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James Q. Wilson: A political scientist's unswerving honesty

March 2, 2012 |  3:07 pm

James Q. Wilson

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.


Rewriting the rules on how to fight crime

Political scientist James Q. Wilson dies at 80

James Q. Wilson: The power of his written word

--Jim Newton

Photo: James Q. Wilson is seen near his office at UCLA in November 1996. Credit: Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times


Goodbye to the chief

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.

Crime and economy don't tell whole story

Jan. 8, 2009

If you think a down economy causes crime to rise, think again. The reasons that drive crime rates are unclear.

Quit twisting my words

April 27, 2008

Of course some textbooks are politically biased. It is not hard to understand why.

Do the time, lower the crime

March 30, 2008

Too many people behind bars? The statistics suggest otherwise.

In defense of guns

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.

Lawmakers stole your vote

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.

The freedom on which all others depend

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.

Colorblind versus blindfolded

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.

Freedoms not in jeopardy

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.

Riverside's investment in making the chad obsolete

Jan. 21, 2001

Unless we get busy, our next presidential election is likely to be monitored by observers from El Salvador and Mexico.

Photo finish

Nov. 5, 2000

Why the economy's success hasn't been a decisive factor.

Our moral obligation is to extract a price

July 9, 1999

Giving the mother who murdered her infants a light sentence is like saying what she did was OK.

The meaning of fewer minorities at UC, UCLA

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."

It's not the excuse, it's the expert

May 12, 1997

Judges afraid of appeals allow defendants who can afford it to use pseudoscience to explain away their behavior.

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