Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • God Rest You Merry Torturers

    • Posted on Dec 21, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    Here's this morning's (12-21) Courier column.  Wanted to connect something about both Christmas and torture, and managed to do it, sort of.  

    Also a note on Tom Thompson.  He has decided to hang it up as a columnist, after a good long run as monthly commentator for the Courier.  A long-time friend, colleague, boss, and all-around good guy, he will be missed.  He's entering his nineties, and few of us manage to continue writing in public past our seventies, much less eighties.  Good going, Tom.  

    We wil be going to a three-person rotation beginning next Sunday:  Fred Abraham, Gary Kroeger, and me, in that order.    

    Years ago I visited an ancient Italian walled city famous for its towers, quaint shops, architecture, postcard perfect town plaza. It attracts tourists year-round, and its “Devil’s Tower” houses a medieval torture museum.  Yes, a torture museum.
    Try as I might, I couldn’t cajole my friends to accompany me into that nightmarish chamber of horrors. 

     Waterboarding? That would have been a light medieval snack before the real feast. I can’t describe the racks and whips and chains without making readers’ skin crawl. It stayed with me for days. 

     Why did I bother, especially when my Iowa travel-mates thought I’d gone mad? Because I wanted to see humanity’s best and the worst.  We were touring mostly the best—the soaring Italian renaissance cathedrals and monuments to transcendence, the glory of high renaissance sculptures and paintings. 

     Torture dungeons were the worst.  They’re as ugly as the monuments were beautiful, all the darker because of the brilliance of Italian renaissance art and architecture. 
    The recent “Torture Report” on our own descent into inflicting human pain and suffering as a means to an end brought that unsettling torture museum back.  

     Half a millennia ago, torture was considered the best practice for real punishment, or extracting a religious conversion or witchcraft confession.  It only worked to spread fear and loathing of torturers.  

     Still, torture continued, probably more out of revenge and sadism than any practical results.   

     Torture is now generally outlawed and considered a worst practice, used only (and wrongly) when a populace feels frightened and helpless. 

     That’s precisely what happened after 9/11, and why our leaders ordered torture, or “enhanced interrogation,” since “we don’t torture,” President Bush insisted.   
    Watching former VP Cheney justify “enhanced interrogation” last Sunday on “Meet the Press” was enlightening.  He swore that everything our CIA did was both legal and justified, since our own populous had been “tortured” by being killed on 9/11.  

     Also Cheney insists that beatings and waterboardings yielded valuable information that saved American lives. 

     Only one problem: it didn’t work, and worse, we created more life-long fanatical enemies. It was a lose-lose proposition.  No wonder Cheney rises to his own defense at every ring of an interviewer’s call.  No wonder he ignores the evidence.  

     What makes him wrong?  To begin, purposefully inflicting pain and suffering is immoral.  Yes, we all know terrorists did terrible things, but doing terrible things back to them cannot be justified.  It makes us one of them.   That’s revenge, pure and simple.  It might make us feel better, but it does no good. 

     Moreover, it doesn’t yield anything useful.  Experienced interrogators say so, the victims say so, the professionals who seriously study interrogation all agree:  It does more harm than good.   

     That’s what John McCain asserts in his recent speeches, and he knows more than Cheney, having suffered years of torture in North Vietnam.   A torture victim tells you anything you want to hear, so you end up with mountains of junk information.  McCain chides his fellow Republicans for swallowing Cheney’s line—hook and sinker included.      
    For a fuller explanation, see Matthew Alexander’s 2009 book, How to Break A Terrorist.   He personally conducted over 300 interrogations in Iraq and supervised over a thousand.  

    He’s a serious, professional, successful interrogator.  No Jack Bauer in him.   
    His conclusions:  Even for the most hardened anti-American terrorist, effective interrogations do not involve physical pain.  Instead, smart questioners combine respect for the individual and their culture, knowledge of what certain prisoners will respond to, and a willingness to become an “actor” playing a role that will lead to genuine communication.  

     Not only did Alexander not physically assail prisoners, he actually changed their minds
    about Americans being bad guys.  It was completely win-win, and supports no-torture interrogations not just morally, but practically.  

     God rest you merry torturers, for you have gone astray.   

    Go comment!
  • Thankful for Small Hope at Thanksgiving

    • Posted on Nov 23, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    Today's Courier column--seems like a dark time, so finding hope is both a challenge and a necessity.  

    I manage to get Joni Ernst, Bruce Braley, Jon Huntsman, Dave Loebsack, Jeff Danielson, and the UNI Concert Chorale and Marching Band all together in one place.  That's never been done.   
    Anyone who’s lived slightly past adolescence has had this experience.  You 
    want to exercise (or whatever), you set up a routine, stay with it, then it all goes away.  A week or a month later you’re back to no exercise (or whatever).

    Good intentions are no match for time passing and a powerful default position.  
    So too with current politics.  We want a working, effective, problem-solving government.   We want gridlock to go away.  We vote for candidates hoping they’ll work together.  “Voters want us to break out of gridlock,” candidates assert before and shortly after getting elected.

     A week later, they’re gridlocked tighter than ever, the airwaves ruled by threats and counter-threats.   Abandon hope, all ye who enter politics.   

    Yet that way lies madness, or at least utter dysfunction and long-term failure,  as Iowa Senator Jeff Danielson pointed out in last Sunday’s Courier.   He asserts, “We will need a new ethic of political leadership.  One that emphasizes the skills of bridge leaders and problem solvers, rather than partisan hacks who’ve gotten really good at divide-and-conquer tactics.”  

    He’s right, and offers a ray of hope in a dark, frozen political landscape. 

     It’s clear to Danielson and others close to current politics that no one wants where gridlock leads.   And our problems are only getting bigger. Ignoring them won’t make them go away.  

     Maybe because it’s Thanksgiving, I’m thinking not all is lost.   Consider:

    1.   Republicans have risen to real political power, so they must discover how to say “yes” to action that will solve problems.   If they’re not suicidal as a party, they know that oblivion awaits those with nothing but “no” on their lips.   They hate Obama and his immigration plan, so they have to offer a viable alternative.  Same with Obamacare.  These alternatives must be acceptable to at least a few Democrats and the President.  Can they manage to come up with genuinely viable, workable plans acceptable to people beyond their base?                                                                                                                  
    We’re waiting.   

     2.   The emerging generation.  Young adults will become our leaders sooner than we think, and I find them committed, lively, savvy, and engaged. Last week I attended a UNI concert chorale performance as they prepare for a goodwill musical tour of Estonia next month.  They made excellent music, and just as excellent ambassadors of what we’re really all about.   You can’t feel hopeless around these students, and the same with members of the UNI Marching Band, off to London to march in a huge British Christmas parade.  As long as they’re going into the world with their enthusiasm and commitment, all is not lost.  

     3. The “No Labels” non-profit organization.  Here’s a recently formed group that’s taking direct action to get both conservative and liberal political leaders together, discussing issues and trying to resolve differences.  Remember when members of both parties chose to sit together at a State of the Union address?  That was a small initiative from this group.  

     Two recent books explore and explain what they’re doing and why:  “Just the Facts,” by the No Labels Foundation, subtitled “The First Step in Building a National Strategic Agenda for America,” and “No Labels, A Shared Vision for a Stronger America.”  

     As Jon Huntsman, one of the founders of “No Labels” puts it, “No Labels would respect the two-party system, embracing the most stalwart Republicans, the most ardent conservatives and the most passionate liberals.  Everyone would have a place at the table, as long as they were committed to putting their country first and working in good faith with the other side.”  

     We non-politicians can join and support their initiatives, and even become part of their discussions. Check out for how.  Incidentally, Representative Dave Loebsack has joined, as has Bruce Braley.  

    Oh yes, and Joni Ernst. 

    Hope does spring eternal.  Let’s give thanks for that.  
    Go comment!
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    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Holidays
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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