By Drummond Pike | 10/29/10 4:38 AM EDT
Several months ago, the California Highway Patrol diverted a wacko fan of right-wing websites and Glenn Beck's Fox News show from opening fire on our offices. After a 15-minute shootout, he was taken into custody and is now awaiting trial.
Among the many lies and misrepresentations repeated by the sites and shows that the gunman, Byron Williams, watched and listened to was the bizarre idea that George Soros "owns" the Tides organizations — through which he is allegedly pursuing a nefarious agenda to destroy America.
As a public charity, Tides is not owned by Soros, nor was it started by him. Soros is the founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute. It is just one of hundreds of funders that partner with Tides in programs to promote economic justice, democratic processes and human rights.
The Open Society funds are only a small percentage of Tides' total contributions — far less than 5 percent of our $112 million total in 2009.
Amid the cacophony of screed, I didn't focus on these lies about Soros. It has been bad enough to try to wrap my mind around how Beck and others were repeatedly labeling us "communists" and "socialists" and "anti-American" — on a channel that describes itself as "fair."
Tides may be progressive, but we are enthusiastically American. Were it not for the capitalist system, not a dollar would flow through Tides. Families, foundations, corporations and collaborative groups use our services to make charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations that they recommend for grants.
I recently attended a dinner party hosted by Soros. We'd been introduced once some years ago, but I'd never spoken to him before. In the course of the evening, he captivated the table as he talked about the economy and current affairs.
As I was leaving, he posed an unexpected question. What did it feel like, he asked, to have had an "assassin" headed for our offices?
I have gotten many similar questions — though no one had used the word "assassin." I responded that it deeply shocked and stunned us.
In some ways, I don't think we've come to grips with the idea that something like this could happen in the country we've tried to make a better place for everyone — as do many in the nonprofit sector. Later, back in my hotel room, I started thinking about Soros some more. Why has he become the object of such anger?
It is not uncommon that financial leaders become demonized over business accomplishments. There are legendary targets, as John Rockefeller was in his day. Or executives like Charles Keating Jr., Michael Milken and Ken Lay, who break the law — something of which Soros has never been accused.
Through his philanthropy, Soros has also made extraordinary contributions to this country and around the globe — especially in Eastern Europe. In many ways, he demonstrates what is great and vibrant about America. He is certainly not the only U.S. immigrant to have accumulated a staggering fortune. Nor is he the only wealthy person to create a philanthropy focused on protecting human rights and improving the lot of marginalized communities.
His interest in contributing to politics can't quite explain it either. There are hundreds of Americans who give in similar or greater amounts to candidates and one or another of the parties. Warren Buffett and the "Google boys" fly in private planes. Bill Gates has created a bigger philanthropy. Vinod Khosla is both an immigrant and, like Soros, an enormously successful capitalist. Oprah Winfrey has built a media empire and is openly supportive of President Barack Obama. So, what is it about Soros?
I don't know. It might be that he speaks with a pronounced Hungarian accent. Perhaps it's because he's proven himself smarter than most lions of Wall Street. For example, he foresaw the housing bubble and, unlike almost everyone else in the financial industry who denigrated his concerns, positioned his investments correctly in anticipation of the debacle.
Or maybe it's because he is passionate about human rights and the plight of immigrants. His Open Society Foundations, for example, focus on the Roma people — marginalized immigrants throughout central Europe, and they have a long commitment to the people of Burma, where a military regime has attacked human rights for many years.
But Soros is somehow viewed as the avatar of evil by intolerant right-wing extremists.
It is about time to call out this baseless criticism for what it is: bullying in its worst form, using an individual for political gain.
Glenn Beck, and his sponsor, Rupert Murdoch, who, like Soros, is an immigrant, may think they have the right to knowingly foster lies about Soros — and Tides, for that matter — though, as we have seen, it can lead extremists to pursue violence.
In most matters in this world, balance returns and those who have pushed the pendulum's arc in one direction must deal with the fact that it inevitably reverses course.
But I'm scared for Soros. He is lambasted by the likes of Beck more than anyone. As the would-be "assassin" recently indicated, Beck says he doesn't advocate violence — but Williams is probably not the only unbalanced soul out there who wants to "start the revolution" with an act of violence.
All of us, including Beck, need to take more responsibility for how we speak of others. Especially about those with whom we disagree.
Otherwise, when bad things happen, we share the responsibility.
Drummond Pike is the founder and chief executive officer of Tides Foundation.