Maybe It Would Be Better to Be Forgotten By Posterity

I am fortunate enough to have known a number of eminent people. I am unfortunate enough that some of them are no longer living. The death of James Q. Wilson, or rather seeing how his life was recalled in the press, was a sadly familiar experience for me at this point, and not just because of his passing itself.

First, the news accounts, while generally positive, tended to focus solely on his work regarding crime. David O. Selznick said, after making Gone with the Wind, that it is depressing to know at a young age what the first line of your obituary will be. Jim was wise enough to know that his first line of his obit would involve crime; I am not sure if he would have predicted that his pathbreaking work on the nature of bureaucracy would generally go unmentioned even by the fifth or sixth paragraph.

The other striking thing about most of the memoralizations of Wilson’s work is that they generally got the substance wrong. “Wilson was the great advocate of stop and frisk policing” was an incorrect statement made more than once. Mark Kleiman did a great short interview explaining what Jim did and did not say about “broken windows”, but that fine clarification will not get the exposure of the inaccurate obits in the major news outlets.

It is disappointing that a complex and remarkable life gets reduced to a few sentences, and those sentences are not even correct. But on the other hand, one can console oneself by recognizing that such incorrect summations will be forgotten with time, just as is everything else about even extraordinarily accomplished people. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz might have put it, even a Nobel Prize only gets you a single sentence in the history book next to Mickey Mouse.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “Maybe It Would Be Better to Be Forgotten By Posterity”

  1. In October of 2000, James Q. Wilson supported John Lott’s work regarding carrying concealed guns – after the survey data dispute became widely known.

    I do not understand why people hold Wilson in such high regard.

  2. Jim,
    Yah, and Wilson signed some of those jerkazoid homophobic petitions. So what? Even Babe Ruth struck out occasionally. Read Wilson’s book: Bureaucracy. It’s not left; it’s not right; it is only brilliant. \

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