George Takei’s Social Media Activism

George Takei at the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Pride (Zesmerelda, 2006, Wiki. Commons)

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 poularity 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.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website You can follow Mark on Twitter (@markjengler) or on Facebook.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.