Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hollywood has an Arab problem

A time-honored myth is the idea that Hollywood is a bastion of politically correct liberal media elites, accepting of everyone except for white, heterosexual males. Hollywood doesn’t like people like me, a white male that tries to follow Jesus and takes the New Testament seriously, so I’m told. That’s partially true. Conservative religious believers are often portrayed in film and TV as sexually repressed, anti-science, simple-minded folk with narrow worldviews that resemble Machiavelli more than Jesus. But since I’ve decided to become an aspiring filmmaker, I’ve been studying the industry, and the open secret that everyone in the industry knows, but might be shocking to outsiders is this: Hollywood elites are comprised mostly of older, white males, which are the staggering majority of Oscar voters; and women and minorities don’t get a fair shake in the industry—and it’s not even close. Knowing that Hollywood is mostly run by older, white males has helped me become a more thoughtful consumer of media, which has led me to discover another truth: Arabs are the most maligned people in America today.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that other popular scapegoats have it easy. Gays in particular have it pretty bad, especially gay youth who are bullied at school and have nobody to turn to when they come home, since their church and parents reject them too. Without diminishing the pain of the LGBT community in America, at least they have a large section of Hollywood and pop culture rooting for them. Not so with Arabs. With the exception of Amreeka which is a beautiful independent film about a Palestinian Christian family that settles in Illinois where the mom gets a job at White Castle, and The Visitor, a film that humanizes an undocumented Syrian, I can’t think of many positive—or even nuanced—portrayals of Arabs. Okay, there is Paradise Now, also an independent, which puts a human face on...err...a suicide bomber.

See what I mean?

Try it for yourself. Think of an Arab you’ve seen in a movie or a TV show. Who are they? What are they doing? How are they portrayed? Are they portayed as human beings who work hard, love their children, with real emotions, flawed, neither saints nor villains—like you and me? Or are they one-dimensional stereotypes? I’m thinking of the fumbling idiots in Back to the Future who can’t get their bazookas to work, the Arabian Knights in Aladdin, the terrorist mom in 24 hell-bent on setting off a WMD, the fat oil sheiks in Taken who run a sex trafficking ring, the Iraqi women in American sniper who don’t grieve over their dead children. And if that’s not dehumanizing enough, we could expand our critique of media to video games and listen to the words of Arab American commentator/ comedian Amer Zahr who said in a recent blog post:

It has always bothered me that the targets on the video game Call of Duty all look like my dad.

Religious conservatives often raise the point that sex and violence in media have a corrosive influence on society, and that artists have a responsibility to shape the moral climate of our culture. I think that's a fair point, though I do think that portrayals of sin in film and TV should be examined by the larger context of the point the stories are trying to make. Having said that, there’s an old adage that says “Perception is reality”, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that the film and TV industry is one of the primary shapers of perception in U.S. culture, as well as the global culture. We know that Hollywood portrayals of African American men can lead to the fear and suspicion of black men that many people are now protesting, and at least some in Hollywood are trying to rectify that with shows like Black-ish and the variety of roles that are available to black actors. Given the success of American Sniper, I don’t think the issue of Arab villification is much on the radar for socially conscious industry workers in Hollywood.

It’s about time that somebody calls Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs for what it is: racism.

Up until this point in my life, I’ve only written and produced non-fiction. I’ve finally begun to work on my first novel, and I’m also co-writing a screenplay with a friend. So here’s my pledge as an aspiring storyteller. Regardless of who I write about, I will do my best to portray people not as one-dimensional stereotypes, but as human beings. Whether my characters are saints or villains, or anything in between, I will do my best to portray the truth of who they are and will portray to the best of my ability the context in which they live. To do anything less is un Jesus-like, and goes against the core of my faith.

You have my permission to hold me accountable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Where's the outrage over African lives?

I hate to rain on the parade, but there’s something that’s been bothering me about the march in Paris over the weekend. Of course I’m all for anti-terrorism and freedom of speech, and I liked seeing people of different faiths, or no faith at all, marching together for a common cause. I also liked seeing world leaders marching together singing cumbaya. And though I thought it was an odd collage of leaders touting their support for freedom of speech—here’s looking at you Saudi Arabia—I thought that the U.S. should have had a representative there and was puzzled that we didn’t. But with all the mixture of elation and outrage and faux controversies playing out on the world’s television screens—or to be fair to the rest of the world, probably just U.S. television screens—the world seems to be forgetting that roughly around the same time the attack happened in France, two thousand villagers in Nigeria were slaughtered by Boko Haram, and nobody seems to give a shit.

Perhaps at this point I should say pardon my language, but I’m not going to do that. I think the real pardon belongs to all of us, and the world system that once again has told black people that their lives don’t matter. While I mourn the little over a dozen French people that died last week, I also mourn that world leaders are expected to march hand in hand when a dozen Europeans are slaughtered and not when thousands of Africans are slaughtered. The world’s media and governmental structures have sent the message loud and clear. Africa can go to hell.

When I was a missionary in Senegal, I worked with a Nigerian pastor who once said to me, “Africa pays the bills of the rest of the world.” And it’s true. Global trade policies are rigged in spades against Africa. We can thank the World Trade Organization for that, and the wealthy nations the organization serves, but we can also thank all of us in the West who benefit from the system, and, thus, refuse to speak out.

About a million children die in Africa every year because of treatable diseases and a lack of clean water. It’s a moral bloodbath, and yet we’re not outraged. The longest running war with the most civilian casualties has taken place in Congo, and yet we’re not outraged. Two hundred girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram—two hundred girls—and yet nobody expects world leaders to march for them. There’s something wrong with a global system that values life more in some places and less in other places.

The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” While it’s true that Paul is referring to demonic powers that rule over nations, he’s also talking about worldly structures that fail to reflect the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed.

The world has an Africa problem. More specifically: the world system has an Africa problem. The structures that make up the world system are stacked against African lives. I would add the African diaspora to that as well, because given the enormous disparity of world concern between European and African lives on display recently, I think I understand a little more what the recent protests in New York City and Ferguson were about. Black people are tired of their lives not mattering. They’re tired of everyone else not giving a damn when their people are gunned down.

It’s time the rest of us start giving a damn.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Congress should give the interim deal with Iran a chance

After a decades-long standoff, Iran and the West (plus China and Russia) have signed an interim agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. While some are calling it a historic breakthrough along the lines of Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. media has been mostly skeptical. And in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress is already looking for ways to derail the deal by passing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran and tie the President’s hands for future negotiations. Despite the fact that President Obama has successfully passed tougher sanctions on Iran than any previous administration, the U.S. media in lockstep with Congress continue to thumb their noses at anything that resembles diplomacy when it comes to Iran. And while other U.S. allies in the region—primarily the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia—have expressed their concerns over this deal, few Americans care about what the Saudis think. As representatives of the American people, what Congress really cares about is what Israel thinks.

That’s where things get dicey.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wasted no time in calling the deal a “historic mistake.” Consistent with his hard-line views on Iran, Netanyahu believes that Iran has bamboozled the world, and has ramped up the rhetoric for a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And because the Israeli Prime Minister gets to send his spokespeople to talk to the U.S. media, it would be very easy to conclude that the “Israeli perspective” is to prefer military action instead of diplomacy.

That conclusion is wrong.

The Israeli military establishment and intelligence community have long been at odds with Netanyahu on how to handle the stand off with Iran. Israeli intelligence has concluded that Iran has not yet made the decision on whether to build a bomb , and that a military strike on Iran would lead to further destabilization of the region, while (at best) delaying the nuclear program by a year or two. In essence: not only would a war with Iran tank the world economy and send oil prices skyrocketing. It wouldn’t even accomplish its objective. Israeli investors seem to agree with the military establishment. After news of the deal, the Israeli stock market went up, showing that Israeli investors see the deal as diminishing a risk of a military confrontation, rather than augmenting it.

Those opposed to the interim deal with Iran should consider what would have happened had there been no deal at all at the Geneva talks. According to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in 2003 Iran approached the United States with an offer to talk about its nuclear program, but the Bush administrated believed that Iran, having been battered by sanctions, would either capitulate or collapse if Washington stayed the course. The result was that Iran had 164 centrifuges operating in 2003. Today it has 19,000 centrifuges. Given that the interim deal is the first time in a decade that Iran has halted any aspect of its nuclear program, it appears that talking has a better success rate than not talking.

Does this mean that the U.S. and its allies should trust Iran? No. It doesn’t. And given that both parties in Congress are actively trying to derail this deal by unilaterally imposing harsher sanctions, Iran has good reasons for not trusting us either. But that’s why the interim deal, though far from perfect, is at least the start of something good. It opens up Iran to unprecedented levels of inspections, forces them to neutralize uranium enrichments beyond what is needed for electricity, and puts them in a position to where if they decided to cheat or renege on their end of the deal, they would have to do so openly in the eyes of the world. Up until now, Iran could claim that U.S. style diplomacy is do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strangle-you. At least now, if Iran balks, the U.S. and its allies can credibly say that they gave peace a chance.

Before Congress jumps the gun, it needs to take a deep breath… and let the diplomatic process continue.

Aaron Taylor is on the steering team of Evangelicals for Peace, a network of Evangelicals dedicated to the principles of just peacemaking. This article appeared on Sojourners.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is Climate Change to Blame for Super Typhoon Haiyan?

The super typhoon Haiyan that just touched down on the Philippines is the strongest storm in recorded history. While the death toll isn't known yet, estimates are that it could be up to 10,000 people, with millions displaced. Interesting timing in light of the UN sponsored climate talks happening in Warsaw right now. So interesting, in fact, that the Philippines ambassador to the talks has vowed to fast until some sort of consensus is reached.

Is Climate Change to blame?

Here are two insightful articles on the topic:

The consensus: It's difficult to attribute any one event to climate change, but it's remains true that climate change has already brought about an intensification of extreme weather, and will bring about more intense storms in the future.

Watch the ambassador's tearful speech here

This was originally posted on the website: We Know Not What We Do

Monday, November 04, 2013

The things we should be doing anyway

I wasn’t meditating on a mountaintop when the idea came to produce a documentary about climate change. I was at a Rudy’s Barbecue. My wife and I had just moved to the Albuquerque area. I had been traveling the world for years doing missionary work. While we enjoyed the life of ministry, it became clear that God was moving us on to something new. For no other reason than to have a little fun, I had started taking acting classes, but Rhiannon wasn’t so hot on the idea. She knew that whatever I threw myself into would have to have a sense of purpose, or I wouldn’t be happy. Her exact words to me on our lunch date were: “If you’re going to make films. Why not make films that matter?” That was all I needed. Within a few weeks, I hired a director and was off to the Appalachian mountain region filming a story about Christian college students doing community health surveys in towns impacted by mountain top removal.

As I talk to people about the urgency of climate change, a consistent response I get is that nobody really knows what to do about it, which isn’t true at all, but I think that too often climate change communicators with Ph.D’s speak above the average person.


So let me put it plainly.

In order to mitigate the worse effects of climate change, the world has to come together and do two things:

1. Stop burning oil, gas, and coal.

2. Plant lots of trees.

No more blowing up mountains for six inches of coal. No new pipelines. Don’t even think about drilling in ANWR or expanding offshore drilling. Immediately transition to clean, renewable energy like wind, solar, geothermal, hydro -power, and bio-fuels…..And plant lots of trees.

As controversial as some of these things are, the fascinating discovery I’ve made in the process of making this film is that everything we need to do to combat climate change are things that we need to do anyway for reasons unrelated to climate change. So, if you’re a person who believes that global warming is a U.N. inspired socialist conspiracy designed to steal your freedoms and implement a one -world government, sorry to break the news to you, but it doesn’t really matter. The things that the 97% of the world’s climate scientists who are allegedly in on the conspiracy say we have to do—well, we still have to do them.

For one thing, fossil fuels are finite. We will run out of them. Virtually every aspect of modern society—from transportation to electricity to plastics, cosmetics, and food production—depends heavily on fossil fuels that will eventually be gone. Once we run out of fossil fuels, if the world hasn’t made the transition to 100% renewable energy, then down goes civilization as we know it. It’s that simple. Transitioning away from finite energy to renewable energy is something the Bible would call prudence, and something others would call common sense.

Then there are the health and water issues.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the pollution from coal plants is literally making us sick . This is especially true in areas impacted by mountain top removal, where communities in the Appalachian region have seen increases in cancer, heart attacks and asthma. Coal plants also spew toxins, particulates, and mercury, which seep into our air and our water, causing all kinds of health problems, which also raise health care costs. Coal plants also require billions of gallons of water to cool them. So if you believe that everyone should have a right to clean air and clean water, and that water should be conserved as much as possible, then you’re halfway there. Not only do coal plant pollution, and—to a lesser extent— natural gas fracking, use insane amounts of water, they also poison our air and our water, which in turn makes our children sicker.

Let’s talk about trees.

According to , deforestation contributes 20% of the CO2 emissions that are warming the planet and placing human survival in danger, but even if you think that’s 100% malarkey, it’s still a good idea to plant trees. Deforestation increases contaminants from soil erosion. It also causes less rain to fall, which in turn affects food production. A simple way to clean up pollution, bring more rain to drought-stricken areas, increase food production, and restore a healthy ecosystem is to reforest the earth, whether by planting trees or by allowing trees to grow back naturally.

In all of my studies into climate change solutions, I haven’t found a single solution that doesn’t have an additional positive benefit unrelated to climate change. Changing light bulbs, insulating your home, and installing solar panels are all good for the environment, but they happen to be good for your pocketbook too. Riding your bike to work is good for the environment. It also happens to be good for your health.

Lastly, with apologies to Rudy’s Barbecue, methane is the gas that cows produce when they fart. It’s also a greenhouse gas that traps heat 22 times more powerfully than CO2 (though it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long), so in addition to planting trees and burning fewer fossil fuels, we should all be eating less red meat. Isn’t it strange that one of the primary things your doctor says you should do to reduce your cholesterol is to eat less red meat? Why not chicken or fish?

It’s as if God, or if you prefer—the universe—is telling us something.

Aaron Taylor is the producer of We Know Not What We Do.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What I dread telling my black son

By Aaron Taylor

It’s nearly 11 P.M. I’m sitting upstairs in my recliner typing away on my laptop, trying to figure out which words will follow the next. What I really want to be doing is holding my 4-year old son. I want to rest his head against my shoulders and cling to his innocence before it slips away. I used to believe that by providing a middle class suburban life for my son, complete with the best public schools and services that my state has to offer, that somehow I could keep him safe. Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the gunning down of Trayvon Martin, that illusion is now gone.

My son is black and I am white.

This is what I dread telling him when he becomes a teenager.

Isaac, when you were 18 months old, you left your native country of Ethiopia and you became our son. Your mother and I love you. Your grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends: we all love you and want the best for you. But Isaac, you’re not the cute little boy anymore that looks like he can be on the Disney Channel. Now that you’re a teenager, there are some in our society who will make assumptions about you based solely on how you look. And if you’re ever in a situation where you feel threatened by someone who has made assumptions about you, even if you’re walking home unarmed in the dark of night and some creepy guy is following you, you don’t have the right to defend yourself. Because mark my words son, if there’s a confrontation, society will not side with the guy who looks like you, they’ll side with the guy who looks like me.

I know that when you were a little boy you used to look up to police officers. When you saw a police officer, you used to tell them that you wanted to be a police officer too when you grow up. And the police officers adored you right back. But now that you’re older, if you’re ever confronted by a police officer and you do the wrong thing, I’m not going to be there to protect you. So, please, respect their authority and know that they’re there to help you and protect you. But if they ever stop you for any reason and you run—they just might shoot you. So, please, don’t run!

I imagine there are some who might be shocked at the prospect of me telling my son to be cautious with police officers, lest he be shot. But let me tell you about millions of people who wouldn’t be shocked. Black people.

Growing up I was never taught to be cautious or afraid of police officers because police officers were the good guys that could protect me from the bad guys. Racial profiling wasn’t real because nobody that I knew had ever experienced it. Part of me wishes that I could still live with that worldview, the one that says that racism is a thing of the past, that anyone who says otherwise is simply trying to further an agenda to fatten their pockets, that racial profiling is something that black people made up so that they can keep prejudice alive and our nation divided. As wrongheaded as it is, it can be very comforting when you reflexively attribute morality to people who look like you and menace to people who look like them. Now that I’m a white father with a black son, I don’t have the luxury of that kind of delusion anymore.

So to my fellow white adoptive parents with minority children, when the white establishment tries to deflect the subject away from civil rights for black men by talking about “black on black crime” (as if the vast majority of white people aren’t killed by other white people), we can’t let the establishment get away with it. They can change the subject. We can’t.

When a black male teenager is shot and killed and the white establishment goes on a smear campaign against that teenager, digging into his school records and sniffing for drugs, let’s remind the establishment how many troubled white teenagers smoke pot and yet we assume that they simply need more love and nurture, not that they deserved to die because they wore the wrong piece of clothing on a dark, rainy night.

Let’s remind them.

Because at the end of the day, these are our sons that they’re talking about.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Glenn Beck's Confusing World of Saudi Conspiracy Theories

While Glenn Beck often accuses anyone that disagrees with him of being a  "relativist" or "subjectivist", the irony is that in Glenn Beck's confusing world of conspiracy theories, facts don't seem to matter.  The Boston Marathon bombers were Chechen nationals, not Saudi, but even after the identity of the bombers was discovered, that didn't stop Glenn Beck from pinning the bombing on a Saudi national.

The Saudi national, Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, was himself a victim of the bombing, which makes the accusation even more pernicious. Glenn Beck has never apologized to Alharbi for falsely accusing him of being a terrorist, despite the debunking of his theory.

Now, in an effort to trash the Obama administration, Glenn Beck is claiming that the Saudi government tried to warn the U.S. about the Tsarnaev brothers, the actual bombers, even though his own website has reported that the Saudis have denied the claim.

First, the Saudis were behind the attacks. Now, the Saudis tried to stop it.

If that's not "relativism" or "subjectivism", I don't know what is.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.