George Soros © Wikicommons/ Niccolò Caranti
It’s a bit of a conundrum: why is a man famed for philanthropy, who has contributed billions of dollars to causes to alleviate poverty, enhance education, bring fresh water where there is a shortage and other such worthy objectives held up as a terrifying object of hatred by large numbers of people? Of course, human emotions don’t have to make sense or rely on intelligence and they make even less where large groups are gathered. The humorous writer Sir Terry Pratchett once wrote that the IQ of any crowd equates to the IQ of its dimmest member, divided by the number of people present. George Soros, though, is very bright. He has set up an organisation whose aim is to overcome barriers that hold people back, to improve the prospects of the poor and needy and to generally act as an all-round benefactor. It’s a great idea, George, but there are those who don’t want barriers removed, who are happy to keep the poor firmly in their places and to prevent internationalism, which they see as bad, for some reason. It’s almost as if they’re afraid we might actually like each other, if we got to know each other. Perhaps we would, although the evidence for that is scant
There is a song in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific that derides race hatred and claims that babies are not born hating people who look different. As babies and toddlers they will play together quite happily, although natural curiosity may cause them to prod each other from time to time, just to check. However, hatred is an acquired feeling; without being taught it by our elders we might actually get on well with those whose skin is a different colour, who speak different languages and who follow different religions. “You’ve got to be taught/to be afraid/of people/whose eyes are oddly made/and people whose skin is a different shade,” runs the song. It comes when the heroine, US Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush, is repelled to discover that the widowed French plantation owner she fancies, Emile De Becque, has fathered two children of mixed race. She leaves him, which leads him to volunteer for a dangerous mission against the Japanese. While he is away, Nellie comes to love the children and to realise that race doesn’t matter. The film was banned in some southern states of America for that reason. It’s a nice idea to have all of us born without prejudice and only to learn racial intolerance from others, but I’m afraid that many of us enter the world with an in-built hatred for anyone different and an even greater hatred for those who don’t share their hostility towards people of different races, creeds or colour.
Looking back through history there have been various tipping points where we could have reset the game and started again from “go”, but we have always missed them. At the end of the First World War, the negotiations for a peace agreement were so controversial that some observers were predicting World War II before the ink was dry on the signatures ending World War I. The Versailles Treaty was a very imperfect document, landing Germany with massive debts it could never possibly repay and a lot of deep-seated resentment. Signed at the one-time royal palace of Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris (a remarkable building and well worth a visit, although when I was there the catering facilities were ghastly; take sandwiches), it held Germany solely responsible for the awful slaughter and imposed wide-ranging penalties, including a loss of territory, massive payments in reparation and also disarmament, which was never likely to happen in a country that manufactured and exported high quality weapons, ranging from small arms to long-range bombers and tanks.
What it didn’t even attempt to do was to deal with the underlying issues that had led to the war in the first place. In the views of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the war was because of jingoistic calls to arms by the German leaders to support German industry while its enemies wanted the same, but in reverse. “In reality, the object of the struggle of the British and French bourgeoisie,” he wrote, “ is to seize the German colonies and to ruin a competing nation which has displayed a more rapid rate of economic development. And, in pursuit of this noble aim, the ‘advanced’ democratic nations are helping the savage tsarist regime to strangle Poland, Ukraine, and so on, and to throttle revolution in Russia more thoroughly.” You must admit, he’d pretty well hit the nail on the head.
It’s natural, perhaps, that the allies wanted repayment and compensation for their losses but humiliating the defeated party was bound to fuel resentment and nationalism. It undoubtedly led to the success of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, as the German people looked for someone or something to blame, although Hitler, of course, diverted this resentment into hatred for the Jews, handy scapegoats for racism. They, in turn, had also suffered the effects of war and the cost of restitution, as well as having experienced discrimination for decades, albeit not on this deadly scale. The economic crisis faced by the post-war German economy and by its population was easily manipulated by Hitler and his friends into a resentment against the Jews. The very sensible “Fourteen Points” that US President Woodrow Wilson proposed were mostly ignored in the final deal. They were supposed to ensure, among other things, that all future treaties should be public with nothing held back in secret, that there would be free and fair trade, that Belgium would be independent and that Alsace-Lorraine, won from France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 71 would be returned to it, something German nationalists resented immediately. When the Nazis re-took the region in World War II, they made it a criminal offence to speak French in the city of Strasbourg and its surrounding areas with harsh penalties for anyone caught. To sing the Marseillaise (which was composed in Strasbourg by a pro-Revolutionary French Captain of Engineers Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle) meant death. After all, the original Alsatian language has Germanic roots. However, you can still travel around the lovely city of Strasbourg on a bateau mouche called the Roget de Lisle.
It seems, then, that hatred is not a learned attitude but rather something that’s innate; it is, perhaps, what helped our homo sapiens ancestors to get rid of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans and any other hominids that shared our planet for hundreds of thousands of years. We weren’t cleverer than them, perhaps, just more vicious. That naturally occurring violence can be seen in the faces and chants of some crowds, at sporting events, for instance, and at political rallies. As a matter of interest, the huge crowds that marched through London to demand a second referendum on leaving the EU (the largely anti-EU newspapers didn’t cover the marches and the government didn’t listen or take any notice) were entirely peaceful. One right-wing newspaper dismissed it as a “protest by Waitrose customers” (Waitrose is a supermarket chain popular with the middle classes). It was simply, as it was intended to be, an insult. On the marches, of which there were three altogether, I saw only smiles and chatter, with no chant more violent than “bollocks to Brexit”, in which respectable-looking little old ladies participated gleefully. Perhaps it was that lack of violence that led to failure; governments only respond to threats that carry the burden of possible attack. The crowd, although more than a million strong, never looked physically threatening, although they might have offered you a sweet.
SELF-DEFENCE BECOMES SELF-OFFENCE
Britain’s Eurosceptic right hated the European Union; in other parts of the world those with similar political leanings chose the billionaire philanthropist George Soros as the hate figure against whom they could rally. It’s very strange but also quite frightening. Supporters of the far-right from many countries like attacking Soros.
Take, for example, Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s former Brexit Party and before that of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, also campaigning against Britain remaining in the EU. Farage, speaking in the European Parliament during a debate on the so-called ‘Paradise Papers’, which revealed tax evasion by the very rich, said “When we are talking about offshore money, when we are talking about political subversion, when we are talking about collusion, I wonder if we are looking in the wrong place? And I say that because George Soros recently gave Open Society, which of course campaigns for freedom of movement of people and supranational structures like the European Union, $18 billion (€14.9-bn) . And his influence here and in Brussels is truly extraordinary. I fear we could be looking at the biggest level of international, political collusion in history.” One has to say that this is the sort of thing Farage, a hater of all things European, is inclined to say quite a lot. He has come in for criticism for anti-Semitic statements in the past, although I’ve never found him to be an anti-Semite in conversation. He’s at his most interesting if you can get him onto the subject of World War I, on which he is an expert and a serious collector of memorabilia. He can tell you which regiments fought where and when and who led them. He just hates everything to do with the EU and is in favour of strong national borders, behind which we must all shelter, not so much waving at each other as making rude gestures, I imagine. Mixing with other nationalities is not to be encouraged in the Farage play book.
As for comparing Soros with the billionaires listed in the Paradise Papers, it’s a comparison that doesn’t really bear close examination. On the one hand, you have a bunch of extremely wealthy people who have found ways to avoid paying their taxes by hiding their wealth – gained by whatever means – in places with unusually low-tax regimes and thereby saving them from paying their legally required share and thus contributing to society. In Soros you have a man who is, certainly, a billionaire but who not only pays his taxes but also voluntarily donates additional millions to causes that help some of society’s poorest and most vulnerable and who believes the world would be a nicer place if we all mixed and mingled, border-free. The problem is that many of Soros’s critics cannot accept that a rich man would choose to share his wealth with others, presumably because they certainly wouldn’t. They tend to hold some odd ideas, too, like Robert Bowers, an American convinced that Soros was funding a secret operation to kill all white people and replace them with immigrants, mainly Jewish ones. To “get his own back” in advance, he entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and shot dead eleven worshippers. Idiots who believe in far-fetched conspiracy theories sometimes turn out to be conspirators themselves.
Many Americans, it seems, still believe in the theory that Soros wants to replace them all with Jewish immigrants, however ludicrous it may seem to be. That is why, on a neo-Nazi march through Charlottesville, Kentucky, the marchers were chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Few who heard it knew what on Earth they were talking about. There is not, it would appear, any conspiracy theory so totally daft that somebody somewhere will not grasp it like a magic talisman and swear it’s the truth. As the Irish poet W.B.Yeats wrote in 1928, “We had fed the heart on fantasies, /The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
COUNTING THE PENNIES
George Soros certainly isn’t hard up for cash. In May 2020, his net worth was estimated at $8.3-billion (€6.74-billion). Over the course of his career he has given away more than $32-billion (€26.4-billion) to the projects of his Open Society Foundation, which is active in 120 countries around the world, engaged in things like health, education, gender equality and human rights, all the sorts of things the far right apparently detests. In their view, it seems, women and foreigners ‘must be kept in their place’. Born in Hungary in 1930 Soros lived through the Nazi occupation of 1944-45, which saw half a million Jews murdered. He and his family, he says, escaped with the aid of false identification papers and he claims they helped others to do the same. There is no particular reason to doubt his version of events but once again the far-right claim that he reported his neighbours to the Nazis, leading to more deaths. However, there is a flaw in the far-right’s version of events. On the one hand, they say he betrayed his Jewish roots to help the Nazis while on the other some claim he’s seeking to replace white western workers with Jewish immigrants. There is no logic to the argument, nor any coherence either.
Sadly, the Internet has the downside of providing a forum for the most outrageous and far-fetched theories to be shared out among people eager to give credence to the latest conspiracy theory. As for the detestation of Soros voiced in Hungary, especially by its leader, Viktor Orbán, we should remember, perhaps, that when Hitler’s forces led the invasion of Soviet territory in Operation Barbarossa, the 152 German divisions were joined by 14 Finnish divisions in the north and the same number of Romanian divisions in the south, creating a truly massive number of armed and well-equipped men, set on conquest. The excellent book, Stalin’s General by Geoffrey Roberts, a biography of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army’s most brilliant World War II general whose equestrian statue stands in Red Square, goes on to list the other participants: “Later, the 3.5-million-strong invasion force would be joined by armies from Hungary and Italy, by the Spanish Blue Division, by contingents from Croatia and Slovakia, and by volunteer units recruited from every country in Nazi-occupied Europe.” The numbers of countries engaged in the invasion with its aim of overthrowing the Soviet Union and Communism in general explains, if it doesn’t excuse, the cruel vengeance the Red Army perpetrated as it took it all back.
In 1947, Soros escaped from Communist Hungary and made his way to London where, with money earned from manual work, he paid his way through the London School of Economics before emigrating to the United States in 1956. There he thrived in a world of high finance and investments, launching his own hedge fund in 1973. It succeeded and he became one of the most successful – and wealthiest – investors in the US.
He was a follower of Karl Popper, whose book, The Open Society and its Enemies, is a defence of democratic liberalism as a political and social philosophy. Written in 1938, Soros read it while in London. Popper, who died in 1994, was, he said, opposed to dogmatism in science, but even his friends described him as being personally quite dogmatic in debate. He believed firmly in the idea that a proposition must be tested by trying to falsify it and he warned of the dangers of believing in a theory that later experimentation might disprove.
For instance, he was doubtful about Einstein’s claims that light could be bent by gravity and said that the whole of General Relativity Theory could be overthrown if experimentation proved that one aspect wrong. Of course, Einstein’s claims were proved by the astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919. It was through this faith in the falsification doctrine that he believed that such ideas as astrology and spiritualism would be disproved. But he believed in the “Open Society” – also the name of his book, which Soros had so admired. It would be a society without barriers between peoples, and that’s why it was chosen by Soros as the name for his own foundation. Having amassed a vast and growing fortune, Soros used it to build that very society. In 1979, he got the chance to put his money where Popper’s mouth was, by financing scholarships for black South Africans, despite the apartheid regime. He also facilitated fact-finding visits to the West for students at universities in Communist countries, being no lover of a dogmatic philosophy like Marxism-Leninism. That activity expanded with the fall of the Berlin Wall and in 1991 he opened the Central European University to spread his ideas, and those of the maverick philosopher Popper. Popper had toyed with Communism but disliked the rigid frameworks it imposed. He liked personal freedom and his protégé, Soros, agrees.
Soros became known as “the man who broke the Bank of England” in the early 1990s by short-selling the pound sterling, convinced it would force the Conservative government of John Major to leave Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism and devalue the pound. It worked; the pound was devalued by 20%, earning Soros $1.2-billion (€1-billion) and leaving behind the memory of what became known as “Black Wednesday”. Major’s government never really recovered and I must admit I felt just a little bit sorry for him at the time. He hadn’t seen it coming, but nor had anyone else. As Soros himself said, although not apropos of this event, “The financial markets generally are unpredictable. So that one has to have different scenarios… The idea that you can actually predict what’s going to happen contradicts my way of looking at the market.” If anyone knows how to look at the market it’s Soros, and he has not tried to make himself popular in his adopted United States. “The main enemy of the open society, I believe,” he said, “is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.”
That sort of comment would never play well in Washington or Wall Street. Soros makes no secret of where he believes the real blame lies, either. “The main obstacle to a stable and just world order is the United States,” he has said. “[This idea] happens to coincide with the prevailing opinion in the world. And I think that’s rather shocking for Americans to hear.”
What is truly shocking to hear (after all, in the heart of Europe anti-American comments are not that uncommon, although they may diminish now that Donald Trump has gone) are the anti-Semitic comments. Take this quote about Soros from Forbes on-line magazine. “He is frequently the target of conservative and Republican political leaders, including President Trump, who has used his Twitter account to make baseless claims against the financier. Soros has been called a Nazi by some of the President’s supporters (a claim retweeted by the President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.) and even referred to as the “Antichrist” by Trump’s longtime advisor Rudy Giuliani.” A trifle extreme, wouldn’t you say? Soros is frequently derided in the right-wing press and on conspiracy theory websites as the man funding Black Lives Matter, illegal immigration, fraudulent elections and any number of other things the right hates, even to the ludicrously silly claim that he’s funding a group of paedophile Satanists within the Democratic party. Honestly, does someone just sit down in a dark room (it would have to be a dark room) and see what their febrile imagination can conjure up? Or do they have to consume illegal chemical substances first?
BELIVE WHAT YOU LIKE
Look into the accusations and attacks on Soros and you soon realise that he is clearly and undisputedly guilty of one thing that invariably raises the hackles of the far right: he’s Jewish. The paedophilia accusation is among those first put out by the conspiracy theory website QAnon.
QAnon, of course, is heavily anti-Semitic in the main, like most aspects of the far right, which brings Soros firmly within the ambit of its endless hostility. I have often tried to understand why so many people are anti-Semitic. Jews, after all, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The New Testament of the Christian bible says that Jesus Christ is born to a Jewish woman, even if we ignore for the moment the idea of a virgin birth. Still, the father who raises him is supposedly from a long line of royal Jewish men descended from King David. The disciples are all Jewish, as are the people he is supposed to preach to. Furthermore, if one assumes that Christians aware of the New Testament are also likely to be cognisant of the Old, one must conclude that adherents see it as a long history of the Jewish race. If that is the case, why do people enchanted by the stories of Noah, David, Moses, Joshua and Job (in which special case I can only say there’s no accounting for taste) suddenly stick their noses in the air about the current representatives of the Jewish race. Even Job inspired a beautiful piece of music from the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s still an extremely weird story, however.
The problem, here, is that we’re looking at the whole business logically, while QAnon and logic have never even met and it’s a running certainty that they wouldn’t get on if they did. It was be an amusing exercise to run a competition, based on the theme “Create Your Own Violent Conspiracy Theory”, with prizes given for the most extreme and outrageous flights of fancy. I’m sure I would not be unable to come up with anything so bizarre or egregious that some idiot hasn’t already put it forward and gained followers for it. How about suggesting that Karl Marx was really an outsized tadpole who became possessed by Beelzebub when he was unable to metamorphose into a frog? Or what if Chairman Mao Zedong was in reality a little old lady from Akron, Ohio, who wrote the famous Little Red Book as a Sunday School project for her pupils? While of course the Second World War was really an accidental projection into our timescale and onto our planet of a war between the giant Bargle-Wargle people from outermost arm of the Sombrero Galazy and the Mystical Never-Ending Repair Men from the Whirlpool Galaxy. Let’s face it, we can all dream up something similarly ludicrous. There is a never-ending demand for wild theories, as long as they comply with the reader’s political philosophy in some way. That bit is easy: believers in conspiracy theories love to have someone to hate, so all you have to do is come up with an outrageous story about an attempt to take over the world, or at least a part of it, and then lay the blame for it at the feet of anyone Jewish. Somebody rich and Jewish would be even better. Do you remember the satirical song about National Brotherhood Week by the piano-playing mathematician and humourist, Tom Lehrer?
“Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews”.
That line always brought the house down. Hate figures are easy to conjure up. Even in Myanmar, the followers of the normally peaceful Buddhist faith were induced to attack people.
As for the Jews, they have been the butt of Christian hatred throughout Europe since Mediaeval times. In many cases they were expelled, men, women, children and the elderly, chucked out with no means of support by the supposedly ‘enlightened’ Christians (Muslim conquerors were a little less cruel to them, by and large). By the time of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which contains very mixed messages that we have to consider advanced for their time, moneylending for profit, though essential to commerce in England, was still illegal.
For one thing, one of the characters is compelled to raise some capital to help a friend. In much of Europe (and certainly in Elizabethan England) to charge interest on a loan – usury – was illegal, so he was obliged to visit a Jewish money lender, Shylock, whose religion permitted it. He wants 3,000 ducats for three months. Lending at interest is Shylock’s business, although he must feel little inclined to help. Antonio, Shylock confides to the audience, lends money free of charge, deliberately to depress the going rate. He also insults Shylock even while negotiating with him and we are told he has recently spat on his coat to show his contempt. Good Christian behaviour, eh?
An actor friend of mine, the former Socialist MEP, now Lord Michael Cash, told me once how, playing Antonio and wanting to underline the character’s dislike of Shylock, he had worn gloves to shake his hand and even then, he had immediately wiped his hands to clean them of any contamination from touching a Jew. So Antonio is an odd hero: very unheroic and, all things considered, rather unpleasant. But Shakespeare puts a wonderful speech against anti-Semitism into Shylock’s mouth: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Needless to say, Shylock seeks revenge for years of being wronged but comes off worst. Despite being told he can take his “pound of flesh” from nearest the heart, and having turned down a massive profit on the loan (it would not have done for him to come across as likeable at the end, after all, however much he had been provoked) but – and this has always seemed to me important – the lawyer representing Antonio gets his way: Shylock may take the pound of flesh (just under half a kilo, if you’re interested) but not a single drop of blood. And the lawyer who saves the day is really Portia, a woman and the sweetheart of Antonio’s friend, Bassanio, is disguise. This is further complicated by the fact that it was for Bessanio that Antonio wanted to borrow the money in the first place. So in this strange play of hidden identities, hidden treasure, games of chance, vengeance and punishment, Shakespeare strikes a crafty, albeit whispered, blow against anti-Semitism and in favour of a degree of gender equality, even if he may not have meant to.
One problem here is that no matter how many irrefutable arguments any lawyer could produce in defence of Soros, the QAnon fraternity wouldn’t listen. They are deaf to the “other person’s” point of views, especially if that “other person” is politically left-leaning and even more so if one of them is Jewish; they can attend only to their own. QAnon post pictures of Soros with his features greatly distorted, just like the terrible anti-Semitic posters and pamphlets disseminated by Hitler’s Nazis, while reusing the long-debunked writing of the supposed ‘Elders of Zion’, which allege that the Jews are running an international cabal. It plays to the growth of anti-Semitism around the world, perhaps most especially in the United States, where interest in anti-Soros nonsense has risen alarmingly following the George Floyd protests. Floyd, you will recall, was a black hip-hop artist who was strangled to death when a white police officer knelt on his neck during his arrest. Just one of those stupid events, born of fear, race hatred and contempt for those who are ‘different’, that have made an existing situation worse. As for Soros, the far-right Breitbart news referred to him as an internationalist financier who “hates sovereignty” and meddles in “too many other peoples’ affairs”. Unlike kindly, unassuming Breitbart, one supposes. Of course, Hungarian nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán hates Soros with a passion, running election posters with a picture of a smiling Soros and the slogan “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh”. With so much hatred being heaped upon him, Soros, however, rich he is, would seem to have very little to laugh about.