Did Facebook finance a right-wing dirty-tricks operation alleging that its critics in the anti-monopoly movement were the pawns of a Jewish conspiracy? That’s the sense you’d get from some of the conversation around the recent reports that Definers Public Affairs, a Republican PR shop, encouraged media organizations to dig into the financial ties between George Soros and many of the organizations at the heart of the anti-Facebook crusade on the left. Tim Miller, the GOP operative at the heart of the controversy, has strongly objected to the notion that his effort was anti-Semitic, and he’s now in the midst of a fight for his reputation. A widely-known Never Trump activist, Miller finds himself in an awkward position. Erstwhile allies, such as the leadership of Crooked Media, the liberal podcast empire which has often turned to Miller as a guest, are reassessing their relationship with him. Though I often find myself disagreeing with Miller, my sense is that he is being treated unfairly. What we’re seeing, I suspect, is the conflation of legitimate criticisms of Soros’s philanthropy with criticisms designed to fan the flames of racial hatred.
First, there is no question that George Soros and his family members have been subject to vile anti-Semitic attacks, which have no place in a civilized society. And Soros’s philanthropy has done a great deal of good, especially his support for the consolidation of constitutional democracy in central and eastern Europe. It is also true, however, that he is one of the world’s most influential philanthropists, and that all wealthy individuals who back controversial political and intellectual causes ought to expect some measure of criticism.
Consider the Koch network, which has met with ferocious criticism over the years, not all of it scrupulously fair. Those who oppose the libertarian causes backed by the Koch network often point to its support to discredit them. The usual argument is that the Koch network has created a series of Potemkin pressure groups designed to serve the personal financial interests of its members and, importantly, that these groups have had undue influence on public policy outcomes. In practice, the Koch network is most effective when it lines up behind causes that are already broadly popular — e.g., anti-tax activism, as in the case of opposition to carbon taxes — than when it lines up behind causes that aren’t quite as popular, such as its longstanding support for increasing low-skill immigration and temporary worker programs. Regardless, it is perfectly fair for those who oppose the Koch network’s libertarian agenda to make the case that we ought to scrutinize the motivations of the donors who belong to it and the extent of their influence, a case that members of the public can either take or leave.
Which leads me to Soros. Over at Tablet, James Kirchick, one of our contributors, has written an exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful piece on how we ought to think about criticisms of Soros. Essentially, Kirchick draws a distinction between the anti-Soros push by right-wing extremists in Europe, which is “clearly part of a large, concerted, overtly anti-Semitic campaign of historical revisionism, which aims to demonize Jews while at the same time whitewashing atrocities committed against them, on behalf of people who claim a direct historical descent from the perpetrators of those atrocities,” and criticisms from the mainstream U.S. right, which he sees as motivated by Soros’s prodigious support for a wide array of liberal and left-wing causes, not by the fact that he is Jewish.
“George Soros is not the devilish puppet master of right-wing caricature,” writes Kirchick. “But just as Soros is not a sinister mastermind intent on destroying Western civilization, neither is he the high-minded, blameless victim of left-wing hagiography.” He goes on to offer an account of the evolution of Soros’s political sensibilities, from Cold War liberal to reflexive multilateralist, and the difficulties involved in promoting one set of causes abroad — transparency, the rule of law, good government — and a “clearly defined and highly partisan agenda” at home. Further, he offers a shrewd analysis of how partisan polarization has shaped the debate around Soros. (“Because Soros is one of the most visible anti-Trump figures in the United States, the media has become pro-Soros.”) Though I’m not sure I agree with every argument in Kirchick’s piece, I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the controversies surrounding one of the most important philanthropists of our time.