The deranging effects of tech are visible every day. But there are also positive aspects — among them a tool that strikes me as having many of the capabilities needed to restore some sanity to our times. I refer to the process of crowdfunding. In recent weeks I have been struck by the response to two crowdfunding efforts in particular, which are vital in different ways.
The first relates to the case of Andy Ngo, the young Portland-based journalist whom I wrote about here last week. Ngo, readers will remember, was recently assaulted by so-called “Antifa” in broad daylight as the police stood aside. In the hospital afterwards it became clear that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, among other injuries. Another journalist immediately set up a crowdfunding site to try to help pay Ngo’s substantial medical bills and to replace the equipment that the Portland Antifa thugs had broken or stolen from him. The goal of that crowdfunding appeal was reached (and indeed exceeded) in a matter of days by American citizens and others horrified at what had been allowed to happen on their streets.
Now another crowdfunder has been set up, this time to launch legal proceedings against those responsible for assaulting the journalist. Among those who may be in the firing line of legal proceedings are not just the thugs who the authorities have allowed to run rampant through an American city, but also the authorities themselves. A link to the legal appeal can be found here.
I hope that this appeal goes as well as the first. It should. Because this is one of those rare moments when a meaningful blow could be struck. For, alas, what people do not do by moral impulse alone often has to be willed by a combination of punishment and incentive. To date there seems to have been little incentive to stop the thugs of Antifa and a considerable punishment for the people like Ngo who even try to record — let alone oppose — what they do. The risk ratio should be inverted here, and this crowd-funding effort seems a perfect way to start doing so.
Of course, not every mob action in our day ends in the violence seen in Portland. But a seriously negative impact on freedom of thought and inquiry can be achieved even without the hospitalising of dissidents.
Readers may have come across the case of the young academic Noah Carl, who was last year awarded an academic position at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Barely two months into his three-year position a group of activist students, academics did a drive-by shooting on Carl’s nascent academic career. They leveled malicious and ignorant claims about the nature of his research, made no attempt to even hear their target’s proper account of his work, and instead merely lobbied for his removal. Cambridge obliged the mob in April of this year, apologizing to the activists for the “hurt” caused by Carl’s appointment. As subsequent investigation has proved, this was nothing more than an orchestrated attempt by far-left ideologues to police not just who should be allowed to be an academic, but what people in academia should be allowed to inquire about. Nothing in Carl’s own research merited one iota of the hounding he received. And it is hard to see that there was any impetus for the mob other than the correct guess that Carl is some kind of conservative. Failing to look beyond that, the members of the anti-Carl mob showed that their own lack of intellectual inquiry ought to make them ineligible for attendance at any university. Let alone a university like Cambridge, which has had a few significant achievements to its name over the centuries.
Until very recently such a demonstration of weakness and cowardice by a university might have gone unpunished. Until recently an invertebrate college head such as St. Edmund’s Matthew Bullock might have gotten away with giving in to the mob with an eye on the easy life and no cost whatsoever to himself or his reputation.
But in the age of social media and crowdfunding, all this too can be turned around. Noah Carl has not just been defamed, but his career has been severely damaged at its outset. Should this stand it would not only be a grave injustice in itself, but kerosene for future mobs as well as a warning to any other young academics who might (actually or merely in the imaginations of activists) tread anywhere near difficult terrain. Such as the terrain of having the wrong political opinions. In other words, it would help to create an intellectual culture where people deliberately veer away from anything that ill-intentioned critics could misrepresent as being dangerous. Which in due course would leave very little for academics to do.
So I am delighted, again, to see that within only a couple of weeks of being up and running, Carl’s crowdfunding appeal to turn the tables and take out a legal action against St. Edmund’s is already four-fifths of the way to reaching its target.
Quite often, when faced with the actual and virtual outrage mobs of our time, ordinary, sensible people ask, “What can I do?” In crowdfunding campaigns such as these there is finally an answer. Small sums and big ones are being sent. They are the answer that some of us have been looking for. A combination of new technology and popular decency has produced — finally — the means to push back.