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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  • Two Genuine Heroes

    • Posted on Apr 05, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Easter Sunday, 2015--here's today's Courier Column about two heroes, one local, one international.   They seem unrelated, but are in fact connected  by the idea of "hero"--someone who goes above and beyond in sacrificing him/her self for the sake of a larger cause that benefits everyone.  Jesus is the Christians' hero in that sense, of course, but we do have living examples among us.   


    Like “awesome,” and “cool,”  “hero” is a term that gets tossed around like verbal confetti.   

     “Wow, you’re a hero. You stayed up to watch that game!”  “Anyone who gets up before 6:00 to run is heroic!”  We’ve all heard such passing comments, and take them as small talk. 

     More seriously, people who survive horrific accidents and recover also get tagged as heroes.  “She’s a hero—managed to survive six hours in an overturned car underwater.” 

     Yet genuine heroes—self-sacrificing, going above and beyond—are quite rare, and deserve attention and celebration.  On a large scale, Oscar Schindler comes to mind, who risked everything to resist Nazi genocide.  On a smaller scale, peace core volunteers fit the bill, at least the ones I’ve met.   

     Locally, there’s Taylor Morris, who has turned his awful wartime injuries into a challenge to “Improve Your Situation.”   

     I heard him explain his attitude and ongoing life-improvements at a 
    “Ted Talks” event at UNI on March 28.   

     After an IED exploded near him in Afghanistan, he found himself traumatized and helpless—both arms and legs blown away. Few survive such horrendous injuries, but not only has he survived, he’s living a productive and full life, admired and in demand as a speaker and role model, and—get this—an inventor.  

     He’s been busy inventing devices that improve his ability to drive, use prosthetic limbs, and has made “improve your situation” a life motto that applies to all of us.  After receiving support from around the world for his grit and determination, his web site “Situation Improved” invites others to do the same by contributing their own experiences.   

     See for questions that allow you to tell your story.  People who ponder how they can improve whatever situation they find themselves in will benefit. 

     It’s a positive game-changer for those who have faced similar challenges, and not only trauma victims. 

     In another heroes arena, there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  She just published “Heretic,” a book in which she explores and explains the current state of Islam.  Ali was born in 1969 and raised in Somalia as a Muslim, so speaks from direct experience.  

     At 23, she emigrated to Holland, went to graduate school, became a member of the Dutch Parliament, and in 2006 immigrated here, becoming a naturalized American citizen in 2013.  

     That’s unusual and admirable, but nothing truly heroic.   In fact, had she been born and raised a Christian and did what she’s done, few would have noticed.  

     Constant death threats from extremist Muslims make her a hero.   She’s an “apostate,” an “infidel,” a blasphemer, and an atheist. She’s scathing in her books and presentations, in which she roundly questions Islam and its current conflicts.  

     Put bluntly, she won’t shut up, and that puts her life at risk.   

     Thousands of Muslims have been murdered or maimed worldwide for committing the same “crimes,” none of which are criminal in other cultures or religions. 
    As she points out, recently large numbers Muslims have become “radicalized,” meaning they’re returning to the tenets of their original faith, formed in the 7th century.  “Sharia law” governs their approach to justice, and requires beheadings, amputations, and severe lashings for those break those laws.   

     She believes that fundamentalist Muslims need to move beyond their ancient rigid beliefs, which basically insists on one right religion, their own.   They threaten those who disagree with terrible punishments, including death by beheading or stoning.  “Fatwas” –death threats--are issued worldwide almost daily.  Even bloggers get murdered if they criticize Islam.   

     Other world religions have undergone reforms, and so must Islam, she insists.   

     Ali’s book “Heretic” deserves attention for its brave and serious discussion of Islamic reformation.  And Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly deserves “hero” for writing it.
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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.  

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