George Takei took the stage at SXSW on Tuesday afternoon to speak on his life and his celebrated work in the promotion of diversity and freedom of liberties for all. Takei is best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series, but over the last few years he has attained a remarkable social media presence for his wit and humor, often tied to the causes he works to advance.
It’s in no small part to Takei’s time in a Japanese-American internment camp during his childhood in the ’40s that he works tirelessly for advancement of civil liberties for all. He opened his speech with talking about both what it was like living in a camp and the perception he felt his parents would have on the world from that experience.
“I thought [I] would only hear about the pain of that experience, but he maintained a real belief of the power of our democracy,” Takei told the audience about his father’s response to their internment. “Unconstitutional things happened to American citizens who happened to be born of Japanese ancestry. And yet it blinded all Americans because of the fallability of that terror that happened.” Consequently, Takei took an active role during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Promoting active engagement as a means to bring about change, Takei used that same line of thought when he discovered the power of social media engagement.
It was with ulterior motives that Takei used his fame and online presence to drive visibility to a personal project. He had developed a musical based on his time in the camps and the lives and stories of many Japanese-Americans. Allegiance opened to audiences in September of 2012 in San Diego, and Takei says that it his “proudest accomplishment” via social media.
It wasn’t by spamming his communities with links to Allegiance that Takei earned the show a run—it was building his audience by trial and error and eventually finding the one thing that brings everyone together: “The honey of attraction is humor,” Takei revealed. “I didn’t expect it to grow that big, that fast and that diverse.”
Diversity is a running theme in Takei’s life. His time on one of the first television shows to promote such a diverse and encompassing cast counts as no small part of Takei’s thriving popularity today. Those fans of the original Star Trek passed their love and the lessons learned from that show onto the generations that followed. “Back in 1966, that was the height of the Cold War. when you turned on the TV set and saw Star Trek, you saw a trusted member of the team sitting next to him—which was a Russian.” Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, made sure this point was well known to audiences. Takei explained the reasoning behind it: “The point Roddenberry was trying to make was that in the middle of the Cold War, if you look to the future, we will have overcome the Cold War.”
Which eerily parallels current events today. Takei brought up the problems he and many of the LGBT community had during the Winter Olympics this year in Russia. When Sochi was granted the right to stage the Winter Olympics, officials said Russia would abide by the Olympic code and honor all participants. The anti-gay laws continued to take effect in Russia, and people perceived as gay were hunted down and beaten. Takei took up the call of action. He worked with a team to try to have the official Olympic committee change the venue, but the protests went unheard. Takei didn’t hold back when he told the audience his feelings on that decision: “The Olympic community is absolutely spineless.”
The conversation continued to that of equality and the battle many in the gay community face in states such as Arizona and Tennessee, and the actions Takei takes to promote diversity, continuing the ideals of his heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Roddenberry. It is with optimism towards the future and what he has seen and accomplished in his past that Takei feels where his legacy will reach. “I think again of my childhood imprisonment. Our democracy is a great system, but we are human beings that are fallible, and yet we look at the history of our democracy, and it is a great democracy,” said Takei. “Through the years we have made progress … we have achieved an amazing amount of freedom and justice and liberty and equality.”
He knows we are not there yet, but Takei will continue looking toward the stars and working toward promoting a better future for all who will inhabit them.
[Picture Source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr (CC)]