Takei - Where No Story Has Gone Before
updated: Feb 18, 2017, 12:00 PM
By Robert Bernstein
Actor and activist George Takei (pronounced tah-Kay) filled the Arlington Theater to capacity this week for his UCSB Arts and Lectures event. I grew up admiring him as Enterprise pilot "Mr Sulu" on Star Trek. I knew he went on to be an advocate for LGBTQ rights and I knew he had been interned as a child as an American of Japanese ancestry. I also was one of millions of his followers on Facebook. But I had no idea of his depth of thinking, activism and experience until this event!
Here http://swt.org/events/takei-2017-0215/ are all of my photos!
Loves Santa Barbara
Takei began with his admiration for Santa Barbara. He and his husband Brad make this their weekend getaway. They love the Spanish architecture and enjoy strolling in Chase Palm Park. Brad was in the audience, incognito! Takei enjoyed meeting with UCSB students earlier in the day.
Remembrance Day for Internment of Americans of Japanese Ancestry
But then the talk got very serious. February 19 is Remembrance Day for Americans of Japanese ancestry. That was the date when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which sent 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps. Just because their faces resembled the faces of those who bombed Pearl Harbor.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, thousands of Japanese-Americans had rushed to military recruiting stations to volunteer to fight for their country: America. Their offers were refused. They were declared "enemy aliens". A curfew was imposed on all Japanese-Americans from 7PM to 6AM. Their bank accounts were frozen. Then came the February 19 internment order.
Takei's Family Taken Away
February 20, 1942 was Takei's fifth birthday. He looked out the window of their home in Los Angeles to see soldiers with bayonet rifles marching up to the door. With no time for preparation, they were ordered to the Santa Anita Race Track. They were to stay temporarily in the horse stables. To Takei's parents this was degrading. The stables still smelled of horses and manure. But to young George it was a fun adventure!
They remained in the stables for a couple of months. Meanwhile, the government was building ten internment camps around the country. The order applied to Americans of Japanese ancestry who were along the West Coast. They were to be moved far from the coast, allegedly for national security reasons.
They were placed on trains with armed soldiers. Takei's family was taken to an internment camp in Arkansas. At night a searchlight shone into the camp yard as guards watched from towers. To young George he thought it was cool that they were shining a light for him to find his way to the outhouse to pee at night!
Children are adaptable. It was like a camp experience for young George. He got into the routine. Mass meals that were not very good. Mass showers. Going to the internment camp school. Where they recited the Pledge of Allegiance. "With liberty and justice for all." Even as a child he noted the bizarre irony.
Injustice and Heroism
A year after the internments began, the government realized there was a labor shortage and wanted to recruit from the internees. But only if they successfully passed a questionnaire. All internees age 17 and over had to answer the questions which were full of contradictions and nonsense.
Question 27: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" This was asked of 80-year-old immigrant women along with combat-aged American citizen men!
Question 28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?" There was no way to answer both parts together!
Thousands of Japanese-Americans did go to fight. The women were sent to the WACs. The men were put in a segregated unit called the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were sent on the most dangerous missions in Europe and were the most decorated unit for their size in US military history. They suffered a huge casualty rate. President Truman later greeted them on the White House lawn and acknowledged the prejudice against them.
But some Japanese-Americans signed up for service as Americans. They were tried and convicted for draft evasion! They were sent to Leavenworth Prison!
Released with No Compensation or Assistance
At the end of WWII the internment camp gates opened. The people were given a one way ticket to anywhere in the US. And $25. That was all. They had lost their homes and everything they had owned. Many feared going back to the West Coast where they had been before. Many went to Chicago, Cleveland, Boston or New York.
But Takei's family went back to Los Angeles. They were not welcomed back. Housing and jobs were difficult to find for anyone after the war. For Japanese-Americans the prejudice just made it worse. And they were only even considered for certain stereotypical jobs like gardener.
Their first home was on Skid Row. The drunks smelled of urine and were scarier than the barbed-wire Arkansas internment camp. Instead of routine there was chaos.
Takei's father had been a "block manager" in the camp. He was bilingual and was seen as a leader. He opened an employment office in Little Tokyo. He was able to place people in janitor and gardening jobs. But he only got a tiny percentage. It was no way to survive and his mother insisted they look out for themselves.
Mexican Americans Offer the First Welcome
So they moved to East LA to the Mexican American Barrio. Finally, they had found a place that welcomed them in! He made friends and enjoyed after school snacks of frijoles (beans) on tortillas at their homes. He was embarrassed, though, when his Mexican-American friends came to his house and his mother offered them Wonder Bread with sugar on it!
Takei fell in love with the Mexican-American culture. The food, the music, the mariachi bands. He learned Spanish.
Takei's parents worked their fingers to the bone. He could not believe that in just five years they were able to buy a three bedroom house in the Wilshire district!
Bigger Questions of Justice Lead to Action
Young Takei was a voracious reader, learning history and civics. He loved the ideals of the American founders who talked of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But how to reconcile this with the injustice he had seen?
Takei was inspired by Martin Luther King. He challenged his father, asking why he did not do more to protest for civil rights. His father said he had to think first of them. The family. The kids.
Takei saw this as the Peoples' Democracy. He appreciated the great ideas of the founders. But they were also fallible human beings. Who kept other human beings as slaves.
When he pressed his father to get active, his father took him to the campaign headquarters of Adlai Stevenson for president. The office was full of passionate people inspired by Stevenson's leadership and visionary ideas. Teenager George stuffed envelopes. He made phone calls. He leafleted. But the brilliant Stevenson lost to the popular WWII General Eisenhower.
Takei was determined to stay active in one campaign after another. Every one of his candidates lost! Until he campaigned for Tom Bradley for Mayor of Los Angeles. Bradley won in 1973 and served longer than any other mayor of LA. Bradley appointed Takei to the Southern California Rapid Transit District Board.
Takei was passionate about social justice. He was a singer in the 1960s social justice musical "Fly Blackbird". He was thrilled when it played at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Even more thrilled when all of the singers were invited afterwards to meet with Martin Luther King! He had a short chat with King, who shook his hand. "I did not wash that hand for three days!"
Takei joined the Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice (EIPJ).
Long-Delayed Apology and Compensation
In the 1970s Takei worked to get the US government to apologize for the internment. They succeeded in creating a Congressional committee (CWRIC) where Takei testified. It was a slow process. The CWRIC concluded that the internment had never been based on actual national security. It was based instead on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" in the words of the Congressional committee. The result was the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized and paid each survivor $20,000. It also set up an education fund to ensure this would never happen again.
The amount was a token compared to what had been lost. But Takei saw it as a great statement. It showed the US was big enough to admit a mistake.
"Allegiance" Film This Sunday for Remembrance Day!
"Allegiance" is a Broadway musical based on the life of George Takei and he stars in it as well. The musical was filmed and will be shown on Remembrance Day this Sunday February 19. Unfortunately, not in Santa Barbara. But he invited us to go to Ventura or Oxnard to watch it!
He noted that January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Both have the same message: "Never Again!"
Never Again Poised to Happen Again – But Met with Resistance
How ironic that Trump issued his Executive Order banning many Muslims from entering the US on that same date, January 27. Trump used the same false claim of "national security" used against the Americans of Japanese ancestry. But this time was different. Thousands of Americans showed up to protest at airports.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend the order, asserting it was un-Constitutional. Trump fired her. But Republican Federal Judge James Robart blocked Trump's order on the same grounds.
Who had Trump kept out by his order? Grandmothers. Students. A Syrian man who had risked his life for the US as a translator. His daughter had been killed for this.
Takei characterized Trump as ignorant on a wide range of issues. He was certain that the people will continue to resist his ignorant and unjust behavior.
Takei Realized He was Different
Takei went on to a very different issue. Ever since he was ten years old he discovered he was different from others. His friends would comment, "Sally's cute" or, observing the developing breasts of another classmate, "Monica's hot". He would think, "Yes, Monica is a nice person. But Bobby, he's hot!" He thought he was the only one.
Teens want to be popular, so Takei quickly learned to act as if Monica was hot. And that was the start of his acting career! He was indeed popular and was elected class president in junior high and high school.
He was warned that if he was discovered to be gay it would end his acting career. He discovered gay bars as a place to meet others like himself. But he was also warned to be careful there. Police sometimes would raid gay bars. They would photograph and fingerprint the patrons and put their names on a list.
He thought it was terribly unfair that a person could lose their career just for having a beer with friends. As unfair as he felt when he was discriminated against for looking like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. In both cases people were being criminalized just for being who they are. He felt terrible that this was the one issue he stayed silent about.
AIDS was terrifying. He saw friends rapidly lose weight and die. He would contribute money but stayed silent. Finally he walked in a major AIDS walk. Change was starting.
Gay Liberation Movement Roots
Change had already started in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York City. The police raided the place for no reason. But this time the patrons decided to fight back. They threw things at the police. Whatever was on hand. The police called for reinforcements. But so did the patrons! It became more than a riot as the confrontation went on for days. After five nights the police decided to offer to negotiate. That was the start of the Gay Liberation Movement.
In 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality for gays. In 2005 the first marriage equality bill in the US passed the California legislature. But Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. He was playing to his Republican base. Takei and others were enraged. This was what it took for Takei finally to come out as gay and against Schwarzenegger's veto. He felt he already had a good career and it was time to act.
In 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality. Takei and Brad had been together 21 years at this point. They applied for and received the first West Hollywood marriage license for a gay couple.
Takei campaigned in DC. In the summer of 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality is the law of the land. He and Brad were in the air, flying from New York to Los Angeles when he heard the news. He was flying high in every way as he looked out the window at the beauty of the Rockies.
We Are Making Progress
Takei contrasted the shining ideals of the founders against the injustice of their time. All men created equal. Women had no rights, not even over their own children. Now we have women astronauts. A woman Federal Reserve Chair. And three women Supreme Court Justices. Descendents of slaves are lawmakers now. Nobility and fallibility both are woven into the American fabric.
"We are making progress!" Takei triumphantly declared!
At this point Roman Baratiak of UCSB Arts and Lectures offered questions to Takei that had been collected via email in advance of the talk.
Remember and Improve not Forgive and Forget
Takei was asked about forgiveness. His said that the key to dealing with adversity is understanding. We should remember. Not forgive and forget. We should learn so we never make that mistake again. We must improve government.
Asked about tapping into creativity, Takei said it is an individual matter. You have to recognize your talents. The world will let you know if they are real. As an actor, practice your craft even in small theaters. Spring back from rejections and try again. But he is saddened to meet a 70-year-old bartender who says he is "really" an actor. At some point you are really not an actor.
Asian Americans face special challenges in acting. Historically there were few roles for non-whites. And those few roles were stereotyped as being a buffoon, a servant or an evil character. Takei was determined to change this in his Star Trek role. Luck is important. He sees the "Fresh off the Boat" TV show as making progress.
African Americans already overcame this challenge, one actor at a time. Starting with Sidney Poitier. Now actors like Denzel Washington are "bankable". Putting them in a film makes the film a success. That is the turning point.
Star Trek: Deeper Meaning, Diversity and Vision
Finally Takei got to my passionate interest: Star Trek and its visionary creator Gene Roddenberry. Takei made it clear that Roddenberry was a visionary who deserves all of the credit for making Star Trek such a positive force. Roddenberry made the cast deliberately diverse. He wanted the Starship Enterprise to be a metaphor for Starship Earth. A team effort.
Star Trek was revolutionary when it started in 1966. Other TV shows at that time were sitcoms, cowboy shows and quiz shows. It was Takei's first break into a television series, offering steady pay. It was a bonus for him to serve with a diverse cast.
When he arrived at Desilu Studios for work he expected the actors to be put right to work learning their roles and scripts. Instead, they were taken to a conference room with Roddenberry. Roddenberry explained his entire vision to them. He wanted to use science fiction as a metaphor for all of the turbulence of the 1960s. The Cold War. The US war in Vietnam. The social turmoil.
And each cast member was to represent a continent. Captain Kirk represented North America. Played by actor William Shatner who was a Canadian Jew. Europe was represented by James Doohan. Everyone believed he really was the Scotsman "Scottie" but in fact he, too was Canadian! "Jimmy" became Takei's drinking buddy. He was of Irish ancestry but he drank enough Scotch to be an honorary Scot.
Africa was represented by Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura. In real life she was from Robbins, Illinois and was part Native American. Which made her the most American of the cast. Takei represented Asia. (He was just called "Sulu" taken from the Sulu Sea near the Philippines. It was also a pun on producer Herb Solow.)
And Leonard Nimoy of Boston represented those who were bi-racial as a bi-species person. Nimoy became Takei's favorite political discussion cast mate.
Takei was asked who was his favorite Star Trek captain. His character Sulu would have to be loyal to Captain Kirk. But Takei favored Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. There had been a rumor of a revival of Star Trek. Takei was on a flight from London to Los Angeles and he gathered a pile of newspapers for the flight. He looked at his seat mate and he looked at the newspaper and realized his seat mate must be the rumored new captain. Takei turned to Patrick Stewart and started to ask, "Aren't you…" at the exact same moment Patrick Stewart turned to him to ask the same question!
Takei was not big into science fiction growing up. He did read Ray Bradbury and knew him as a visible figure in Los Angeles. Roddenberry hired the best and brightest science fiction writers of the era: Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison. Takei was turned on to read their writings as a result.
Roddenberry's Visionary Extra Dimension
But Takei made a point that I have tried to make for years: Current science fiction may be full of action and adventure. But it is missing the Roddenberry "extra dimension". That extra dimension of deeper meaning. A greater positive vision. A meaningful social commentary. The Star Trek movies were about saving the whales, about the Chernobyl disaster. Newer science fiction films are not really about anything.
I would argue that most current writers take the easy path of presenting dystopian complaints about what is wrong. So much easier than offering a utopian vision of how good things could be!
Positive Change Starts With a Positive Vision
Takei affirmed this point as his key final point: Optimists get things done. Optimists find where things can be improved and make those things better. Pessimists lose from the start when they already "know" that change is impossible. We are living in challenging times. But the optimists will overcome. For three days after the election Takei was shell-shocked. Then it was time to get to work. Once again he affirmed, "We are making progress." Trump has already lost his Labor Secretary and his National Security Advisor due to public outrage. Takei is confident that Trump will have an "abbreviated" presidency. Confident that the people will fight and the people will prevail!
And it is not just about being optimistic. It is about that extra Roddenberry dimension: Taking the time and effort to create a detailed vision of a truly better future. To imagine going where no one has gone before!