Culture

Online Activists Attack Ajit Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai(Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
And too many observers stand silently by.

Ajit Pai is under attack. The Federal Communications Commission chairman has been the target of online vitriol since the FCC voted to reverse the net-neutrality regulations that were instituted under the Obama administration. The attacks against him have frequently been racist: Pai, an Indian American, was told on Twitter that he is “THE UNCLE TOM OF THE INDIAN PEOPLE.” The criticisms have been personal: Outside his house, Pai was greeted with signs reading “Is this really the world you want [your children] to inherit?” and “Dad murdered democracy in cold blood.” And they’ve veered toward the credibly violent: Pai has now has received his second death threat. The first forced him to briefly postpone the net-neutrality vote, and the latest was disturbing enough for him to withdraw from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a major conference in the tech world.

Despite it all, defenses of Pai are few and far between. The media have lambasted his decision to reverse the net-neutrality regulations but remains conspicuously silent in the matter of the attacks against him. Maybe there would be a different level of concern if Pai supported the Obama-era regulations and was being threatened by net-neutrality foes, but social-justice ministers pick their spots.

Pai’s net-neutrality speech, though “briefly disrupted by an evacuation of the meeting room,” was “specious,” Jacob Kastrenakes wrote at the Verge. His publicity videos, William Hughes complained at the A.V. Club, are a “dumb” part of a “minor Internet culture war” that Pai is “waging.” When Pai withdrew from CES, Hughes wrote this week, it was a matter of him “bailing on the chance to be the most hated person” at the show. If nothing else, give Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow his due for writing what Hughes only intimated: that Pai’s withdrawal from CES was a show of “cowardice.” The photo headlining Doctorow’s article is of Pai’s face photoshopped onto a fried chicken; the tags include “seriously f**k that guy” and “the courage of his convictions.”

Such criticism has come from not only writers but also celebrities — Mark Ruffalo called Pai a “rogue player,” and Chance the Rapper predicted on Twitter that Pai “will go to prison.” Aside from the scarce outlier (such as April Glaser’s “Racist, Threatening Attacks on FCC Chair Ajit Pai Won’t Save Net Neutrality,” at Slate), the media- and culture- industry playbook on Pai is to shrilly criticize his actions but ignore the bigoted attacks and threats of violence against him.

Those attacks and threats make for a story worth thinking about, one that in another context might interest the same people who are studiously ignoring it. Pai, after all, is the first Indian American to serve as FCC chairman: The son of immigrants, he has an impressive résumé in business and government, yet he is being targeted by the mostly white and male digerati class. No writer seems willing to touch the racial angle, but one can easily conjure visions of a story about computer-addicted white men in dark basements coming after a high-achieving Asian American. Pai is a successful, visible member of a successful and increasingly visible community within the American ethnic patchwork, one whose rise has come in the face of racial discrimination — and in some cases provoked even more.

It’s not as though the media are incapable of writing such a story. Back in 2015, Ellen Pao, an Asian-American tech executive who was then the CEO of Reddit, decided to give that site’s then-feeble harassment policy some teeth. The immediate result was weeks’ worth of high-testosterone venom from the Reddit faithful, who posted Pao’s home address online, marshaled 200,000 signatures for her ouster, and mocked her appearance — all for the crime of banning subreddits such as “Transfags” and “FatPeopleHate.” Yet the backlash against Pao elicited a reciprocal one from the media, which rushed to Pao’s defense. Pao became a hero to women, racial minorities, and their self-declared allies, a fearless battler against a certain strand of toxic Internet culture that is dominated by white men. Those who police the bounds of acceptable opinion welcomed Pao into their ranks.

Even if net neutrality is your guiding passion, Pai is not your enemy. Congress is.

Not so with Pai, and the obvious reason is that he’s on the wrong team. Pai’s critics say that his FCC has made a decision that is beyond the pale and that undermines democracy. But there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue; Pai’s acting on one of them is hardly a moral failing. And putting the merits of his decision aside, the policy reversal was anything but undemocratic: The Obama-era rules in question were implemented without input from the democratically elected legislators who are supposed to be our policymakers, so the FCC’s action to get rid of them was a procedural corrective to Obama’s executive overreach. Even if net neutrality is your guiding passion, Pai is not your enemy. Congress is.

The Left and its evangelizers in the media and culture industries profess to be deeply disturbed by online racism, but they have greeted the vicious attacks against Pai with a notable silence rather than a spirited defense. Pai is a Republican implementing policies Republicans favor, so it follows that any opposition to him is a good thing — no matter how racist, personal, or threatening it becomes. The unlikely and unspoken alliance between progressives and Pai’s unhinged attackers is one of partisanship and convenience.

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