Thursday, August 25, 2022

Is Anyone "Criticizing George Soros"?

It has been darkly amusing to witness how the mainstreaming of anti-George Soros conspiracy mongering has prompted the American right to go full Corbynista in dismissing the antisemitism of it all. "Criticizing George Soros is not antisemitism!", they holler, heedless of the irony. The internets are replete with sneering dismissals of Jewish complaints regarding how Soros discourse can and has served as an antisemitic accelerant -- a perfect echo of how Corbynistas attacked antisemitism allegations as fictious, politically-motivated, and made in bad faith. It is antisemitic when it comes from the left, and it is antisemitic when it comes from the right. It perhaps shouldn't surprise that it would be the American right that would Corbynize first -- a cult of personality around a Dear Leader who is perpetually victimized by the biased media and whose rise to power was supercharged by an online contingent of hyper-vicious trolls targeting (among others) Jews for harassment is not exactly unfamiliar terrain here -- but I suppose there's no harm in basking in the irony a little bit.

Yet I've been thinking that this whole line of argument about how the right is being suppressed because are you saying we can't criticize George Soros is a misfire. It doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Why not? Because virtually none of the right's Soros discourse is "criticism of George Soros" is any meaningful sense.

Let's take it back to Israel for a second. Consider the following two statements:

  1. Israel's occupation of the West Bank is intolerable, and must end.
  2. BigCorp's investment in Israel is intolerable, and must end.
Colloquially speaking, both of these statements are likely to be considered "criticism of Israel". But really, only the first is. The second is not a criticism of Israel directly, it's a criticism of BigCorp for being associated with Israel. BigCorp is the actor who is being castigated, and they are the actor who is most directly being asked to change their behavior. It's not always wrong to criticize X for associating with Y, though I've noted that it can easily become a form of antisemitism via a contagion theory where merely being in Israel's presence is assumed to generate any and all manner of social ills that otherwise would not exist. But again: criticizing X for associating with Y is primarily a criticism of X, not Y. Y's badness is more-or-less taken for granted; X is the entity whom one is trying to discredit, undermine, or alter the behavior of.

Virtually none of the conservative attacks on Soros are actually on George Soros. They're attacks on some other social actor or phenomenon for allegedly being associated with George Soros. Sometimes Soros really is associated with them (as in his funding of J Street), sometimes it's a complete myth (as in the "immigrant caravans"). Regardless, the target of the fusillade is not Soros, it's J Street or the immigrants. They are meant to be discredited because of their association with Soros. By their association with George Soros, we now know that they are contaminated, and should be a subject of hatred and scorn.

The right, after all, doesn't really care where George Soros spends his money. They're not trying to get George Soros to change (at least, in all but the most tertiary sense). Much as the most inveterate Israel-haters have moved beyond demanding Israel change and instead view Israel's evil as an immutable fact of its existence, Soros-haters are not hoping for a different George Soros, they view George Soros as a stand-in for inherent evil. If George Soros tomorrow announced a donation to the local homeless shelter, the right would not say "hey -- our criticism worked! Instead of donating to these terrible left-wing charities, he's donating to a nice, acceptable one. Mission accomplished!" No -- if George Soros donated to the local homeless shelter, the result would be that the shelter would suddenly become a "Soros-funded shelter" and be subject to all the suspicion and vitriol that accompanies anything associated with George Soros.

What Soros does doesn't matter. It's Soros' existence that matters -- he is a stand-in for inherent evil, whose presence corrupts anything it touches. The evocation of Soros (whether based in reality or not) is not about "criticizing Soros", it is meant to leverage this imagery of Soros the puppetmaster, the paragon of evil, the ultimate conspirator. That's why it's so frequently antisemitic. The only reason Republicans care about George Soros is because invoking his name enables access to this association of pure malice as a means of criticizing something else. But Soros fills that role less because of his own choices, and more because of surrounding currents of antisemitism, which (this is from my "contagion" post) "give[] a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable."

Of course, once we recognize that the true target is not Soros at all, but immigrants or J Street or "defund the police", then the "are you saying I can't criticize ...?" whine becomes farcical. Obviously there are all sorts of ways conservatives can and do criticize any of these things. The centrality of George Soros to their "criticisms", though, is not about seeking to alter George Soros' behavior (not least because often Soros isn't actually involved). It's about leveraging what George Soros represents in the public imagination to "make the implausible plausible".

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