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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  • Santa Barbara Shootings: We Were There

    • Posted on Jun 08, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This column appeared in the Waterloo Courier today, Sunday, June 8.  My family was  eating a few miles from where Elliott Rodger began killing students and his roommates in Isla Vista, a small section of Santa Barbara.   We didn't know about it until the next morning, and then realized it could have been us.



    Friday night, May 23, I stayed in a Santa Barbara motel in a room next to my son and grandchildren.  

    We enjoyed several afternoon hours at the zoo and the motel pool, taking in the glorious California coastal weather. Walking two blocks around suppertime to an Outback steakhouse, we stayed blissfully unaware of the mass shootings four miles away.

    The next morning when we heard the news, we were shaken.  Horrific.  Senseless. Insane.  Within walking distance.

    Elliott Rodger could have driven by and shot us to pieces, making us part of his “Day of Retribution.”  

    Well, not quite.  Turns out Rodger wouldn’t have bothered with a strolling middle-aged family. He targeted women, specifically pretty blond women, the kind he desired but couldn’t attract.

    Because he thought they avoided him, he grew to hate them, madly and deeply.  He made plans to capture and torture a few, including their boyfriends.  Rodger created a 140-page manifesto, which he called “My Twisted World.” He emailed it just hours before his killing spree.  

    It’s a hard read, filled with angry rants against not just women, but also men who succeed in dating women—‘brutes,” he calls them.  In fact, Elliot Rodger hated the whole world, calling mankind “disgusting, depraved, and evil.”  

     He ends with, “All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this.  I am the good guy.”  

    Deeply twisted. 

    Yet how many thousand teenage boys feel rejected, neglected, avoided, made fun of, by the women they desire most? How many of them long for long-term relationships but fail?  How many struggle with acceptance, unable to make friends?  

    In fact, that’s teenage life at times: Lonely, frustrating, self-pitying, lost.

    It’s the school of hard knocks, and most of us eventually grow up and find some of what we want—enough to feel happy most days.  

     That’s what reasonably healthy people do as they become adults.  But Rodgers suffered from serious mental illness. His reality was upside down and inside out; his roommates wanted him to move out.  He stabbed them all to death.     

    At what point do we intervene, putting such lost souls not just under surveillance but in hospitals?  Clearly, that’s where he belonged, and clearly, he should never have gotten anywhere near weapons, including knives.

    Given the warning signs, including threatening videos and that manifesto, he should have been picked up and kept for observation.  Yet police did interview him a few days before his rampage, and found him polite and “normal.”  Unfortunately, they didn’t read his rage-filled online rants or his video postings. 

    Even if they had, they couldn’t arrest him under current laws.  Freedom of speech protects all kinds of crazy talk, as it must.    

    In other words, nothing could be done until he broke the law. He was privileged, leisured, and behaved within legal boundaries.   That’s the most disturbing aspect of Rodger’s killing.  We’re helpless under current laws.  

    A new bill allowing police to impose a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” is now being put before the California legislature, and that might have worked if his parents and police had intervened and a judge had agreed.  

    Yet there are hundreds of Elliott Rodgers out there, and few do anything but rant.  How many can we lock up?  How many more police and investigators will it take? 

    Given the easy availability of guns and the pervasive desensitization of killing provided by “shooter” video games and blockbuster movies, we’ve created a culture where sick minds become dangerous.  

    It could have been me and my family.   It could be you and yours.  

    We keep repeating “Not One More!” at rallies.  

    Until next time.     


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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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