“Intellectual” Honesty

Politico introduces a new power couple to its staff:

We have been giving some thought for a while about how we might incorporate opinion columnists into our coverage. We are about to start with a bang: Starting in October, veteran columnist Michael Kinsley and newly minted columnist Joe Scarborough will be appearing in our pages weekly.

These two will offer ideological balance, as their opinions generally come from competing ends of the political spectrum. But what they have in common is much more important: They are both original thinkers with exceptionally compelling voices. Both are intellectually honest people who by long habit resist doctrinaire thinking or hypocrisy by politicians of any stripe. They both have a natural appreciation for the nonstop argument, and nonstop carnival, of politics.

Aside from the unsurprising stale/male/paleness of this duo, I’m provided with yet another opportunity to marvel at the frequency with which the term “intellectually honest” is bandied about in punditry circles. I feel like I’ve been somehow held back in my career by confusion about what this phrase means. Does it just mean “honest”? And if the phrase “intellectually honest” is synonymous with “honest” then why are so many professional writers using it?

The whole thing to me really seems like a kind of cop-out. How hard would it really be for an editor to put out a help wanted add saying “I want to pay you a bunch of money to write coherent English sentences without lying?” Talk about a low bar! When I read books or articles or columns or blogs, what I’m looking for is writers who I learn from. Dahlia Lithwick is a good columnist (and so is Michael Kinsley) because she’s usually persuasive and accurate on interesting subjects not because she’s “honest.”

I guess people feel that admitting that accuracy has some relevance would be to merely encourage cocooning. But people who are serious about learning-to-read will still try to avoid this. Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen, and David Frum are all people I tend to disagree with but you still learn from reading them. But that’s because they, like the liberal writers I like, make some persuasive and accurate points on important subjects. Honesty’s great, but it’s a terribly low bar to clear.