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What the San Francisco Freedom Forum was all about

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The motto of the first San Francisco Freedom Forum, the American outpost of the Human Rights Foundation's annual Oslo meet, was "many paths, one goal." And while the event was somewhat smaller than its European version, which has been described as a kind of "Davos for dissidents," it still brought a truly global group of activists and journalists to downtown San Francisco. The paths of the various speakers, which included such diverse figures as The Dictator's Learning Curve author and Slate's politics and foreign-affairs editor William J. Dobson and Saudi female driving activist Manal al-Sharif, were indeed many. Yet one speaker -- the iconic Burmese opposition leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi -- gave a provocative articulation of what the goal, and the almost-obsessively invoked idea of "freedom," might actually mean.

An overview of the world's human rights rough spots, the Forum consisted of a series of speakers who drew attention to abuses both obscure, like the massacre of Kazakh oil workers in December of 2011, and well-known, like political suppression in China. Although Human Rights Foundation director Thor Halvorssen opened the forum by explaining that "all of us believe ... there should be limits on state power," one of the day's more captivating presentations was from Ahmed Benchemsi, a dissident Moroccan magazine editor and current Stanford University fellow who spoke about the need for Arab publics to recognize the skeptical and secularizing currents that already exist in their societies, and, he argued, in all societies. "Do you really think that Arabs are Orwellian robots who do not doubt?" Benchemsi asked attendees, advancing an argument more targeted at an entire political and social complex than at any individual state or government.

Perhaps thanks to the co-sponsorship of web entrepreneur and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel's charitable foundation, there was a strong libertarian contingent present (sample lunch line conversation: "I would distinguish between Objectivism and 'things Rand wrote.' 'Now just where do you draw that line?'" Google Founder Sergey Brin's foundation co-sponsored as well.). The Forum's attendees included a man who said that he wrote the original protocol for BitTorrent, a breakthrough for freedom, as well as free-ness; one gentleman said he was the founder of the first libertarian organization for religious people ("We have a monopoly," he joked). The BitTorrent programmer was hardly the only representative of the more utopian wing of the tech community. I met people from Google Ideas and Wikimedia; Craig Newmark, whose first name is practically synonymous with Internet-age communitarianism, was there as well.

But so were numerous people who would be considered "dissidents" in the classical sense, like Maryam Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini exile and head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "I realized when I became an activist that your rights are only protected if you carry a certain passport," she told me, explaining the difficulties of working as a human rights advocate when your opponent is a favored government of the world's superpowers, and especially the U.S. "The U.S. is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria," she said.

I also met Birtukan Midekssa, a former jurist and opposition politician who was a prisoner of Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi from 2005 to 2009, and is now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Zenawi died this past August, but she has no short-term plans to return to Ethiopia, and the demise of her former jailer brought Midekssa no sense of triumph or relief. "My politics are about life, celebrating life and human dignity," she told me. She was optimistic about her country's long-term prospects, even if Zenawi's state structure is still firmly entrenched. "It's obvious that eventually we are going to democratize. The aspirations of the people are there."

The Forum brought together optimists and realists, activists who promoted freedom from political oppressors and dictators; others, from social strictures or the regulation of online space. But even freedom in its most catholic sense has an empty, nostrum-like quality if invoked in excess, or without any sense of what gives coherency to such an idea so central, but so easily-appropriated. Libertarians and tech activists sometimes find themselves in opposition to democratic governments whose commitment to political freedom is undeniable -- even if it runs against alternative philosophies of individual liberty. Freedom from the overreach of a democratic system is different from the idea of freedom from a Bahrain or Ethiopia-type nightmare, in which free expression or association is literally a life-threatening prospect. And this is in turn different from freedom from social or cultural pressures, or freedom from a once-liberalizing and potentially-reformable government like China's. The forum was a unique convergence of-pro freedom voices, even if their struggles and goals, and perhaps the meaning of "freedom" within their immediate political or social contexts, were markedly different.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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