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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  • Baby Jesse: A Christmas Fable

    • Posted on Dec 25, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    This was first published in the Courier many Christmases ago, and repeated occasionally over the years.    Many readers reacted with positive and thoughtful comments, and a few others with sheer outrage that anyone would tamper with the original story. 

    I thought it was just a variation on a theme--and therefore legitimate and quite supportable.  

    So I offer it again for this Christmas, 2014, thinking that its lesson still holds true.  
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    Every December Christians repeat the same story, and even non-Christians have to admit it’s a great plot.

     It pits the meek against the mighty, poor against the rich, the outcasts against the insiders.  It’s complete with a joyous ending, not to mention the founding of a world religion.

     It’s so powerful that no one thinks twice about recycling it every year.  The same ought to go for alternative versions, such as the following recycled Christmas fable, which I wrote years ago, freely adapted from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

    Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for this which is conceived in her is of the holy spirit.

    She will bear a son or daughter and you shall call his or her name Jesus or Jesse, for he or she will save his or her people from their sins.”

     While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to be delivered.  Lo and behold, Mary gave birth to their first-born daughter and wrapped her in swaddling clothes and laid her in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

    Following the angels’ suggestion, she named her child Jesse.

    Now in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all about them.  They were sore from riding camels all day but now they were also sore afraid.

    And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Jesse the Queen.

     “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

      When the angels went away from them into heaven the shepherds said to one another, “A little GIRL, our savior?  Can this be true?”

     “A female savior? A lady Lord?  Women can BIRTH saviors, but they cannot BE one.  Everyone knows that!”

    And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph.  They looked with wonder on the babe lying in the manger.  And they made known that which had been told them concerning this child; all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

    But the shepherds were no longer sore afraid.  Now they were just plain  sore. 

     “What happened to the good old days,” they grumbled, “when only BOYS could be saviors?  Has anyone ever heard of a little girl becoming anything but a wife, an old maid, or a witch?”

    The shepherds grew discouraged and went home, thinking the real savior had not yet been born.  “Probably some maverick angels,” one of them said, “Or maybe that frankincense is getting old.”

     Along the way, they met three wise men who had also heard the news.  The shepherds stopped the wise men, saying “Turn back. Save your frankincense and myrrh. Wait until the real savior comes along. This one’s only a baby girl named Jesse.”

    And Mary, mother of Jesse, kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

     “What if little Jesse had been born a boy?” she wondered, after she and Joseph had returned home. Would he have been worshiped as a real savior?”

    Mary prayed nightly that if her daughter Jesse had any special powers she would keep them to herself.  Little boys with special powers, she knew, often became saviors, founders of great religions.  Little girls with special powers were usually burned as witches.

    Baby Jesse grew nto a wonderful woman, a friend to all in need, and wise beyond all men.  Thanks to her mother’s teaching, she never used her miraculous powers, and never married.

    Jesse lived and died in obscurity, beyond of her small circle of friends. Meanwhile, all around the world, wise men kept waiting for the real savior.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.
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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.   
     








     
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