News with Nuance: Oct. 28, 2022
Your Friday dose of News with Nuance: the week's biggest stories, unpacked + more ..
Welcome to News with Nuance. My plan for this post is, every Friday, I will break down some of the week’s top news stories and put them into context, with special attention to the impact of these stories where I live: Middle America; and also an analysis of these stories with historical, political, and spiritual context. This is the kind of work that breaking news journalists often simply don’t have time to do — and I’m hoping it supplies the needed nuance and context that’s often missing from our news cycle, humanizing the people and places behind the headlines.
By the way … Happy Halloween weekend, everyone. Unfortunately, I’m lately more scared by the headlines than by any ghosts or goblins, but I am looking forward to celebrating this weekend with my little Darth Vader and Bugs Bunny Space Jam trick-or-treaters. I don’t like candy - or dressing up for Halloween myself much - but I do love the tradition of neighborhood trick-or-treating. It’s one of the few times we visit one another’s homes anymore, especially the ones we don’t know and don’t have kids similar in ages to our own. I’m grateful for the simple little exchanges of pleasantries and “Trick or Treat!” and “thank you” and “who are you supposed to be?” I’m grateful for the trust we still somehow have in one another, that the candy won’t be poisoned and that we come ringing their doorbell in peace. I don’t know; I’m a cynic and a nihilist too often these days, but I think these exchanges of trust and goodwill right in our local neighborhoods could be building blocks upon which we defend democracy.
Now, here are the biggest stories of the week - with nuance - plus an update on the week in Christian Nationalism …
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This article comes with a content warning. It’s a warning about indiscriminate violence and cruelty, a warning about the graphic destruction and desecration of human bodies, civilian bodies, Ukrainian bodies: ordinary people who had done nothing wrong but be found in the wrong place at the wrong time by Russian soldiers mad with fury, chaos, corruption, and deadly weapons.
This article lays out the results of a painstaking investigation undertaken in Ukraine by PBS’ Frontline and by the Associated Press, documenting how in many cases it was the orders of a single officer, in this case one Alexander Chaiko, that led to bloodshed and slaughter of civilians and even children in Ukraine.
If you google “Alexander Chaiko,” you won’t find much. He has a short Wikipedia page. Very few images. No social media presence. And yet first in Syria and now in Ukraine, Chaiko’s brutality in war has won him acclaim from Putin and the Kremlin, as well as a list of murdered human beings countless pages long.
Maybe it would be easier to imagine that the death and suffering of war has no real discernible human cause, that simply events beyond human control conspire together with grinding metal to result in “senseless” death. War is perhaps irrational but it is not beyond human control. Instead, as in the Holocaust, war begins most often with greedy, egotistical men who have been given unchecked power. It begins with their supporters, who gleefully shut their eyes to examples of hatred and immorality, and instead champion strongmen in an effort to gain a piece of their power and esteem in a world that too often seems cruel and heartless.
War, and militaries, are made up of human hierarchies and unquestionable orders. Behind every mass grave is a diktat, an unblinking functionary who has risen through the ranks, choices again and again to choose power over human life. To risk mass destruction and ignore God to serve one’s fellow man.
Alexander Chaiko has been indicted in Ukraine already and is under investigation by the International Criminal Court. But his trial will likely proceed without the defendant present. Chaiko is shielded by his proximity to Putin and to power. Instead, his crimes will haunt the loved ones of those he killed for the rest of their lives. Chaiko’s crimes will also weigh heaviest on the ones who carried them out. The young, often-conscripted, Russian soldiers who the article tells us were sometimes barely as tall as their guns. They are responsible for their actions, and also they are likely forever lost. Their young lives have forever been marked by death, despair, and brutality: both the brutality they enacted and the brutality they endured.
I keep thinking of this quote from All Quiet on the Western Front, from the point of view of a young German soldier in World War I, a generation of destroyed young soldiers, many of whom would go on to become the foot soldiers and functionaries of Nazism. This quote begins by lamenting the failed leadership and destruction of the elder military leadership and men in power. I can imagine it being written by a young Russian solder in Ukraine today:
“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress - to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards - they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”
The Quote: “We have the order: It does not matter whether they’re civilians or not. Kill everyone.” - from a Russian soldier named Vadim’s conversation with his mother
The soldiers who came and went from that compound were older, professional, spoke like educated men, Tania and other neighbors said. They had cars with drivers. They told people what to do. Everyone figured they were officers.
“That’s where people were killed,” Tania said, squinting down the street and pointing to the compound.
“All units, all divisions are acting the way they were taught,” (Chaiko) said in the March 24 video. “They are doing everything right. I am proud of them.”
Conventional wisdom says that in order to improve truth and relationships in a time of hyper-polarization, you go local. You focus on local news, the local church, your own family, your own neighborhood. There’s a hopefulness that familiarity will not breed contempt, but instead will enable openings for greater trust and conversation.
This article kind of shoots a hole through that forlorn hope.
Much has been written, (including by me) about how the growth of extremist movements has been fueled by media reporting that fails to implicate each one of us, on a community and local level, and instead reports on these violent movements as if the actors are animals in a zoo exhibit, that we are supposed to stare at with dismay and confusion.
Much has been written, as well, also including by me, about how the homogenization of American media outlets and concentration of ownership has led to a real lack of investment in local news and local journalists. (That’s one of the reasons I’m writing here on Substack, rather than for a media outlet!) As local legacy journalism like newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio stations have been defunded and journalists laid off and moving into PR or marketing roles, into the vacuum of local reporting have stepped ideologically motivated groups that purport to report news but instead all-too-often fuel conspiracy theories.
This article tells exactly how this played out in Bloomington-Normal, Ill., home to Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University. I will briefly take slight issue with the framing of the article that calls Normal, Ill., a “small town,” while the 2020 Census gave a population estimate of more than 52,000 people. I don’t know about East Coasters, but here in the Midwest, we wouldn’t necessarily call that a “small town.” But I digress …
The rest of the article is that sick mix I’ve gotten used to in the past few years of content that seems somehow both predictable and shocking. Of course ideological groups funded with right-wing donor money would come in to beleaguered local institutions and create “news” outlets that report stories without any regard for the principles of journalism and adherence to reporting truth. You could see this coming, because it parallels trends in schools and in churches, where defunded local institutions, with poorly paid teachers and pastors, get replaced by schools and congregations with a decisive theological bent funded by outside donors and extremely wealthy men, like Tennessee resident Jeff Zimmer, who owns three radio stations in the Bloomington-Normal, Ill., area, as well as three in Kansas and five in Tennessee.
I could have predicted this trend, but could I have predicted that “reporters” for this local radio station would participate in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and then “report” on it? Would I have predicted that radio hosts would call for listeners to attend a local school board and “protest” the teaching of critical race theory (something that was not being proposed to be taught in the district, anyway) - and then after calling for the “protest” to write articles about how successful said protest was? Would I have predicted that local radio news hosts would declare that they are QAnon adherents and report on political races while wearing t-shirts in support of local Republican candidates?
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