The Moving Target

George Soros
George Soros; drawing by David Levine

No single person has done more to promote the open society—a society in which free expression and political opposition are protected—over the past thirty years than George Soros. During the Communist era he used his Open Society Foundation to support greater freedom in the Soviet bloc and China. After the Communist system imploded his foundations acted to mitigate the impact of ethnic war in former Yugoslavia. Later they backed reform movements in Georgia and Ukraine, and Soros formed close relationships with the new leaders who emerged, such as President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia. This led Russian President Vladimir Putin to accuse him of orchestrating the “color revolutions.”

For many years his global network of foundations has helped people in many countries suffering from persecution—women, gays and lesbians, gypsies, and others—to achieve a secure place in society. In the United States the Open Society Institute has contested current policies on illegal drug use, HIV/AIDS, and health care during terminal illness. More recently it has addressed the ” resource curse”—the damaging effect of sudden oil wealth in developing countries. Soros has also taken a strong stand against US foreign policy, opposing the Iraq war and attacking the “war on terror” as misconceived and counterproductive. Aiming to make the world safe from terrorism and at the same time to entrench American supremacy, the Bush administration has made the world more dangerously unstable while causing a steep decline in American power.

In The Age of Fallibility—his most important book to date and a stark warning of the dangers facing open societies today—Soros attempts to explain this turn of events. Much of the book is a probing reexamination of the conceptual frame that underpins Soros’s activities both as an investor and as a philanthropist; but some of its most interesting passages have to do with Soros’s personal experiences of what he calls “far-from-equilibrium situations”—conditions in which accepted rules of human behavior are suspended or destroyed.

Such a situation came into being with the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, when like other members of the country’s Jewish population Soros and his family faced mortal danger. Soros survived owing to the foresight and courage of his father, Tivadar, who acted decisively to help the family and many others. “It was his finest hour,” Soros writes.1 Tivadar Soros, he writes, was mentally prepared for the collapse of normal life by his time in Siberia after having been taken prisoner by the Russians when serving as a volunteer in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. He instilled in his fourteen-year-old son the fact that “there are times when the normal rules do not apply, and if you obey the rules at those times you are liable to perish.” Soros describes this as “the formative experience of my life,” and there can be little doubt that it imbued in him a willingness to depart from established expectations and wipe…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.