A writer has to pick from the many topics that present themselves for the application of his craft, and a has-been actor who’s lived for decades off his role in TV show nearly half a century ago should be easily crossed from the list. Still, there’s something of significance in the racist commentary of George Takei, an actor known for nothing except his role as Sulu in the original Star Trek, that deserves a look.
Most of the response has focused on Takei’s use of the phrase “clown in blackface” to describe U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which is, I’ll admit, another useful illustration of the way in which the media permits progressives to invoke racism for advancement of their causes. But the more profound insight to be drawn from the kerfuffle has to do with Takei’s explanation:
For him to say slaves had dignity. I mean, doesn’t he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back? If you saw the movie Twelve Years As A Slave, they were raped. And he says they had dignity!
He’s referring to a point from Thomas’s dissent in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the five lawyers in the majority took it upon themselves to redefine marriage for 320 million Americans in all 50 states. If there is justice in history, these passages will figure prominently in future lessons on the history and philosophy of the American experiment:
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.
Placing these two views of dignity side by side, the notion of names comes to mind. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the TV character whom Takei played simply bore the name “Sulu” until a novelist in the ’80s placed “Hikaru” in front of it. For this to become the official name of the crew member of the star ship Enterprise, multiple parties had to give approval. A fictional character has a fictional name, and the latter becomes a question of who has ownership rights over the brand.
For anybody of a certain age, placing the idea of names and slavery together is apt to bring to mind the book and TV miniseries Roots, from the ’70s, a central scene of which is the refusal of the character Kunta Kinte to accept his owner’s right to rename him “Toby.” As the scene shows, hung by his wrists and being whipped, Kunta eventually breaks and responds to the question, “What’s your name?,” with the only answer that will stop the scourging.
So, does this scene show Kunta losing his dignity or proving it?
To George Takei, dignity is something that other people let us have, and it is proven when other people acknowledge it. He therefore lashed out with an image designed to take away the dignity of a judge with whom he disagrees.
To Clarence Thomas, dignity is something with which we are born, and it is most decisively exhibited when others seek to deny it. Pick your literary allusion or pop-culture reference; it is easy to stand tall when others are puffing us up, but the innateness of our dignity is most thoroughly illustrated when we refuse to let them take it away.
The contrast of the two views extends to the very bottom of modern society’s great disagreement. Religious believers of a traditional bent say, with Thomas, that our dignity comes with all of our rights from a higher power. It exists within us and cannot be taken away, even when our exercise of it is prevented.
Progressives profess to believe, as the majority articulates in Obergefell, that dignity and rights derive from the individual. This is the deception that lures many Americans, particularly libertarians, to lean in progressives’ direction. But it is a deception.
Whatever the philosophy, we remain social animals, and as with percussive waves’ requiring a hearer in order to be sound, the question of dignity is: “Proven to whom?”
Takei’s commentary indicates that, if dignity derives from the individual, then ratification by the community is necessary in order for the individual to be assured that it is real. Individuals who understand their rights to derive from the divine, on the other hand, receive their affirmation in faith. It is as real as the God who created all things.
There are shades and nuances to this all-encompassing topic, of course. Not all people will concern themselves with affirmation; they’ll hear their own sounds, so to speak. On the other side of the coin, a conscientious believer will make it a lifetime’s work to ensure that he or she is following a God who exists, not one whom he or she has imagined for the purposes of affirmation.
Society doesn’t happen at the margins, however; large numbers are necessary in order to maintain a notion of individualism that will not have some or the others of us hung by our wrists and having to speak names in which we don’t believe. The alternative appears in the Obergefell dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts, who quotes Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, offering a dissent against the infamously racist Dred Scot v. Sanford case, as follows (from Roberts’s text):
… when the “fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws [are] abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control” the Constitution’s meaning, “we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean.”
Only when our rights are innate can we have the confidence to follow a process of limited government that acknowledges the dignity of others, even when they disagree with us on basic questions of justice. Five lawyers empowered to grant us dignity are five lawyers empowered to take it away from somebody else. To paraphrase the slave owner in Roots:
When the master gives you something, you take it. We gave you some rights. They’re nice rights. And they’re going to be yours ’til the day you die.