Despite offering an opportunity to skewer exceptionalist arrogance, the shutdown was not a good thing. Nevertheless, it did provide some illuminating lessons in American politics.
Published in Dissent.
I was a relative latecomer to Facebook—and a skeptic, too. Well into the Obama era, I was parroting the standard criticisms that people who haven’t actually spent time on the platform like to recycle: chiefly, “Why would I want to know what a bunch of my old classmates and distant acquaintances just had for breakfast?”
I’ve come around. It’s always unnerving to be hooked to a giant corporation, and I still keep my guard up a little. But once I got to using Facebook it quickly became clear why it has a mass following. It’s a fun way to keep in touch with friends, a useful source of interesting links (link up with some media-savvy users and you’ll have a customized news feed that’s hard to beat), and an effective means of affectionately razzing extended family members (when a cousin’s March Madness bracket started doing far worse than mine, I somehow made time in my busy schedule to gloat).
And then there’s the joy of seeing posts from George Takei.
Takei—a seventy-five-year-old actor most famous for playing Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek—is friendly and warm-hearted, matter-of-factly out of the closet, always ready with a pun, and unabashedly nerdy (items that combine or conflate the Star Wars and Star Trek universes are a subspecialty of Takei’s). If there is a more beloved personality in the world of social networking, I haven’t met him or her.
It’s likely that you don’t need me to tell you any of this. I’m merely one fan out of the 3,789,097 that Takei has amassed on Facebook. Admittedly, those aren’t Justin Bieber or Rihanna numbers. Yet Takei manages to stock the online world with more cartoons, humorous memes, and cheeky quips than pretty much anyone else. Even more so than people with larger followings, his fans respond to and re-circulate his content in droves—whether the posts are merely frivolous, heart-warming, or politically pointed.
Takei’s kitschy cat photos are not themselves of political interest, but their popularity has given him a platform for his online activism with exceptional reach. This past week was the two-year anniversary of the launch of his Facebook page; it also witnessed several developments that highlighted Takei’s commitments as an engaged public figure.
One development was the national discussion of same-sex marriage, precipitated by the arguments taking place before the Supreme Court. (A useful and funny summary of last Tuesday’s oral arguments about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 is available here.) The debate is directly relevant to Takei, who in the past decade has become an outspoken advocate of LGBT rights. He and his partner Brad were among the earliest and most prominent same-sex couples in Hollywood to obtain a marriage license in 2008, and they were the first gay couple ever to appear on the Newlywed Game.
As an online advocate, Takei describes his approach to promoting LGBT rights as “combating idiocy with humor.” This was on display during his “It’s OK to Be Takei” campaign in 2011. That year the Tennessee state legislature considered a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would have prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality with their students. In response, Takei helpfully offered his last name (which rhymes with gay) for use by schoolteachers who needed a handy substitute for any words forbidden in the classroom.
While his status as a spokesperson for LGBT rights is relatively new, Takei has long been involved in other civil rights issues, such as raising awareness about the government internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. As a child, Takei was held with his family for four years in prison camps. Last week, TED made available Takei’s talk about the experience and how it motivated him to create a forthcoming Broadway musical, entitled Allegiance.
Social media holdouts may have good reason for their wariness. But if you are going to cave to Facebook, Takei’s distinctive combination of politics and meme silliness—what he describes as “talking about the internment of Japanese Americans, mixed in with some cute kitties”—is a pleasure worth indulging.
Photo credit: Zesmerelda, 2006, Wiki. Commons.