Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gary Gilson - What do the humanities mean to you?

Gary Gilson, a career television journalist whose work earned five Emmy Awards in New York and Los Angeles, served as an infantry platoon commander in the Marine Corps just before the Vietnam war. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he now conducts workshops in the craft of clear writing.

There's plenty of precedent for the recent scandal about unconscionable waiting times for medical treatment for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and about the VA administrators falsifying appointment records.

In the midst of those two wars, my public-TV colleague Barbara Gordon and I wrote an essay about the sad and shameful record of America's historical treatment of its war veterans: On Supporting Our Troops.That essay offers an example of how our exposure to the humanities—literature, theater, journalism—empowered us to connect dots and develop insights.

We began with a quote from George Washington:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, is directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated.

Except for the benefits Congress conferred on World War II Veterans—for example the G.I. Bill, which included financing for Veterans' college educations—Veterans have been treated shabbily. Vets made the sacrifices. Politicians who sent them to war did not.

Our essay continued:

Political leaders have often, for their own gain, masked this country's economic interests by persuading the public that our troops in the field are heroes defending American ideals: democracy, honor, and glory. Ernest Hemingway punctured that ploy in his novel A Farewell to Arms, writing about the disastrous Italian retreat from Caporetto in World War I:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and the dates.

Both Barbara and I had read Hemingway's novels, and we had seen plays and read the work of great journalists. That exposure helped us to harness the humanities, enabled us to see through political rhetoric, and to understand the lives, aspirations, disappointments, and joys of all kinds of people.

What were our own aspirations as reporters and documentary filmmakers? To use our work to bring people together.

The humanities enlighten us about what we as human beings have in common. When we recognize those things, the ways we differ are less likely to cause us to hate and harm each other.

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