Commentary Magazine

The Torment of Ajit Pai

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

At some point predating Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, political activism evolved from a civic exercise into a lifestyle. For the initiated, traditional forms of political organizing are too passive. In the activists’ minds, the objects of their fixations represent an existential threat, and there aren’t many behaviors that are proscribed in a fight for survival. For the fanatical opposition to Donald Trump, in particular, even the most mundane aspects of governance are inflated into a struggle for our very way of life. This is how opposition to an arcane, bureaucratic decision by the Federal Communications Commission transformed from a liberal cause into an obsession. This is also how the FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, became the subject of almost daily persecution.

The source of great consternation on the left is the FCC’s decision to scrap an Obama-era rule implemented in 2015 deemed “net neutrality.” This complicated regulatory structure determines who controls broadband—as John Podhoretz described it, the “pipe” through which online content is delivered to individual consumers. The end of net neutrality will allow Internet service providers to do whatever they want with their “pipe,” even privilege the content of providers that they own or support. That is precisely what independent content providers fear, and that’s why they oppose the repeal of this law. Proponents of the FCC’s move believe those fears are not well supported; the marketplace will ensure that service providers are ultimately unable to block access to popular content or services, even if that is their inclination. We’re about to find out who is right.

This supervisory guideline has been elevated into a “life-or-death” struggle by those who favor net neutrality. Accordingly, Pai, a proponent of deregulating the communications marketplace to spur innovation or to simply comply with the law (an obstacle the Obama-era FCC regularly circumvented), has been the target of a campaign of harassment that amounts to a national scandal.

The so-called “Resistance” latched onto the net-neutrality issue early in the Trump presidency and went about expressing their opposition to the repeal of this regulation in the most contemptible fashion imaginable. HBO host John Oliver was among the first figures of mainstream cultural relevance to organize a campaign against this regulation, which he dubbed “Go FCC Yourself.” He encouraged his followers to bombard the FCC’s website with comments supporting the regulation, and that is precisely what they did. Those comments were peppered with claims that Pai was a pedophile, a “dirty, sneaky Indian” who should self-deport, and reminders that anonymous online hordes maintain the “power to murder Ajit Pai and his family.” Oliver was eventually compelled to release a video urging his followers to dial back the racism and death threats.

This episode would prove to be just the beginning of Pai’s ordeal. By May of last year, Pai’s tormentors began a campaign to ensure that the FCC chairman could enjoy no peace—not even in his own home. “Resistance” groups began distributing fliers and door hangers around Pai’s Arlington, Virginia neighborhood, featuring a black-and-white photo of Pai with his vital stats (height, weight, age, and professional background) and accusing him of selling the Internet out to corporations. “Have you seen this man?” the fliers read.

These demonstrators didn’t stop there. They began organizing “vigils” in Pai’s driveway—a tactic that net neutrality activists deployed in 2014 against then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. They “come up to our front windows and take photographs of the inside of the house,” Pai told the Wall Street Journal. “My kids are 5 and 3. It’s not pleasant.”

“Is this really the world you want Annabelle and Alexander to inherit,” read a hand-made sign affixed to a lamppost outside Pai’s residence in November, making a point to emphasize the names of Pai’s two children. “They will come to know the truth: Dad murdered democracy in cold blood,” read another. The Pai family’s doorbell reportedly rang every half hour, according to National Journal’s Brendan Bordelon, with pizza deliveries that they had not ordered. “It was a little nerve-racking, especially for my wife who’s not involved in this space,” Pai told Fox News Channel. “Families,” he continued, “should remain out of it and stop harassing us at our homes.”

But it didn’t stop, and the threats to Pai’s safety have only become more credible. In December, ahead of the commission’s vote to formally nix the controversial 2015 regulation, a specific bomb threat forced the FCC to halt proceedings and clear the building. This week, Pai was forced to cancel a scheduled appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show after receiving credible death threats. A Recode reporter confirmed that the organization that hosts the annual gathering of business and technology experts had also been “subject to vicious and direct attacks and threats” for even daring to associate with the FCC chairman.

Pai’s treatment is an outrage and a disgrace. It would be a national scandal in the press but for the fact that so many of the country’s opinion-makers and media professionals agree with the activists’ cause, if not their methods. Pai’s record is that of a competent steward of the FCC, and he easily won a second term at his post in October with the support of four Democratic senators. What’s more, he has demonstrated both independence and a commitment to free and unfettered expression, going so far as to scold Donald Trump for suggesting that his regulatory organ should yank the licenses of broadcasters with which the president disagreed.

For all his autonomy, Pai and his family have nevertheless endured a campaign of stalking and intimidation for merely serving the country in his capacity as FCC chairman. This sorry display is unbecoming of a mature republic. The activist left is incubating the kind of potentially violent radicalism that they cannot control. If Democrats truly fret for the norms of civil conduct that are supposedly being lost in the Trump era, they might devote some attention to their own supporters.

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