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James Q Wilson pt. 1

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. When President Bush awarded James Q. Wilson the Presidential Medal of Freedom he noted that Wilson writes with intellectual rigor and moral clarity. Jim Wilsonís insights have placed him amongst the great social thinkers of our time. The topic before the house: Thinking Things through with James Q. Wilson. This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Professor James Quinn Wilson welcome back to Think Tank again after many years.

WILSON: Thank you

WATTENBERG: Ah, letís start where we normally start. Give us a brief biography. Where you were born, where you grew up, where you went to school. You from California, is that right?

WILSON: Yes. I grew up in Southern California, went to high school there. Went to college, I was the first member of my family ever to go to college, the University of Redlands.

WATTENBERG: What did your people do?

WILSON: My father ran an automobile garage. My mother was a mother. After three and a half years in the Navy during the Korean war I went to University of Chicago to get a P hd and after teaching there for two years I went on to Harvard where I taught for 26 years.

WATTENBERG: What year were you Born?

WILSON: 1931

WATTENBERG: 1931, so youíre a young man.

WILSON: Yes I am.

WATTENBERG: And then you taught at Harvard, what Political Science?

WILSON: Yes I did.

WATTENBERG: And you were there at the founding, more or less the founding of what is now called the neo-conservative movement.


WATTENBERG: Could you tell us a little, I mean itís become so much in the news now. Itís sort of blamed for the war in Iraq and blamed for George Bush and blamed for the recession that never seems to come. Maybe you could give us your perspective on it?

WILSON: The word neo-conservative has become an epitaph. Itís hurled as you said at people the hurler doesnít happen to like. But it has a very specific meaning. In fact the first use of the word neo-conservatism in literature was in Germany in the 1920s. But modern neo-conservatism was a result of a group of young people going to the City College of New York and being exposed in the 1930s to the radical sentiments that dominated the student life there and rebelling against it and deciding they were going to take a position, a more conservative than that of which other students uttered.

WATTENBERG: More conservative but still but still by any American standard quite liberal.

WILSON: Quite liberal and this included people like Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Nathan Glazer. Neo-conservatism became a term after the magazine The Public Interest was founded, edited jointly by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. Irving and Dan agreed about very little. Dan was in economics a socialist. Irving was in economics a believer in capitalism. They disagreed on many things, but they also believed it was important to have a thoughtful argument on public policy that was responsive to the facts. And on that Irving and Dan so the world the same way despite their disagreements and they began to recruit authors, including me and Pat Moynihan and Nathan Glazer and many others to write for the magazine. The emphasis of the magazine was this looks at proposed or actual public policies and see if the facts support or refute them. That was the only instruction we were ever given. The disagreements among us were profound. We disagreed about Vietnam. We disagreed about Social Security. We disagreed about whom to vote for for President.

WATTENBERG: What you describing is academic freedom.


WATTENBERG: Which was supposed to exist in the universities, but at about that time it was getting very, very difficult for people not of a liberal persuasion to make their points. Is that about correct?

WILSON: Yes, the magazine was started before the student radical movement seized universities. When they seized Harvardís administration building in April of 1969, this converted Harvard from being an open and free place where any idea was acceptable to a place where students regularly harassed professors in class. They harassed my friend Dick Herrnstein; they harassed my friend Edward O. Wilson. All for real or imagined sins against the radicalís belief there was only one utopian view of the world that was correct. And the magazine had been running for a few years. This event was one of the things, I think, that got Pat Moynihan, for example, born a Democrat, died a Democrat, to adopt a fairly conservative view on social issues saying that universities shouldnít be exposed to these threats. Academic freedom is terribly important and defending academic freedom, you would think, in the late 1960s would be the easiest thing in the world. We had already survived the earlier Joseph McCarthy nonsense, but it wasnít easier. Defending academic freedom meant defending what appeared to be one point of view and not a procedure.

WATTENBERG: And that was a nouveau, liberal, almost radical point of view, would that be the fair words to put to it?

WILSON: Well, you know this history as well as IÖ

WATTENBERG: No I donítÖ Thatís why youíre a guest on the program...

WILSON: The SDS emerged out of the student youth group

WATTENBERG: SDS is the Students for a Democratic Society...

WILSON: Yeah, it emerged out of the youth group the League for Industrial Democracy. It took its voice in the Point Huron statement that Tom Hayden and others wrote. It was in many ways a neo Marxist critique of society. That is to say they no longer embraced a strictly Marxist view of the world. The embraced a view of the world that called for personal emancipation from everything and that everything was usually called the Establishment, which meant you and me and other people.

WATTENBERG: And that statement in its way it is for sort of pure Democracy, but really against representative government, isnít it?

WILSON: It was for power to the people, which was a Marxist slogan though, never a Marxist practice. Marxist practice meant power to the dictator. Marxist slogans meant power to the people. The student youth movements, the Students for Democratic Society and later the Weatherman argued for power to the people which would be imposed on them later as in the case of the Weathermen, by force if necessary.

WATTENBERG: Did you find at Harvard, were you hassled; was it hard for you to teach? Were you calumnmied?

WILSON: It was never hard for me to teach... The faculty members whose classes were disrupted tended to be liberals.

WATTENBERG: So this starts as the left in the academy is energized by the Vietnam War and it becomes politicized because the Vietnam War is essentially a political act. And their activists move from the academy join with a lot of young people to go political?

WILSON: Yes, but there was one other factor and that made a huge difference. When the SDS was first started it had perhaps 10 or 20 thousand members, and thatís a generous measurement, scattered over a hundred campuses. Within a short period of time it expanded to over a 100,000 members and the reason is very simple, the draft. The draft frightened many people in to believing that their college career would be ended. They would be sent off to the jungles of Vietnam. And though the draft wasnít the sole or even the dominate influence, the existence of the draft gave this enormous emotional appeal that the SDS had for young people.

WATTENBERG: I mean I find it; I donít want to say amusing, interesting at the comparisons today between Iraq and Vietnam. I mean in Vietnam you had 57,000 Americans killed, let alone millions of Vietnamese and others. And there names are all on that wall. And probably 90 percent of those American names on the wall were conscripts.


WATTENBERG: And in Iraq everybody, every American there is a volunteer.


WATTENBERG: And yet the equation is made that see theyíre taking our American boys. And you can agree with the Iraq war or not, but in my judgment it is not at all similar to Vietnam in that political sense.

WILSON: No and one of the striking things thatís happened on college campuses is, I left Harvard and went to UCLA and then went to Pepperdine, but at those three campuses Iíve discovered that student opposition to the war in Iraq is very mild. Nothing like what happened with student opposition to the war in Vietnam. For two reasons, one the Vietnam War involved a draft, this war involves volunteers and secondly the Iraq War is by the scale of military endeavors a rather modest one. Was has been radicalized however are the faculties in the universities. And the reason for that is very simple. The colleagues, friends and sometimes members of Students for a Democratic Society were students in 1964 and 1969 are now tenured professors. They occupy, depending on the discipline, often commanding positions at the best universities in the country. I recall appearing at the University of Missouri on the day of 9/11 when I just heard on the radio driving to the campus that this terrible act had occurred at the World Trade Center. I sat down to participate in a seminar being organized by a professor and the first thing that the professor said is this is exactly what America deserves. I was just stunned. The students didnít say that but of course the students donít contradict their teachers in classes.

WATTENBERG: Not if they want to get a gradeÖ

WILSON: Exactly. Youíre not going to out what they really think. But that to me symbolized the transformation that had occurred in the faculty.

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