...Is the title of a seminal work by G.I. Gurdjieff, later made into a film starring Terence Stamp. This post is not about either of those things, so if you’ve come here while googling them, you’d be advised to hit the back button and try the next link on your list.
On, without further ado, to me. On Saturday evening I met George Soros. In all honesty I am stretching the definition of “met” to the very limits of its endurance, but we did smile at each other at close range, and the eye contact that we held for a number of centi-seconds did include the following messages being passed. Me: I think you’re doing great work, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. George: And who are you? He actually shook Erika’s hand and spoke to her for a couple of minutes in case you are now imagining me watching him give a speech to a stadium filled with 50,000 people and imagining that I caught his eye, like I once did with Susannah Hoffs during a Bangles concert when I was 20.
This intensely profound and articulate connection came during a reception held in the throne room of the former royal palace of Romania (the palace is now the National Gallery of Romanian Art). It was quite definitely then grandest fanciest reception I’ve ever been to (and I have, despite my inherent scruffiness, been to a few). Catered by the Marriott (sorry, in Bucharest it’s actually called the Grand Marriott), and held in this cavernous and incredibly ornate marble-clad room. Given that the reception was being held to honour someone who has fought long and hard for a more modern, open, democratic, transparent style of government in countries throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, it was somewhat ironic that he was being feted in an ornate royal throne room while his courtiers catered to his every need and other lesser subjects scrambled to attempt to catch his attention. I’m sure the irony was not lost on him.
So, why do I respect him so much? Well, he has used his (not inconsiderable) wealth to put his money where his mouth is and truly fight for what he believes in. He has, over the course of the last 15 years donated a vast amount of money to openness, civil society, education, transparency and good governance both in the “transition” states and further afield. To give a sense of how much, one of the speakers on Saturday mentioned the sum of $120,000,000 given in Romania alone in that time. Add that to the money that has gone to Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic States, the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Burma, Mongolia and Haiti (just to name the ones that I am aware of), it’s hard to even guess at how much he has given. A couple of billion? OK in order to be so philanthropic he had to actually become rich in the first place, and quite possibly the world is filled with potentially such generous benefactors who are only held back by the fact that they don’t have billions to donate. As a US citizen he even did the right thing and put millions towards the reclaiming of democracy in that country (sadly unsuccessfully). I don’t necessarily agree with all his political views – though obviously I do agree with the anti-Bush bit of it- but what I respect him for is being so committed and so supportive of what he believes. He truly puts his money where his mouth is. He was in Romania this time, for example, to help set up a project for Roma inclusion.
Despite doing all this, in Britain he is still only known as a currency speculator who somehow single-handedly brought down the pound during the Major government. He could probably turn into a combination of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and the British press would still say things like “George Soros today ended the Palestine Israel conflict to great worldwide rejoicing. Soros, who is most famous for forcing the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, said that he was very satisfied.”
Anyway, I think he’s great. And I’ve met him. More or less.
Erika and George