George Takei, a human rights activist and actor best known for his portrayal of Hikaru Sulu on "Star Trek," visits Arkansas this week to speak at the Clinton School of Public Service (6 p.m. Feb. 23) and narrate Arnold Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46," with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (8 p.m. Feb. 25 and 3 p.m. Feb. 26). A Q and A with Takei follows:
Arkansas Times: What do you remember from your family's time at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas?
George Takei: I was very young at that time. I got there when I was 5 years old. I must confess, my real memories are fun memories. Catching pollywogs in the creek, catching ants and putting them in pickle jars. My father was a block manager, one of the representatives of each block there. I don't really remember how it was, but he was able to borrow a jeep from the camp administrator. He took us, our family, for a ride outside of the barbed wire fence. We visited a hog farm, and that was the first time I had seen anything that huge, that ugly, that smelly. I thought, surely that must be the descendant of some dinosaur. I started school, and they taught us the Pledge of Allegiance. From my schoolhouse window, I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower. I recited the words "with liberty and justice for all," without ever realizing how strongly ironic that was. When we came back to Los Angeles, the two most difficult things to get at that time were a job and housing. Our first home was on Skid Row in Los Angeles. That was the most terrifying part of the whole internment experience — getting back on our feet. For us kids ... living on Skid Row was terrifying. The stench of urine was everywhere, the street, the hallways. My sister would say, "Mama, let's go back home," meaning behind the barbed wire fence.
AT: Why is it important for us to remember the internment camps?
GT: The real victim was the U.S. Constitution. That was the thing that was most violated. A few months ago, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which has a clause in it that still allows the president to detain American citizens without charge, without trial, with no due process. When President Obama signed it, he said he doesn't intend to use it, but it's there on the books and can be used again. When 9/11 happened, we Japanese Americans immediately sensed what might happen to Arab Americans here. The FBI, again, rounded up some of the leaders of the Arab American community without letting the families know where they were being taken, why they were being taken. They were detained for months with no explanation. It's very, very important that Americans realize how fragile our system is. We need to remind Americans that we are imperfect, and we need to continually try to make our democracy a truer democracy.
AT: What went through your head when you heard about Midland School Board member Clint McCance's inflammatory words against gay students in 2010?
GT: Because I feel a bond with Arkansas, and we were put into internment camps because of stereotypes, I had to call him to task. Particularly because he's making policy for the education system — it was outrageous. I had decided, well, sometimes, you can catch more flies with honey. I thought I'd do something a little tongue-in-cheek. And it worked. [Takei made a funny, but serious, video in which he called McCance a "douchbag" and said he was counting down the minutes until McCance was caught with a "rent boy from a South American country."]
AT: What would you say about our country's progress towards LGBT rights and acceptance, especially in light of recent events like the legalization of gay marriage in Washington?
GT: What's happening in Washington, and what's happening in New Jersey, and what's happening in Maryland — it's very, very heartening. All developments are heartening. We're getting a truer democracy for LGBT people, and our democracy on the whole is becoming that much truer.
AT: What needs to happen in this country to get us to where we need to be, in terms of LGBT rights?
GT: For LGBT people to have equality like anybody else — the people opposed, they claim we're trying to jam our values down their throat. But they're trying to jam their particular values onto all Americans. If they want respect, they've got to be respectful of all other people as well. There are enough fair-minded, decent people — also people of faith — who are opposed to that kind of behavior. Our Constitution was the shining guide for us, and our goal is to get to the point where it's just a part of a good, equal, fair, decent society.
AT: What did you think of 2009's "Star Trek?"
GT: I thought it was a terrific movie, and now they're filming another one. All of our characters will be there, with Sulu in the guise of a younger John Cho. Soon I'm going to be known as the old guy who played John Cho's part.