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The Future of Freedom

By Wendy Melillo

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM


Illustration by Jeremy Deveraturda


All over the world, people are reexamining what the word 'freedom' means to them — and whether democracy is the best way to deliver it. Meanwhile, individual rights are under siege across the globe.

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

As America approached its first Independence Day following the September 11 attacks, the Ad Council was poised to launch a new campaign called the "Campaign for Freedom" to focus national attention on the civil liberties U.S. citizens enjoy. One spot, "Library," featured a young man being taken away for questioning by security officers after requesting two books that Americans were not allowed to read. The tagline read: "Freedom. Appreciate It. Cherish It. Protect It."

The irony was that when the PSA hit the air in July 2002, many Americans did not realize that the passage of the Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in October of 2001, had already given the FBI the power to force libraries and bookstores to provide the government with check-out and purchase lists. The Act also placed librarians and booksellers under a permanent gag order forbidding them from telling citizens when their records were being scrutinized.

Since 9/11, our nation has done much serious soul-searching on the issue of freedom and its proper relationship to security. But the global state of freedom, at least as we define it, is equally unsettled. All over the world, democracy — the sine qua non of a free society for Westerners — is being questioned, debated or threatened.

If you ask activists, they're just as likely to argue that the discussion should start with ensuring that people have enough to eat and access to medicine than a romantic and vague notion of "freedom." Artists might think in terms of the ability to follow ideas wherever they lead without boundaries.

Political thinkers and scholars might ponder the impact of the policies of governments — ours as well as those of emerging powers. In China, notes Yunxiang Yan, co-director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, "increasingly they see the possibility of a new kind of market economy which is not necessarily bound with democracy, especially the American type of democracy. And it's working."

And in our own country, experts question the assumptions by which we have defined and linked the concepts of freedom and democracy. UC Berkeley Professor and former Clinton Administration cabinet member Robert Reich thinks that America's hyper-capitalism is destroying democracy at home and around the world. CNN host and Newsweek contributor Fareed Zakaria has argued that democracy doesn't always work, and can even be inimical to freedom. And Frank Gilliam, dean of UCLA's School of Public Affairs, notes that "there are some monarchies that, I suspect, would think they are free societies."

We even have different definitions for the words themselves. Dr. Jose Quiroga, medical director of Los Angeles-based Program for Torture Victims, the first torture treatment center in the United States, notes that "the terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' as two separate words exist only in English. The Latin, Slavic and German languages contain only one term — liberty."

RIGHTS AND WRONGS

Beyond the debate over how and whether to provide U.S.-style democracy, one point is not in dispute: Those who do seek freedom, by any name, are in danger.

How well freedom is faring in some parts of the world is evidenced by such stories as The Washington Post's July 5 account of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who refused to accept his recent election loss and relied on his military forces to keep him in office. The military plan's code name? CIBD, which stood for Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.

Barely more than a year ago, as many as 100,000 protesters led by Buddhist monks and nuns created the largest anti-government protest since the failed 1988 democratic uprising in Myanmar, formerly Burma. The military junta responded with a crackdown that included raids of Buddhist monasteries, beatings and soldiers firing automatic weapons into crowds of protesters.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in July for Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. China has continued its forced resettlement efforts of nomadic herders in Tibet. When Fidel Castro stepped down earlier this year, his brother Raul was the only nominee to replace him in a vote seen as a formality. Women still can't drive a car in King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia, the only Arab Muslim country that bans all non-Islamic religious practices on its territory. And Egypt's charges last year against Ibrahim Eissa, the independent journalist and editor of al-Dustour newspaper, for reporting on President Hosni Mubarak's failing health, is one of the latest examples of how Mubarak has yet to fulfill his 2004 pledge to stop issuing prison sentences to journalists based on what they publish.

FEAR FOR THE FUTURE

The advocacy group Freedom House notes that 2007 was a year of "notable" setbacks for global freedom, with declines being most prevalent in South Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. It was the first instance of two consecutive years of decline in global freedom in the past 15 years. Currently 90 countries (47 percent) out of the 193 in the world are considered free as defined by a respect for basic human rights and political freedoms, according to the group's global "Freedom in the World 2008" survey.

Despite gains in expanding liberty around the globe over the last 30 years where countries have tossed out dictatorships, embraced democratic principles and developed a respect for civil liberties, new efforts to stop the spread of democracy threaten to undo some of the significant gains made, according to Freedom House's 2008 report "Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies."

"The strategy of those involved in this campaign to roll back democracy has many facets: dismantling independent media, marginalizing the political opposition and preventing independent think tanks and NGOs from obtaining necessary resources," the report says. "In addition, many of the world's worst violators of human rights and democratic standards have joined in loose coalitions at the United Nations to deflect attention from their records of repression."

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.

Moreover, what happens to freedom when rich, authoritarian nations that eschew democratic principles like Saudi Arabia and China can make significant infrastructure investments in Third World countries? To what extent do the controversies over the war in Iraq and other U.S. foreign policy positions impact the reputation of democracy as a guarantor of freedom?

We asked thinkers in many different fields and with many different opinions, on campus and off, what freedom means to them and where they think it is headed around the world. Some of their answers are hopeful. Some are fearful. All may surprise you.

The Voices of Freedom

Art. Activism. Diplomacy. Public Affairs. Politics. Journalism. We asked a diverse group of human beings from many fields, within and outside the Bruin family, to answer seven basic questions about the future of freedom. Here are their answers ...

WHAT DOES THE WORD "FREEDOM" MEAN TO YOU?

Gisselle Acevedo: "Most of us come [to America] to escape persecution, to escape a sense of inferiority. For those of us who have integrated, it is a sense of hope, that in this country I will have the ability to get a college education. I will have the ability to make choices. That's really what we're talking about when we talk about freedom."

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

Frank Luntz: "Freedom is the opportunity to think and act without limitation. Freedom is peace of mind, knowing that my only limitations are my dreams and my aspirations, and that everyone around me has the same opportunities that I have. I love it, I live for it, I breathe it, I eat it, and I sleep with it. I don't know if I appreciate freedom as much as I resent the absence of it."

Molly Melching: "I've lived in Senegal for 34 years and the word 'freedom' has changed for me since I lived here. I didn't really understand what it meant in a context where people have certain freedoms but they do not have choices. When you don't have choices, freedom is meaningless. When you are born in a village without access to schools, or health services, or married at age 12 and have to undergo traditions relative to your ethnic group, you have really no choice. You can run away from that and find a place where you could have that choice, but then you are totally marginalized and outside your group."

David Gere: "I'm in Mexico City at the moment, preparing activist art exhibitions for the World AIDS Conference. And from this vantage point, freedom and democracy are not the big issues. Instead, we need to think about basic human rights. My discussions with people who are living with HIV/AIDS in Mexico City suggest that human rights trump the other two ... For people living with HIV/AIDS, access to new treatments for their illnesses or governmental protection from stigma and discrimination are basic essentials ... and since HIV is only communicable through shared body fluids, not through casual contact, restrictions against travel are nonsensical and ought to be lifted ... And so, from the perspective of people living with HIV/AIDS, let these discussions begin with human rights, and only then let us expand outward to consider the wider array of freedoms associated with democracy."

Gore Verbinski: "Creative autonomy is vital to me. It is the only way to achieve singularity and prevent homogenization of voice. Yet the creative process, like all things, needs conflict. It needs something to rub against. I think without restraints, financial or creative, we have the freedom to say anything and yet [have] nothing to say."

Natan Sharansky: "Freedom is not being afraid to say what you really think. If you can go to the town square and express your views and you are not punished, then that society is free."

ARE FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY SYNONYMOUS?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: "[Freedom and democracy are] majestic terms that give expression to universally felt human aspirations. They incompletely and insufficiently give expression to something that's innate in human beings. Like justice or equality, goodness or even beauty, all of these terms attempt to identify something that's built into us as human beings. So this huge push to achieve freedom institutionally is rather naïve. After a long history of oppression and despotism, after decades of suppression, naturally a longing for freedom gets greater and greater. But if people haven't developed sophisticated institutional models, it can create a great deal of disappointment. The institutions fail miserably and people think their dreams of freedom are impossible."

Frank Gilliam: "Conventional wisdom presumes that democracy only happens in 'free societies.' But I suspect that both freedom and democracy are relative terms, and so they are only synonymous to the extent that their relativities are equivalent ... We see this in the Middle East, this notion that somehow we're going to democratize them. Freedom is relative in that context. Free from what? They would say freedom from imperialism and Western culture."

Melching: "In Somalia, a religious leader came to our seminar and said, 'I was ready to destroy Tostan because you teach democracy and we had learned that democracy was nothing but American propaganda. And then I realized that I didn't know what democracy meant. I didn't know what human rights were. Now I'm the biggest defender of democracy there is.' The person who has seen a picture of a lion and the one who has had a lion come after him respond differently to the word 'lion.'"

Mike Farrell: "Democracy simply means government by the people, thus a government in which the power resides in the people and is expressed through elected representatives. While one would hope that a concern for the general welfare would imply an attempt to provide a free society, the reality is that there is always the possibility of what some have called the 'tyranny of the majority.'"

Dr. Jose Quiroga: "After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the balance between freedom, democracy and security has been lost. In the name of security, America and other countries have lost fundamental civil liberties and political rights ... Many of these actions, such as torture, are violations of domestic criminal laws, are crimes against humanity under international human right laws, and are war crimes under humanitarian laws."

Edward Peck '56: "As is the case with many of mankind's manifold political and social possibilities, freedom and democracy are largely in the eye of the beholder. If one person's concept of freedom, for example, may differ markedly from that of the next-door neighbor, think what it means in a cross-cultural context. The controlling factor is always and only perception, how people see things. An illustration of this compelling but often ignored fact is our current insistence that a) you cannot have freedom without democracy, and b) you are going to have both — whether you like it or not."

Sharansky: "Liberal democracy means the rule of the majority and defending human rights. Democracy is the system which protects that. It's technical. It's what you need to do to build a free society."

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."

Left Behind: The Democratic Poor

A UCLA researcher finds that democracy doesn't necessarily help the poor. Free speech and open elections are noble goals, he contends, but feed them first.

By Sean Brenner

While some observers are pessimistic about democracy's ability to deliver freedom, research by one UCLA professor reached another surprising conclusion about democratic governments' ability to deliver food.

Michael Ross, associate professor of political science, analyzed the plight of the poor in 169 countries and found that the poorest citizens in democracies fare no differently in terms of health, education and child welfare than do their counterparts in non-democratic countries.

The findings, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Political Science, stirred some controversy — Ross notes that "political scientists in general are very pro-democracy" — but they also indicate ways in which future research can improve democracy. "We need to think about what's preventing democracies from functioning as well as they should," he explains.

"Poor people around the world are being squeezed very hard by the rise in food prices and fuel prices, and these trends are making the issue of global poverty exceptionally urgent today," Ross says. "I'm hoping my research can help spur us to think harder about how governments can better serve the needs of the poor at a time when the poor are under such stress."

Ross doesn't discount the benefits of democracy and freedom, but he suggests that addressing poverty — under any form of government — should be a higher priority than installing free speech and open elections. "People need to eat. As important as political freedom is, when we're speaking about the poorest of the poor, I'm more urgently worried about their ability to meet their basic economic needs."

So how would Ross like to see his findings influence U.S. foreign policy? "We need to encourage civil societies in these countries to pay closer attention to their governments' oil wealth," he says. "There is some exciting research now looking at whether greater transparency in government will lead to better social services. It's an exciting area, and it conceivably could make a difference."