I was touched by the announcement that George Soros, the legendary investor, has transferred $18 billion of his personal fortune to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), his charity. In one fell swoop, George’s gift will create the world’s third-largest foundation, bolstering OSF’s already stellar work to promote democracy, openness and good governance around the world.
I know George well and consider him a good friend. He is a true giant of global philanthropy in pursuit of the greater good. Over the years, we have collaborated on many issues, and his interests are far-ranging – from climate action to building inclusive societies. He shares my views about the foolishness of the world’s drug laws and it is fair to say that no other philanthropist has done more to expose the global war on drugs as the colossal failure that it has been. The truth is that his philanthropy has lifted the spirits of millions around the world.
George lived in Nazi-occupied Hungary as a child and started with nothing. His background has helped forge his vision of the need to stand up to authoritarian regimes and challenge wrongs in society. His commitment is to the principles of open society – to democratic institutions and the rule of law, to transparency and accountability in government and business, and to equal opportunity for all.
That is, of course, not the impression you get when you go down the rabbit hole of searching his name on the Internet. There are few people in the world who’ve seen their name smeared, their actions vilified and their character questioned to the same extent that George has. Name a crisis in the world, and you’ll find an outlandish conspiracy theory alleging his involvement.
Depending on who you talk to, George is responsible for the European refugee crisis, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, or, more broadly, anything that can be described as part of vast and sufficiently sinister-sounding “globalist” agenda, such as the so-called “New World Order”. I’m under no illusion that this post alone will bring out enough people to present what they consider “evidence”. None of it holds up under scrutiny and all of it has been thoroughly debunked by those patient enough to research the origins of this nonsense.
Soros-bashing, much of it delivered with strong anti-Semitic undertones, has long been a fringe phenomenon. So I was highly disconcerted earlier this year when Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government joined the conspiracy bandwagon when it controversially amended its National Higher Education law in a way that has been widely described as an effort to specifically target and shut down Central European University (CEU), a stellar academic institution founded by George in 1991.
CEU has consistently been ranked as a fine university to study social sciences, perhaps the best in Eastern Europe. Thousands have gone through its graduate programmes and on to successful careers in the public and private sectors and in civil society. After an international outcry, CEU may have won some reprieve for now, but any attack on institutions of higher learning is an attack on academic freedom and open debate and an unmistakable sign of the growing illiberalism that has been sweeping parts of the world lately.
In his relentless optimism, George will probably dismiss my fears. I hope he is right. What I know for certain is that his generosity has done much to change the world for the better and it will continue to do so long after we’re all gone. As the Washington Post wrote, “Mr. Soros has now created a philanthropic superpower for liberal democracy. And none too soon.”