So, does the cultural left have a leader who might play the role that the Rev. Pat Robertson plays for the mainstream press when it is covering life on the religious right? I mean, is there a person on the religious or anti-religious left whose views are so predictable and, often, so predictably extreme that one can always count on him for that symbolic action or quote that you need to stereotype all of the other people on that side of the cultural aisle?
I mean, other than Madonna or Bill Maher?
At the level of real-life power, I think it would be hard to find a better nominee than mega-billionaire George Soros, the financial titan whose presence looms behind so many important institutions and projects on the cultural and religious left. Yes, I realize that Soros can be found on many lists of prominent celebrity atheists. However, the big tent on the cultural and religious left includes a wide array of people along the spectrum from proud atheism to progressive forms of religious faith. So there is room for this man and his wallet.
Yes, yes, yes, I know that there is a huge flaw in comparing Soros with Robertson, when it comes to the role of providing journalists with easy headlines and soundbites (I mean, other than the fact that Robertson is nowhere near as rich). Robertson talks all the time. Soros does not.
Still, both mean are oh so predictable in their motivations and actions.
Thus, I was interested when the newspaper that lands in my front yard featured a long A1 story built on an actual interview with Soros, focusing on the 15th anniversary of the creation of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. Is there a GetReligion ghost in the story?
Well, the word "atheist" does not appear in the text, which I think is rather strange. Why is that? To be frank, the elements of the Open Society Institute's work that are covered by The Baltimore Sun strike me as being, well, so similar to the kinds of social-ministry projects that are taken on by religious groups. In a way, what we have here is a kind of a secular alternative to the work of the major Catholic and Jewish groups that are so powerful here in Charm City.
Like what? Here is a key chunk of the story, right after the description of one outreach program to young internationals:
The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.
The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor -- who has given $90 million to the effort here -- wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.
"A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide," Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.
Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted. "Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most," he said. "From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most."
Now, what we have here are projects linked to ethics and moral choices -- topics that journalists must not, repeat must NOT, assume are inherently religious in nature. What I think is missing here -- in light of Soros' beliefs as an atheist -- is a story that truly explores precisely why he wants to get involved in this kind of, to be blunt, urban ministry.
Of course, it also would have helped if this story included even a HINT of criticism of Soros and/or of this particular project. Has the Open Society Foundation been, well, open to points of view other than its own? Has it been willing to work with the city's powerful and essential African-American churches? And does the project have any critics whatsoever?
This is where the Pat Robertson comparison comes into play. Try to imagine Sun coverage of a project linked to a highly controversial cultural leader on the religious right, someone like a Robertson, that includes absolutely ZERO commentary or information from critics whose approach to these issues is different. Instead, the story provides wave after wave of PR-quality praise for the donor and the work.
Are you surprised that the head of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers believes it is wonderful that Soros has invested all of this money in Baltimore? Can you imagine a story about similar work being done by an evangelical, Mormon or Pentecostal donor without the Sun team offering -- appropriately so! -- views from those who are critical? There are no critics of this Soros project? None?
Also, does everyone agree that the Soros projects have been successful, that they have yielded fruit in a tough garden? This is as close as the story comes to any sense of critique or balance:
Jeff Singer, an advocate for the homeless in Baltimore for more than 40 years and an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said quantifying OSI's impact and separating its successes from other nonprofits is impossible. But what he knows for sure is that because of OSI's work, people have greater access to addiction services, and marginalized individuals such as ex-offenders are being heard.
"Their impact in the philanthropy and nonprofit world has been as a leader in showing a relationship between service and advocacy," Singer said. "There aren't very many philanthropies that are willing to fund both. OSI has seen the connection. OSI does some of that work itself, but they are also providing the lifeblood for us to do it."
Key word? How about "us" in that final statement. Enough said.
It is interesting that Soros has little or nothing to say about his motivations for doing this work, or is not quoted on that subject. The Sun also does not explore this fascinating comment from the uber-liberal philanthropist.
"The foundation is concerned with promoting and preserving open societies, and the open society being a more comprehensive, liberal democracy," Soros said. "Open society in the United States is now endangered."
So, with all the victories for the cultural left in the Obama era, Soros believes that an "open society" is endangered, that the left is suffering major setbacks in the public square? How does he define the "open society" he wants to see created in Baltimore and elsewhere? What's the big picture, the big goal?