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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  • 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!
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  • Let's Talk about how Lou Holtz "Nails it."

    • Posted on Aug 21, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

     An old friend recently e-mailed me a piece of extended prose that I assume he agrees with, as do many of his friends, they all being staunch conservatives. 

    I read it closely and decided to respond with observations that I trust will be taken seriously and responded to civilly.  The piece is titled "Lou Holtz Nails It," and it was presumably written by Lou Holtz, a long-time and highly respected hall of fame football coach and motivational speaker.   

    Far from "nailing it,"  Holtz’s piece divides, inflames, and offers nothing that might suggest a common ground for all of us to explore--which we desperately need.  Instead, Lou Holtz contributes to the continuing division and acrimony that make our politics so frustrating and frankly, impotent.  

    Our problems seem too large for our politics, thanks partly to such outbursts from the Lou Holtzses of our culture.  They flood their blogs and the Internet with divisive rhetoric, and it hurts us all.  

     My responses are in bold, Holtz’s original is in italics. 

     “Lou Holtz Nails It”

    The Democrats are right, there are two Americas.  The America that works, and the America that doesn’t.  The America that contributes, and the America that doesn’t. It’s not the haves and the have nots, it’s the dos and the don'ts.  Some people do their duty as Americans, obey the law, support   themselves, contribute to society, and others don't. That’s the divide in America.  

    Well, are there only two Americas, really?  What about the have nows but not before?  Or the doers who can no longer do?  Or the don’ts who became doers? 

    Surely we can agree that Lou Holtz employs dualistic thinking here that oversimplifies reality.

    But let’s give the good coach this point just because we know (and he must know) that it’s a rhetorical strategy designed to develop his larger point.  Also Holtz is a motivational speaker, and knows that most listeners want a point they can immediately get and remember.   Hence:  either-or, which is memorable but wrong.   

    It’s not about income inequality; it’s about civic irresponsibility.  It’s about a political party that preaches hatred, greed and victimization in order to win elective office. It’s about a political party that loves power more than it loves its country.   

    The “it” in this paragraph seems to refer to a political party, but here’s a bothersome point.  When I first read this, I assume he meant Republicans, and was taken aback when the rest of the piece basically attacks Democrats as the party of hatred, greed, and victimization . . .” 

    That to me, describes the Tea Party Republicans pretty well, though I realize it’s oversimplified and hyperbolic.  But a glance at the 2008 meltdown and who was in power and who got rewarded, and which party repudiated the moderates in its ranks who tried to support the recovery should reveal that reasonable people would think Holtz is referring to Republicans.  Though exaggerated and divisive, as I say.  

    Consider the part about “loves power more than it loves its country.”  Which party has done everything it could to stall and slow bill after bill that might have helped?  Which party has put its ideology of despising government before debating serious issues that need decisions and laws?  The country’s least productive Congress in history has just taken five weeks off with no debate or decisions on anything of note, including immigration, minimum wage, veterans’ benefits, among many others.  It’s shameful, and most Americans are sick of politicians’ inability to take action on anything important.   Both sides share blame, I will admit, and we can argue a good long while about whether one side should take more blame.  We probably need to let that go for now.   

     That’s not invective, that’s truth, and it’s about time someone said it.

    This elevates Holt as the truth teller, the One Who Knows.  It works for those on his side, but alienates skeptics, since his “truth” was nothing but invective. 

     The politics of envy was on proud display a couple weeks ago when President Obama pledged the rest of his term to fighting “income inequality.”  He noted that some people make more than other people, that some people have higher incomes than others, and he says that’s not just.  That is the rationale of thievery.  

     “Income inequality” is a genuine issue that’s being discussed far and wide, from

    Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” to columnists Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, George Will, and many others.  It’s a serious and growing concern, and deserves serious consideration.  Introducing it as a “rationale of thievery” brands Holtz as a polemicist, not a serious analyst of issues.   Honest, good people can disagree about aspects of income equality without being called thieves. 

     The other guy has it, you want it, Obama will take it for you. Vote Democrat.  That is the philosophy that  produced Detroit.

     This continues a polemic, the either-or dualistic fallacy that doesn’t connect with reality.   Obama has never proposed “take it for you” nor have Democrats.   And “Detroit” is a meaningless term in this context, since a host of complex causes are behind that city’s woes, including entitlements, but both Republicans and Democrats share responsibility for that.  It’s a systemic issue that deserves debate and discussion—and action.     

     It is the electoral philosophy that is destroying America. It conceals a fundamental deviation from American  values and common sense because it ends up not benefiting the people who support it, but a betrayal.  

     Phrases like “destroying America” reveal the fear and anger behind this speech or essay.   As does “fundamental deviation from American values and common sense” and “betrayal.”  Nowhere on the political scene has anyone betrayed American values or is in the process of destroying America.  Hyperbolic, overheated rhetoric only obscures the genuine issues that we must face and discuss as fellow Americans with a common cause and purpose.  Holtz’s rhetoric is not an attempt to contribute to a discussion, but a screed that reinforces those who believe Holtz’s fallacious dualisms.  

    The Democrats have not empowered their followers, they have enslaved them in a  culture of dependence and  entitlement, of victim-hood and anger instead of ability and hope.  The president’s premise – that you reduce income inequality by debasing the  successful–seeks to deny the successful the consequences of their choices and  spare the unsuccessful the consequences of  their choices.  Because, by and large, income variations in society are a result of different choices leading to different consequences.  Those who choose wisely and responsibly have a far greater likelihood of success, while those who choose foolishly and irresponsibly have a far greater likelihood of failure.   Success and failure usually manifest themselves in personal and family income.  You choose to drop out of high school or to skip college – and you are apt to have a different outcome than someone who gets a diploma and pushes on with purposeful education.  You have your children out of wedlock and life is apt to take one course; you have them within a marriage and life is apt to take another course.  Most often in life our destination is determined by the course we take.  

     This is a strange paragraph because it states a truism—that certain choices are better than others for a variety of outcomes—as though anyone would disagree, as though one political party somehow doesn’t support it.  It’s a fact, and everyone agrees with it.   Yes, bad choices lead to bad outcomes, less income, and so on.

    There’s no issue or disagreement here, though Holtz seems to imply there is with terms like “enslaved, ” “culture of dependence,” and that all-purpose whipping-boy,  “entitlements.” 

     Where we do disagree, however, is on the question of choice vs. chance. I believe chance is crucial, while others think life hinges almost entirely on good or bad choices. This is an honest disagreement, and I can respect those who believe in choice being life’s major determining factor.  I’d like to remind these good people that people can lose their jobs due to downsizing, or make decisions without good information which they then mistakenly believe are right.

     Moreover, people are born into dysfunctional families, or marry people who become addicts, and so on.  I defy anyone who’s rich or poor to tell their story accurately without relying, at some point, on chance, random events that either interfered with their lives or gave them a boost—in a major, transformative way.    

    This is life as I’ve known it--though I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to hear from readers who disagree.     

     My doctor, for example, makes far more than I do.  There is significant income inequality between us.  Our lives have had an inequality of outcome, but our lives also have had an inequality of effort.  While my doctor went to college and then devoted his young adulthood to medical school and residency, I got a job in a restaurant. He made a choice, I made a choice, and our choices led us to different outcomes. His outcome pays a lot better than mine. Does that mean he cheated and Barack Obama needs to take away his wealth?  No, it means we are both free men in a free society where free choices lead to different outcomes.   

    Where has Barack Obama suggested, said, or supported anyone who said or suggested “take away his wealth”?  This seems like a classic straw man argument, where a false action is suggested as true, then argued against.   I myself would argue against anyone taking away anyone’s wealth, as would everyone reading this.  

    My guess is that Holtz refers to tax increases on higher income bracket something we can honestly disagree about and deserves serious attention.   Suggesting that higher taxes are “taking away wealth” obscures the issue—tax rates in this country for the wealthy are among the lowest in the industrialized world, and with loopholes, the very wealthy pay a smaller percentage of their wealth, relatively, even compared to the rest of us. 

    A different and better way to put it:  taxes enable a country to pay for the crucial infrastructure, army, and environment that enable wealth and freedom.   This is certainly why we enjoy a relatively high standard of living—for which we all have to pay. 

    It is not inequality Barack Obama intends to take away, it is freedom.  The freedom to succeed, and the freedom to fail.  There is no true option for success if there is no true option for failure. The pursuit of happiness means a whole lot less when you face the punitive hand of government if your pursuit brings you more happiness than the other guy. Even if the other guy sat on his arse and did nothing. Even if the other guy made a lifetime’s worth of asinine and short sighted decisions.

     This paragraph again relies on the straw man fallacy.  Obama and the Democrats/liberals/leftists/progressives do not believe or behave like they believe any of this.  The “punitive hand of government” implies that government is involved in punishing people for achieving, and I have never witnessed this, nor has anyone else in this country.   Achievers get rewarded (depending on luck, to some extent) and slackers get less—as Holtz pointed out in his 7th paragraph above.   So to suggest that Obama and the Democrats have changed everything makes little sense—and with no cited evidence, I cannot take this point seriously. 

    However, I do believe that some good, honest, and smart people will in fact see taxes and regulations as “punitive” and I can see that they would like the freedom to act without restraint. However, we do have a regulated economy and regulations governing environmental concerns—and have had for decades.   That’s why we have a reasonably safe food supply, clean drinking water, and breathable air (for the most part) in our cities. No one has the freedom to despoil our right to breath clean air and eat safe food.   And we must maintain and improve a highly developed and evolved infrastructure and military.  All of this is expensive. 

    Barack Obama and the Democrats preach equality of outcome as a right, while completely ignoring inequality of effort.

    Where, exactly have they done this?  And where have they suggested that equality of income is a right?  Is that a reference to a minimum wage?  If so, Holtz needs to state that as the issue and let us discuss that.  Reasonable people can disagree about the amount of a minimum wage—but I would remind readers that if the minimum wage of the seventies had kept pace with inflation, it would now sit at $21.72 an hour instead of the current $7.25. (Source:  Huffington Post, 2-13-13)  We need to be taking this seriously and making decisions about it as a country—instead of offering straw man rhetoric.  

     The simple Law of the Harvest – as ye sow, so shall ye reap – is sometimes applied as, “The harder you work, the more you get."  

    Yes—on this we can agree, though as I say, plenty of people work very hard and get very little—ask the students who finished advanced degrees who looked for work during the economic downturn in 2008.  Are bad markets for their degrees their personal fault?  Should they have chosen more more lucrative fields, ignoring what they love to do?   Maybe, but that’s asking them to forgo one of America’s founding principles:  the pursuit of happiness.   Again, we can disagree about this, but it an issue worth genuine discussion.

    Obama would turn that upside down.   Those who achieve are to be punished as enemies of society and those who fail are to be rewarded as wards of society.   Entitlement will replace effort as the key to upward mobility in American society if Barack Obama gets his way. He seeks a lowest common denominator society in which the government besieges the successful and productive to foster equality through mediocrity. He and his party speak of two Americas, and their grip on power is based on using the votes of one to sap the productivity of the other.   America is not divided by the differences in our outcomes; it is divided by the differences in our efforts.

     Where has Obama said, insinuated, proposed, or even hinted at punishing achievers as enemies of society?  Or rewarded as wards of society? I can only think that this is a veiled reference to welfare recipients, and this harks back to the Republicans cheering Ronald Reagan when he declared the government is the enemy, and that “welfare queens” were sapping the wealth of the country.  This is factually untrue then, and even more so now.   Now, many Wal-Mart workers do not make enough to put food on their tables, and many collect welfare in order to eat.

    From Forbes magazine, April 15, 2014:  “Wal-Mart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.”

    In other words, Wal-Mart relies on taxpayers to subsidize their business practices. 

    Does this seem fair?  Shouldn’t we be talking about why we must subsidize the wealthiest family in America who make billions because of their low wage scale?   Should they be “free” to engage in such practices to the detriment of the rest of us?

    It is a false philosophy to say one man’s success comes about unavoidably as the result of another man’s victimization.

    Yes, it is a false philosophy.  Who can disagree with this?  In the context of his point, however, he’s offering this as an accusation, not a truism.  It’s another example of a straw man fallacy. 

     What Obama offered was not a solution, but a separatism.  He fomented division and strife, pitted one set of Americans against another for his own political benefit. That’s what socialists offer.  Marxist class warfare wrapped up with a bow. Two Americas, coming closer each day to proving the truth to Lincoln’s maxim that a house divided against itself cannot stand.   

     Since Holtz is speaking here in the past tense, I assume he’s referring to something that Obama has done.  Where’s the evidence?   Obama in fact tried to offer a “grand bargain” and Speaker Boehner rejected it because his far right ideologues wouldn’t accept compromise.  This is the actual history of separatism—no compromise by the current Republicans, even though Obama offered plenty of opportunities.  

     So if there are two Americas, it’s not the socialist left against the freedom loving Republicans—it’s the reasonable people trying to understand and debate difficult issues, and agreeing to disagree and compromise—and those who refuse to debate at all, but offer only rhetorical fallacies and accusations that further divide us. 

     "Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it."  

    Yes, and I respond to reality by trying to understand it and offer reasonable points, and Holtz responds by creating false dichotomies and straw men that obscure and divide.








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