Ethics Hero Emeritus: James Q. Wilson (1931-2012)

“Denmark or Luxembourg can afford to exhibit domestic anguish and uncertainty over military policy; the United States cannot. A divided America encourages our enemies, disheartens our allies, and saps our resolve—potentially to fatal effect. What General Giap of North Vietnam once said of us is even truer today: America cannot be defeated on the battlefield, but it can be defeated at home. Polarization is a force that can defeat us.”

James Q. Wilson wrote that, in an essay on America’s polarization. The scholar, author, philosopher and social scientist who died yesterday at the age of 80 was a passionate conservative who believed in winning arguments, influencing policy and changing conduct with the power of ideas, facts, studies and analysis. That the media, especially the conservative media, treated the death of Andrew Breitbart as a thunderclap and the death of Wilson as a footnote tells us as much as we need to know about our culture, values and intellect. I watched GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum respond to the news of Breitbart’s death as if the culture warrior was the equivalent of Martin Luther King. Breitbart died too young, at 43; he had a family, and reputedly was a nice guy. But his contribution to the American scene was to use his various websites to increase the intensity of partisan warfare, and to help banish fairness, compromise, civility and mutual trust from public discourse. One of the last videos of Brietbart showed him screaming insults at Occupy protesters.

I had stopped using Breitbart’s sites for source material: I couldn’t trust them. The editing of James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting was one strike; the misleadingly truncated Shirley Sherrod speech was another. I wasn’t going to wait for a third. It tells me something alarming about conservatives in this country that such an unethical new media figure could be so lionized upon his death, when his methods were so frequently aimed at destruction rather than elightenment.

Wilson, in contrast, got substantive and wide-ranging results.His 1981 essay “Broken Windows” argued that community policing, rather than mere law enforcement, was the secret to changing urban culture. He wrote (with co-author George Kelling):

Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing…Police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. … Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police — and the rest of us — ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.”

The article was the catalyst for a change in tactics for law enforcement and local governemnts in Boston, New York City and elsewhere. It has been said that today’s re-vitalized Times Square is Wilson’s legacy to America. But his legacy was so much greater than that. In his tribute to Wilson, George Will wrote, “Every contemporary writer about American society and politics knows how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era.”

I spent almost two hours with James Q. Wilson once: he was one of two examiners for my oral exam in my quest for an honors degree in Government. He scared the daylights out of me; I don’t know how I passed. He was one of those people—I’ve met a few—whose intellect was blinding in its intensity. I guess if a student could defend his honors thesis against the relentless skepticism of such a scholar without running from the inquisition in tears, that was worth a cum laude. I can safely say I was a lot more impressed with him than he was with me.

And I continued to be impressed. I don’t agree with many of Wilson’s positions, but his methodology and analysis were bracing and inspiring, even when he reached the wrong conclusion. In my favorite of his works, “The Moral Sense,” he argued powerfully for the presence of inate morality in mankind, and against ethical relativism. He also wrote passionately about the essential role of culture in maintaining ethical norms:

“…the kind of culture that can maintain reasonable human commitments takes centuries to create but only a few generations to destroy. And once destroyed, those who suddenly realize what they have lost will also realize that political action cannot, except at a very great price, restore it.”

Fortunately, Wilson was prolific, and his thoughts and analysis will be invaluable resources for our society in perpetuity. You can begin familiarizing yourself with his writing here, but I would suggest hitting Amazon and picking up “The Moral Sense.” He concludes the book with this:

“Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.”

So did James Q. Wilson.



2 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: James Q. Wilson (1931-2012)

  1. What an inspiring quote and a moving eulogy. He may not have been impressed with you back in the day, but he would doubtless be pleased to be remembered thus. I am not a Conservative but I love a position well argued without resorting to the kind of tactics you describe Breitbart employing (His fame has not reached Australia’s shores). i have added Moral Sense to my wishlist.

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