Monday, September 21, 2015

George Takei on Kim Davis

I have always found it interesting how George Takei went from simply a sci-fi actor to a cultural icon and progressive activist. I remember him from the Star Trek films and original TV show, and knew he had to be important in a general way because he was one of he few Asian American actors I would see regularly on the screen. I did not know at the time he was gay, but eventually he reentered my general view of the world as an activist for gay rights, progressive causes and seeing the funny side of life through his Facebook page. Part of the reason that I really like Star Trek as cultural universe and historical text is because it has some progressive roots. The characters of both Uhura and Sulu were minor, but significant in their day as being examples of regular non-menial role for Asian and African American ctors. Both Takei and Nichelle Nichols have worked beyond the limits of Hollywood and extended into civil rights struggles and movements, using their position and fame to help fight for larger causes.

I have always been touched by the way that Martin Luther King Jr. figured into the Star Trek mythos via Nichelle Nichol's character. His support for her in the role helped encourage her to stay on the show even after she had been reduced in importance and the characters of Spock and Kirk took over. Here is an excerpt from her interview with the Wall Street Journal blog "Speakeasy."

I understand that the Uhura character didn’t even exist before you were hired.
I walked in to the interview with this magnificent treatise on Africa by [Robert] Ruark called Uhuru, which is Swahili for Freedom. Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura? He said you are Uhura and that belongs to you.
How much input did you have in creating Uhura?
I created my background, where she came from, my parents. They were ambassadors and one was a scientist, so I had this to live up to as well as the expectations of Spock. I made him Uhura’s mentor.
It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the part. Why did you want to quit after the first season?
After the first year, Grace Lee Whitney was let go so it became Bill and Leonard. The rest of us became supporting characters. I decided to leave the show after the first season.
What convinced you to stay on?
I was at a fundraiser and the promoter of the event said there’s somebody that wants to meet you. He is your biggest fan. I stood up and turned to see the beatific face of Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with a sparkle in his eye. He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said I am your greatest fan. All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting.
What was that like?
I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I can’t leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves.
Did you know then how much of a role model you’d become?
Oh, god, no. I thought of it as a stepping stone to Broadway. I went back to Gene and told him what had happened, and that I was staying. He smiled up at me and said, thank god for Dr. Martin Luther King.
Did the experience change how you played Uhura?
Nichols: It’s one of the most important things that happened in my life and it changed and defined my career. I took my role much more seriously after that.
Would you say that there’s some vestige of Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Star Trek’?
I know there is. Subsequently, Gene and I would speak about it, and he invoked Martin Luther King after getting his star on the walk of fame. What happened with Dr. King instilled a very strong bond between Gene and I.

Below are two articles from George Takei, when he weighed in on the Kim Davis, refusing to do her job scandal in Kentucky.


Constitution 101
George Takei on How Kim Davis Violated the First Ammendment
The Daily Beast
by George Takei
September 14, 2015

The Kentucky clerk and her supporters ignore the Constitution’s Establishment Clause—which prohibits anyone from forcing their own religious views on others.

Kim Davis and her various supporters are adamant on one point: Her religious freedom has been stripped away. To them, her case is the first step toward putting good Christians in jails for their beliefs. Her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky is, in their view, a matter of faith with which the government has no right to intervene. They hang their collective hat on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion—without articulating, let alone differentiating, the two co-equal components to that very freedom.

So let us go back to high-school civics. When discussing the religious freedom portion of the First Amendment, there are not one but two clauses we must consider. The commonly understood and cited part, and the one Ms. Davis trumpets, is the Freedom to Worship guarantee. Under that clause, the government isn’t allowed to pass any law, or take any action, “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.  Simply put, the government can’t do anything to stop you or anyone else from worshipping God or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if that’s what your conscience or faith tells you. In Ms. Davis’s view, the government (via a federal court) has overstepped its power by forcing her to act against her religious beliefs, and therefore has trodden upon her right of free exercise.

This argument falls apart, however, once you take into account the other, less commonly understood clause. The “Establishment Clause” prohibits the government from aiding or assisting any religion, or religious viewpoint, over any others. This was a key point for the founders of our country, who were of diverse faiths and did not want a state religion, or even any state-endorsed religions. When people talk about “separation of church and state,” this is the part of the Constitution that embodies it. The separation has worked well over the past two and a quarter centuries; today, the Baptists have no more right to have their particular beliefs elevated over the Methodists, or the Druids for that matter, by any government official.

So what does the Establishment Clause have to do with Kim Davis? It’s actually rather straightforward. She is a government employee charged with performing a clerical task (issuing a marriage license). As an employee of the government, the moment she imposed her own personal religious beliefs (that only straight couples should be married), she raised an Establishment Clause problem. By insisting on applying God’s law (or at least her interpretation of it) over the civil law, she gave greater weight by the government to a particular religious viewpoint, namely her own brand of Christianity. This was a plain violation of the Establishment Clause.

That of course raises another question: If it is a violation, where do Ms. Davis’s rights to freedom of worship begin and end? The simplest way to think about this is to agree that all of us have a right to worship, but that right ends at the tips of our noses. That is, we have a right to our beliefs, but we don’t have the right to impose our views on other members of the public. Everyone’s perfectly free to worship as they please, but this freedom also includes not having other people’s beliefs interfere with our own participation in civil society.

This is even more important when we’re talking about government officials, such as public school educators, judges, or country clerks. Such individuals are expected to do their jobs no matter who is appearing before them or under their care. Imagine, for example, that a person of the Quaker faith took a job with the county and then refused to issue gun licenses on grounds it violated her faith. The easy answer here is that she would have no right to do so. If guns are legal in the county, then citizens have a right to apply, and she cannot use her personal beliefs to stop others from obtaining a license. In this example, gun owners and non-gun owners alike probably would tell her to go find another job where she could function without ethical or religious dilemma.
As a public official, it isn’t even clear Ms. Davis does not in fact have the same rights to speak out let alone act in opposition to same-sex marriage as part of her official duties. As the conservative majority of the Supreme Court noted in the case of Garcetti v. Cebalos back in 2006, “[W]hen public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” In other words, Ms. Davis, as an officer of the county, is subject to the Establishment Clause limitations, and precisely because she is a government employee, does not have the right to claim First Amendment protection either for her speech or for her actions based on her faith.

It is somewhat surprising that religious freedom advocates would choose this particular hill to defend, as any judge or constitutional law expert would easily conclude that her behavior violated Establishment Clause principles going back to the very founding of our nation. In so doing, these self-described advocates for religious liberty are in fact showing an alarming disregard and ignorance of some of the bedrock principles around the separation of church and state.

A much thornier question arises when private citizens assert they are being compelled to provide services for same-sex couples in violation of their personal belief systems (such as the infamous gay wedding cake example). That is a quandary for another day, one I’m sure will test the boundaries of the two religious freedom clauses. Ms. Davis’s case, on the other hand, is crystal clear to anyone who appreciates what “separation of church and state” really means. The vociferous defense of her behavior by some indeed suggests that they aren’t really very interested in maintaining this separation at all.


Kim Davis isn't Rosa Parks: She's George Wallace.
by George Takei

When supporters of Kim Davis see her defiantly refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple, they see someone bravely standing for her faith and her principles, refusing to budge from them. This defiance has made her a hero to many on the far right, who view marriage equality as something imposed by the federal courts and an existential threat to a cherished way of life.

Instead of accepting that threat lying down, Davis remarkably stood up and was willing to go to jail rather than compromise her beliefs. Local armed militias such as the Oathkeepers have even rallied to her side, vowing to keep her out of jail using force if necessary. To her supporters, she is the Rosa Parks of religious liberty, someone who finally said, “Enough is enough, I have rights, and I will fight for them.”

When I view her behavior, however, I am reminded of a different character from the early civil rights era: Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. For those who weren’t born yet or simply don’t remember, Wallace was a staunch and vocal opponent to racial desegregation. For him, the sanctity of white privilege was a cherished way of life. When he took the oath of office, standing on the same spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy more than 100 years earlier, Wallace famously proclaimed, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

As with Davis, supporters of the old order cheered Wallace’s brazen stand. And like Davis, Wallace was more than just his words. In 1963, he stood defiantly blocking the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama as two African American students prepared to enter the premises to enroll. Federal forces had to be called in to forcibly permit the integration, and others like it in Alabama, to proceed.

For Wallace, the federal government’s plans to integrate public education in the South amounted to a surrender of the state to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his friends in Washington. There are echoes of this in the Davis case, as once again, a ruling from the Supreme Court in D.C. trickles down to the state and local levels. The people are reminded that unelected judges are “making law” just as they have before, that these laws are wrong and are contrary to God’s will, and that the good people are only doing what is right by standing up to this threat to their way of life.

Here, marriage equality, like desegregation, tells an already wary conservative base that their belief system, and their exclusion of certain members of society from rights and privileges they themselves enjoy, is not only wrong but illegal. The weight of the law, once so firmly in their grip, has suddenly now shifted to operate against them, and now they are the ones who will go to jail if they don’t concede defeat.

Despite these parallels, marriage equality cases are far less disruptive to everyday life than desegregation. Permitting two people who love each other to marry affects only those two people, with tangential effects on those who might minister, verify or cater to the happy couple. Thus, we see eruption points where we might expect them: at the clerk’s office, on the church steps, in the bakery shop. But federal troops are unlikely to be headed to Kentucky any time soon, despite the bluster of groups like the Oathkeepers.

There is, however, an eerie and disheartening similarity to how insecurities and fears are still being exploited by today’s politicians. Presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz were quick to stand by Davis’s side as she emerged from jail, observing ominously that this was part of the overall War on Christianity. Religious liberty is now a rallying point for the right, even as that concept is distorted beyond all recognition to permit government officials to inject their personal beliefs into purely ministerial or clerical matters.
Gov. Wallace also understood the power of exploiting fear. He was once a candidate endorsed by the NAACP, but took a drubbing in his first bid for governor. Then Wallace discovered that Alabama voters were genuinely afraid of what desegregation would mean for their communities, and he shifted quickly to run on a staunchly segregationist platform. When asked why by 1962 he had started using racist messaging in his campaign, Wallace was blunt: “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*****s, and they stomped the floor.”

Happily, the days when overt racial discrimination and segregation are championed by social conservatives are long past. Imagine if instead of denying a license to a gay couple, Ms. Davis had sought on religious grounds to deny a license to an interracial couple. She likely would have been fired on the spot, and no politicians would have rushed to stand by her side, no matter what her sincerely held religious convictions were. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is headed to a similar, inevitable end in the dust heap of history.

But along the way there will be opponents like Davis to remind us that social change means social displacement and a recalibration of what is acceptable. And as with Gov. Wallace, decades from the day Davis stood her ground we will no doubt look back and wonder above all why so many stood with her.

George Takei is an actor, social justice activist, and social media mega-power.

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