A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES Q. WILSON
James Q. Wilson is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he teaches in the Fall, and Collins Professor of Management at the UCLA Graduate School of Management, where he teaches in the Spring. He has authored several books, including Thinking About Crime, and, most recently, with Richard J. Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature. Professor Wilson is a Southern California native. He was interviewed in his office at UCLA by Steven Hayward and Ken Masugi.
CRB: Twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was first inaugurated as Governor of California, you wrote an essay called “A Guide to Reagan Country” which appeared inCommentary (May 1967). Could you tell us about it?
JQW: I had gone to the editor and said, “I’d like to write an essay on Southern California, and Reagan.” He said, “You’re not going to endorse Reagan.” And I said that it wasn’t going to be for or against Reagan; I wanted to use Reagan’s recent election as Governor of California as an opportunity to direct people’s attention to why this occurred, because my friends there believed that it was an expression of the Hollywood mentality.
CRB: When you say your friends there, do you mean Harvard?
JQW: Yes. To them, it was as if “Lotus Land” had elected an aging matinee idol and thereby shown its pervasive shallowness. In the article I said that it shows quite the contrary: The election was a very real insight into a profound aspect of political-social culture, and I wanted to explain why.
CRB: If you were asked to update that article, would you change much?
JQW: I wouldn’t change anything except in two respects: First, young people today in Southern California have become quite libertarian with respect to the “lifestyle” they choose. They have extended the libertarian doctrine to what they regard as truly their own business: how they dress, what they drink, the movies they see, and the books they read. All of it. That wasn’t true when I was growing up. Young boys in my high school would sneak dirty books into the locker room. But they didn’t believe for an instant that these things ought to be readily available; they believed they ought to be snuck in. Now people don’t believe that sneaking should be necessary. The private consumption aspect of the libertarian ideology has spilled over into the public community. I think that the libertarian position on matters of personal consumption is a general feature of young people, especially those in college.
Second, there’s also a little less civility, a little less politeness than there was twenty years ago. You still find people much more polite here in Los Angeles, much more willing to talk to strangers on the street or the jogging path, much more orderly if lines have to be formed, or traffic lights observed, than in the East. Standards are a little lower today, but not much. On the East Coast, the interpersonal hostility makes life in public places much less attractive.
CRB: Now you are teaching concurrently on both the East and West Coasts. What are your other observations on the differences between the two?
JQW: The article that we discussed was also an effort to describe what I thought were the central facts of Western social and political culture as distinct from Eastern. I repeated some of these observations in a piece I wrote in Harper’s called “The Young People of Long Beach,” which was occasioned by a return to my old high school. I won’t try to summarize everything I say there, except to say that I think the differences are real, profound, and remain forceful. But most of the catch phrases used to describe the differences are untrue. For instance, people say that the East is liberal and the West conservative, and that’s not true; that the East is aggressive and the West is laid back, that’s only true in a very casual sense.
I think the main differences are that the people in the East-the sort that I’ve lived and worked with-are acutely conscious of being close to New York and Washington, one the literary and financial capital and the other the political capital. Conversation was always heavily oriented to controversies in those worlds. People on the West Coast have views on national politics, but they are more the views of a distant spectator. They’re not views salted with the experience, real or imagined, of persons who have been a part of that world. You don’t regularly run across people who have been on congressional staff “X” or regulatory commission “T.”
From a teacher’s point of view, the principal difference between teaching at Harvard and UCLA is not the quality of students. There is a higher fraction of truly gifted students at Harvard than there is at UCLA. But on the average, you’re dealing with essentially the same people. The essential difference is the students here have no interest in and no knowledge of the literary and intellectual wars in New York City. If you were to ask them to read, as I do every year, an essay by Irving Kristol called “On Corporate Capitalism in America,” you’d find that it’s very difficult to hold a discussion in class. The students have found it absolutely baffling. They haven’t any idea of what he’s talking about, because they don’t know who he’s talking against. And they don’t know why what you’re saying is worth saying because so much of it is obscure-what is the “populist tradition” or the “Trotskyite tradition?” What does Kristol mean, the “new class” or the “new left?”
If I offered this essay at Harvard, there would be no problem, provided the students had been around Harvard long enough. If they had just arrived, you would have the same problem, because after all, California probably supplies more students to Harvard than almost any other state in the union. Southern California is simply not oriented to, and not interested in, these intellectual and literary wars which center around small magazines and three or four dozen people from westside Manhattan.
I guess that’s a healthy sign-I’m glad these students don’t. On the other hand, since these wars do touch on important philosophical questions, I wish they did because we want to get to the questions, and it’s easier to do so if the students think the answer is important. They’ve not heard the questions agitated by people who believe in these issues so profoundly that they are willing to alienate their friends for a lifetime in order to maintain the purity of their doctrine. That’s a big difference. The inability to teach from a Kristol essay really summarizes the essential difference.
Another more important difference is the greater pride and confidence people have here in the worth of middle-class values. In fact, people regard it as faintly offensive if they are described as exemplifiers of middle-class values, because they take those values for granted. Of course one is polite and maintains one’s property and washes one’s car, because you’re maintaining a shared sense of standards. Of course crime is a problem and the courts should be severe. In the East these are all controversial statements. You have to act embarrassed if you don’t own a dirty, used Volvo. Drive a new Pontiac and you’re in deep trouble-only contractors and FBI agents are supposed to drive Pontiacs. It’s a political statement.
When I say middle-class values, it doesn’t mean that Southern Californians or western culture is, by eastern standards, conservative. Quite the contrary. There is a very strong libertarian streak, especially among young people in “lifestyles,” and I notice it in the students and in public arts. There is great reluctance to apply a moral judgment to individual behavior that seems to create no direct and palpable harm. It’s as if everyone in Southern California had read John Stuart Mill, contradictions and all. On the East Coast, these matters are more deeply agitated, and people are much less libertarian about “lifestyle” questions except on college campuses. Homosexual rights are probably a greater issue in the East than they are in the West, and that’s the reverse of what most people think. It’s difficult to characterize the social culture here: with respect to “lifestyle issues” it’s heavily libertarian, but with respect to those matters that have externalities-that involve the expression of what is right behavior with respect to important communal questions such as civility, maintenance of property, being on time, working hard, accepting responsibility-then it is far from libertarian; it’s very social, very conservative. And on those two dimensions it’s quite different from the East
CRB: You’ve mentioned that when students begin your course, they have notions of the government being in “gridlock,” and seem to think that things would be fine if we had a corporate leader like Lee Iacocca or Peter Uberroth running the country.
JQW: That may be a national phenomenon. My sense is that if you’re dealing with beginning students, they tend to like the American government in general but not any of its particulars. They think the political system is good, they know we have a lot of freedom, and they certainly wouldn’t want to move anywhere else. But they don’t think the government does a very good job-the deficit, we can’t pass the budget, and so on. They’re terrified by what they see as the adventuresome Reagan foreign policy-they are essentially isolationist.
The major change I’ve made since teaching at Harvard and teaching here is to put the reading of The Federalist Papers and of the Constitution at the end of the course rather than at the beginning. It’s easier for students to read the Federalist if they’ve first gone through the process of discussing the presidency, Congress, and the courts in some detail and thus see how they work and why the system behaves the way it does. And then they read the design of the Framers who were chiefly responsible for this and they lose some of the naive enthusiasm for constitutional reform with which they all began the course.
CRB: I’m interested in exploring the idea of culture a bit further. There is the stereotype of New York as the home of high culture-it’s the home of art museums, theaters, and intellectual quarterlies like Partisan Review, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books-whereas Los Angeles, being the home of Hollywood, is widely considered the home of low culture.
JQW: That’s the view that Easterners maintain resolutely and that far too many Westerners have been bludgeoned into accepting. But if you ask Los Angelenos, they may bristle and point to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and the Los Angeles County Art Museum and the like. Except in the literary sense, the differences in the availability of high culture are close to zero. And if you were to ask how many people avail themselves of high culture, and what proportion they are of the population, I doubt that there would be much difference between East and West.
The literary differences, on the other hand, are very great. Magazines of opinion are written and edited in the East, primarily in New York and to a lesser extent in Boston and in Washington. But, again, that difference makes a difference among a tiny percentage of people. The number of persons in New York who, if interviewed on the street, could give you even a plausible account of what is being discussed in Partisan Review or Commentary must be infinitesimally small.
CRB: Have you noticed a reaction at the colleges to Jerry Falwell and the “Religious Right?”
JQW: Young people today are so terrified by Jerry Falwell that any discussion of virtue or morality in the college campus awakens in them a deep fear that you are an agent of the Moral Majority. This is a very recent phenomenon. Religious movements have traditionally been led in this country-as in every country-by young people from college, well up until the twentieth century. The Second Great Awakening and the Abolitionist Movement are but two examples. I think that this is one of the fundamental cultural changes of our society and has the deepest consequences for the character of higher education.
CRB: Could you talk about the study of black politics today, as opposed to when you wrote your first book Negro Politics?
JQW: The serious study of black politics scarcely exists any more. One of my unfulfilled academic aspirations has been to find some graduate student whom I could supervise while he or she produced a remake of Negro Politics. I can’t find anybody to do it. White students think that they would not be welcome, but they couldn’t be more incorrect. I was told the same thing, by the way, thirty years ago, in 1956. Some of my colleagues at Chicago assured me that blacks would not talk to a white.
Secondly, I think they don’t want to because they’re afraid of what they may discover. I think white liberals have gone through a large but unstable shift in their judgment about the white/black debate. The more you deal with old questions of civil rights, races, and nationalities, the more you realize that what people are is a product of very complex circumstances. They’re certainly not going to be changed by slogans having to do with minorities. There is a lot of sympathy for affirmative action when it comes to college admission. I think that is well and good. Harvard ought to admit blacks, not because it’s good for blacks, but because it’s good for Harvard.
But other than these general beliefs that everybody should be given a helping hand up, and that it’s good for one’s soul to bend over backwards, you don’t get a lot of interest in black affairs. An enormous embarrassment comes over students who confront minorities. I gave a lecture on blacks and crime; and from the moment I began talking, for over fifty minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Among the three hundred fifty people present, I would say at least ten or fifteen percent of the students were black. Everybody was desperately afraid that somebody was going to be embarrassed by something. I’m sure it’s the only lecture on the subject that has ever been given at Harvard in modern times, and it’s probably the last time any such lecture will ever be given. People simply find it embarrassing.
Now, to get back to the point of your question: I think that’s too bad. In 1956 and 1957, when I started studying black politics, I thought I could describe and explain with some accuracy what was going on in the black community.
Today I haven’t any idea how you would go about studying black leadership. Black leadership today is so far to the left of black public opinion-about crime, economic distribution, welfare programs-that it’s almost incomprehensible. Jesse Jackson obscures the differences between himself and black public opinion by his rhetorical skills. How can you explain the fact that on a number of major issues, I am more representative of black opinion than John Conyers? I know this for a fact because I gave a lecture in Detroit several years ago to the Wayne County Democratic Central Committee, which is composed primarily of blacks and, as it turns out, primarily of black women who run block clubs and neighborhood associations in the inner part of Detroit. I was the liberal in the group. They wanted to know what my views were on crime and I started giving them, but they were quite impatient with me. They wanted to know what I proposed to do to get the young hoodlums off the street, to get drug dealers locked up for life, and to bring back capital punishment. There were several black politicians there who said things very differently from me, and they were rather ignored. How is it that they can get elected when their views are so much at odds with the electorate? And what has led black leadership opinion to move so dramatically to the left? What experiences in their lives have brought this on? I don’t know. The black leaders-and by that I mean black elected officials-are a great mystery to me.
CRB: Could it be simply a matter of their making alliances with white liberals?
JQW: I’m sure that’s part of it, but I don’t know what those alliances are or what they get out of It.
CRB: In your latest book, Crime and Human Nature, you mention Aristotle and how he comes out looking best in your survey of the different views of human nature. What might students of classical texts learn from social scientists and what might social scientists learn from the classics?
JQW: I think that if I had advice for social scientists, it would be that they read the classical philosophers because those give the most comprehensive view of human nature that has ever been presented. If you read the first two or three books of Aristotle’s Politics and take them seriously, you can never again assume that social class measured in terms of income, or education measured in number of grades completed, are the sole or likely to be the most important variables of behavior. I think Aristotle does grave, perhaps irreparable damage to modern sociology. If you’ve read Hobbes you will find it very easy to be a modern economist or sociologist. If you’ve read Rousseau, you will find it very easy to be a social psychologist. But I think the evidence shows that both of those views of human nature are at odds with some important facts.
That’s what Crime and Human Nature was intended to show. I changed my own mind in the course of writing this book. It wasn’t written with the idea of vindicating Aristotle. It was written with the idea of testing alternative views of human nature, and I thought that Hobbes would turn out to be of great use, and he turned out to be only somewhat useful. I thought Rousseau would be sillier than he turned out to be. I lowered my appreciation of Hobbes and marginally raised my appreciation of Rousseau. But both of them, and modem philosophy itself, have adopted-for reasons which I can’t pretend to explain-a partial view of human nature.
CRB: Did Professor Herrnstein, your co-author, who is a psychologist, come to the same view?
JQW: Yes, I think he did. Professor Herrnstein comes out of a tradition of psychology based on stimulus and response. Of all the things that I think the reviewers have missed in this book (and they’ve missed an awful lot with their preoccupation with the pictures of the male body types in the discussion of genetic contributions to crime), they have missed this enormous transformation in a Skinnerian psychologist. Here is a Skinnerian writing about conscience. Now such a thing is simply impermissible. If you don’t believe it, ask B. F. Skinner.
CRB: Do you think the cooperation on your book is fairly idiosyncratic?
JQW: It’s very idiosyncratic. The reason Herrnstein and I came together at all is the curricular change that occurred at Harvard. I was partly responsible for the creation of the core curriculum which was designed to encourage interdisciplinary teaching on matters of fundamental social thought. I think the amount of truly interdisciplinary work that goes on is very small. Truly interdisciplinary work is when each partner learns what the other already knows. It is something like Aristotle’s definition of friendship: two bodies with one soul. There was a reason for it but it’s still idiosyncratic.