What Star Trek taught me

Story highlights

  • Eric Liu: I was fully into Star Trek as a young boy in an immigrant household
  • In my first grade imagination, I was anticipating the kind of world we'd like to live in now.

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I'm not one of those crazy Trekkies -- you know, those fanatics who go to Star Trek conventions and own all kinds of preciously cheesy Star Trek memorabilia.

Eric Liu
All I have is a model communicator with a flip-lid that makes three different sound effects.
And a Federation of Planets command badge.
    And the complete DVD set of the Star Trek animated series.
    And knowledge of every plot line of every episode of the original series.
    And, somewhere in my mom's attic, an original hardbound edition of "Star Fleet Technical Manual," which contains the schematics of every class of starship in the Federation, as well as the color schemes and insignia for all Star Fleet uniforms.
    Eric Liu, in first grade.
    And, of course, there's my official first-grade school portrait, taken in a green Star Trek uniform (little known fact: the yellow uniforms made famous by Captain Kirk originally were green but took on a more golden hue on camera).
    So, no, I'm not a fanatic. I am just an American who happened to grow up in the early 1970s, when "Star Trek" aired, in syndication, every Saturday at 6 p.m. on WPIX in the New York Tri-State area and occupied the entirety of my youthful imagination.
    And when I consider the massive national outpouring of love and wonder and wistfulness after the death of Leonard Nimoy, I realize the reaction is not just about the iconic character called Mr. Spock. It's not even about the series itself.
    It's about the vision of society that "Star Trek" embodied.
    Imagine: Scots and Russians, people of Irish and Japanese and African descent, humans and Vulcans, all thriving together as a crew without having to downplay their differences -- indeed, by activating those differences. That vision must have seemed truly like science fiction to adults living through the fractious, polarized, flying-apart '70s. It seems similarly fantastic in our own times.
    But it's a vision that endures, especially in the heart of a second-generation kid like me. As the son of Chinese immigrants, growing up on a mainly white suburban street called Old English Way, I was especially susceptible to such a vision.
    "Star Trek" showed me a way of being -- of being American -- that was about inclusion without assimilation. Participation without self-obliteration. Its diversity was not mere tokenism; its diversity was in fact the raw material of excellence. And all that diversity was subsumed to a larger cause (that of the Federation) and a more urgent mission (that of the Enterprise).
    You might think that because I'm Asian I was drawn to Lieutenant Sulu as a role model. Or that because my bowl cut looked startlingly like Spock's I was drawn to him. I did like George Takei as Sulu (and love him even more today on social media). And I definitely rocked the bowl cut.
    But the genius of the show was that it allowed a young viewer to identify with characters beyond the surface markers of identity.
    Whatever I might have looked like, in my mind I was Kirk. I was in command. I spent countless hours pretending to be him, conjuring up scenes of dangerous exploration and silently narrating a Captain's log as I moved cautiously through my house grasping a wooden phaser my neighbor had jigsawed for me.
    Other times I would just revel in being part of this Federation, this greater good. As my mom made stir-fry I would lie on the kitchen floor, moving my flattened palm above me like it was the Enterprise traversing the galaxy. I would go through reams of the "bai zhi" (white paper) my dad brought from the office, drawing colorful storybooks with brand-new "Trek" adventures.
    I was never conscious of why I was so drawn to this imaginary realm. But I see today how much it shaped my spirit. And shapes it still. The nation I'm trying to build in my work as a grownup looks a lot like the society I lost myself in as a boy.
    Today in American life, when we are divided along so many chasms of race, class, faith and ideology, when it's becoming more challenging than ever to sustain a cohesive sense of shared identity, we should remember two lessons from "Star Trek."
    First, what matters most is not diversity but what we do with it -- how we make inclusive institutions and experiences that fully leverage its power. And second, we have a greater mission than mere expression of self. As citizens of the United States, we're here to show the world how to be a unified crew. We've got some work to do.
    "Live long and prosper" were perhaps Mr. Spock's most famous watchwords. But to my mind, his character conjures up a different dictum: "E Pluribus Unum." From many, one. A more earthly ambition, perhaps, but still worthy of our imagination.