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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  • More on Feelings, Opinions, Judgments, and Hypotheses

    • Posted on Jun 04, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Originally published Nov. 30, 2008

     I thought this essay deserved resurrection because of recent discussions on Facebook about opinions. 

     Someone asserted that all opinions are in fact equal.  Below, I argue just the opposite.  What this Facebook poster calls “opinions” I call “feelings” as in

    “I don’t like rock music in church,”  “Apple pie tastes better than pecan.”

     Feelings are personal, everyone has them, and they are equally valid.  That’s why rhetoricians caution about arguing about matters of taste—there’s no way to “prove” what tastes best, which color is a favorite, and so on.  

     Though all feelings may be created equal, all opinions/judgments/hypotheses are not. 

     Incidentally, my “hypothesis” at the end turned out to be terribly wrong, sorry to say.  If only.   



    Hardly a day slips by without my hearing or reading  “That’s just my opinion,” as if to say don’t bother to examine my statements closely, since they’re just idle chatter.   It’s almost an apology. 

    But what about this:  “Obama has been worshipped by the media.”   Chatter, or a serious point?  Or   “Only an idiot would support Sarah Palin as a serious candidate for the presidency.”  Or “Democrats will turn America into a socialist country.”  

    Since we’re now blanketed by similar statements from bloggers and bloviators, opinionizing deserves special attention. 

     Not all opinions are created equal, nor are they endowed by their creators with facts, logic, and the pursuit of effectiveness. 

     Whole classes of opinions are designed to provoke a quick gut-level response from either conservatives or liberals.   These are called “polemics,” and the vast majority of current “opinions” fall into this category.

     Those three assertions with which I began are polemics, and when offered in a public forum, generate plenty of responses, meaning still more polemics.  It’s a form of entertainment, and the anonymity of blogged responses to columns or news stories encourages bloggers to create veritable towers of babble.

     None dare call them enlightening.  Except for a precious thoughtful few, they’re verbal pornography, designed more for arousal than for understanding.

     Another class of statements, however, is based on facts, examples, and logic.  Such assertions deserve analysis, followed by agreement or refutation.  These I would call judgments, and I respect them.   Instead of the polemic  “Obama has been worshipped by the media,” one might assert, “Obama’s ideas on the environment are similar to editorial positions of several mainstream newspapers.” 

     That’s a statement that can be supported or refuted, and doesn’t create an immediate visceral response.  It’s potentially fact-based, and therefore worth far more than two cents.

     The columnists I read most often write more about judgments rather than polemics:  Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Leonard Pitts, and Kathleen Parker come to mind.   But not Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, who polemicize for profit and not much fun. 

     Another class of statements deserves serious attention, more so than either polemics or opinions and judgments.  These are the conclusions that derive from research based on extended readings of historical events, laboratory experiments, direct observation and experience, or some combination.   

    Here is where knowledge of our world and its workings gets created and shared, and which we ignore at our peril.  I call them “hypotheses” for want of a better term. 

    Understanding hypotheses takes a good deal of energy and time, and they aren’t found in the rants that pass for commentary on cable news channels or blogs.

    Nor does it come from right-wing pulpits, where faith-based assertions can overwhelm common sense and logic. Though faith and religion deserve study in schools, they don’t belong in political decisions or in science classrooms.  That’s a judgment, by the way, not a polemic. 

     Some hypotheses can be highly controversial, and have become the subject of extended debates among specialists and laypeople alike:  “The World Trade Center Building collapsed from a controlled demolition, not just from jetliners flown by terrorists.”  And “JFK was shot both from behind and in front, so Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone.” 

    Citizens need to take time to study the logic, facts, and sources behind such hypotheses and decide where the truth lies. 

     Some opinions and hypotheses, to be blunt, are just plain wrong, and deserve oblivion. Incidentally, in my opinion, both of those conspiracy hypotheses are wrong, based on cherry-picked or faulty evidence.

     My advice, then:  ignore polemics unless you find them entertaining.  They’re mostly just distractions.  Judgments and hypotheses, however, are the stuff of adult conversations and deserve attention, even analysis.  Feelings are merely personal tastes made as assertions.  

     Judgments and valid hypotheses can make all the difference when understood and applied.

     Here’s a judgment that I hope will prove to be a valid hypothesis:  The current economic crisis will force Democrats and Republicans to put their country ahead of their political parties and cooperate on a range of solutions. 

     [June 4, 2014] And what a shame I was wrong—the country is still divided, still ruled by polemics, and therefore still stalled, thanks to a perfect storm of misguided politicians, angry Fox-news viewers, stoked by virulent polemicists, and a visceral hatred of President Obama among right-wing fringe elements.  


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  • Suppose Obama was a Republican President

    • Posted on May 11, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    This appeared this morning (Sunday May 11 in the Waterloo Courier and involves a fantasy:  If Barack Obama  was a Republican, and spent his first term doing exactly what he's done, Republicans would love him.  Really.  

    Why can' they at least acknowledge that a little?  Just a simple admission that he's basically been a conservative president in many ways, and succeeded even when he wasn't a conservative.   

    They can't because they're blinded by their ideology, so this column is about that blindness and how it keeps them from seeing Obama for what he has done as president.      

    “Blind” as a word doesn’t usually provoke a positive response.  Outside of ancient Greek stories, no one chooses blindness.  

     Yet we have “double-blind” studies, which scientific and medical researchers call the gold standard of scientific proof.  Also serious musicians prepare long and hard for “blind” auditions, where they perform behind a screen, their hearers unable to judge their appearance or body language.  

    Blind auditions mean judgments free of extraneous biases.  Musicians so hired must feel justifiably proud.    

     “Blind” can thus mean something quite positive, namely, removing personal prejudices and focusing on what matters.  When it comes to finding medications and treatments that actually work, as well as accomplished musicians, this means everything.   It’s the most fair and unbiased means of making judgments.   

     We could use such blind fairness in politics and political judgments.  

     We think we automatically know whether a politicians’ actions have been 
    laudable or horrible depending on their party affiliation.  

    Yet we could be wrong.  Completely, utterly wrong.   T

    The best politicians get legislation passed that, seen through an unbiased perspective, could well be supported by members of either party, or hated as well.   Only when biases recede, after decades, can we see who did the right thing.   

     Consider:  If Republicans could have fielded an ideal dream GOP candidate in 2008--let’s call him Robert Evergood Reagan Lee of Virginia--had accomplished what’s listed below, Republicans would be flying high, crowing all the way:  

    1. Finally passed a health care reform bill based largely on the conservative Heritage Foundation’s recommendation of government-sponsored exchanges involving private insurance companies.   This, instead of the progressives’ desire for a single-payer government plan, and in spite of bitter resistance and dozens of votes to abolish it from naysayers. 

    2. Took us out of two horrendous wars that were costing enormous resources and that ultimately, almost no one supported.    

    3. Brought the jobless rate down and the economy back from the brink of a complete meltdown, so much so that stocks are now at an all-time high. 

    4. Done more for Veterans than previous presidents.    As veteran journalist Jamie Reno writes, “things have gotten better for veterans overall since [R.E. Lee Reagan] took office. It's not easy fixing such a deeply entrenched bureaucracy as VA, especially when two wars are concluding and politicians are too busy fighting each other to pass many laws. But by almost any measure, the situation for veterans and their families is demonstrably better now than it was under the previous administration.” 

    5. Shrunk government more than any other president, just as their party had hoped: As one commentator put it: “Not only has [the president] shrunk the size the government, but he has reduced it more than . . .Ronald Reagan ever did . . . [the president] has cut more taxes than any other president in American history.”  

    6. Initiated a successful attack on Bin Laden, America’s mortal enemy and wisely buried his remains at sea to avoid making him a martyr.   

    7. Finally, Republicans’ dream president added more jobs during his first four years than G.W. Bush added for his during his entire presidency.  By the time of the his second inaugural in January, the economy had added a net total of 1,208,000 jobs since he was first sworn in four years earlier, beating his predecessor’s eight-year total of 1, 083,000.  
    Those are the bias-free, non-blinded facts. 

     If Republicans could see through their party blinders, Republicans would be fainting from sheer joy.    

     Instead, thanks to the drumbeat of constant bias, anger at losing, and any number of loony far-right fantasies, repeated endlessly on Fox News, they hurl invectives and slurs, wild theories, call for his impeachment, and oppose every attempt to do the right thing, from reforming immigration to raising the minimum wage.  

     They have eyes and ears, but they don’t see or hear.   

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