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In Remembrance of James Q. Wilson

Jim Wilson opted to spend his last couple of years at Boston College, and I, and all my colleagues, were enriched by his presence. Jim, of course, was a conservative, and I am a liberal. But before I go on about how we nonetheless saw eye to eye on this issue or that, there was something else he represented that I both admired and, to the best of my ability, tried to emulate. The best way I can say it is that Jim was old-fashioned.

At a time when number-crunching and rational choice theorizing held sway in political science, even at Ivy League universities that once seemed to resist such trends, Jim practiced a social science dealing with real world complexities and matters of deep concern to ordinary citizens. Here at Boston College, where a number of my colleagues were Wilsonians (not of the presidential variety), we think of ourselves as doing old-fashioned political science very much in his spirit. Now we shall have to carry on without him.

Jim was, of course, aware of my disagreements with him. I know he was especially proud of his book The Moral Sense and felt that my critical review, published in TNR, did not give it sufficient justice. Yet his unfailing politeness never failed to make its appearance when we were on a panel discussion together or shared a dinner. His wife Roberta was equally gracious to me every time we met. These are people, I said to myself, who know the meaning of courtesy—and appreciate its importance as a virtue for our body politic.

The past few days I have been following the discussion in the blogosphere concerning Andrew Breitbart and whether one should refrain from saying anything critical about the recently departed. I know where I stand in theory on that question; when Jerry Falwell died, I opted not to hold back my strongly negative opinions about the man when I commented on his passing. No such dilemma would ever present itself in the case of James Q. Wilson. This was a man who taught, and taught brilliantly, to the very end of his life. Much of what he taught concerned burning matters of public policy. But he also taught about what it means to be a person, a thinker, and a colleague. To say that he will be missed barely gets at the loss.

Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil: What it is And How to Combat It was published by Knopf in September.