Truth, Justice and the American Way Forward: George Takei at The Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 8 November 2019
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

George Takei was perhaps once best known for his role as the ever-popular helmsman of the “USS Enterprise”, Hikaru Sulu, in Star Trek.

However, his off-screen work on social justice has since won him recognition as a prominent political, LGBTQ+ and civil rights activist. In this capacity, he has been quite openly critical of the Trump administration, something he elaborated on in this interview. “Trump is really oblivious of history, or what the norm is today in America.”

Referencing his imprisonment as a child during the Second World War, he continued, “When we were incarcerated, there was only one elected official who stood up and said ‘this is wrong’. Every elected official, from City Councils to Mayors to Governors to Senators and Congress – people were advocating ‘lock up the Japs’. That was what the country was like. But when Trump signed his first executive order, which we called the ‘Muslim travel ban’, thousands of Americans throughout the country rushed to airports to protest. Attorneys went to airports to offer their services pro-bono to foreigners coming into the country and the Deputy Attorney General of the United States Sally Yates said she will not defend this executive order. So, with the same kind of issue of seeing an ethnic minority or religious minority as the enemy […] the country itself had changed.”

“The President is an Orangutan in the White House!” He exclaimed, although his husband, Brad Takei later laughingly admonished him for using this phrase, pointing out that it was rather “insulting to orangutans.”

Despite his clear distaste for the current political situation in America, George Takei has hopeful predictions for the future: “Trump is not going to serve out his term. He will be impeached. And we will have the first woman president of the United States.” He stated confidently. “Because, with Trump gone, Pence, the Vice President, will also go because he is complicit and the next in line is the Speaker of the House: Nancy Pelosi. So, she will become the President of the United States.”

“I’m hoping – if that doesn’t happen – a Democrat will be up for election, and we are putting forward Pete Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana and the youngest person to be running for President of the United States – probably the brightest person to be running for President. A Rhodes Scholar, graduated from Harvard – and the ‘other university’ [Oxford]. He is an eloquent speaker. Even in interviews like this, he speaks in organised paragraphs – the whole idea is all structured when he responds. He has the ability to sense the room and the people he is talking to and have the right tone to his speech.”

“He is a veteran of a war, the Afghan war, he was an intelligence officer. He has earned his spurs, rather than ‘That Orangutan’ who has a doctor’s letter telling him about his spurs! And he is a deeply devout religious person, who can quote the Bible, chapter and verse – I don’t think half the candidates can do that. So he is an outstanding, eminently credible candidate for the presidency of the United States. What makes him unusual and perhaps both attractive and a risk is that he would then be the first gay president, and we would then have a First Gentleman. The thing that impresses me about that relationship too is that usually, a male candidate for office uses his wife as a prop in the campaign, […] but Pete actively incorporates Chasten in his campaigning.”

Either way then, Takei is hoping to see a First Gentleman in the White House, be it Paul Pelosi or Chasten Buttigieg. “With Pete Buttigieg, I think we are going to see a new way of seeing the presidency, or a new definition of what the president of the United States – and the first gentleman – should be like. It’s going to be ground-breaking.”

“I think we are going to see a new way of seeing the presidency, or a new definition of what the president of the United States – and the first gentleman – should be like. It’s going to be ground-breaking.”

While Takei notes that Buttigieg and other LGBTQ+ people still face challenges, he is able to paint a positive picture of recent changes in society, both in America and internationally. “I think that once [equal marriage] becomes reality, people change dramatically. I was surprised because I serve on many boards and our boards have social occasions and Brad comes with me to those, and the other people feel a little kind of awkward in my being with Brad. For one thing, I’m Asian, he’s white. Before we had marriage equality, I sensed that awkwardness on the part of everybody. Once we got that, they were saying, ‘Oh come meet George’s husband’, or ‘Meet Brad’s husband’.”

“People have changed amazingly, and I think that it’s the ones who still find it awkward that have to restrain themselves and try to be ‘normal’!”

Another area of political activism that Takei has received accolades for is his work on bringing the oft-suppressed experience of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War to the fore. “I’ve written my autobiography, in which one-third of it deals with my childhood imprisonment. We developed a Broadway musical on the internment of Japanese Americans. We founded a museum called ‘The Japanese American National Museum’ – it’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian – to institutionalise that story, and yet I come across people whom I consider well-read and well-informed… I share my childhood imprisonment with [them] and they are aghast that such a thing happened in the United States. There are still people – even in Arkansas, where there were two internment camps, because they were isolated and they kept them hush-hush […] – who don’t know.”

Takei is intensely critical of the language surrounding what happened. “The term used by the media was always ‘Japanese internment camp’ – now, people who know English will assume that Japanese internment camps were run by the government of Japan. We were Americans, ordered by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to be imprisoned in the United States – in our case, Arkansas – and guarded over by the US Military.”

“Those were American concentration camps.” He added, in no uncertain terms. “But, they used the term ‘Japanese internment camps’. And with my book coming out, I made a big thing at all the speeches and interviews I did about that term, ‘Japanese internment camp’, and now they’re correcting themselves because journalists are complicit in that denial of the truth.”

Takei is a great proponent of the significance of the arts in bringing political and historical truths into the public psyche. His work on ‘The Terror: Infamy’ has been “another way of reaching a mass audience.” He also referenced ‘Allegiance’, the Broadway musical inspired by his experiences. “Drama hits people emotionally – and particularly music, like a Broadway musical. […] Because the Japanese have a proclivity for internalising all their anguish – or their love – or joy. But with Broadway musicals, one song and they can pour out their joy or love that they have for someone or their heartbreak – and so that’s why we did a Broadway musical.”

“Drama has a way of personalising, humanising a story. And it reaches us much, much more profoundly. A museum is important to institutionalise that story – but it’s intellectual. You don’t really feel a parent’s anguish, taking children behind those barbed-wire fences.” His own story is wrenching enough, without embellishment. Takei recounted, “I had many discussions as a teenager with my father and he said what tore him up the most was to look at his children – I was five years old, my brother was four, my baby sister was an infant – and to see the barbed wire fence, and the sentry tower, with the machine guns pointed at us… What kind of future [and] hope would his children have? When they’re pointing machine guns at us, you think that other horrible thought… and he said that was, to him, wrenching. It was torturous.”

“Drama has a way of personalising, humanising a story. And it reaches us much, much more profoundly. A museum is important to institutionalise that story – but it’s intellectual. You don’t really feel a parent’s anguish, taking children behind those barbed-wire fences.”

“My mother was really the strength. She was the one who kept the basics. She smuggled in a portable sewing machine… that was a brand new one, and she wasn’t about to give that up. What was verboten was anything mechanical, anything with sharp edges or sharp points and a sewing machine is all of that stuff, and yet she marched past all of those armed guards, with her duffel bag, wrapped in baby blankets and stuffed with animal cookies and crackerjack boxes and bubble-gum to disguise them. And she wouldn’t let anyone, my father nor any young muscular man, carry that heavy duffel bag as she got it into the camp so she could make clothes for us, or bond the scrap cloth and make window curtains so there would be a modicum of privacy in our barrack. So, you know, my parents were people who really helped me become who I am.”

Earlier this year, his graphic memoir ‘They Called Us Enemy’ was published, which depicted these events through manga. His use of this medium “was quite strategic.” He elaborates, “I wanted to reach the young people of today. When I was a kid, I passionately loved comic books and at that age, you’re absorbing information and you grow up with it. And so, by using the manga form […] that the young people find accessible, to share that American history, then we are going to have a new generation of voters that have this knowledge and hopefully something like what is happening on the southern border today [with the internment of Mexican immigrants] will not happen again.”

His memoirs are not the only way that Takei spreads his messages to the public – with nearly 3 million followers on Twitter and over 10 million likes on Facebook, he has quite the reach. He shared his thoughts on the medium, saying, “I was initially enamoured with it.” He explains further, “I was an actor in the age of fan mails. We would get envelopes and they would flood the studios, and the studios wanted us to respond to as many as we could – and then we had secretaries that pretended that they were us responding to those fan mails. And so here was a wonderful medium where you could not only have fans in the United States but all over the world – and they’re passionate lovers of Star Trek and just like that, I can personally respond. It was a fantastic medium. I was absolutely swept up by it.” His view now is slightly less rose-tinted. “[There is] the other aspect of human nature. You have the people who are angry, evil and want to destroy whatever, and those are the people who put that Orangutan in the White House, and those people have anonymity and they have ruined what we were able to enjoy and be inspired by.

So, I still try to use it, with a little humour, and humanise it but I am very careful of the danger in this particular form of communication. It is wonderful and it is terrifying.”

The use of social media to spread ‘fake news’ has been claimed to have contributed to so-called ‘post-truth’ politics. However, upon hearing the term Takei immediately interjected, “I refuse to live in that ‘post-truth’! Truth is important! Propaganda, lies and deception are the enemies of democracy. That’s what authoritarian governments use and I don’t want to live in an authoritarian government. I talk about our imprisonment in the Second World War, there were approximately 20,000 of us. In Western China, there is a province called Xinjiang, those people there are Muslim-Chinese, three million Uyghurs are in prison in what they call ‘re-education camps’… that is more than a deception. That is a cruel oppression and no, that’s not post-truth – that is the truth. They are being oppressed and imprisoned unjustly simply because of their faith.”

Passionately, he concluded that, “We will never get into a post-truth age… Never. Never. Never.”