National Character and Leadership Symposium: Star Trek alumni George Takei promotes civil discourse, informed democracy

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – An actor and human rights activist gave cadets a call to action to promote democracy, engage in civic discourse and fight for the rights of all, Feb. 23.

George Takei, 84, best known for his role of “Mr. Sulu” on the Star Trek television series, spoke to hundreds of cadets at the school’s kick off presentation for its National Character and Leadership Symposium, an annual forum featuring diverse academic and military scholars, executives and athletes who speak about honorable living. The theme of this year’s symposium was “Ethics and Respect for Human Dignity.”

Takei spoke to cadets in Clune Arena about the “insidious” nature of racism and militarism, and said true democracy is impossible without promoting human rights.

“Our democracy is a people’s democracy,” he said.

Takei encouraged cadets to engage in the democratic process, something he called “a duty of all citizens” to advance civil discourse and promote respect for education.

“I consider teachers to be pillars of our democracy,” he said. “They teach children to be informed citizens.”

Progress has been made, Takei said, but the U. S. must come to terms with its past mistakes, including the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, if it hopes to fully respect human dignity and democracy. Takei and his family, all American citizens, spent a series of years in U.S. internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“They called them internment camps but they were really concentration camps,” he said.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, authorizing the transport of thousands of Japanese American U.S. citizens into the camps.

“We saw two soldiers walking up our driveway,” he said. “Literally at gunpoint, we were forced out of our home. The terror of that morning is burned in my memory.” Takei was 5 years old.

No surprise that Takei is a longstanding advocate for reparations for Japanese American survivors of internment camps and testified in front of Congress in 1981, pushing for recompense. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing a formal apology to Japanese Americans who were interned and a payment of $20,000. Takei received his check in 1991.

“It was signed by President George H. W. Bush,” he said. “I donated it to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.”

Since then, along with numerous film, television and voiceover appearances, Takei wrote “They Called Us Enemy,” a graphic autobiography portraying his family’s time in a Japanese internment camp, published in 2019. The bestseller made the cadets’ 2021 reading list on the school’s “One Book, One USAFA” program, is encouraged reading for all freshmen and the topic of group discussions.

Takei is also a staunch advocate of LGBT rights and had dinner Feb. 22 with cadets from the school’s Spectrum Club, a support network for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning cadets and their allies. The club promotes active leadership, professionalism and respect for human dignity without bias against sexual orientation.

Takei said progress comes largely due to the efforts of young people like cadets.

“Progress comes in little bursts,” he said.

Doctor Joseph Looney, the Academy’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said Takei and the symposium’s other diverse speakers expose cadets to backgrounds, cultures and identities they may be unfamiliar with or have preconceived notions about.

“Understanding, awareness and acknowledgment of different perspectives helps cadets lead in an increasingly diverse Air and Space Force,” he said. “Just as important, this awareness leads to authentic communication and allows Airmen and guardians to be comfortable and confident in their true selves. Creating inclusive command climates, where all Airmen and Guardians can bring their whole selves to the mission and feel valued in their contributions cannot be undervalued.”

Story edited to state that One Book, One USAFA is an encouraged program and is not mandatory.