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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  • Brian Williams, Lying, and BS

    • Posted on Feb 22, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here's today's Courier column; (2-22) I needed to ponder BS, since I'm so familiar with how many of us do it, how much of the time.  I mean just shifting and changing and enhancing stories from our past.  

    Sometimes we're aware that our stories aren't quite right, but most of the time, we really think we're relating what happened--and our story puts us in a good light.   That's what BS does.    

    Seems harmless enough, right? Facts and truth really don't matter that much when it comes to personal anecdote. Our own sense of ourselves counts more.  

    Except when you're on the national news, and when others are involved who remember it differently.  

    Alas, poor Brian.  

    So, let you who are without BS cast the first stone.  And people who live in BS should not blame others when they BS too.  

     How about those for ancient folk wisdom?  One thing’s sure; we all do it, at least in private with good friends.  For a full and philosophical exploration of the subject, read Harry G. Frankfurt’s 2005 book, “On Bull----“.  It’s funny, disturbing, and oh, so true.   

     Frankfurt, by the way, taught philosophy for years at Princeton and Yale.  He thinks long and deep on subjects that the rest of us just toss around. Frankfort’s companion book “On Truth” also merits a look. 

     However, truth and BS are not opposites.  Lies, the opposite of truth, aren’t what BSing is all about.   That’s Frankfort’s point, and it’s worth pondering.  

     Which brings me inevitably to Brian Williams.  Williams evidently has been known around the NBC newsroom as a pleasant co-worker and a great storyteller.

    That’s the first clue to BS-ing:  storytelling.   

    If you’re joking or repeating “once upon a time” tales, everyone knows it’s pure fiction.  No one condemns jokesters or story fabricators as liars or BS-ers.  

     However, if you’re telling fact-based stories, you’re probably BS-ing.
    It’s these “factual” storytellers who run they risk of getting called out, especially if they do it habitually and in public.  However, they’re still not liars—just bull-tossers. 

     So, what’s the difference between lying and bs-ing?   Here we need Frankfurt, whose explanation makes perfect sense.  Bs-ers, he asserts, aren’t really concerned about truth or falsehoods.  They’re mostly concerned about the impression they’re giving of themselves. 

     As Frankfurt puts it,  “Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

     Liars, in contrast, know the reality, and deliberately set out to distort it for what they perceive as important agendas worth lying for.    

     Does this mean we should condemn Brian Williams for misrepresenting the facts of his experience in Iraq?  Or in other news zones, where he reports from the ground? 

     Well, yes.  In his private life, talking with friends about his experiences, he probably throws bull like a rodeo cowboy.  As do most of us.  So we can forgive him that.  

     Where Williams went wrong, and why he’s losing his salary and position for six months, is that he did in public, on air.  Journalists on the job should not BS about their experiences.  In his BS story, he was more intrepid, more under threat.  He might have gone down in that first helicopter, had he been on it.  It wasn’t enough to be in an active combat zone. 

     That’s understandable, though not excusable, since it’s demonstrably false and potentially insulting to those who were there.    

     Incidentally, most Fox News pundits aren’t really BS-ers.  They’re liars, though a
    few don’t seem to know the difference, and habitually BS as well.   That deserves a column of its own.    

     So, what should the new and improved Brian Williams say to NBC News viewers when he returns in August?  Something like this might help: 

    “Good evening, I’m Brian Williams returning from NBC limbo after BS-ing on air.  

    Like most of you, I toss bull with friends all the time.  But now that I really do understand the difference between public and private BS, I will never again do it on air.  It’s wrong, it’s inexcusable, and it has almost ruined my professional life.” 
    “I return to the newsroom sadder and wiser. I honor your trust, and will work hard to deserve it.”

     I’d forgive and almost forget.  But he can never do it again.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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  • "No Labels" Deserves A Good Look

    • Posted on Feb 08, 2015 by Scott Cawelti

    Former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning and curent Iowa State Senator Jeff Danielson at the "No Labels" meeting yesterday morning at University Book and Supply in Cedar Falls.  

    Yesterday I spent 90 minutes  listening to  talking with about 25 local citizens who came to hear about “No Labels.”  Thanks to University Book and Supply in Cedar Falls, UNI, and Gerri Perrault,  who hosted the event.  

    Democratic Iowa Senator Jeff Danielson and Republican Lieutenant Governor (former) Joy Corning each spoke and took questions.  They presented their support for “No Labels,” a group that was formed in 2010 in response to our failed congress.  

    Like all of us, they’re frustrated by the utter inability of government to not only not solve current political problems, but to not even discuss them.  As Danielson put it,   “We’re headed for a generation of lost opportunities” which will inevitably create long-term problems for the entire country.  If we do nothing now, nothing will change. That’s big trouble.   

    Current politicians in Washington are behaving like feuding enemies, and continue to be unable to agree on where to begin.  They simply aren’t speaking, as Danielson noted.   

    No Labels ultimate purpose is to encourage politicians to behave more like problem solvers and less like Hatfields and McCoys.  

    Both Corning and Danielson agreed that the current political attitudes, combined with media pressures to sensationalize issues and events, has created a toxic environment for solving problems.  And of course there’s big money flowing in, and with it, big influence.   

    Is there any hope?  

    Danielson made the point that “Iowa was part of No Labels before there was a No Labels,” meaning our state’s political system has always encouraged political 
    compromise to solve the state’s problems.  And until recently, both a Republican and a Democratic Senator.    For the most part, it has worked better here than in other states.  So Danielson expects that Iowans will support No Labels more than most, since we’ve had a divided house and senate for decades. 

    The group has undertaken a process whereby they designate those politicians who agree to become “problem solvers” as “No Labels” and encourages them to generate solutions that may or may not agree with their party’s position.  Good luck with that, eh?  But it’s really the only way, and it’s going to infuriate the ideologues in both parties.  

    By the way, Iowa's Dave Loebsak and Joni Ernst are both designated as No Labels  Problem Solvers.  

    Whether they actually start behaving as problem solvers remains to be seen.   

    “No Labels” has come up with four core goals: 
    (1) 25 million new jobs in the next ten years 
    (2) Make Social Security and Medicare solvent for the next 75 years 
    (3) Make the U.S. energy secure by 2024
    (4) Balance the budget by 2030  (This is not as controversial as it sounds—it mostly means getting the deficit under control.)  

    The No Labels founders believe these four goals to be doable and worthwhile, and will all require intra-party cooperation to become policy and law. 

    So we’ll see.  I’m encouraged that this group even exists, and offers some hope 
    that we might see small movements toward cooperation—if the problem solvers 
    get rewarded by getting elected and by hearing from supportive constituents.  

    I left the meeting feeling at least marginally optimistic, but still sad that it’s come to this: solving problems should not have to be a major goal of an influence group.  It should be standard operating procedure for all political parties.   

    For more information, check out the No Labels website:  and the Wikipedia entry:

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Hot Button Issues
    • Conservatives/Liberals
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