George Takei’s Racism Is Good for Science Fiction

George Takei, the actor who played the original Sulu in Star Trek, has some enviable qualities. Takei is likable, he has a gift for social media, and he possesses a wonderfully deep voice. However, he is not the smartest person in the world. This was recently confirmed, when Takei used an obviously racist slur to lambast a senior judge. Takei followed-up by arguing it was not racist to refer to the judge as a ‘clown in blackface’. A wiser man would have hastily admitted his faults, and apologized. Takei has now apologized, though the apology is so indirect and self-regarding that it only makes Takei seem even more conceited. But we should thank Takei for his flaws. Takei’s fame depends on his role in science fiction culture. Some treat science fiction like the path to enlightenment pursued by a misty-eyed seer, able to diagnose the illnesses of the present and chart the course to a utopian future. Takei has reminded us that SF culture also includes its fair share of stupid buggers.

Takei’s comical brouhaha began when he was asked, on a news channel, what he thought of the judgement of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court determined that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right following a 5-4 vote of the judges, but Thomas was in the dissenting minority. Perhaps we should stop and reflect at this point. Takei, a man who is famous because he pushed pretend buttons on a 1960’s television show, was asked to review the legal opinion of one of the top judges in the USA, as given in a tricky case of historical significance. Maybe the USA’s legal system is imperfect, but I struggle to understand how a more utopian future will be realized by asking aging actors for their opinion on everything. Undaunted, Takei held forth. In particular, Takei objected to Thomas’ legal opinion on the grounds of too much ‘blackface’.

In a way, Takei was right about one thing, because Thomas does have a black face, or rather a dark brown face which people in some societies describe as ‘black’, as compared to paler skins. Thomas is the only Supreme Court judge who is black. But the intelligent amongst us know that judges should be chosen because of their skill at reaching a judgement, not because of their color. So, by any normal understanding of racism, Takei was being racist.

Realizing that he had committed a terrible faux pas, which would alienate him from many right-thinking, word-policing fans, Takei needed to excuse himself. He did this by pointing out that ‘blackface’ describes how actors applied make-up in order to play characters with different racial characteristics to their own. By that logic, highlighting how a black judge has a black face is not racist, because only a white judge could put on a real blackface.

I find Takei’s logic to be desperately contrived. It is certainly not of a calibre I would want from somebody who reviews the decisions of top judges. Instead of just leaving his insult with the assertion that Thomas is black – an accurate if irrelevant statement – Takei reinvented it as a much more racist slur than we first imagined. Thomas is black. But Takei tells us he meant to compare Thomas to a white man who is pretending to be black. It was one thing to needlessly refer to Thomas’ race, but it is something else to imply Thomas is a traitor to his race. And hence, we progressively learn that Takei’s deep voice is not evidence of deep thought.

There is no point bashing Takei. He is not smart enough to be worth it. He said something stupid and offensive in the heat of the moment. Then he slowly and carefully considered how to backtrack without losing face, and so wrote something even more stupid and offensive. When William Shatner came to Takei’s defence, I think he was being sincere.

My guess is that Takei is not a racist, in a malign or systematic way. His racism was of the easy, casual, everyday variety. Thomas wrote an opinion that came to a conclusion that Takei did not like, so instead of addressing Thomas’ argument, Takei started talking about the color of Thomas’ skin. Many people are prone to such irregular leaps in their thinking. They feel a logical argument has reached the wrong conclusion, but being unable to express what was wrong with the argument, they attack the individual instead. That was what Takei did. We should thank him for doing this, because it shows that policing thought will never succeed, because some people are not thoughtful enough to be worth policing.

Takei’s argument was especially misjudged because Thomas’ argument had a certain beauty to it. These are the words that Thomas wrote, and which prompted Takei’s diva meltdown.

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

You do not have to agree with Thomas’ conclusion to see that he presents an elegant and attractive argument. If a slave suffered the worst indignities, but still felt they were dignified in themselves, or that they were dignified in the eyes of God, then who should argue the slave was wrong to think that way?

Takei vehemently rejected Thomas’ point of view. As a result, he reveals the narrowness of his own thinking.

To deny a group the rights and privileges of others is to strip them of human dignity…

Takei’s thinking is narrow because it has not occurred to him that some believe human beings have immortal souls. It is not necessary to agree that humans have souls, to understand what a difference this would make to a person’s outlook. A slave has no less spirituality than any other person, and the role of the spiritual in your life will profoundly influence your understanding of a concept like dignity.

Thomas’ argument follows tracks laid down by ancient thinkers. This is not surprising: those same thinkers also influenced the original writers of the US constitution. Socrates believed we have souls, and that the soul could not be harmed by the actions of others. The only way an individual can damage a soul is by doing harm to themselves. Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, concludes that the suffering caused by his own unjust imprisonment is of no importance, because the gifts of fortune are unreliable. Temporal assets, like health, wealth, or power, can be taken away, so soul and the intellect must be the route to true happiness. In the Bible, the character of Job comes to a similar understanding. After he is beset by disasters, Job better appreciates God’s design:

My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

On the other hand, if you think that humans are purely physical beings, then it is easier to sympathize with Takei’s point of view. If humans do not have a soul, then there is nothing more important than their day-to-day treatment and comfort. If dignity has no spiritual aspect, it can only be understood in terms of the material and the legal.

Some may point out that Takei is a Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist, but I am forced to wonder if Takei’s understanding of Buddhism is as malformed as his views on race, and his grasp of law. Buddhists are conscious of the role of suffering in this world, and how personal enlightenment is the only escape from that suffering. Whilst Thomas was clearly following a Christian tradition, his view of the inviolability of human dignity is easier to reconcile with Buddhism than Takei’s argument that dignity depends on law.

Whether right, wrong, or confused, Takei is entitled to his opinions. As nobody has scientifically proven the existence of souls, Takei’s position has some merit. Maybe there is nothing more important than governments, and laws, and how they work in practice. But Takei was wrong to describe Thomas as a ‘clown’. A more thoughtful person would have understood that their difference of opinion is founded on a genuine and sincere disagreement about the nature of this universe. It is conceited to deride others for their spiritual beliefs. And Takei made a fool of himself by questioning Thomas’ competence as a judge.

Why am I analyzing this minor episode in such depth? Because there are so many parallels to debates that consume science fiction ‘fandom’. Small, petty, and unimaginative people like George Takei can sincerely believe they are as wise as Solomon. Idiots can be popular and successful. They can gather many followers. Chanting the tropes that define them, a community’s repeated confirmation of its own bias will lead its weaker members to conclude they are much wiser than they really are. Four legs good, two legs bad. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. With great power comes great responsibility. Pop fiction can deliver the same lines as great philosophy, but that does not make Stan Lee the equal of Voltaire. At the same time, audiences can behave like a mirror. When they perceive depth in others, they may only be witnessing their own superficiality.

There will always be some who mindlessly repeat slogans and mottos, whilst castigating, alienating, and demonizing anyone with a different outlook. Science fiction is not immune to this disease. When warriors like Takei start calling people names, they will insist this is forgivable, natural, and even desirable. That was why Takei felt entitled to lose his temper and racially abuse an intelligent and successful African-American, then deploy indignation and misdirection to retain an ill-deserved sense of moral superiority.

George Takei is convinced he is morally good. Takei’s belief in himself allowed him to do something morally wrong, and then to excuse his behavior afterwards. He is not the only person to suffer this combination of failings.

Because science fiction deals with the future, and alternative possibilities, it will encourage some people to believe they are smarter than they really are. They think that by consuming science fiction, they have a better understanding of the world than others. They are mistaken. Science fiction is a form of entertainment. It is not a division of science or philosophy. The best science fiction may complement science and philosophy, but the relationship is not infallible. It is easy to remember how Clarke contributed to the development of artificial satellites. It is even easier to forget that Asimov thought positronics would be commonplace long before medicine learned the secret of artificial insemination. And yet, the world has witnessed many more test tube babies than walking, talking robots.

Even good science fiction will often have a wayward understanding of how the universe works, or of the nature of human beings. The worst science fiction will fall much shorter. And because tastes vary, some will prefer the worst to the best. Fans with poor taste are still fans, but we should be wary of their pomposity. They should always be discouraged from believing they define taste, no matter how many of them believe it. Defining taste is a way to control people by bullying them, little different to arguing that the color of a judge’s skin should influence his decisions.

I hope that George Takei’s embarrassment will remind others to be more humble, and more respectful of genuine differences of opinion, and taste. Better still, it may discourage some of the lazy knee-jerk name-calling which dominate the outpourings of people who, like George Takei, consider themselves to be social justice activists. It is easy to use words like ‘racist’ to unfairly smear others. Takei’s racist outburst, which deserves to be described that way, begs the question of how honestly and consistently such pejorative epithets are used.

I have hope… but I am not wildly optimistic. As Bertrand Russell pointed out:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

The community of science fiction fans probably has the same proportion of fools and fanatics as the general population. We might fear that science fiction attracts even more than its fair share; fools and fanatics like stories that confirm their point of view, especially if the real world stubbornly refuses to yield to their fantasies. The answer is not to respond to fanaticism with equal and opposing extremism. Such tactics only encourage the true fanatics. It is better to wait for them to embarrass themselves. We can then politely identify the failings of the fanatics, whilst expressing our faith in the even-handed skepticism of the majority of the audience.

  • ksterlingh

    Hi Ray, with all due respect your attempt to portray George Takei as an unintelligent bigot was unwarranted and a surprising departure from your usual writing, which I generally like even where I might disagree. Please take this as friendly criticism.

    Clearly (in the clip) Takei was venting his feelings about Justice Thomas, after Thomas’s (failed) rejection of equal marriage rights for gays. Since George is gay, married, and a civil rights activist to boot that might be expected and some slack cut his direction. He even follows the statement you take him to task for, with “he gets me that angry”, to which you will note his interviewer responds “I’m sure”.

    The likely reason he was asked his opinion was not because he was an actor. He did more than push “pretend buttons” in his life. He has worked in government/politics as well as campaigning for the rights of minorities for years. And from a very early age (predating his acting career) was involved up close and personal with constitutional issues regarding treatment of minorities by the government. My guess is he may have more experience with this than most of us.

    Regarding the use of “blackface”. At least where I grew up in the US his use of that term was straightforward and obvious. Takei was clearly not trying to disparage Thomas for being black, but for acting against (or at least being insulting to) minorities using the cloak of being a minority. If you are offended by his suggestion that Thomas is a “traitor” that is one thing, but it seems strange to act as if that was his fall back position or ‘reinvention’. It is of course possible that minorities in the US are more aware of this term than others? But that is not George’s problem. I mean it is on Wikipedia.

    What I will grant you is that (in the clip) his use of “dignity” is not the same as that of Justice Thomas. I happen to agree, as an atheist by the way, that “dignity” is a property that cannot be given or taken away by government fiat. And what Takei said was equating whether people are treated with dignity with if they have it. Ok, so that would be talking past Thomas, which isn’t great but not worth the hammer you took to it.

    The strange thing is you linked to a page which not only has a clip of Takei speaking very reasonably on the subject (in this case referring to Trump’s position) but a very well written piece explaining clearly his position contra Thomas. You use the phrase “vehemently rejected” to describe it which does not do justice to the calm prose, and offer only a partial sentence blurb which does not show that he does address Thomas’s actual meaning.

    His essay makes the point that while one’s dignity may not be removed by fiat, governments can treat people (or allow people to be treated) in an undignified fashion, and so degrade people such that some can lose that sense. One hopes that Thomas would agree that even if slavery did not eliminate one’s dignity or humanity per se, slavery involved treating people in an undignified and inhumane fashion, and in so doing acted to erode one’s sense of dignity and humanity. But don’t take my word for his arguing this, let’s have Takei’s actual words starting from his vantage point as a person who had been interned (wrongly) by the government as a Japanese citizen…

    For many, it was indeed a great loss of self-worth and respect, a terrible blow to the pride of the many parents who sought only to protect their children from coming to harm. Justice Thomas need have spent just one day with us in the mosquito-infested swamplands in that Arkansas heat, eating the slop served from the kitchen, to understand that it was the government’s very intent to strip us of our dignity and our humanity. Whether it succeeded with all of us is another question: There was a guiding spirit of what we called “gaman”—to endure with fortitude, head held high—helping us get through those terrible years. At the end of it all, each internee was handed a bus ticket and twenty-five dollars, on which we were expected to rebuild our lives. Many never did.

    To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process. At the very least, the government must treat all its subjects with equal human dignity. To deny a group the rights and privileges of others, based solely on an immutable characteristic such as race – or as in Obergefell, sexual orientation – is to strip them of human dignity and of the liberty to live as others live.

    It seems odd that Justice Thomas, as an African American, would be an opponent of marriage equality. His own current marriage, if he had sought to have it some fifty years ago, would have been illegal under then-existing anti-miscegenation laws. I cannot help but wonder if Justice Thomas would have felt any loss of dignity had the clerk’s office doors been shut in his face, simply because he was of a different race than his fiancée. It is a sad irony that he now enjoys the dignity of his marriage, equal in the eyes of the law to any others, while in the same breath proclaiming that the denial of marriage to LGBTs works no indignity. 

    I do not see in those words an unintelligent bigot, or that he missed the point of what Thomas was saying. That you spent so much time on a quip clip from TV, with this cogent statement available, is unfortunate as it derailed a more interesting discussion you could have had regarding the nature of dignity.

    With respect, I hope you see that your portrayal was not accurate and a disservice to someone (whether you agree with him or not) that has something intelligent to say in moments (like most of us) not clouded in anger.

    • Hi Kieran. I’m grateful for your contribution, but I think in this instance your analysis is less nuanced than my original argument.

      To begin with, I never stated George Takei is a bigot. What Takei did was racist. These concepts are distinct; somebody who is not a bigot can do racist things. It is important to make distinctions like this.

      In fact, I think you’ve accidentally helped my argument, because I conclude by making some wider points concerning how language may be used in an uncivil way to intimidate, or to escalate division. For example: a racist is equated to a bigot, and then a bigot is equated to a Nazi… and so forth. Pretty soon we all end up as bad as Adolf Hitler, and so we need Godwin’s Law to keep us straight.

      I can use an analogy to make my point, in a way that George Takei might sympathize with. Suppose a young man tells me he is gay. I respond by encouraging him to take ballet lessons, and to give up contact sports, sincerely believing this will help him to be happy in life. Does that qualify me as a bigot? No. Bigotry requires dislike/hatred/intolerance. But my actions would surely reveal my prejudices. I appreciate that a gay person might play contact sports and have no affinity for ballet; I do not have any prejudice when it comes to such matters. My argument is that Thomas’ color is irrelevant to how he fulfills his duties as a judge. By referring to the color of Thomas’ face, Takei revealed his prejudices. He then confirmed his prejudices by stating how African Americans should think, and why they should think that way.

      You argue Takei is not a bigot. As I did not argue that Takei is a bigot, I assume this argument is a proxy for what I did state about Takei, which is that he was racist. However, I don’t see much need for argument on this point. The evidence is so straightforward I don’t see how anyone objective could avoid the conclusion that Takei was racist.

      To be clear, Takei was racist twice over. He angrily referred to the color of someone’s face, when it was irrelevant. He singled out the only African American on the Supreme Court, when he was surely angry at the conclusion reached by all the dissenters. This was the first example of racism. That occurred in the heat of the moment. But then Takei showed that, when he had time to think about his words, he still behaves like a racist. Takei insisted he was comparing Thomas to a white man who wears black make-up. Takei stated that the way Thomas thinks is “odd” because African Americans should not think the way Thomas does. These are additional examples of racism, and they are less easy to excuse, because they appear to be calculated.

      I referred to William Shatner’s analysis of his old colleague, and said I was inclined to agree with it. Takei is probably not a racist in any methodical, deliberate, belligerent sense. But if somebody argues that African Americans should feel more obliged to support gay marriage, that is also an example of racial discrimination. Are African Americans less able to philosophize? Are they less able to study jurisprudence? Are they less capable of thinking abstractly, logically, and objectively about a topic? I do not think so. Or perhaps they have a different sense of morality to caucasians? Again, I disagree. But those racist positions seem to be implied by Takei’s words. Or else, Takei is saying that judges should not seek to be objective, which would also be a difficult position to adopt.

      Perhaps you believe a truly abstract and objective thinker would disagree with Thomas. But you shouldn’t let your opinion on Thomas’ conclusion influence your assessment of Thomas as a person. Neither you, nor Thomas, can step outside of yourselves and independently measure which of you is more objective. So you can’t fault Thomas’ objectivity by faulting his conclusions, even if you think his conclusions are wrong. You can only fault Thomas’ objectivity by faulting his argument, as distinct from the conclusions. But Takei did not do that; he did not engage with Thomas’ argument. If they were speaking to each other, we might say they were talking at cross-purposes. Takei’s preferred definition of dignity is not consistent with that used by Thomas. So nothing in Takei’s argument addresses the points that Thomas actually made. Is this because Takei is disingenuous, or because he lacks intelligence? You can decide for yourself. Per Hanlon’s Razor, I’d rather assume Takei is less intelligent than he sounds. After all, science tells us human beings associate deep voices with authority.

      Takei is telling Thomas that his dispassionate legal opinion should be influenced by the accident of who were Thomas’ ancestors. And if Thomas is not influenced, Takei states there is something “odd” about Thomas. This is not the most despicable form of racism ever witnessed, and it does not amount to bigotry. But saying the way a person thinks should be aligned to their race is also a form of racism. The human mind, per my limited knowledge of these matters, has no racial characteristics.

      Takei explained his position at length; I was not hiding that, and so provided the links. (My long essay would have been even longer if I had quoted Takei extensively.) But I find his arguments to be poor. Context is also important. If Takei’s argument was standalone, they might suffice to explain Takei’s point of view, and we could leave it at that. However, his arguments do not stand alone. They come after Thomas’ argument. A more intelligent, or a more honest person would see the need to properly address Thomas’ argument, especially after calling the man a “clown in blackface” and “a disgrace to America”. Takei attacked Thomas personally. If he doesn’t like Thomas’ argument, he should analyze the argument Thomas presented, not just state an alternative argument. The extent to which Takei engages with Thomas’ argument can be defined by one word in his op-ed: “startling”. In other words, even in the most thoughtful piece that Takei wrote, he does not analyze Thomas’ argument. Instead, he rushes to dismiss it.

      If Takei’s op-ed was meant to demonstrate his intelligence, I don’t find it the least bit impressive. Someone who slanders the argument of a top lawyer should be held to the same standards as a top lawyer. However, I think Takei is playing to the gallery, because he knows the gallery is full of adoring fans. That signifies the difference between someone who pursues truth – like a judge, or a philosopher – and someone who pursues popularity.

      I even stated I could empathize with Takei’s argument. If human beings have no soul, his argument has merit. But I don’t like the way he puts his argument, which is conceited. And I find I like him a lot less than I did before. That will make no difference to Takei. Takei may find his popularity has risen with the people who already feel a strong affinity for him. But liking someone is not the same as respecting somebody’s argument, and finding fault with an argument is not the same as finding fault with a person. I don’t think George Takei understands these distinctions. But they do matter.

      • ksterlingh

        Hi Ray, mea culpa for the confusion by using “bigot” instead of “racist”. I am used to using them synonymously and do not treat the latter as a sub-classification. To me, if a person says something that a bigot might say, but was not meant with hatred (like the example you gave) then I consider the person “ignorant”, not “racist”. Racist is a bit loaded for my taste for someone without ill will. But you have made your point of how you use it, it’s not outrageous, and I’m not a dictionary-nazi so we can run with it.

        Let me start with what is not in dispute. In the clip Takei was attacking Thomas personally, not his argument, which can be criticized on that basis. Even where he tries to address arguments, he talks past Thomas’s use of dignity. While understandable as venting, none of this is laudable.

        Of course that is why he apologized, specifically stating your point that it was ad hominem and uncivil. I’m still unclear how that was indirect and what more you wanted?

        You also raise an interesting point if minorities (or anyone) should be expected to vote in any certain way due to their heritage. Clearly Takei did expect Thomas to vote in a certain way on this issue, and felt betrayed by his vote (and opinion).

        But then you miss why (which is a shame). It was not because Thomas should do X because blacks should do X due to being black. It is because this was a civil rights case, particularly expanding marriage rights to other minorities. Thomas is a beneficiary of prior civil rights struggles in general (or he wouldn’t be on the court), and Thomas benefited in particular from the expansion of marriage rights to minorities (or he wouldn’t be married to his wife who is white). One does not need a magnifying glass to spot where someone could consider his failure to support a current civil rights struggle specifically involving expansion of marriage rights a betrayal bordering on hypocrisy.

        That said, it is an open question. Why can’t Thomas (if a beneficiary of past rights cases) not view this new case as different from the one in which he was a beneficiary? That seems a legitimate and interesting line of inquiry.

        The problem is Thomas failed to make that case himself. His opinion does not suggest where the difference is. Instead he deals with the nature of dignity while inviting comparisons with prior civil rights issues including internment of Japanese citizens of which Takei was one (so Thomas can speak for Asians, and not be racist?).

        As I said I agree with his general concept about dignity being beyond gov’t fiat, but his argument misses that acts can still be inhumane, expose one to indignities, and attempt to erode one’s sense of dignity. Takei made this distinction clear and addressed Thomas’s claims directly. I’m not sure how much more direct you get than “To say that the government does not bestow or grant dignity does not mean it cannot succeed in stripping it away through the imposition of unequal laws and deprivation of due process.”

        If the contention is that absolutely nothing can erode one’s sense of dignity and humanity, or expose one to indignities and inhumanity… why have laws at all? And why not bring back slavery? Or, taking a different tack, if that was not why slavery or the banning of interracial marriages was considered wrong, on what grounds were they considered wrong… and how does that apply to gay marriage?

        In your original essay you portrayed Takei as having done nothing except be an actor, belittling his having been asked his opinion on a major civil rights case I pointed out his involvement in government and civil rights campaigns, and so why it was legitimate he was asked. You may not like his opinion (or him), and he may not be a genius, but he is not an idiot or uneducated in legal issues. In the essay and your reply you portray him as having singled out a black supreme court justice for criticism, presumably on the basis of race. But the reason for his addressing Thomas was because of Thomas’s own connection to past civil rights struggles (to which he directly benefitted) and Thomas himself having invited comparisons to past civil rights cases, in particular the shameful history of internment that Takei experienced personally. While you have some legitimate complaints, missing these points of fact (and so hammering the unintelligent racist drum) drowns out their strength (to my mind).

        Hope that makes sense?

        • Hi Kieran, I do enjoy our exchanges. Before I respond to another thoughtful comment from you, let me briefly digress. I’m a fan of the Socratic method, an approach to pursuing the truth that relies on two interlocutors faithfully hammering away at each other, identifying every weakness, every false assumption, until they’re both left with a better understanding of the topic they discuss. I get that pleasure by engaging with you – and I welcome you challenging my opinions!

          When it comes to Takei’s racism, I walked a pretty fine line between saying his actions were racist, and saying he is a racist. I don’t think I actually stated the latter, but I admit that I left it an open possibility. As with my previous arguments, there is a valid distinction here; we can talk of somebody doing something which is ‘out of character’. We must allow for differences between the character of the person, and the character of their actions. We know from science that humans tend to be too quick to judge another person’s character. We overconfidently extrapolate from very little data, leading us to form lasting impressions about a person’s character within minutes of meeting them. This is one reason why racism persists; being too quick to judge one person, we may also be too quick to judge anybody we think is like someone else.

          Extrapolating from very little data about Takei, I’m trying to avoid a common mistake, and to keep an open mind. Maybe Takei did something racist that was so out of character that Takei’s interpretation of his behaviour is the correct one. Or maybe Takei’s actions reveal a subconsciously racist frame of mind that is usually suppressed, and rarely seen in public. But I am not a psychologist and Takei is not laying on my couch, so I can’t say I know either way. I’m satisfied that there is enough room here for me to have reasonable doubts. More importantly, we can focus on Takei’s actions without excessive speculation about his character.

          You ask why I thought Takei’s apology was indirect. I’ll admit I’m quite a stickler for words, as you’ve probably noticed! When I read Takei’s apology, I didn’t identify any sentence which was a simple analogue to: “I’m sorry, Mr. Thomas.” However, re-reading the relevant Facebook post, I see I wasn’t generous enough. I focused on how Takei used the word ‘apology’. He began by writing: “I owe an apology”. Owing an apology, and giving an apology, are two different things. But now I really am splitting hairs. The most apologetic passage is: “But my choice of words was regrettable, not because I do not believe Justice Thomas is deeply wrong, but because they were ad hominem and uncivil, and for that I am sorry.” Again, saying something is regrettable is not the same as apologizing; we apologize to someone else, whilst we regret our choices. However, Takei did say he was sorry. He didn’t specifically say he was sorry to Thomas, so I could argue his sorrow orients in the same direction as his regret, and is aimed inward, not outward. But now I’m being diabolically fastidious about language. I’m also being inconsistent, because if Takei is consciously being so careful with his choice of words, he deserves to be treated with the same respect as a top lawyer! 🙂

          Coming on to your main argument, I’m not going to respond in so much depth, or so directly, because I think everything you write is correct… up to a point. You’ve framed an analysis. The structural framework for that analysis is civil rights. Your framework of understanding is not uniquely held by you. It’s pretty common in Western liberal democracies and it’s clearly the same framework as that adopted by Takei. And I don’t particularly disagree with the framework. But I’d resist efforts to say everyone must agree to that framework. Or, to be more precise, it’s fine if people are persuaded to agree through rational argument, but not if they’re compelled to agree through intimidation.

          Takei and Thomas end up talking at cross purposes because they perceive the world through different frameworks of understanding. Like two scientists who work within two different paradigms, they communicate very little to each other, even though they both use words in the English language. This is because their assertions are built on incompatible frameworks.

          More specifically, I understand that Takei thinks gay rights are part of a continuum of the civil rights struggle that also includes the rights of different races to be treated equally. But Thomas doesn’t agree to that. And I don’t think there is anything logical or a priori that convinces me your preferred framework is superior to Thomas’ preferred framework. For myself, I would side with the framework that you and Takei adopt, but I’d need to write a really long essay to explain why, and I don’t see anything incoherent in Thomas’ essential position, which is that there is a God, God sets up a moral framework for our behavior, and we must think and act within the terms of God’s framework. That may be anathema to some people, but I wouldn’t castigate Thomas for thinking like that. It’s a bit simplistic for my tastes, but lots of people adopt positions that are as simple as that one – even people who might vehemently disagree with Thomas. And Thomas’ position isn’t so simple, not least because it benefits from lots of precedent, both in terms of philosophy, and with respect to the US constitution. In fact, when I put it that way, it leads me to respect Thomas’ legal opinion more. The law of the USA is based on the notion that the framework of human rights comes from God. And being from God, who am I to question if God’s framework is arbitrary? (Note: I’m putting to one side the difficulty of how anyone knows Gods’ will.)

          Kieran, in some ways your position is more coherent than Takei’s. You mentioned you were an atheist. That would seem to demand that you reject God as the basis of human rights, and assert that all rights have been determined by humans. So of course you can choose to see gay rights as part of a continuum with African American rights etc. When I mentioned Takei’s Buddhism in my original piece, it was not an irrelevant digression. It seems to me that Takei has adopted a common atheist point of view on how we construct morality for ourselves. But I don’t think that is so easily reconciled to Buddhism, especially when it comes to marriage. Asceticism is an important aspect of Buddhism. Christianity, for right or wrong, has been pretty consistent with encouraging men and women to get married… except for those people who were ‘married’ to God. For Buddhism, marriage appears to be a greater obstacle to enlightenment. It’s not so clear to me that Buddhism can sustain a divergence between what a few ascetics should do, and what the rest of humanity should do, because Buddhism requires us to see everything as a whole. Buddha literally left his wife in order to pursue enlightenment. So it’s not so obvious to me that Buddhism provides a sound basis for the moral benefits of marriage. Instead of focusing on the absence of a right, a Buddhist might more consistently question why anyone has the need to marry.

          Anyhow, it all comes down to this: if there is a God, it doesn’t matter what words we use when debating how to govern ourselves – dignity, rights etc etc – because God determines what is important. God’s understanding goes beyond our meagre language. (Note to self: is this why we say God is the word?) All human words, arguments and descriptions are feeble shadows, compared to God’s understanding of the true reality of the universe. Thomas believes he understands God’s plan better than Takei does. People may suffer, but suffering is irrelevant to dignity as understood by, and determined by, God. (And note: it’s unfair to Thomas to elaborate his argument into a suggestion that government shouldn’t ever intervene to alleviate suffering.) Even the word ‘dignity’ may be a poor vehicle for expressing God’s intention, which may lead us to be confused if we spend too much time arguing over what the word means. And so, Thomas has a pretty reasonable framework that doesn’t even allow Takei’s arguments to get started. We might dislike the construction. We might dislike the conclusions that flow from it. We might argue that Thomas is wrong about God’s plan. But it’s pointless arguing with Thomas based on what we think is important, because Thomas based his argument on what God has determined to be important.

          So you ask: ‘why not bring back slavery?’. A consistent Thomas-like answer might be: God doesn’t want slavery back. Per Thomas’ framework, God is ultimately an answer to every question of that type.

          So where does this leave our debate, as inspired by Thomas v. Takei? It leaves us staring into the abyss, along with Nietzsche. Society runs out of time, and interest, long before it resolves fundamental questions like whether human rights derive from God’s will, or are constructed by human beings according to an intelligent and permanent design, or are just whatever arbitrary rule that was fashionable yesterday and which we’re free to change tomorrow. I don’t expect society to resolve such questions easily, or quickly. But we’ll never make any progress if emotion and uncivil behavior always get the better of us.

          • ksterlingh

            Hi Ray, I enjoy constructive debate as well 🙂

            I don’t have much to add to your last reply, beyond some wrap up commentary. The idea that Takei and Thomas come at the issue of civil rights from different, perhaps incompatible, frameworks makes sense. And I agree that Takei likely views gay rights as part of a continuum of civil rights struggles, as would I.

            Funny enough, I’ve never been that interested in gay marriage as a rights issue, since my political position is that governments shouldn’t be in the marriage business in the first place. That said, if a government opens up shop selling such licenses, which US states do, it does make sense that diverse forms of marriage should be allowed.

            As an atheist I don’t believe rights come from gods, and would challenge a claim that “The law of the USA is based on the notion that the framework of human rights comes from God.” We don’t have to get into that here, but it is largely ahistorical. Of course Thomas may very well hold that belief, as many do, which would have ramifications for discussions of civil rights. Yet this also raises questions (which you point out) how Thomas knows the will of the gods, and also (from a legal standpoint) how that fits with the first amendment precluding singular religious interpretations from being promoted by the government.

            Along the lines of being God’s interpreter on the bench… If Thomas did answer, regarding slavery, that God doesn’t want it back, he should be made aware that that line of reasoning means sometime in the future, someone else on the bench could just as easily say “now God does”. It may be a coherent argument but it is double-edged.

            To my way of thinking, if laws and rights come from the gods, they still have to work their magic through their human adherents (or avatars), and so ultimately (or should I say in practice) it still comes down to people. But as you said, it’s a question with a very long resolution time, running to infinity. Civility is key.

          • One reason to enjoy these debates is that they stimulate new thought. For the first time, it occurs to me that the issues raised by gay marriage also relate to a change in the relationship between church and state. Consider the following. It used to be thought that Kings were God’s representatives on Earth. Christian government fit within a structure that assigned roles to God, the King, his ministers, the church, and commoners. That structure also assigned roles to husbands, wives, children etc. State and religion were not the same, but they had an established relationship. That was because there was only one true religion (the religion of the state, as upheld by the King and his government) and there was merely legal tolerance for anyone who worshipped other religions. Thus religion provided a framework for the state’s actions, and explains the state’s role in managing the institution of the marriage. That persists today – church weddings incorporate both a religious declaration (in front of God) and the signing of a legal contract (as recognized by the state).

            The American revolution caused a break with the King, severing the new state from the traditional religious foundation that its many devout citizens wanted to maintain. So America’s founders found a new way to recreate a like-for-like religious foundation: authority would come directly from God, without the mediation of a King. There was still tolerance for other religions, but the moral framework was unchanged, and continued to be Christian. That Christian moral framework, for good or ill, was needed to underpin the new constitution. Otherwise, it would have lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many people.

            Over time, the relationship between state and religion has altered. People’s views have changed, especially as religion has declined in popularity. But that’s just an abbreviated way of saying that the population now adopt a much greater range of views. There will still be some Christian traditionalists, whilst others have no religious belief and so cannot share the same view of the relationship between religion and state. Though I would have found it hard to understand, JFK had to go to some trouble to explain why a Catholic could be a fit President. And I suppose this explains why some people try to connect Obama to Islam, even though I wouldn’t think that being a Muslim should make someone unfit for his office. Though feelings have changed, there has been no definitive realignment as supported by a clear consensus, meaning quite different views on the relationship between state and religion are maintained in parallel.

            I think you’re right that if the state had no role in marriage, that would solve a lot of issues created by the traditional connection between religion and state. But it would beg a question of what marriage really is. I’m not convinced the gay community have really addressed that, and probably because they also maintain a range of distinct, incompatible answers, even whilst agreeing on the desirability of the same end goal.

            One answer would involve conducting a gay marriage within a clearly Christian context – meaning it is still a declaration of love before God, but with a change in the convention as to who may be married. Another answer involves saying the Christian context is redundant, and that marriage is a declaration of love witnessed by other people. This latter option is tricky, because why do you need marriage to declare love in front of other people? A civil union can realize the same legal goal, but was deemed insufficient by many campaigners. So the argument that civil unions only have an inferior, second-tier status, hinges on the belief that the key component of marriage is not the secular legal aspect (as performed before the state), but on having a like-for-like declaration of love before witnesses, with some ambiguity about whether the most important witness is God, or our peers. A bit paradoxically, the state doesn’t matter (when it comes to the legal aspects of marriage, which is of inferior importance) and it does matter (because it decides what is called a ‘marriage’, and hence decides who qualifies to make the specific declaration of love involved in marriage).

            Thanks for your prompting, because I now have a better understanding of why marriage matters to some people. I previously would have continued your line of thinking, and suggested the best route to gay marriage would be to decouple marriage from the state, and to create alternative ceremonies, institutions, and churches, without caring about the government’s legal position on who can be married to who. From such a point of view, all that matters is what people think (and what God thinks, for those who believe in him). But now I think I’ve identified the wrinkle in that line of thinking. What the government ‘thinks’ (where we anthropomorphize government, like we might have anthropomorphized God) still influences what many people think. That is why some prefer to change the laws imposed by the state, rather than simply sidestepping them as irrelevant.

  • amysterlingcasil

    I’ll make this short and sweet: lots of food for thought here – but

    “Idiots can be popular and successful.”

    And for which reason is this? I don’t think it’s because the average person is an “idiot,” I think it’s due to the concept of “useful idiot.”

    • Amy, you are so right. Thanks for your comment – it’s given me reason to sit down and think clearly about the word ‘idiot’. I now see that it’s all a matter of perspective. Idiots are not considered idiots by the people who admire and appreciate them. The possibility of a useful idiot arises when somebody is encouraged for cynical reasons. There’s a lot to unpack here!

  • ksterlingh

    Hi Ray, can’t reply in our thread so I’ll create a new one.

    Historical issues related to rights and marriage are interesting. I think your descriptions (in your last reply to me above) are largely right from a socio-psychological perspective. Though I’ll throw in some additional points as food for (more) thought since it sounds like you might be interested.

    While the colonies were heavily Christian, the primary framers of the US government were deist or even atheist. I think they did sell the shift from God given rights of kings, to God given rights of people, to the religious thinkers at that time. But for deists and atheists, they had already moved philosophically from “God given rights” to “natural rights”. This concept (natural law v. divine right) had been building for some time (from 1600s to 1700s) prior to the war of independence, even among the religious, with the idea of societies and governments being the product of a social contract between people. Hence the dual reference in the declaration of independence “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and the flexible term “Creator” which could refer to both. The Wiki entry on natural rights and the writings of Thomas Paine (one of the founders) make for good starting points for further reading.

    And while there is the socio-psychological angle of marriage before God, community, etc… there is a very secular, practical element to why gays want marriage rights. Remember marriage licenses are legal contracts and they are more about defining legal rights regarding one’s family (or sad to say initially a male’s property) than just announcing something. Unique rights and privileges have been granted to people bonded by such licenses, both from the government and other institutions. Gays in longterm relationships were not granted the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals. That is even if they went about creating legal documents to secure most financial concerns dealt with in marriage. Families could contest such contracts for financial and ownership rights after the passing of a person’s partner, which would not have been allowed if it were a marriage license. And institutions such as hospitals were free to ignore their relationship as “family”.

    While civil unions should theoretically allow equal treatment, even if not the same name, I have seen how this gets handled in person… in a supposedly liberal, gay-friendly nation like the Netherlands. They (meaning the contract and the people) can be dismissed and so treated as not “equal” to “married” couples. I knew a straight couple who chose it over getting married and when in a legal case were told (rudely) that is for gay people, and the relationship not treated as seriously. That was an eye-opener.