Movie review: Human Flow (2017)

After seeing Human Flow, you could be forgiven for thinking that all of humanity around the globe is displaced. Ai Weiwei produced this documentary about the massive migration of people all over the planet—people who are displaced by war, by politics, by economics, by capricious governments. No one isn’t complicit in forcing massive migrations and no one is free from them.

Human Flow spends a lot of time in the Middle East where wars and politics have forced people from their homes throughout the 20th and now 21st century. Countries can both be a source of refugees and host of refugees.

Iraq, for instance, spurted forth refugees after the US-led invasion in 2003. But thanks to the unending war in Syria, Iraq also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

This documentary provides historical and legal context for the mass flood of migrants. In 1989, at the time that the Berlin Wall fell, 11 countries had border fences or walls. The end of tyranny seemed at hand. Communism was dying and Eastern Europe was free of the Iron Curtain.

Fast forward to 2016, 70 countries had border fences or walls. The lurch to the right that the world made in the 2010s is not in your head. It is real with right-wing governments and anti-immigration policies.

Human Flow spends some time on the refugees pouring into Greece. Fleeing the Middle East or Africa, a spike of people put their lives at risk trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in what could only charitably be called boats. News outlets at the time recounted the lives lost in the crossings and showed images of the dead who washed up on the shores.

Once in Greece, these immigrants were left to die in squalid camps. They hoped to immigrate north to inland Europe, often touting Germany as the end destination. (Merkel opened Germany to millions of refugees seeking asylum.) But the countries in between erected barriers and walls. There was no way that the immigrants could even walk to Germany. A rather cold shoulder from the continent that established the 1951 Refugee Convention.

But Greece was not the only destination for refugees. Italy took in African refugees fleeing hunger thanks to climate change. Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million Syrians, which the movie pointed out would be akin to the US taking in 60 million refugees. (Can you imagine?!) As if the 1.3 million refugees weren’t enough, Jordan is also home to 2 million Palestinians, perpetually displaced from their homeland.  Lebanon is also home to massive numbers of refugees. Half of their population are Syrians and Palestinians.

None of the reasons why these refugees fled their homes will resolve quickly. In fact, the average length of refugee status is 26 years. 26 years. That is a heck of a long time for people to live displaced, where they do not belong, without roots. Long enough to forget what normal life is like. Long enough for generations to be born and grow up with knowing any other way of being.

Human Flow seems to touch on most groups fleeing war or oppression. The movie mentions the Kurds, the Kurds who were so recently in the news again when the US removed their troops from Syria and let Turkey move in to slaughter our Kurdish allies. Or the Rohingya, an ethnic group of Muslims, who fled Myanmar when troops burned down villages and murdered residents. 500,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Bangladesh, with its own humanitarian woes, seemed like an unlikely spot to me to host refugees. I too had no idea that Pakistan was hosting refugees from Afghanistan…and the horrors the refugees face there too. With the rise of ISIS, Iraqis have fled, even as Iraq hosts refugees from elsewhere.

And the Mexican border. A movie about refugees wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the US-Mexican border. Ai Weiwei didn’t venture into the US to interview refugees or film their living or detention conditions (though understandable since he wouldn’t have been allowed access to them; human rights lawyers, humanitarian groups, and even lawmakers find it difficult to gain access to refugees being held in the US).

The movie also didn’t discuss or visit refugees in Australia or South America. But the themes are evident: mass migration of humanity, caused by violence, suffering compounded by anti-immigration tactics. The movie is already a few years old but I do not imagine any of the situations have changed, or at least not changed for the better.

The cinematography was breathtaking. Some really beautiful landscapes and seascapes grace the screen. It seems almost blasphemous to see beauty in the midst of the human suffering that the movie portrays. But it does remind oneself that Ai Weiwei is an artist. Human Flow is where Ai Weiwei the artist meets Ai Weiwei the activist.

Ai Weiwei is a refugee of sorts himself. He is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and investigated government corruption. In 2015, he left China for Berlin, and then he moved to Cambridge, UK last year.

Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

The effects of war


“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” ~ James Madison

Podcast review: 1865

Since returning to Indiana, I’ve gotten more interested in Civil War history than I ever thought I would. In the mid-19th century, Indianapolis was apparently an up and coming town and Indiana a strong supporter of the Union (though arguably there were lots of divided families, especially in the southern end of the state). Historical sites in the state often hark back to Civil War days with some general or colonel in the family fighting in the Union Army.

In any case, given that experience and my interest in history, I was clearly primed as the target audience for the podcast 1865.

1865 is a serial podcast with a clear beginning and ending date given the subject matter: the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Think you know all about it? Well, probably not actually. At least I didn’t realize that Lincoln wasn’t the only intended target. Or that originally the plot wasn’t assassination but kidnapping Lincoln to demand the exchange for Confederate soldiers. Or, well, any number of points.

Rather than a rehash of facts or history, the episodes alternate between traditional radio dramas and a discussion about what was fact and dramatic license in the previous episode.

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is the central figure in this retelling of the time from Lincoln’s assassination through the conviction of the Lincoln Conspirators. Three final episodes are devoted to Booth. While some items, like private conversations, are conjecture, everything is based as much as possible on primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.). It is a fascinating look at a moment of crisis in our country’s history and dispels the tidy myths we were taught about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the assassination.

My only wish was that the serial did not need to end. Or that the assassination never happened. What if Lincoln lived and Andrew Johnson, a racist southern Democrat hadn’t ascended to the presidency? Would Reconstruction have been different? Would the scars from slavery still be so prominent and fresh even now?