Ross Douthat / We need to celebrate thinkers in a world of bomb throwers

The story of the scholar and the stunt man
March 6, 2012 12:00 am

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The right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart and the neoconservative scholar James Q. Wilson, who died within 48 hours of each other last week -- Mr. Wilson at the age of 80, Mr. Breitbart so unexpectedly at 43 -- had one important thing in common: They were both prominent conservatives who arguably left their most enduring legacy in the lives of affluent, cosmopolitan liberals.

For Mr. Wilson, that legacy is the low crime rates that have made urban areas from Portlandia to Brooklyn safe for left-wing hipsters and Obama-voting professionals alike. There are entire worlds of brunches and brownstones, Zipcars and urban mommy message boards that only exist today because of the work that Mr. Wilson and others did, in the shadow of the post-1960s crime wave, to better understand policing and prisons and criminal behavior, and to usher in the current age of urban peace.

For Mr. Breitbart, that legacy is the media landscape that greets those same hipsters and professionals whenever they settle into their local coffee shop and fire up their laptop or iPhone. Mr. Breitbart's politics were right-wing, but his digital media achievements were entirely bipartisan. In between his Clinton-era work for the Drudge Report and his career as anti-Obama muckraker, he was present at the creation of The Huffington Post, which has emerged as the defining left-leaning publication of journalism's Internet era.

Their bequests to liberal America aside, of course, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Breitbart were completely different animals, who embodied different eras in public discourse and different models of political engagement.

Mr. Wilson was a scholar's scholar -- learned, careful, rigorous and disinterested. His books and essays built bridges between the academy, the federal government ("Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States," Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly counseled Richard Nixon) and the well-informed readership that subscribed to journals like The Public Interest and magazines like The Atlantic.

First Published 2012-03-05 23:20:28

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