James Q. Wilson
Some time in the very early days of the New York Sun, maybe even before we started publishing, James Q. Wilson ventured down to Lower Manhattan and had an un-fancy lunch in a cramped nearby restaurant with a few of the editors. He was interested in writing for us, it turned out. He explained that he was shy, so we might have to call or email him.
It was actually one of the more thrilling moments in the run of a newspaper that had a lot of thrilling moments, because Wilson, by that time, which was 2002, was a very big deal.
He was best known for the Broken Windows article he published in the March 1982 Atlantic Monthly, which he co-authored with George Kelling. I had encountered the article as a Harvard undergraduate cross-registered into Professor Kelling's Kennedy School of Government course on policing, which was terrific. The article is deservedly credited for helping to bring about sharp reductions in crime in New York City and elsewhere.
Once Wilson got on my radar screen, I started to notice him more often. I tried to make it to his annual lecture in New York that was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, which was consistently one of the highlights of the Institute's year. One year Wilson spoke about how America's separation of church and state means that American religion is more vibrant and healthier than in Europe, where the state-subsidized churches don't have to compete for public support. The Manhattan Institute has a page of links to the lectures. They're all good, but this one from 2000 faulting the press for coverage of global warming, gun control, and campaign finance is particularly worth a look, and you can bet it won't make the New York Times obituary.
Wilson kept a substantial involvement not only with the Manhattan Institute but also with the American Enterprise Institute, which has already posted a wonderful tribute: " to be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson's era is to know how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra's era. We're all competing for the silver medal; Wilson has won the gold." Wilson did this, for a long time, from the distance of the West Coast, though his Boston Globe obituary reports that he had moved a few years ago to North Andover, Mass. And though he wasn't Jewish, he was a prolific contributor to Commentary magazine; an archive of his articles for Commentary is here.
Wilson's book The Moral Sense reached into evolutionary biology, which is far afield for a political scientist but a demonstration of Wilson's intellectual range.
Bill Kristol has a tribute up at the Weekly Standard that links to an archive of Wilson's pieces for the Public Interest, which are up at the Web site of National Affairs.
Anyway, the fight for freedom needs Andrew Breitbarts, but it also needs James Q. Wilsons. Academia comes in for a lot of criticism on this Web site, but Wilson's life is a reminder of how influential a shy professor can be.
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