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Food for Thought on Future of Freedom

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At Westmont President's Breakfast, author Fareed Zakaria charts positive progress but has some words of warning, too.

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Think the world is spiraling out of control? Think again.

Contrary to all the doom and gloom in the news, the world at large is experiencing an era of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaría told a crowd of about 750 people at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort on Monday morning.

But many American citizens are having trouble accepting the good news, he noted.

Monday’s event was the third annual installment of a lecture series put on by Westmont College called “The President’s Breakfast: Conversations About Things That Matter.” It was the first to be hosted by Gayle Beebe, Westmont’s new president.

The idea behind the series is to deepen Westmont’s ties to the community by bringing in high-profile speakers of worldwide relevance, school officials said.

At first blush, Zakaría, who was raised by a Muslim family in India, might seem an unusual choice for an event — sponsored by a private evangelical Christian college — that opens with a prayer. But school leaders say the series aims, among other things, to project to the community Westmont’s dedication to being a local bastion of critical thought.

“Fareed Zakaría’s father is Muslim and mother is Episcopalian,” said Cliff Lundberg, Westmont’s executive vice president. “I don’t know the details of his own religious beliefs. But I do know he is a critical thinker, and that’s what we try teach our students: To use the ability to think through any subject and process any kind of input.”

Last year, Westmont officials were similarly creed-blind in their selection for a keynote speaker, choosing Jewish New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“We want to avoid being viewed as a private institution hidden up in the hills of Montecito,” Lundberg added. “We want to be contributing to the community.”

Zakaría, who has publicly stated that he is not religious, is widely seen as a political centrist. The 44-year-old best-selling author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad was a member of the “Party of the Right” at Yale University, and frequently champions the power of private ingenuity over government bloat. Yet his pro-immigration bent is out of step with the views of many evangelical Americans.

Ultimately, however, Zakaría’s focus is less about partisan politics, and more about encouraging a global free market over American isolationism.

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On Monday, Zakaría paced the stage wearing a cordless headpiece-microphone, weaving a staggering amount of statistics into a conversational lecture that even included a few punch lines — all without notes.

“The global economy grew over the last seven years faster than at any point over the prior 50 years,” he said. “That’s what changed in the world. All of a sudden, everyone is playing the game.”

What’s more, Zakaría noted, the world of late has been plagued by fewer and fewer wars.

For all the world’s current violence, he said, it pales in comparison to the Vietnam War, which killed 52,000 Americans and upward of 1 million Vietnamese, or the Iran-Iraq War, which killed about 1 million, or the six-year Second Congolese War that ended in 2004, which killed some 4 million.

Zakaría blamed widespread fears that the world is an unsafe place on the growing presence of the media, whose incentive to cherry-pick disasters around the world is a distortion of reality, and a byproduct of a competitive business model desperate for viewers.

“You didn’t see the killings of Cambodia on the nightly news,” he said. “Today, if a bomb goes off and six people are killed, it is breaking news.

“Every time you see the sign ‘Breaking News,’ make a mental note: It probably isn’t breaking news,” he said. “They don’t want you to touch that channel.”

Zakaría said the global economy’s upswing was largely catalyzed by the Soviet Union’s collapse, which ushered in an era of worldwide capitalism. As a result, he continued, most boats are rising.

Meanwhile, the two sleeping giants of the world, China and India, are starting to wake up, he said. He then drew a chuckle from the audience by sharing “Zakaría’s Law of Mathematics:

“A number, no matter how small, when multiplied by 2.5 billion, becomes a very large number.”

America, he said, rose to dominance largely because it had the foresight to be among the world’s first capitalist societies. Now that virtually every country is pursuing capitalism he advises Americans to embrace the fact that it’s not alone.

So far, they are not. Recently, he said, the United States ranked last of 47 countries in a survey measuring enthusiasm for world trade.

“This is our great danger: just as the world is opening up, we’re closing down,” he said.

The good news, he said, is that America continues to enjoy the finest system of education.

Zakaría’s prescription to America is to keep playing to its biggest historical strengths: education, innovation and immigration.

“If we turn our backs on these true historical strengths of ours, all the other government solutions in the world won’t matter,” he said. “In the past 200 years, the U.S. has succeeded in its mission to globalize the world. It only forgot in the process to globalize itself.”

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