Last week, the nation lost an elegant inquisitor and a nasty pugilist. Both were conservatives and natives of Southern California, and they agreed about many matters of policy. But James Q. Wilson delved deeply on matters of significance and left a vast and consequential legacy. Andrew Breitbart raked for muck and accelerated the nation's unhappy race to replace civility with furor. They represented two distinct veins of our national discourse, and of the tensions within modern conservatism.
FOR THE RECORD:
Breitbart aimed low and spoke at a high pitch. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died in 2007, Breitbart wished the senator to "rest in Chappaquiddick" and derided him as a "pile of excrement" and an "unapologetic manslaughterer." More recently, when he was confronted by Occupy D.C. protesters in Washington, Breitbart screamed, weirdly, shrilly and repeatedly, "Behave yourself!" He called them "filthy, raping, murdering freaks" and demanded that they "stop raping people."
Wilson, meanwhile, spent a lifetime reflecting on deep themes of modern life — the balance between order and expression, the role of police, the uniting human experience of morality. Here is this from his great work, "The Moral Sense": "Beneath our wars, crimes, envies, fanaticisms, persecutions, snobberies and adulteries … there is a desire not only for praise but praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as advantage."
I never met Breitbart, who has been described by friends as a gracious and garrulous companion. They surely miss him greatly. But to sympathize with his family and friends is not the same as endorsing his disastrous contribution to our culture. He wounded for fun, flush with arrogance.
Not so with Wilson. Dapper, quiet, modest, Wilson was as interested in the questions as the answers. He was relentlessly critical of glib assumption. He wrote that he was tempted to blame drug abuse or violence or dishonesty on a culture that had drifted from enforcing moral principles. "But I cannot do so with complete confidence," he then added. "It is no easy task to assess the influence of bad ideas on human conduct." It is, to say the least, impossible to imagine Breitbart writing those words.
It is fashionable to imagine that our national descent into coarseness is a phenomenon, a trend that is somehow beyond human control. But neither the Internet nor human evolution are responsible for our lot; coarseness is the work of those who are coarse, who are not satisfied simply to disagree but insist on destruction as an extension of their politics. Breitbart was not willing just to oppose President Obama. Instead, he argued that Obama was a plotter, part of a cabal that was insidiously working to undermine the nation while innocent people slept. Breitbart projected unrelenting anger and attack, and he had every right to do so. But he led in a downward direction, one of his own choosing. He leaves a pile of blog posts, video clips and fusillades.
Contrast that with Wilson. He felt no less deeply about his politics than Breitbart. He supported the war in Iraq, was skeptical of the mainstream media, viewed gay marriage unsympathetically, championed duty and responsibility. But Wilson's conscience impelled him to ask questions rather than to bully. How, he asked, could society best protect itself and best pursue its own perfection?
Wilson's eloquence extended across many disciplines, but none had greater impact on the lives of contemporary Americans than his work on policing. In 1982, he and George Kelling coauthored what would become among the most important articles in modern policing, "Broken Windows." In it, they argued that decay was infectious and that focused law enforcement could use small efforts to achieve large results. A broken window that was ignored sent a message to criminals that they could freely operate in the neighborhood. Fixing these small signs of blight not only tidied up a neighborhood but thwarted crime.
That observation was the birth of community policing, and the results have been far-reaching and profound. When Wilson wrote "The Moral Sense," not just the United States but most of the world was struggling with a sustained increase in violent crime that undermined security and optimism. Since "Broken Windows," one police department after another — most notably New York and then Los Angeles, both under the stewardship of William J. Bratton — embraced the essence of Wilson's insights and revamped their approach to public safety.
Last year, some 300 people were murdered in Los Angeles. Twenty years ago, more than 1,000 people a year died by homicide on the streets of this same city. Most of those victims were black and Latino. Too many still die, but many more live, and Wilson is partly responsible.
Those hundreds of saved lives annually — and the thousands of other living men and women across the country who would have otherwise fallen to violence — are Jim Wilson's contribution. He wrote compassionately, called Americans to their individual and collective conscience and, through it, made us a better country.
Breitbart shouted and ranted and left behind those he wounded or insulted. Wilson bestowed upon us a legacy of genuine intellectualism and a reminder that ideas, not screeds, are what ultimately serve us all.
Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.
Conservatism's two faces
Though both were conservative, James Q. Wilson and Andrew Breitbart had little else in common.
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