James Q. Wilson: A political scientist's unswerving honesty
It is easy, and not altogether untrue, to think of James Q. Wilson as a conservative. He wrote extensively on morality, social order and duty. He was skeptical of gay marriage, supportive of the war in Iraq, and he was the most influential intellectual in the development of modern policing. But he was not foremost an ideological figure. As he told me in 2007, he wrote not to dictate answers but rather to explore problems. "I write," he said, "in order to figure out for myself what I think about the subject."
I knew Wilson for almost 20 years, our paths crossing rarely but, for me, always memorably. Never in our many conversations did I hear him answer a question by rote; he listened, thought hard, questioned his own assumptions as well as those of others. He would often give something to both sides of an argument. He was, unfailingly, too genuine to embrace slippery reasoning, even when it favored his side of an argument.
For many years, Wilson was a regular member of one of Los Angeles' most exclusive book clubs, which met at the home of then-Mayor Richard Riordan. It was Riordan who suggested I get to know Wilson, and I am profoundly glad that he did. Wilson, said Riordan, "is the most intellectually honest person I've ever known." Riordan could be wrong, but he was right in this case. Wilson leaves a great legacy of wisdom and curiosity, but his greatest contribution to his culture was his unswerving honesty.
A collection of Wilson's work for the Los Angeles Times over the years appears after the jump.
Photo: James Q. Wilson is seen near his office at UCLA in November 1996. Credit: Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times
Aug. 6, 2009
William J. Bratton has been the best thing that happened to the LAPD since William H. Parker, the man who created our modern Police Department over half a century ago.
Jan. 8, 2009
If you think a down economy causes crime to rise, think again. The reasons that drive crime rates are unclear.
April 27, 2008
Of course some textbooks are politically biased. It is not hard to understand why.
March 30, 2008
Too many people behind bars? The statistics suggest otherwise.
April 20, 2007
The tragedy at Virginia Tech may tell us something about how a young man could be driven to commit terrible actions, but it does not teach us very much about gun control.
Oct. 30, 2005
For eight years last decade, California had democracy. Voters had a real say in who they wanted to represent them in Sacramento and Washington. Then state legislators stepped in and fixed the system to spare incumbents the inconvenience of having to worry much about challengers stepping in and taking their seats.
Nov. 23, 2003
When I once gave a lecture in England on religious freedom in the West, a Muslim scholar asked why anyone should care. The answer, I thought, was that the material and cultural progress of a nation depends on the creation and maintenance of human freedom, and that in turn depends on religious freedom.
July 31, 2003
It's easy to condemn discrimination, segregation and racism. It's harder to agree on what practical steps are needed to combat them.
Oct. 7, 2001
Some people fear that the war against terrorism will mean an unacceptable loss in American freedoms. No doubt that could happen, but, so far, it hasn't -- and there is little evidence that it is about to.
Jan. 21, 2001
Unless we get busy, our next presidential election is likely to be monitored by observers from El Salvador and Mexico.
Nov. 5, 2000
Why the economy's success hasn't been a decisive factor.
July 9, 1999
Giving the mother who murdered her infants a light sentence is like saying what she did was OK.
April 5, 1998
Last week, newspapers and television reported a sharp decline in the number of Latino and African American students admitted to the freshman class at UCLA and UC Berkeley. Some people will be deeply upset by this. An officer of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was quoted as saying that this means these campuses are returning to a "race-exclusive status."
May 12, 1997
Judges afraid of appeals allow defendants who can afford it to use pseudoscience to explain away their behavior.