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The Future of Freedom

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By Wendy Melillo

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM


FREEDOM HOUSE REPORTS THAT THE NUMBER OF DEMOCRACIES AROUND THE WORLD HAS STAGNATED. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

Gilliam: "It's not surprising, as you see an increasing shift in the balance of global power with the rise of China, India and even the Middle Eastern countries ... the rise of other kinds of societal and governmental organizations that are associated with the shifting balance of power in the world."

The Future of Freedom: Viewpoints From Across the Planet
Participants in alphabetical order

KHALED ABOU EL FADL
International authority on Islamic law and Islam
Professor, UCLA Law School
Past Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

GISSELLE ACEVEDO
Children’s advocate
President and CEO, Para Los Niños Regent, Loyola Marymount University Former president and general manager, Hoy

MIKE FARRELL
Actor, activist
President, Death Penalty Focus
Co-star, M*A*S*H

DAVID GERE
AIDS activist, dance critic
Associate professor, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures

FRANK GILLIAM
Public affairs scholar, political analyst
Dean, UCLA School of Public Affairs
Founding director, UCLA Center for Communications and Community

FRANK LUNTZ
Pollster, political analyst
Commentator, Fox News Channel
Author, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear

MOLLY MELCHING
Advocate, educator
Founder and executive director, Tostan
Winner, 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize

EDWARD PECK '56
Political affairs expert
President, Foreign Services International
Former Ambassador, Mauritania
Former Chief of Mission, Baghdad
Former Deputy Director, White House Task Force on Terrorism

DR. JOSE QUIROGA
Human rights advocate
Co-founder and medical director, Program for Torture Victims
Former personal physician to ex-president of Chile Salvador Allende

NATAN SHARANSKY
Dissident, politician
Chairman, Adelson Institute at the Shalem Center
Author, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror

KEVIN SITES
Author, journalist
Correspondent, Yahoo! News
Former correspondent, CNN and NBC
Author, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars

GORE VERBINSKI '87
Film director, writer
Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, The Ring and Mouse Hunt, among others

YUNXIANG YAN
Sociocultural anthropologist
Co-director, UCLA Center for Chinese Studies
Professor of anthropology, UCLA
Author, Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999

Luntz: "I don't believe that. I think [other countries] raised their standards, which is a wonderful thing. Did you ever notice that countries with the word democratic in them weren't? And that countries that claimed they were a republic, weren't? We now demand more of countries that call themselves free. I'm convinced freedom is winning. Not capitalism. But democracy. Countries now at least have to attempt to look democratic, to hold elections. And every once in a while, those elections change history — Mandela in South Africa, Yushchenko in Ukraine. Tragically, there have been failures as well, most notably Chavez in Venezuela, freely elected and he then stood up and killed democracy as we know it."

Yunxiang Yan : "When the Chinese first received the idea of a democracy as this package of modernization, freedom, prosperity and personal happiness, it gave them high hope. [But] in the last two decades or so, you had economic growth and an improvement in living standards for a large number of people. Inequality has increased as well, but for a majority of people, the living standard has improved a lot. And Russia has been utilized by the state to illustrate what would happen if the country went the way of American democracy and had political reform first — you'd get what Russia got, which was until recently economic stagnation and a chaotic society. The Chinese put all of this together and [concluded that] the early perception was proven wrong. And that forced them to rethink the general concepts of freedom and democracy."

Sharansky: "If you compare those reports with 20, 25 or 50 years ago, you'll see it's always on the rise. People who belong to different cultures, different societies, want to be free. They don't want to live in fear. There are ups and downs, but the general trend is always upward. Strategically, I'm an optimist. Tactically, there are many things to worry about."

HOW WOULD YOU EVALUATE THE HEALTH OF PRESS FREEDOM AROUND THE WORLD TODAY?

Acevedo: "We have journalists all over the world living in hiding and losing their lives. I think about Guatemala and Honduras and countries I spend a lot of time in, and those stories are not being told yet. We really haven't heard what's going on in those governments."

Kevin Sites: "As an American journalist, the 'ideal' of freedom has traditionally meant I have the right to pursue and report the truth, no matter how uncomfortable to the current government, without fear of being thrown in jail. My colleagues in China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, Burma, Russia and many other places around the world do not enjoy the same freedoms ... However, while our constitution guarantees a 'free' press — it does not necessarily guarantee an independent one. Reporting on those in power — whether in government, military or corporations — often requires journalists in America to blunt their criticism in order to gain access, or risk being blackballed.

Additionally, news coverage in America is no longer a public service, but an economic commodity that must pay its own way — and thus bend to the pressure of market forces — developing the largest and most desirable audience that often prefers to follow the calamity of Hollywood celebrities, rather than the calamity of the Middle East or Central Asia."

CAN FREEDOM COEXIST WITH AN INCREASINGLY SURVEILLED SOCIETY?

Farrell: "I think not. The knowledge — or fear — that one is being 'watched' by those in authority, while perhaps offering a sense of security to the timid or complacent, will most certainly constipate, and ultimately undermine, the very idea of freedom."

Sites: "It's like a balloon when you squeeze it. One end gets bigger and the other gets smaller. A society that lives under watch learns not to express itself as openly and, thus, both criticism and public debate are stifled. I saw this illustrated in Syria where I was interviewing a group of students in a local tea house. They were eager to speak their minds — but knew a mukbarrat, a secret policeman, was seated behind us listening to every word. However, the world is full of examples of people finding ways to express themselves despite government obstacles. For instance, I also met a Syrian artist on the same trip who paints a recurring theme of human faces without mouths. When I asked him if he was depicting the difficulty of speaking freely in his society, he wisely remarked that was for me to decide."

IS FREEDOM SERVED OR THREATENED BY THE INTERNET?

Gilliam: "Both. It's clearly the case that it allows for a greater number of voices and perspectives but it also, by its viral nature, can distort realities and events in such a way that it regulates people's independence of thought. So you can get something viral out there and everybody's talking about it the next day as if it's gospel. And it may or may not be. It can, in fact, be something that constrains someone's freedom. [And] it's going to continue to be both."

Luntz: "It is so gosh-darned served by it that it drives me insane. Every day I Google my name and every day I read all sorts of things that have been ascribed to me that have no basis in reality whatsoever. I hate these people, but I love and will protect their right to do it. The problem with the Internet is ... with genuine freedom comes accountability. Without it, you have anarchy and chaos. We need traffic lights. Does that inhibit your freedom to drive 80 miles an hour? Absolutely. Does it make driving down the streets safer? Absolutely. On the Internet, there are no traffic lights or traffic cops. And there are consequences to that."

Sites: "More individuals have access to the Internet and are able to provide insights to many places and events difficult to penetrate by traditional journalists. The government crackdown in Burma was a good example, with local bloggers providing the initial reports while news organizations couldn't officially get into the country."

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM?

Farrell: "Whatever we choose to make it."

Abou El Fadl: "The war on terror has been an absolute disaster for the whole movement toward freedom. It put pragmatic domestic and foreign policy needs over the aspirational, idealistic aspects of seeking freedom. In Egypt in the '90s, the government was far more hesitant about destroying those who dreamed of freedom and demanded modifications or changes in institutions. Today, the government acts with impunity. This is happening in so many countries I've visited. With the war on terror, anything is justified."

Verbinski: "Unshackled freedom is a fine idea if you believe that man is inherently good. But what if that is not the case? ... Terms like prosperity, growth and freedom define us as Americans. But what of stasis? Sustainability? I don't think we necessarily stagnate or cease to evolve, just because we plateau. A ceiling may be desirable. It certainly keeps the rain out."

Acevedo: "We will fight for it more. We will be more present in it. We will value it more."

Sharansky: "Slavery disappeared from the world. It became so politically incorrect that no society tried it. I believe with all of its ups and downs, we can reach a stage where totalitarian regimes become relics just as much as slavery."

Gilliam: "In the short term, we're likely to see less and less freedom because I think we're just starting to be able to deal with the 'world is flat' idea, and I don't know that we have developed a good model to adjudicate the tension between freedom and rights, and freedom and responsibility ... As the Middle East and other parts of the world challenge modern Western thought, which relies on such concepts as freedom, democracy and rights, in the short term we're probably going to see greater challenges. In the long term, I hope we see our way through."

Also in The Future of Freedom:
Left Behind: The Democratic Poor
The poorest citizens of the world fare about the same in a democracy as in other governments, a UCLA researcher finds, and argues that countries must address starvation before free speech.

Luntz: "The greatest tragedy of this country in 2008 is the disaffection, dissolution, cynicism and fear of the future. My hope is that over the coming years, people will once again see the opportunities and sheer joy that life brings and will once again reach for the stars instead of fearing failure ... A critical component to freedom is the sense of progress, the belief that tomorrow will be better than today if we make it better. Freedom requires a commitment to the future and a passion to change our lives for the better. Think of those nations that were not free and became free. There's one commonality — they had the passion to fight, the inspiration to challenge the status quo, and a vision of the future that was radically different than the past. God help us if we lose our passion, if we have no inspiration, or if we accept the status quo."

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