• Conservative Wisdom Challenged

    • Posted on Aug 03, 2003


    A few ideas have been circulating for so long now that few people question them, especially given how often conservatives repeat them.  I think it’s time they were scrutinized.

     First, a phrase wrongly attributed to Churchill that goes something like this:  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty, you have no heart; if you’re still a liberal when you’re forty you have no head.” 

    At sixty now I’m still  liberal, and not because I’ve lost my head.  It’s because experience and knowledge tells me that the world’s most pressing problems, from health care to global warming, won’t be solved by private enterprise alone, that people aren’t always personally responsible for what happens to them, that we live in an interdependent world, where what happens in one country eventually affects what happens elsewhere, that the more we work for equal justice the more we’ll find real peace.

    These are all liberal ideas that still make sense to both  heart and head.   

    So that old saw needs sharpening:  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re not still a liberal when you’re forty you’ve lost heart.”

    Then there’s that cliché about teaching:  “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.”  I hear this plenty, mostly from people who have never taught.  

    Nationally syndicated conservative talk show host Neal Boortz opened a recent commencement address with that saying, referring to the university faculty as the “gowned gaggle” behind him, and implied that they didn’t understand the real world.

    To which I ask:  “What makes one world more “real” than another?  Because Boortz draws a paycheck from some talk show syndicate rather than a university, is his world more real?

    I struggle with everything that any real world offers, including motivation, evaluations, deadlines, keeping current.   I still must prove myself with superiors, still have to make a yearly case for merit pay, still have to grind out reports, fill out endless forms, struggle to learn new technologies, and so on, like every other white collar working stiff.  I’m not as obligated to don a tie, and I don’t have to punch a time clock, but otherwise why my world is less “real” still escapes me. 

    So I would say:  “Those who can, do, those who can teach, also do.” 

    Finally, there’s the most popular old saw of all, which grows out of the American Dream:  “Work hard, play by the rules, and you’ll succeed.”  

    Conservatives love this one because it implies that anyone who’s not succeeding must be lazy.

    In that same commencement address, Neal Boortz insisted that losers are those people who don’t work hard enough.  Boortz insists, “The losers are the ones caught up in that afternoon rush hour.  The winners drive home in the dark.”

    To Boortz, there’s a direct connection between hard work and success.  If you want real success, become a workaholic. 

    Granted hard work sometimes leads to success.  Those are the stories we hear about, from Thomas Edison to any number of artists who practiced their way into the world’s concert halls.

    But hard work alone won’t do it.  You want hard work, look at slaves.  They worked twelve hours a day until they dropped, as did women and children in mills, coal mines and factories.  They all dropped dead from hard work, with no success to show for it.         
    You have to add several other factors.  Talent, for one, which makes one’s hard work lead somewhere. Otherwise it’s just cleaning up other people’s messes or serving them.

    Also you need to work intelligently.  Just practicing an instrument daily won’t lead to improvement without knowing what and why you’re practicing.  Twenty minutes of smart work is worth an hour of hard pounding. 

    Then there’s the whole problem of neuroses. Show me someone who wants to work hard, and can actually do it for hours at a time, and I’ll show you rare bird.  People suffer from multiple mental problems of which they’re hardly aware.

    Obsessive/compulsive people, neurotics, attention-deficit sufferers abound.   My son told me last week of a student who was making a mess of his life until the doctor found the right drug for his disorder.  Now he’s a model student, and hard work before his diagnosis and treatment would have gotten him nowhere.     

    Then there’s being in the right place at the right time.  This is also called luck, and without it all the hard work in the world doesn’t mean much.  Luck by definition means we have little real control over what happens to us, hard work or no hard work.  Consider how many people work hard only to get nowhere, in spite of good intentions, working smart, talent and motivation, all because the world didn’t want what they could do. 

    To hard workers everywhere, then:  Good Luck.   


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  • Time to Leave the Country

    • Posted on Jul 27, 2003


    A decade ago, I taught in Germany for a year and returned with a different perspective on practically everything.  Living in another culture will do that, and I still treasure insights I gained from working and playing among people who lived well and happily without being Americans. 

    Before Germany, I thought Americans owned the worldwide franchise on the pursuit of happiness.  I soon learned otherwise, and also discovered that I was in fact, an American:  Optimistic, convinced all problems could be solved, full of talk about individual rights, equality, and freedom.  The rest of the world wonders at this odd mix of innocence and arrogance that defines so many Americans. 

    Not all problems have ready or clear solutions.  Sometimes order and safety preclude rights and equality.  Freedom can be a luxury more than a necessity.  That’s how many Germans see the world and through a darker glass than Americans.  I returned humbled and respectful of different points of view.

    Now I’m ready to gain another perspective, this time from Sweden.  Beginning next month, I will be living about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of Stockholm, in Orebro.  I’m anxious to learn how America is faring in old Europe, and especially curious to see if America’s grip on world culture is loosening. 

     Sweden has pioneered the welfare state, so I’ll also be interested in seeing how it works first-hand.  And there’s a fairly large community of Arab immigrants in Sweden, and I’d like to understand their attitude toward both Sweden and America. 

    It’s an exchange program for my wife and an unpaid year’s leave from UNI for me.  Repeat:  Unpaid.  There’s a rumor abroad that UNI is paying me to travel and live, and it’s not true.  The University wouldn’t do that even in flush times, and certainly not now, with Iowa’s public schools scratching for every penny. 

    My wife will teach full time, and I’ll lecture and co-teach a seminar at a Swedish university.  As far as writing for the Courier, I’ll try to send back a column at the end of every month until next June, when we return.   

    Happily, Editor Shapiro has agreed to publish several substitute columnists, beginning next Sunday:  John Bresland, a former writing student at UNI, who has traveled widely and is now beginning his MFA for the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  And Bill Witt, our former state Legislator, who’s a fine writer and long-time observer of Iowa politics and personalities.

    Also Tom Thompson, Emeritus Professor of Religion and Philosophy, and a frequent substitute columnist on these pages.

    Finally, Loree Rackstraw, also Emeritus Professor, taught humanities and mythology courses at UNI, has agreed to provide her insights. 

    I look forward to reading these friends and journalistic colleagues, and to being far enough way to see America and Americans more clearly.



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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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