Monday, March 5, 2012

James Q. Wilson, RIP

A great American died this past Friday, political scientist James Q. Wilson

While in academic and political circles he was already quite well known, I first encountered him through the reading of the famous "Broken Windows" article he co-authored for The Atlantic magazine in 1982.  I was a subscriber then.  The title came from this passage: the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. 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. (It has always been fun.)
The piece's argument about how best to go about policing intrigued me and I remember repeating it many times over the years that followed.  Little did I know that it would later become the basis for Mayor Rudy Giuliani's successful program to clean up New York City.

But while the article intrigued me, I still had no idea who James Q Wilson was.  Later, in another life, I was to teach for a time political science to undergraduates, to include teaching American government.  When I began, our department was using Wilson's introductory American Government text and I was just smart enough to recognize its superior quality.  Thereafter, and for as long as I had any say in the matter, we continued to use that text.  I took my job seriously and quite seriously compared and contrasted the numerous introductory texts available.  Wilson's was hands down the very best.  My brother, not an academic, once asked me to recommend for him a good introduction to our system of government.  I didn't have to think for long.

I was to meet Wilson a couple of times, but the one that stands out was the first time in the spring of 1990.  It was at a conference of fellow political scientist and he was up on the dais with several other academics who were in their own way quite well-known also.  What I noticed in the interchanges that followed was that although Wilson was the lone conservative in a room full of liberal professors and graduate students, he was nevertheless afforded genuine respect, I would even say deference.

As other memorials to him I have read attest, Wilson was apparently unerringly polite.  To know that about him means a great deal to me.  But the respect and deference I witnessed being shown him that day at the conference had only a little to do with his good manners.  Quite simply, he was the smartest guy in the room and everyone knew it.  RIP.

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