The house of the Lord, we are told, has many mansions. So does the house of wokeness. If you are Coca-Cola, you address flagging sales by embarking on an ad campaign (and internal training regimen for employees) urging those drinking its sugar water to ‘try to be less white’, i.e., ‘less arrogant, less certain, less defensive, less ignorant and more humble’.
If you are Disney, you scour your cartoons for images, situations, or language that worried white bureaucrats imagine might cause offense to anyone on this week’s list of designated victim groups.
If you are Dr Seuss Enterprises, you cashier six of your books because they ‘portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong’.
And if you are Amazon, ‘the world’s largest bookstore‘, you slip quietly into the censorship business by suddenly delisting When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, a three-year-old scholarly book by Ryan T. Anderson about the psychological costs of blithely embracing the vogue of transgenderism.
I was proud to publish When Harry Became Sally at Encounter Books back in 2018 and was pleased when, over the course of the next couple of years, it sold some 26,000 copies in various formats.
Now, thanks to Amazon’s decision to cashier the book, it is well on its way to selling another 26,000. (Although the book has vanished without trace from Amazon and its subsidiaries, you can still get it at Barnes & Noble, various independent bookshops, and direct from Encounter.)
So should I be pleased that Amazon, in its latest act of woke intolerance, is doing so much to spread the news about this important book?
Yes and no. Naturally, I am pleased that more people, because of Amazon’s bully-blustering, will become acquainted with Ryan’s thoughtful and compassionate analysis. But stepping back, I have to say that Amazon’s behavior is yet another worrisome sign that freedom of expression is under siege in contemporary America.
Indeed, Amazon’s behavior is worrisome for a couple of reasons. First, it is worrisome in itself as a public act of intolerance. Second, it is worrisome as the act of a gigantic, near-monopolistic enterprise. Amazon and its subsidiaries control upwards of 80 percent of book sales in this country. They are the elephant in the room, the behemoth on the block, the leviathan to which every intermediary pays obeisance.
Soon after Amazon’s delisting of When Harry Became Sally was noticed, Sens. Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Mike Braun and Mike Lee wrote a letter to Amazon asking several questions about Amazon’s decision to deep-six the book. Among other things, the senators asked whether Amazon had, as its own policies dictate, informed us of their decision and given us an opportunity to appeal it. In their response, Amazon claimed that they informed our distributor via email the day that the book was removed. Maybe they did. But when we first discovered that When Harry Became Sally had been delisted and asked our distributor about it, the people we spoke with were as surprised as we were. Eventually, multiple inquiries produced the news that Amazon deemed the book to be in violation of its new rules about offensive content and ‘hate speech’. We are still unclear about when this news was communicated by Amazon to our distributor.
‘To our knowledge,’ a spokesman for our distributor informed us, ‘no one received an email notification and Amazon has been unable to provide proof despite repeated requests.’ Maybe the senators want to follow up on that.
But in the meantime, how exactly is When Harry Became Sally an instance of ‘hate speech’? Brief answer: it’s not. More extended answer: ‘hate speech’ is a bogus category wheeled out to forbid or criminalize speech that you don’t like.
But in their response to the letter from Messrs Rubio et al., Amazon went a step beyond the language set forth in their content guidelines. Henceforth, the spokesman for Amazon said, the online emporium will not ‘sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness’.
Note the deployment of the verb ‘frame’. I wonder how many meetings it took for Amazon to come up with that weasel word? Simply as a matter of rhetoric, I admire its encompassing vagueness. But what does it really mean? Ryan Anderson replied that ‘Nowhere have I ever said or framed LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.’ This is true. But in the context of Amazon’s interdiction, it signifies nothing. Amazon’s suppression of this one book is just an express stop, a skirmish in a much larger battle.
In their letter to Amazon, Sens. Rubio et al. touch on that larger battle when they ask whether the delisting of When Harry Became Sally was ‘part of a broader campaign against conservative material and voices on Amazon’s platforms?’
Bingo. ‘Amazon said ‘No’, of course — ‘We offer customers across the political spectrum a wide variety of content that includes disparate opinions,’ their letter insisted. But this is supremely disingenuous. Sure, you can buy Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic ravings of Louis Farrakhan and many other Tabasco works on Amazon. And as for works that ‘frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness’, you’ll find various works by Sigmund Freud, publications of the American Psychiatric Association, and works by other authors and entities that do just that.
But Amazon’s decision to squash this one book was never about any matter of principle. It is about the deployment of power in the battle now raging to determine the shape of American culture. Amazon has sided firmly with the bullies. We firmly expect to witness fresh interdictions, delistings and suppressions from the internet giant. They can do it, so they will do it. In a joint statement we published at the Encounter website, Ryan Anderson and I noted that
‘Amazon is using its massive power to distort the marketplace of ideas and is deceiving its own customers in the process.’ One of the canards we are hearing from the courtiers is that Amazon is a private company and therefore they can choose to sell, or not sell, whatever they want. This is true, but also irrelevant. What we are witnessing are not the prerogatives of the free market but clashings of a culture war. Those clashings may adopt, as camouflage, the rhetoric of free enterprise. But their end is control and obliteration of opposing points of view.