Feb. 19 marks the 80th anniversary of FDR's Order 9066, which led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans including yours truly, then just 4 years old.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) February 15, 2022
All blessings to you, Mr. Takei:
… Looking at what’s happened in recent years — the anti-Asian hate around the coronavirus, the Muslim [travel] ban — do you see progress?
Some progress and some getting worse. The Muslim travel ban, when that happened, I recognized it as the same thing. You know, the sweeping presumption that we were spies and saboteurs. And the sweeping presumption that Muslim people are all potential terrorists. You know, same thing.
But when Trump signed that — and that was [among] his very first executive order[s] — thousands of young Americans, many lawyers, rushed to their airports throughout the country to welcome Muslim people coming to this country and offer advice and representation. And Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general, said to Trump: I will not defend this executive order. That was all very heartening to me. And it showed that we had made progress. We had learned from our experience.
But on the southern border, young children, babies are torn away from their mothers. How inhumane, how barbaric, can the United States become? [In the internment camps,] we were always intact as a family. So we’ve become worse in that respect. So a few steps forward, but also some horrific steps backwards.
Do you remember how old you were when you started asking questions about the experience?
My asking questions intensified as I grew older. And in my early teens, my father, who I realize now, what an unusual, rare person he was, he started discussing the internment with me in our after-dinner conversations. My father was unusual in that respect, I discovered later on, because so many other Japanese American parents of my parents’ generation didn’t talk about their experience with their children. Because either they were so ashamed by it or so pained, so hurt by it, that they didn’t want to inflict that on their children. All the children knew was that they were in camp.
You know, my father said resilience is not all just teeth-gritting determination. It’s also the strength to find and see beauty in an ugly situation. To be able to find joy, make our joy, behind barbed wires and all these people wallowing in their misery. Some were angry. Some were completely devastated, and marriages were breaking up — and he said, we’ve got to develop a community. And he was a baseball player in San Francisco as a young man and played with a Japanese American team. And he said, we’ve got to build a baseball diamond. And that brought people together, working as a team. And teenagers had nothing to do and they needed to have fun. So after the mess hall dinner, he negotiated with the camp command to have the guards bring a record player over, and they had dances. I remember, our barrack was right across from the mess hall. And my mother put us to sleep. And I drifted off to sleep hearing the big band sound of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman wafting over the night air from the mess halls. And so, you know, resilience takes many, many different forms…
And America, to a large extent, doesn’t know its American history. People that I considered well-read, well-informed people, when I told them about my childhood, were aghast that something like that happened. And so that made me think, I’m going to have to do a bit more storytelling.…
There’s been a recent backlash against stories about the uglier side of American history, especially around what can be taught in the classroom, with [criticism] of critical race theory and the banning of books.
Fanatics — they’re passionately opposed to something that doesn’t exist. I mean, that’s the kind of craziness that we had to put up with during the war. In the vast scope of American history, this kind of fanaticism — which is what that is, they don’t even know what they’re talking about, and they’re getting all excited and passionate and carrying guns about it, you know — this will pass. Our focus and our energy has to be put into education. A people’s democracy is existentially dependent on an educated citizenry.
And my effort is just a small effort on a short chapter of American history. Our story is four years. The African American story is four centuries. It’s a big story to be told. But each person telling small stories and fitting it into this panorama of American history will ultimately prevail. I’m optimistic because of people like Sally Yates and the people that rush to the airports after the Muslim travel ban. I maintain that without optimism, we’ve already failed. So we need optimistic people to be hanging in there. Otherwise, it’s going to be a dystopian society. I don’t subscribe to that. Our democracy is a precious form of government. A people’s democracy. And it’s optimistic people who have faith in the ideals of our democracy that’s going to make it survive…
We’ve got to make America understand that we have great ideals, shining ideals, noble words — equal justice, rule of law — they’re noble words. But they’re just words on paper. They take on substance, meaning, when we take on the responsibility. This is a people’s democracy, and the people have to give meaning to those words.