To declare oneself an unapologetic liberal in mainstream political debate these days is to invite abuse. The latest miscreant to step out of line is billionaire George Soros, who, after spending nearly $5 billion to promote democracy abroad, was so moved by the behavior of Bush & Co. that he decided to invest some back home to defeat them. Much of the reaction to Soros's announcement that he will spend $15.5 million to fund education campaigns with America Coming Together, voter mobilization drives with MoveOn.org and research activities with the Center for American Progress (CAP)--where I am a senior fellow--has verged on the comical. The Wall Street Journal is suddenly exercised about the political influence of "fat cats." A writer in Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times complains jingoistically that "the Hungarian native anointed himself a major player in American politics." RNC chair and ex-Enron lobbyist Ed Gillespie laments that Soros, a champion of campaign finance reform, is using what the RNC's Christine Iverson calls "an unregulated, under-the-radar-screen, shadowy, soft-money group" for his nefarious purposes.
But some of the criticism is worrisome. A writer on the conservative website GOPUSA.com termed Soros--get this--a "descendant of Shylock." Even more amazing, Conrad Black's neoconservative Jerusalem Post carried a piece in which a writer accused Soros of being a "man who spent a lifetime laboring to transform Henry Ford's International Jew from myth to reality." Meanwhile, the Journal editors, before issuing a rare correction, conveniently multiplied Soros's contribution to CAP by a Satanic 666 percent, terming it "reportedly...$20 million" and identifying the money as being directed toward "the likes of Bush-hating pundit Eric Alterman." (I wish I had known this when I happened to have dinner seated next to Soros a couple of nights before the editorial ran; those checks could use a few more zeros.)
The Washington Post editorial page, which many people continue to mistake for a centrist--or even liberal--voice, is also up in arms about Soros's giving. Donald Graham told me more than a decade ago that while he enjoyed reading the Journal editorial page, he would become "very uncomfortable if the tone of the Post editorial page was as harsh and intolerant." Well, Graham may want to start worrying. The Post has already adopted the Journal's ploy of attacking liberals who state truths gleaned from its own front page. This past summer, its editors went after Al Gore for leading his party "off a cliff" and validating "just about every conspiratorial theory of the antiwar left" when the former Vice President noted that the Bush Administration had engaged in "a systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology that is felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty." As I pointed out in this space in July, Gore was merely summarizing a view that any intelligent reader would have to draw from a 5,331-word story by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus that the Post published the very same day.
Regarding Soros, the editors ask Democrats "thrilled with the Soros millions" to "imagine conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife opening his bank account on behalf of Mr. Bush." Actually it's not so hard. Post editors might wish to check out a terrifically reported two-part front-page 1999 Post story by former managing editor Robert Kaiser and Ira Chinoy, which clearly demonstrates that Scaife's giving to archconservative Washington organizations dwarfs anything Soros is even contemplating. And many of these Scaife-funded groups, like those alleging the murder of Vince Foster and Bill Clinton's involvement in drug-running out of an Arkansas airport, are a great deal less healthy for the quality of public discourse than anything to which Soros has contributed (although they may have provided sources for both the Post and the Journal in their frenzied reporting on Clinton's sex life).
Perhaps the strangest sentence is the Post's demand: "Who is he [Soros] to determine the public interest?" Are these people really so wedded to the idea of themselves as the permanent governing establishment that it didn't occur to them to ask themselves, "And for that matter, who the heck are we?"
Even uglier and stupider than the merely political attacks have been the hysterical accusations that Soros is an anti-Semite. The inspiration for these were Soros's off-the-cuff remarks to a group of Jewish organizations, in which he pointed out the obvious: that many people who hate Ariel Sharon's policies blame "Jews" for them and speak and act accordingly. Like everyone who recognizes this simple truth, Soros was not endorsing it. But that didn't stop the self-appointed spokespersons of hard-line Jews everywhere from purposely misinterpreting his words.
Lest we confuse the two issues--as so many genuine anti-Semites would wish--there are two sets of problems here. One is Soros's honesty in speaking to sensitive issues regarding the effects of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The other is that a liberal is reserving the right to fight back, using some--though certainly not all--of the tactics that have given rise to the current era of untrammeled right-wing hegemony in the United States today.
The Journal, the Republicans and the Post editors--a trio increasingly marching in lockstep--are mainly upset about the latter. Still, one can't help noticing that none of Soros's critics have demonstrated much interest in offering an honest hearing for his ideas. Indeed, one cannot help wondering just what it is that scares them so about the man. Have the media grown so complacent in the face of conservative attempts to delegitimize liberal dissent that they are now willing to do the job themselves? Are they so cowed by attacks on the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM) that they feel the need to empower their tormentors? George Soros aims to challenge the prevailing ideological winds in Washington. He doesn't need a weatherman to know which way they're blowing. How fortunate for us that he cares enough about his adopted country to do what he can to reverse them.