Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Just over a year ago, the far-right provocateur Dinesh d’Souza launched a series of attacks on the American philanthropist George Soros. There were viral clips on Facebook and Twitter, an article in the conservative attack-blog The Daily Caller and the big flourish: a movie entitled “Death of a Nation: Can We Save America A Second Time?” in which d’Souza portrays Soros as a Nazi collaborator.
D’Souza’s smear of Soros, born a Hungarian Jew in Budapest in 1930, has been comprehensively debunked elsewhere. The claims are largely based on grotesquely edited and misrepresented clips from an interview Soros gave to “60 Minutes” about his experiences as a 14-year-old boy trying to survive in occupied Budapest. In return for money from the child’s desperate family, Soros was hidden by an older non-Jewish man who did collaborate – a very different matter. Soros recalls spending most of the time in this man’s care terrified and trying to ensure nobody saw his circumcised penis.
But the smear still sticks. Earlier this year, Roseanne Barr used false Nazi accusations about Soros to attack Chelsea Clinton. Donald Trump Jr. retweeted it. Barr was sacked from her TV show; Trump Jr., in his role as son of the President of the United States, is slightly harder to dislodge.
How does the trajectory of a Twitter smear, climbing from the dregs of the internet all the way up to President Donald Trump’s family, affect lives in Eastern Europe? How much does it matter now? The answer: more than most Americans might realize.
Last Monday, Soros’ network of charities, the Open Society Foundations, announced they would be taking the Hungarian government to the European Court of Rights in Strasburg. The Open Society Foundations funds community projects across Hungary – when I was in the southern city of Pecs this March, where my family has roots, I visited a day care center that helps suburban mothers enter the workforce, set up first by local parents and later funded in partnership with the OSF. But for all these good works, many in Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party like to frame the OSF’s work less as benign philanthropy and more as social engineering.
They have something of a point. The boundary between philanthropy and meddling can be thin, but it needn’t be malign. In reaction to Hungary’s experiences under fascism and communism, Soros has spent decades pouring his fortune into charities that build democratic frameworks and resist authoritarian governments. If there’s a manual to Soros’ political thought, it is what the philosopher Karl Popper called “The Open Society” – hence the name of Soros’ foundation. The idea is that there is no better way to banish the clouds of racism and tribal hatred than to encourage education and financial independence, including in rural areas and among women. So much for the idea of Soros the Nazi.
According to Soros’ hero Popper – who spent the 1930s as a committed critic of Nazism himself – open societies are open to ideas, to people and to markets. Closed societies are open to none of the above. Closed societies are based on shared tribal fears and superstitions; open societies encourage critical thinking among their citizens.
The contemporary left disdains the open society as a neo-liberal capitalist dream; the right fears its skepticism toward tradition. But for the last five decades, most of America and Europe’s prosperity and peace have been based on an open society consensus, which for a brief moment after the end of the Cold War, it looked like Western thinkers like Soros had succeeded in importing to Eastern Europe. Markets opened to foreign investors. In 1991, Soros founded the Central European University with campuses in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, a US-funded education center committed to critical thought and the study of democracy. Ironically, given recent developments, the CEU’s headquarters moved from Prague to Budapest when the Hungarian government of the time appeared more welcoming than the Czech.
That was then. The current Hungarian government, as Guy Verhofstadt wrote earlier this month, is probably the most illiberal and authoritarian in Europe, shutting down newspapers, corruptly capturing major facilities like water and energy, wrenching control of cultural and educational centers. Just like d’Souza, Barr and Trump Jr., the Hungarian government attacks Muslim migrants and Soros. During last spring’s election, when I was last in Hungary, you couldn’t turn without spotting the ruling Fidesz party advertisements, which featured crude photoshopped images of Soros personally cutting open the Hungarian border fences designed to keep out Muslim migrants. Like most authoritarian regimes, the Hungarian government inspires loyalty by stoking the fires of ethnic supremacy. Hungary, which spent centuries fighting the Ottoman Turks, has seen itself as Europe’s border with Islam since long before the current migrant crisis. The American alt-right laps up this talk of a clash of civilizations.
Keeping down Hungary’s already low rates of Islamic immigration might be the government’s excuse for an iron fist on civic freedoms, but it is clearly suspicious of any influences on culture and community that it can’t directly control. Hence its efforts not only to expel the Central European University, but to rewrite the national curriculum, redesign the history displayed by national museums, and even require kindergartens to promote: “national identity, Christian cultural values, patriotism, attachment to homeland and family.”
One can’t help but be reminded of those famous Nazi instructions to women: Kinder Küche Kirche – Children, Kitchen, Church.
So recent “Stop Soros” laws are framed, likewise, as bulwarks against immigration. Organizations will only be allowed to offer help or even broad legal advice to migrants with a special license from the government; these are thought unlikely to be given generously. Organizations that promote or portray migration positively will face a 25% tax on their funding.
But as the OFS intends to argue at the European Court of Human Rights, the law defines migration so loosely that any organization that promotes a critique of indigenous “Hungarian cultural values” could be targeted. The law in question covers work with any kind of educational facility – so what will it mean to ban from schools, as the legal rubric puts it, “propaganda that paints immigration in a positive light”? Will it mean removing from the curriculum writers and scientists with the wrong kind of ancestry? How long before non-ethnic Hungarians are themselves forbidden from working as teachers?
At stake is the basic liberty of freedom of expression – hence the decision by the Open Society Foundation to contest it under the European Convention on Human Rights. This isn’t just a George Soros move to protect his own interests. The Hungarian branch of the Helsinki Freedom Committee, which defends the spirit of the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights, filed a similar suit last week.
Get our free weekly newsletter
But the Hungarian government clampdown on human rights continues. It is justified by a government campaign that tries to teach ordinary Hungarians to hate and fear an individual man named George Soros. (Not that all Hungarians are so pliable; thousands of Hungarians this year have protested first Viktor Orban’s attacks on the CEU, then his election victory.) Thanks to the ease with which Orban has demonized the Open Society Foundations, migrants may lose a support system, but so, too, will the working Hungarian mothers I met in Pecs, the university students studying on OFS scholarships in Budapest or the schoolchildren hoping to learn about cultures beyond their own.
When hard-right figures in the United States contribute to attacks on Soros, or spread conspiracy theories about his upbringing, they endorse the rhetoric of an illiberal, racist government in Europe. Be careful when you share them on Twitter.