Think piece

Todd Gitlin on James Q. Wilson and broken windows

James_Q_Wilson_zocalo.jpgTodd Gitlin, the author and cultural commentator who is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, says he learned a lot from his professor many years, James Q. Wilson. But he also thinks Wilson, whose writings on the "broken windows" concept is credited with changing the policing of American cities, had some holes in his game. He writes at the Zocalo Public Square website:

Around 1962, I took James Q. Wilson’s undergraduate course on urban politics and learned a lot about cities, classes, political machines, and reformers. He was an untenured professor just starting out, not yet the prophet of broken windows, long-term incarceration, or genetic determination in human affairs.

Wilson was a fine teacher who demonstrated in lavish detail that corruption had social functions and reformers had human limits. I was fresh to liberal-radical thought, fascinated by human contradiction, and as yet unaware that the perverse consequences of transformative ideals and the futility of reform efforts were themes in which conservatives specialized....I had no idea what Wilson’s politics might be and no particular interest in them. What mattered was that he evidently knew his stuff, that he had a refreshing skepticism toward the judgment of do-gooders, and that the stuff he knew was deeply relevant to my own preoccupations with how the world could, and could not, be changed.

It turned out, over the decades, that Wilson had a larger intellectual project: to affirm human universals in a skeptical, relativist age. He was right that morality was, in our time, disguised in the language of personality....


As Wilson’s commitment to conservative orthodoxy grew, his critical edge was blunted. Scientists were as dismissible as straightforwardly ideological elites. Corporate elites who underwrote climate-change denial had been transmogrified into sage neutrals devoid of interests. So it came to pass that in later editions of his textbook, American Government (written with John J. DiIulio, Jr.), he was writing passages like this: “Science doesn’t know whether we are experiencing a dangerous level of global warming or how bad the greenhouse effect is, if it exists at all.” If key political controversies could be reduced equally to conflicts among elites, then what stood in the way of the brainless politics of Sarah Palin?

The James Q. Wilson I studied with would have shuddered.

Wilson's legacy is the subject of a Zocalo discussion tonight between LAPD chief Charlie Beck, Pepperdine University economist Angela Hawken and UCLA political scientist Mark Peterson.

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Todd Gitlin on James Q. Wilson and broken windows


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