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James Q. Wilson's moral sense

The political scientist's ideas have left an indelible imprint on the city and the nation.

June 03, 2007|Jim Newton | JIM NEWTON is Editorial Page editor of The Times.

JAMES Q. WILSON left Southern California as a young man and returned to it as an accomplished one, but he is not exactly a product of it nor is he a participant in its civic life by most conventional definitions. He holds no local position, serves no local board, aspires to no local office.

And yet Wilson's abiding intellectual pursuits -- morality, the family and crime, to name just three -- have helped shape modern Los Angeles, both through his influence on its recent leaders and through his enormous contributions to political science.

His writings on crime, for instance, constitute a near-blueprint for the Los Angeles Police Department. And some of his scholarship, including his studies of urban renewal and his examination of the societal effects of declining commitment to marriage, has particular resonance in this diverse city, with its extensive poverty and many broken homes.

Wilson is the rare academic who bears a Presidential Medal of Freedom, an esteemed prize represented by a modest emblem that he affixes to his lapel. "Whatever his subject," President Bush said in presenting the medal, "James Q. Wilson writes with intellectual rigor, with moral clarity, to the appreciation of a wide and growing audience."

An endorsement from Bush is complicated currency in the largely liberal milieu that forms Los Angeles' contemporary elite, one in which members may dispute the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but in which most long ago lost patience with Bush. Wilson, however, has spent decades composing a body of work that is testament to his curiosity and his honesty, impressing readers of all ideological stripes. He describes himself as more conservative than most academics but more liberal than the country as a whole.

Wilson's principal effect is through his writing, some of it amplified by his relationships with civic leaders. Police Chief William J. Bratton is a disciple of Wilson's policing strategies. And former Mayor Richard Riordan calls Wilson the most intellectually honest person he knows -- someone interested in exploring questions, not dictating answers.

Wilson expressed a similar view of himself and his work. "I often write books about problems for which I can't think of a solution," he said. "The reason I write the book is not because I know what I want to say to the public. I write the book in order to figure out for myself what I think about the subject."

He has his doubts about the Los Angeles Times and other leading American papers. He has questioned this paper's coverage of Iraq, and he argues that the liberal views of many journalists have undermined the war and American foreign policy generally.

Nevertheless, he spoke at length to The Times as part of this series. He took all questions, and his observations ranged across the wide expanse of his contribution to social thought -- divorce and same-sex marriage, human development and the establishment and maintenance of a free and ordered society.

Wilson, 76, opened the conversation by indulging in a moment of nostalgia, drawing on two socially relevant memories of his youth.

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'I GREW UP when the freeways were first being built," he said, seated before a bank of books at Pepperdine University, where he is a visiting lecturer. Before then, he said, he would drive from Long Beach to Hollywood on Alameda Avenue "to take my date to the Palladium Theater, where we would go dancing. Then the freeway was developed, and it was just marvelous. It was heaven." He laughed at that notion -- freeways as heaven.

Shaking his head, he continued: "The second thing I recall growing up was that the level of public order and safety was remarkable."

After attending college at the University of Redlands, Wilson left California for most of his young adult life. He received his graduate education at the University of Chicago and taught at Harvard from 1961 to 1987. Those were productive years: Wilson wrote the articles and books that established him as one of the nation's premier political scientists.

In the 1960s, he explored urban renewal even as riots were tearing apart the nation's cityscapes. In the 1970s, he challenged the then-conventional wisdom that the goal of criminal justice was rehabilitation, insisting that deterrence was the system's more important objective. Through the 1980s, he explored criminal justice further, along with regulation and bureaucracy, among other topics.

The following decade brought what many, including Wilson, consider his masterwork, "The Moral Sense," published in 1993 after his return to California.

"The Moral Sense" was Wilson's study of the evolutionary and cultural bases of morality and, at the same time, a radiant display of writing. With chapters examining such notions as sympathy, self-control and duty, Wilson built the proposition that morality is constructed in the intimacy of families and then spread unsteadily but unerringly across humanity.

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