Influential financial analysts Zerohedge claim George Soros “singlehandedly created the European refugee crisis”; xenophobic rag Breitbart says Soros’s funding of Black Lives Matter was part of an agenda to swing the US presidential election; and Donald Trump’s favourite crank Alex Jones says “Soros is behind the Muslim takeover of the West”. In August, hackers thought to be linked to the Russian government stole thousands of documents from Soros’s foundation’s servers and put them online, placing at risk many of the brave individuals the foundation funds.
As the world turns to the hard right, one man has become a figure of hate for resurgent nationalists across the globe: Soros has become the No 1 target for the alt-right – a figure central to wild conspiracy theories – because nationalists want to destroy for good the idea that democracy or liberal values can be promoted, or encouraged.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 27 years ago this month, was predicted to herald a new era of freedom across the globe. After it came down, Soros put his cash to work investing in freedom. Within a few years after the decline of communism he had pledged $1bn for reconstructing civil society.
He gave an unprecedented grant of $250m to transform how liberal humanities were taught in Russia (communist textbooks had to be rewritten from scratch to explain how democracy worked), and another $250m to build a new university in Budapest. He personally gave $50m in aid to Bosnia and $100m to keep Russian scientists in the country to avoid a brain drain to the West. Since then, he has donated an estimated $11bn to progressive causes including the promotion of democracy, LGBT activism, support for refugees and migrants and the defence of human rights.
He is the largest single donor in human history for the defence and strengthening of democracy. It was his harrowing childhood here in Europe that led him to donate his wealth in the way he has.
Soros escaped the Holocaust, but only just. As a child he was instructed by the authorities to give slips of paper telling fellow Jews to report to their rabbi at 9am the next morning. His father instantly understood the authorities were rounding up local Jews for deportation. He told the young Soros to tell every Jew he presented the paper with that they shouldn’t go. As Soros wrote in his biography: “There was one man I shall not forget. I took it to him and told him what my father had said. He said: ‘Tell your father that I am a law-abiding citizen, that I have always been a law-abiding citizen and I am not going to start breaking the law now.’ And that stayed with me forever.”
The horrors of the Holocaust instilled in Soros the need to tackle the racism and xenophobia found across European society. After the collapse of the USSR, he doubled his efforts to promote democracy beyond the Iron Curtain, saying: “The foundation began in Hungary. Its purpose was to help to build a country from which I wouldn't want to emigrate.”
What Soros funds is precisely what the new generation of populist far-right politicians fear. He supports fact-checkers to call out the misleading claims of the populists. One study of the methods of the Putin handbook put it: “Don’t worry at all about lying or presenting incomplete or otherwise inaccurate information.” Former US government security analyst Aaron Azlant notes Trump’s aides may have learned their post-truth politics while working closely with Kremlin agents in the Ukraine. Fact-checkers undermine these lies.
He also donates to groups that help migrants and refugees. For the new nationalists who believe in restricting the diversity of Europe and the US – essentially to keep both as white as possible – Soros’s support for migrants is to “flood Europe with hordes of third-world Muslims” because his aim is “fundamentally about the destruction of national borders”. The charge says much about the nationalist worldview. We are in a sorry state indeed if helping refugees is now a political act.
What really incenses the Trump and Putin right is the work Soros does to support democrats and human rights activists. The new autocratic right, like the isolationist left, believes in isolated people and nations. To spread democracy is toxic: Putin should be left as a strongman to govern Russia and Trump should be left to govern the US.
Universal human rights, which are there to protect individual liberty against these strongmen, are particularly suspect in this worldview. In the coming years, expect Breitbart, the conspiracy theorists and their willing online idiots to rail angrily at the human rights “establishment”. Already we see calls for the Trump presidency to adopt the foreign agents legislation of Vladimir Putin which makes it hard for gay rights groups and other human rights groups to operate in Russia. The target of this legislation is predictable: George Soros.
Here I should declare my interest: yes, many of the campaigns I’ve worked on previously have been part-funded by Soros, including campaigns to improve free speech here in the UK. But the attacks on Soros and his vision for the world are an attack on anyone who cares about the future of freedom. You shouldn’t just be repelled by the anti-Semitism of the conspiracy theories about him (to put it bluntly: Soros as a Jew wants to destroy the white race through multiculturalism), but understand why he is singled out.
Very few of the world’s governments or rich donors fund the brave citizens who fight daily for human rights. It’s less sexy and more political than vaccination, or the fight against cancer. As the light of liberty darkens as the world’s democracies turn to the populist far right, expect the attacks on Soros to intensify.
Mike Harris is chief executive officer of 89up and the publisher of Little Atoms
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