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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  • 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!
    Posted in
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Holidays
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • In Praise of Critical Thinking

    • Posted on Oct 26, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's today's Courier Column on critical thinking--not exactly an endorsement of a candidate, but I do find that Republicans employ more fallacious thinking and use less evidence for their assertions, at least these days.  

    Critical thinking is like hydrating—everyone says we should do it, but most of us walk around thirsty.  We drink too little water and gulp too many junk liquids, leaving us feeling parched.   Cool, clear water to the rescue.   

    So too with critical thinking, though that activity requires more than finding a faucet.  It’s requires finding an unused brain.  

    Over the years I’ve tried to both teach and practice critical thinking, and though it’s made me cynical and skeptical, I strive to feel mentally hydrated.

    Here’s what works for me:

                1. Always get other opinions.   As conservatives’ beloved hero Ronald Reagan put it “Trust, but verify.”   Take any assertion and triple-check other sources for further proof.  Seems like common sense, but too many of us take one assertion from one source as truth.

    Most assertions from most political commercials cannot be verified, nor can “facts” based on partisan sources, such as “Republicans will bring a balanced budget to government” since that’s demonstrably false.

    Verifiable fact:  the last Republican who balanced the federal budget was Eisenhower, in the 1950s.  All other Republican presidents raised the federal debt—especially the last Bush, who doubled it.  That’s a half-century without balanced budgeting, and some years Republicans controlled both houses. 

     All five budget surpluses during the last forty years occurred under Democratic Presidents: 1969, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.  (See


                2.  Watch for fallacies, especially non-sequiturs and “post hoc” thinking.

    A non sequitur is Latin for “it doesn’t follow.”   Ernst, to use a familiar example, asserts that Braley was a bad neighbor because he investigated whether his Holiday Lake neighbors had a legal right to raise chickens.  He never sued, as Ernst falsely asserted.  (   

    The fallacy?  Braley’s reasonable inquiry about a neighborhood association policy makes him less qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate.  It’s a non sequitur, as are most such personal attacks. 

    Personal attacks don’t connect to political leadership qualities.  A great leader can be a personal mess, as any number of great leaders’ lives reveal.  (Examples?  Too numerous to mention.)

    The “post hoc” fallacy, which I see constantly, tries to make a causal connection where there is none.  Because Braley hasn’t shown up for meetings, he’s not an effective representative, implies Ernst.  Wrong, and a causal fallacy.  

    Helping craft important legislation that gets passed is what causes great leaders to emerge.  Just attending meetings causes nothing.  

    3.  Examine premises.  Here’s the hardest challenge because bias seeps in everywhere.   You might have noticed a slight bias in my explanations above; it’s inevitable, since Republicans seem fact-challenged these days more than Democrats.

    “Bias” means, basically, you begin with certain premises and make all further assertions fit those premises, ignoring opposing evidence.

    If you begin with a GOP platform that’s anti-government, then everything else follows—their anti- “socialist” positions, their inability to compromise with Democrats, (who believe in government as an essential component of our lives) their threats to defund everything from environmental safeguards to education, federally mandated health care, their insistence that tax cuts mean job creation.  

    They only support government when it denies abortion rights or opposes gay marriage—in citizens’ private lives, that is.

    If you truly buy into that anti-government basic premise, you probably are impervious to any arguments that question it.  

    Granted, Democrats can suffer from too much faith in government, and need to admit that not all government is good government.

    So, always and forever examine your own biases and premises—that’s what critical thinkers do. Prepare to be frustrated as you clarify what’s really true, and be prepared to admit you’re wrong.  Everyone is off-base at times; few acknowledge it.   

    It’s downright hard work.  It’s also healthy and refreshing, like a cool class of water on a hot day.  

     And your brain will stay hydrated.  


    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Politics
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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