Then, in the late 19th century, the meaning of philanthropy began to change. With the rise of industrial fortunes and the large-scale monetary contributions derived from them, the word came to signify large-scale giving. (That idea may seem unrelated to the word’s roots, but the conceptual link is that both bold social reforms and modern philanthropic foundations are premised on the inadequacy of modest, intimate, small-scale charitable donations to address the world’s most pressing problems.) Industrial titans—John D. Rockefeller, to name one—funneled their wealth into ambitious programs of institution-building, research, and reform, and in the process attracted to philanthropy the antagonism provoked by the rise of global capitalism.
The United States (and its economy) has been highly hospitable to philanthropists, but it has also provided a political system that nurtures conspiracy theories directed against them. Historically, both the right and left have crafted their own narratives, each fueled by a deep suspicion of concentrated power. Early-20th-century progressives worried that robber-baron benefactors were creating a shadow state that would overwhelm the federal government; conservatives and populists warned of the dense networks of charities, academic institutions, and private foundations that controlled public opinion. By mid-century, right-wing anti-Communist conspiracies targeted major philanthropies as seedbeds of pernicious internationalism. In the 1950s, congressional investigation of philanthropy sought to determine whether foundations subsidized “un-American and subversive activities” and supported efforts “to undermine our American way of life.” In the following decades, anti-imperial and anti-globalization movements lodged both legitimate grievances about philanthropies and more decadent tales of their power.
George Soros might as well have been focus-grouped to attract the various antipathies that have long swirled around philanthropy. He’s a champion of globalism, capitalism, and progressivism. He’s also Jewish, and anti-Semitism has long grown up alongside the major critiques of those forces. As anti-Semitic lore has it, the humanitarianism of the “International Jew” is merely a cover for an interest in global domination. Soros’s Jewish identity is rarely explicitly invoked by his antagonists, but it doesn’t need to be: Every invocation of his “cosmopolitanism” and his essential foreignness serves as a dog whistle for those who savor the lineage of those slurs.
Soros’s Open Society Foundations have together given away some $14 billion over the last three decades—mostly to social-justice, pro-democracy, and human-rights causes—and now operate in more than 100 countries around the world. His first major gift, made in 1979, funded scholarships for black South Africans. In 1984, he established a foundation in Hungary to cultivate the shoots of liberalism growing beneath Communist frost; his philanthropy provided copying machines, for instance, that allowed anti-Communist activists to print samizdat literature. After Communism’s collapse, Soros-funded foundations nurtured nascent pro-democracy institutions in nations throughout Central and Eastern Europe, paying for travel grants for students, supporting watchdog organizations that promoted good governance and human rights, and seeking to protect vulnerable and marginalized populations such as the Roma. In 1991, he founded the Central European University in Budapest to promote open academic inquiry. Most recently, Soros has supported a liberal immigration policy in Europe as a response to the refugee crisis.