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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  • Robert Fisk Challenges Audiences to New Awareness

    • Posted on Dec 01, 2002 by Scott Cawelti

    2002 (not sure of exact date) 

    Every so often someone appears who seems from another time and place.  Visionaries, seers, prophets, they connect with a reality unknown to many of their peers. 

    Leonardo da Vinci serves as a visionary's visionary who designed submarines, parachutes, and strange aircraft. In his spare time he designed buildings, weaponry, and oh yes, painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. How could one self have contained so many geniuses in so many fields?  

    Da Vinci still outshines them all, and though revered in his lifetime, he wasn’t well understood because he belongs less to his time than ours.  

    Then there's Bartolomeo de la Casa, a Spanish priest and contemporary of Columbus, who openly questioned why the indigenous people of the Bahamas were treated as subhuman by Columbus and his men.  Only recently has de la Casa come to seem like a visionary hero who saw beyond his time.  

    And more recently, Oscar Schindler, who seemed intent on behaving like a decent human being when all around him had become monsters. One still wonders why there weren't more Schindlers in Nazi Germany, but how many visionaries does one find anywhere, at any time? 

    Which brings me to Robert Fisk.  He spoke at UNI last Monday, and though comparing him to Leonardo da Vinci or even Oscar Schindler might be a stretch, he literally goes where most of us refuse to go, and therefore sees more than most. 

    Fisk has interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times, lived in the Middle East for 25 years, and reports regularly from Beirut, Lebanon for the London Independent.  He has a reputation for telling the Palestinian and Arab side of the story, and has gotten into real trouble with both readers and governments.

    On Monday he read several threatening e-mails, and displayed an editorial cartoon which portrays  him as a rabid attack dog.  He lives with such threats daily, and won’t be silenced by them.  

    Whatever else one might say of him, Robert Fisk walks the walk.  

    After September 11, while traveling in Afghanistan reporting on the war, Fisk was attacked by Afghans and beaten.   They treated him as an enemy because he looks Western, which to them meant pro-American.  He’s a British citizen, and probably the best friend in the region those Afghanis could have.  Fisk didn’t excuse his attackers, but he understood their rage.    

    At UNI, Fisk received a standing ovation in Lang Hall for his talk, “Ask Who Did it But For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Ask Why."  The title summarizes his point.  He talked for ninety minutes, detailing his observation that too many Westerners aren’t paying attention to Arab/Muslim grievances.   

    Some would say that his talk was too pro-Arab, that he's a raging leftist imposing his 
    Anti-American propaganda on a gullible minority.  Yet I found his talk simply balanced. It certainly wasn’t all pro-Arab.  He commended a Palestinian journalist for questioning their suicide bombing tactics and flat-out challenged Arabs and Muslims to critically examine their own views. 

     “I sometimes think,” he asserted, “that Arabs are their own worst enemies.”  
    In a recent interview,  Fisk insisted that Bin Laden must be brought to justice, but that Bin Laden speaks for many Arabs when articulating grievances.  Here’s a direct quote:  “. . .unfortunately, Bin Laden puts his finger on other longstanding injustices in the Arab world:  The continued occupation of Palestinian land  by the Israelis; . . .tens of thousands of Iraqi children who are dying under sanctions; the feelings of humiliation of millions of Arabs living under petty dictators, almost all of whom are propped up by the West.” 

    None of this excuses Bin Laden and his Al Queda network. At no point did Fisk try to justify their actions.  However, he takes great pains to detail Arabs’ legitimate complaints that keep getting overlooked.  

    He believes that Arabs aren’t upset about poverty, or about a decadent American democracy so much as constant injustice.  They’ve been mistreated, and they’re out to find respect and justice. That’s Fisk’s basic message, and it’s not what most of us want to hear.  

    Too often we lump the terrorists with all Arabs, demonizing rather than understanding. 
    And we continue to support dictatorial regimes as long as they seem to support us.

    That policy only creates more anti-American feelings.  

    To prevent terrorism in the long run, we must examine root causes and be brave enough to admit we’re wrong.  We’ve finally admitted our mistaken policy in Vietnam.

    Maybe it’s time to own up to our mistakes in the Middle East.  

    Robert Fisk, reporter and visionary, can show us why.  









    Go comment!
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Great Herd Activities I have Known: Political Conventions

    • Posted on Jul 05, 2002 by Scott Cawelti

    7-15-92 (?)

    Let's see, what comes to mind when we think "herd activity"?

    Rock concerts, of course. Shopping malls, though only during peak hours and sales. Registration at the University of Iowa used to be a serious herd activity.

    Oh yes, and Army physicals. Let's not forget those. Weddings, too, though less herdy than either shopping malls or army physicals.

    And the most herdy of human activities: political conventions.

    I've done all of the above at one time or another, and have learned to avoid them whenever possible. Why? Not because I don't like people or rituals--not at all. Nor because I'm an agoraphobic. No such excuse.

    No, it's because human herds inevitably suppress human individual expression. Consider:                                  

    Stardom for a tiny few, anonymity for everyone else.

    In a rock concert, one to six stars make all the noise, whereas everyone else forms a mass of undifferentiated humanity.  Same with army physicals, university registrations, etc.

    If you're a doctor or a university official, they're not so bad. If you're a rock star or politically famous, they're great. A chance to strut your stuff.

    But if you're a poor Joe waiting for a needle, they're a bit like falling out of moving car. Not something you'd happily choose. 

    Now this is not to  suggest that fans don't get much out of a rock concert, or political junkies don't enjoy their conventions. Far from it. They enjoy it because they can be anonymous, can lose themselves in the safety and security of masses cheering their heroes without having to say or do anything. But to me that's more horrifying than reassuring; group anonymity allowed thousands of Germans to deny their holocaust guilt.

    And that raises the second trait of herd activities:  they're highly controlled. leaders know that without serious guidance, herds suddenly can turn into mobs.

    That's why the Democrats have a rule: no speakers who don't support the nominee. They don't want Jerry Brown or Jesse Jackson creating pandemonium by asking their followers to stage a walkout.  

    They certainly don't want sudden displays of dissatisfaction from any group, no matter what complaints they have.

    So political conventions rank among the most controlled, orchestrated activities on the face of earth. Barring some unlikely catastrophe--a bomb or an assassination--nothing comes out of them that isn't known beforehand. Ultimately, they're boring.

    Finally, the most prominent herd trait: groupthink.

    You could listen in on every conversation between every delegate at the Democratic National Convention and never hear these two sentences: "Bush hasn't been all bad," and "I can't spell potato either."                     

    Even if a Democrat believed these sentiments, and more than a few probably do, they couldn't say them without risking ridicule or even ouster. Humans in herds exert massive pressures to talk, act, and think alike. 

    Again, some people enjoy the safety and comfort of never having their ideas challenged, so they gravitate to herd events and groupthink. I find groupthink horrifying, the root of practically all modern evils.

    Granted, occasionally someone's swollen ego makes him or her insufferable, and that's lamentable.

    But it's better than disappearing into a mass of unquestioning cyphers.       

    Go comment!
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