intones, “my purse would have been yours. If you had come to me for justice, those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies, they would become my enemies . . . and then, believe me, they would fear you.”

Bonasera hangs his head and in a strained whisper accepts the Don’s offer of friendship. Brushing aside the insulting suggestion of payment, Corleone replies, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do me a service in return. Until that day, consider this justice a gift from my wife, your daughter’s godmother.” With this, Corleone brings the reluctant Bonasera into his private moral universe and makes him a part of his family. When the mortician kisses his ring and calls him “Godfather,” he affirms their new connection in the idiom of kinship.

Corleone is next approached by his godson Johnny Fontane, a popular singer and actor whose career is on the downslide. His marriage is in trouble, his voice is shot, and now a big-time Hollywood producer has refused to give him a part in a film that could put him back on top. Again, surprisingly, the Don berates his godson and harshly mocks his tears. “Godfather, what can I do? Oh, what can I do?” he mimics cruelly. “You can start by acting like a man. Like a man!” he shouts, slapping Johnny’s face. He particularly upbraids him for neglecting his friendships. “You’ve been a fine godson, you’ve given me all the respect. But what of your other old friends? One year you run around with this person, the next year with another person.” This is not the way a man behaves. “Friendship is everything,” Corleone declares. “Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family. Never forget that. If you had built up a wall of friendships you wouldn’t have to ask me to help.” Nevertheless he promises to work out Johnny’s problems on condition that he spend more time at home, because “a man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man.”

Finally, he must receive Luca Brasi, a hulking strongman whose attachment to the family is legendary. The Don is reluctant to see him. But Brasi didn’t expect to be invited, and his gratitude must be acknowledged. Admitted to the darkened inner sanctum, Brasi haltingly reads a brief statement of thanks and expresses his good wishes for the bride and groom: “and may their first child be a masculine child,” he says with comical formality. It is easy to forget from this homely and even endearing performance what Puzo drives home in his novel: Luca Brasi is a dangerous brute who has done many terrible things, including, it is whispered, burning a baby alive. Brasi belongs to a side of the business from which Corleone would like to shield his family. But like so much that is ugly in life, it intrudes unbidden anyway.

Puzo’s choice of the term “godfather” to describe Don Corleone is hardly accidental. Rather, it reflects his painstaking research into the cultural traditions of his homeland. Vito Corleone is closely modeled on the traditional mafia capo, a figure who may still be found today throughout the impoverished regions of Sicily and southern Italy. The fact that such men are typically addressed as padrino, or godfather, is not a metaphorical conceit but an accurate description of their social role. Moreover, the initial encounters in the Don’s darkened study are consciously designed to display the various formal and informal relationships that such a man might use to forge the complex social network that we call a mafia family.

As everyone knows, there are really two Italys: the line between Europe and the Mediterranean runs through the center of the Italian peninsula. Northern Italy is wealthy, modern, secular, and liberal; the south is poor, agrarian, religious, and conservative. The northerner is essentially a European who has embraced the modern capitalist ethic, accepting the rule of law and the authority of the state. The southerner is a Mediterranean whose culture has been shaped by different influences — Greek, Spanish, Saracen, and Norman — and whose outlook belongs to an earlier phase of modernity. Italian culture as a whole is family-centered and traditional, but while even in the modernized north the family remains the basis of the social structure, in the south (according to one authority) “the family is the social structure.”

For centuries, southern Italy has suffered chronic poverty, violence, neglect, and political uncertainty. Famine, conquest, foreign rule, and exploitation by a rapacious oligarchy have left the region in a notoriously backward condition. As a result, most southerners are insular and suspicious, trusting neither church nor state. They don’t accept the government’s definition of a crime, and they certainly don’t expect the state to maintain law and order or provide other essential services. Instead they rely completely on their relatives.

This is what sociologists call a “low trust” society. In a world where everyone who is not a relative or friend is necessarily an enemy, a man’s word and his personal honor are irreplaceable assets that must be vigorously defended. At its most extreme, such radical suspicion of outsiders culminates in what political scientist Edward Banfield has termed “amoral familism.” Found for the most part in conditions of extreme privation, amoral familism promotes cooperation within families but undermines cooperation between families; it thereby perpetuates the very culture of poverty that produced it. The mafia family’s “outsider” status and its code of omerta, or loyalty and silence unto death, are the essence of this familistic culture.

In form, the traditional mafia family is a series of concentric rings clustered around a dense biological core. American families are small — the nuclear unit plus a tight circle of kin — but the Sicilian family is embedded in a much wider network of relatives. These relatives belong to different lineages within a large extended family, or clan. Each lineage has its own head — the senior male member — and the clan as a whole has a capofamiglia, who heads the dominant group. The traditional mafia organization is based on the capo’s immediate family and draws members from related lineage groups.

The family’s rank and power are determined by the violence and cunning of its members, particularly its capo. Unlike bureaucratic organizations, in which authority derives from one’s position in the hierarchy, the capo’s authority is personal, based on his capacity for “honor” — his ability to dominate others through force of character backed by the credible threat of violence.

Honor is a key concept in Sicilian society, as it is in most peasant societies. Paradoxically, however, honor is not a personal quality but a collective one: it belongs not to the individual but to the family of which he is a part. No one must be allowed to challenge or impugn the family’s honor; friends and enemies alike must know that insults will be punished and retribution will be terrible and swift.

As the family’s interests expand, its power and influence are extended through a network of friends and associates. The means for this extension is the institution known to anthropology as “fictive kinship.” All societies, from the most primitive to the most highly advanced, have developed means of incorporating strangers by according them the status of relatives. Marriage and adoption are the oldest, but fostering, indenture, and apprenticeship are also forms of fictive kinship, as are patronage, blood brotherhood, and ritual or “bond” friendship. All these pseudo-kinship forms are still in use in many African, Asian, and Latin American societies, where they are freighted with important obligations and sustained by public ceremonies, rituals, and oaths. All are employed by the mafia capo to create an artificial family that extends his power deep into the countryside.

The keystone of the structure is the spiritual relation of godparenthood. Godparents in our society are little more than ornamental fixtures, nominally charged with the religious education of the child. But in Italy and other Catholic countries, godparenthood is a sacred bond considered the equivalent of parenthood. A typical Italian child acquires two adult sponsors at baptism, two more at confirmation, and another two at marriage. These adoptive parents are addressed as comare and compare, literally “co-mother” and “co-father.” The bond of compareggio not only links the child and his godparents but forges an alliance between their families. The proliferation of such ties means that most Italian villages are basically large clans — a network of related lineage groups linked by webs of marriage, blood, and spiritual kinship.

The obligations of compari are indistinguishable from those of close kin. (And not just in Italy: the Russian word for godfather — kumovstvo — is synonymous with “nepotism” and denotes protection of a nephew or kinsman.) Compari are required to aid one another, lend one another money, never quarrel, and always be kind and helpful. Marriage is forbidden between families linked by compareggio, and the relationship can also be inherited. Given the importance of compareggio in supplementing kinship ties, it is no surprise that a mafia capo frequently assumes the role of godfather to the children of his relatives, friends, and associates, usually at their request. It is a highly effective means of extending his power and unifying his criminal network. It is therefore more than merely a mark of respect that he is called padrino by his followers, who also call one another compari.

The mortician Bonasera is linked to Corleone by a tie of compareggio. Yet he does not address the Don in this familial capacity. Instead he approaches him as a businessman, offering to pay for his services. Corleone is affronted by this offer. The Don doesn’t want to be paid, he wants to be owed. What matters to him is creating a moral relationship based on respect for his honor. By establishing an open-ended pledge of mutual assistance, he obliges Bonasera to treat him like a kinsman — someone whose request for aid cannot be denied, no matter what.

Excerpted from “In Praise of Nepotism” by Adam Bellow. Copyright © 2003 by Adam Bellow. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.