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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.