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Adorable cat photos. Environmental disasters could drown Miami within decades, Bunheads might not be renewed for a second season, and there are more than 45 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide. But adorable cat photos.
"Cats are adorable because they are so independent and have such singular personalities of their own," says George Takei, who, for his 4.2 million Facebook followers, is one of the leading purveyors of adorable cat photos. What most of these 4.2 million people do not realize, however, is that the sleek, diffident, and occasionally grumpy feline interlopers in their news feeds are there because of one of the darkest American tragedies.
"American history is a checkered history," Takei says. "It's important that we know the black squares as well as the white."
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Let's back up. Takei is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series and films. He still spends much of his time "trekking not only around this country but around this planet" to attend sci-fi conventions such as Florida Supercon at the Miami Airport Convention Center this Thursday through Sunday. But he also uses his notoriety to raise awareness of the West Coast internment camps in which he, as a Japanese-American child, was imprisoned with his family during World War II.
"I went on a nationwide book tour in 1994 with my autobiography," Takei remembers. "It stunned me the number of people — particularly east of the Rockies — who had no idea that something like that had happened. Some people on the West Coast knew because they saw us being taken away."
Takei still believes that "the ideals of our country are the best in the world, shining ideals. But all that disappeared when this country was swept up in war. We were innocent people. We were Americans. And we were seen with suspicion because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. The president of the United States personally signed off on this."
Takei's outrage came quite some time after his family's release. "When we were incarcerated, I was a child and didn't really understand what was going on," Takei explains. "My real memories were happy memories. A child accepts anything if he has loving parents."
But when Takei was a teenager and saw references to the internment in his textbooks, he couldn't reconcile his memories with what had been done to his family. So he went to his father.
"Sometimes it got really heated between us," he says. "An idealistic teenager can be very arrogant. But the wisdom I ultimately got from my father is that ours is a people's democracy. It can be as great as people can be but also as flawed as we are."
Which almost brings us back to those cat pictures.
"The best way to reach people intellectually but also in their hearts is a musical," Takei says. And if you know the exact number of minutes in a year (525,600 — thanks, Rent!) or that Oklahoma is a real place, he might be right. To that end, Takei has both inspired and stars in Allegiance, a musical about life in the internment camps that he expects to premiere on Broadway next spring. An earlier version broke attendance records during its run in California, eventually winning the 2012 Outstanding New Musical award from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle.
"We had a real marketing challenge because people don't know about the internment camps," Takei says of the play's debut. "There was social media, but my core audience is sci-fi geeks and nerds. So I started posting pictures on Facebook about sci-fi things — pictures that I learned were called memes and making comments about these pictures. And the audience was there."
When he saw "the funnies" were getting the most online shares, he focused his efforts there. All along, however, the idea was to develop a platform to promote Allegiance.
"I'm an advocate for LGBT issues, so I sprinkled some of that in there, mixed it with a few cute kitty pictures, and the audience exploded. Then I started talking about internment, and my audience grew some more," he says. "The humor was the honey that kept them coming back. And it helped get people in the theater in San Diego. But once people come in and see the show, we develop them into enthusiastic audience members. And now we're going to Broadway."
Takei has been keeping busy since his last Star Trek movie in 1991. He is on the board of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and was named to the Order of the Rising Sun, roughly the Japanese equivalent of Britain's OBE. In 2008, he married Brad, his partner of more than two decades, and has been using his ever-increasing popularity to urge support for LGBT causes.
Another pop-culture rebirth began when Howard Stern became quite taken by Takei's distinctively regal baritone and began playing clips from the audiobook version of Takei's autobiography. It led to Takei becoming a regular guest and announcer on Stern's show, during which he'd often say what would become his catch phrase — "Oh myyy" — when mock scandalized by dirty talk in the studio.
Now Takei's fandom is larger than the population of Puerto Rico.
Unimpeachable as it might seem, in June, the sanctity of his Facebook identity took a hit. Commentator Jim Romenesko published a story about a supposed ghostwriter for Takei who claimed to have earned $10 per joke to come up with the puns and quips with which Takei captions his cartoons, photos, and memes.
"That guy is not a true journalist," Takei says of Romenesko, who has reported for a variety of Midwestern newspapers and writes a popular media blog. "In [my new e-book] Oh Myyy!, I talk about it. On Howard Stern's show, I've said Brad helps me."
Takei describes the process as a team of interns helping Brad and him sift through potential images for posting on the Facebook page. Then Takei writes comments for the images he selects when he returns home from his travels.
Examples: "She is not ameowsed" appears above an image of a cat despondently peering around her owner's computer screen. And a still of Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost is accompanied by Takei's asking whether overturning the Defense of Marriage Act would stand "a ghost of a chance" and his musing, "I wonder if Justice Clarence Thomas will remember that his marriage to his Caucasian wife was once illegal too."
Takei insists, "The content is mine authentically." When he receives comments or images from elsewhere, he says, he always credits the source with a caveat like "from a fan." Regarding the ghostwriter: "People, they'll make poverty stories so you want to help them out. So I gave him $10 a few times and he shared it with [Romenesko] and it went viral.
"That's the thing about social media," Takei adds. "It's a wonderful way to keep in touch, but it can also bite you back."