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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  • Looking for our Next President: A Prediction

    • Posted on Oct 06, 2012 by Scott Cawelti
    NOTE on Sat. Oct 6, 2012.  The Courier published this piece on Sunday, January 28, 2007.  Dem and GOP candidates were just beginning to campaign.  Somehow, I predicted that Obama would win over Hillary for the Democratic nomination, and McCain would beat out Romney for the GOP nomination.  And that Obama would beat McCain for the election!  Have to say, ahem, this was pretty accurate.  Of course, Sarah Palin was an obscure governor at the time, so the prediction is even more remarkable, if not downright bizarre.   

    Have to say, I do predict here and now that Obama will win the election over Romney, simply because Romney is the weaker candidate on all fronts.   

    Here's that 5 3/4-year-old column:  



    1-28-07
     
    Howard Dean did it.  So did Ed Muskie.  Michael Dukakis did too, and just a few days ago, Hillary.  
      
    I mean, they all looked terribly un-presidential for a camera.   The President of the United States needs to project dignity, gravitas, a seriousness of purpose that help his or her fellow citizens believe they’re competent, if not always inspiring.  

    So when Howard Dean screamed like a goosed cheerleader, and Senator Muskie broke down over a newspaper story questioning his wife’s sobriety and propriety, and Governor Dukakis peeped his helmeted head out of a tank he was driving, looking like a whack-em doll, their political fortunes were spent. 

    Hillary, however, gained by getting publicly verklempft because she seemed real at last.  Normally a policy wonk, in New Hampshire after her loss in Iowa she seemed genuinely movable, more human than politician.  I guess a future president needs to look human occasionally, especially when they usually seem robotically controlled. 
    Still, in our age of instant imagery, a general rule remains: Look like a president, act like a president, and someday you might become a president.  However, not necessarily a good president.  

    Warren G. Harding remains the model president-image.  He looked perfect for the part: Tall, handsome to a fault, a commanding physical presence.
      
    Yet he made a terrible president.  He did virtually nothing for just over two years, then died of a heart attack.  Even he believed he deserved oblivion, saying “I am not fit for this office and never should have been there.”  Actually, that level of honesty almost redeems him.  

    Which brings me to our current crop of candidates.  Some in fact do look and act more presidential than others.  In order of looking the part, from most to least:  

    McCain first: his long and hard experience shows in every line and knowing look. 

    Romney, with the hint of gray and good looks that make him almost shockingly photogenic.  

    Edwards, who manages to look permanently concerned.  

    Giuliani, whose impish smile comes a bit too readily, but seems at least potentially wise.  

    Huckabee, who looks for all the world like Richard Nixon’s brother, right down to the shifty eyes.  If he weren’t beating the Bible so robustly, he probably wouldn’t have made a ripple.  

    Last and least:  Hillary and Barack.  

    We’ve never had a woman or a Black president, so both have to run our national image of a president being a tall white male.  So they’re both breaking ground in the presidential image department, and more power to them.  
     
    Now I’m going to go out on a limb and predict not only the candidates, but also the outcome.  Save this column, and I’ll send a genuine quarter --$.25-- to anyone who sends it to me after the conventions or the election if I’m wrong on either. (Only one quarter per family, please.)  

    The GOP will collectively decide that they have confidence in McCain’s presidential appearance and nominate him, despite his advanced age and moderate stance on a number of social issues. 

    The Democrats will opt for making history, damn the imagery baggage and nominate Obama.  Hillary will go down fighting, but she will definitely go down. 

    So come next November, we will be choosing between the old candidate who looks presidential, John McCain, and the young candidate who looks like no other candidate in our history.  

    And we will choose Obama.  President Barack Obama.  Why?  

    Three reasons: 
    1. George W. Bush the man.   He did look presidential at times, though he never did speak or think much like a real president.  And look what a complete mess he’s made.  Anybody and anything associated with him will get short shrift from voters.  McCain strike one. 

    2. George W. Bush and Iraq. Unless we’re making undeniable progress there, we’re going to want to quit and spend our foreign policy billions where they might actually do some good. Guess which candidate supports Bush’s policies most.   
    McCain strike two. 

    3.  George W. Bush and issues: The economy, health care, immigration, and social security.  All problematic and getting worse. All unsolved.  All crying for solutions that the old guard hasn’t been able to find.  McCain strike three. 

    And he’s out.  

    And that’s my two-bits worth.  


     

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