Amazon throws its weight around
A Q&A with delisted author Ryan T. Anderson about Big Tech censorship
If you want to buy Adolph Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf on Amazon, all it takes is a couple of clicks. The same goes if you’re interested in learning to make bombs from The Anarchist’s Cookbook or reading Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Defense, an academic treatise that justifies some acts of pedophilia. But neither the online retail giant nor any of its subsidiaries will sell you Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 bestseller, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. On Sunday, Amazon removed the book from its main retail site, as well as its audiobook platform, Audible, and its used book company, AbeBooks.
Over the past week, Anderson, who heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has urged Congress to vote no on the Equality Act, a bill that would make gender identity a protected class under civil rights law. The day after Amazon removed When Harry Became Sally from its cybershelves, Twitter placed this warning on tweets that included images of the book’s cover: “The following media contains potentially sensitive content.” And for several hours, the book was unavailable for sale on the Apple Books app.
The Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Association estimate Amazon accounts for as much as 70 to 80 percent of U.S. book sales. “They aren’t gaming the system, they own the system,” literary agent Rick Pascocello told The Wall Street Journal in 2019.
The megaretailer has a history of suppressing material that runs afoul of LGBT orthodoxy. In July 2019, it began removing books advocating therapeutic or spiritual practices for dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, as well as books from ex-gay authors. Last June, it blocked publisher Regnery from purchasing ads for Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. And in August, after 3½ years with no incident, it stopped selling the book Health Hazards of Homosexuality.
I spoke with Anderson about Amazon delisting his book. I also reached out to Amazon and received no response. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
You are one of the most prominent critics of the Equality Act. Do you feel like Amazon’s timing on this was strategic? My publisher reached out to Amazon asking what’s going on, and they haven’t heard back. And, obviously, this is a concern, not just for my book, because my book is three years old, and it’s already sold well. Amazon controls a huge market share in the United States. And they can now pressure publishers into not publishing controversial books. If you are a publisher, you might say, “If we publish this and Amazon yanks it, are we ever going to sell enough books to recoup our costs?” So this could have a stifling effect on the entire market of book writing, book publishing, and book buying. … And now [Amazon] might be using its market dominance to actually distort the market.
I’ve heard some conservative Christians argue that, as much as we may not like it, Big Tech is made up of private companies that can do what they like. What are your thoughts on that? That it’s not true. And it’s never been true. [Our government] has never said private businesses can do anything they like. The most obvious example, though it’s not morally equivalent, is if Amazon said, we’re not going to sell books by authors of a certain race, or we’re not going to sell books to buyers of a certain religion. We would say private businesses can’t do that, right? In the same way the electric company can’t say, we don’t provide electricity to conservative homes any longer.
We all realize that economic liberties have limits. Now historically, we’ve had robust competition. If one local bookstore decided not to sell a conservative book, other independent bookstores would carry it. We could say, leave it to the market. But when companies grow so large and exercise so much power, I think it’s a little naive for people to say, just leave it to private businesses. Just as big government can be a threat to our liberty and to our flourishing, so, too, can big business, particularly Big Tech.
To further play devil’s advocate, one specific challenge I’ve heard is that if Christian baker Jack Phillips can’t be forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding, Amazon can’t be forced to sell Ryan Anderson's book. In one of the books [of mine] that [Amazon] is still selling I’ve written precisely on this—how do we think about the tension between nondiscrimination laws and the free exercise of religion or free speech. So is Amazon asserting a religious claim, that it violates their religious beliefs to sell my book? Because if that’s the case, let’s hear it! And, if so, I would want to know how selling Mein Kampf doesn’t violate their religious beliefs, but selling my book does.
Now maybe they’re saying it’s a free speech claim, like, we only sell books that we agree with. But again, when you’re looking at all the other books that Amazon sells, it’s hard to see that. In Jack Phillips’ case, he says, I only make custom-order cakes that support messages and events that I do agree with, right? So he wouldn’t do anti-American cakes. He wouldn’t do a “happy divorce” cake. He wouldn’t do cakes with lewd images. He ran his entire business in keeping with a certain moral vision. If Amazon wants to say that’s the type of business they are, then let us know about it. Because it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’ve been doing.
Another set of arguments is that if Jack Phillips had a policy of not serving gay people at all, I don’t think you would have seen any conservative defending him. His argument wasn’t that as a private business, he can do what he wants. His argument was that there’s an important distinction between saying, I don’t serve gay people, and, I don’t celebrate things that I don’t believe are moral. A lot of people on the left refused to acknowledge that distinction.
If Amazon wants to say, look, we have sincerely held beliefs about transgender issues, and we don’t sell books that violate our sincerely held beliefs, like, OK, just let us know. Because the way that they’ve marketed themselves to customers is that they sell all books worth reading, not just books they agree with.
So you might want to reach out to them for comment on that.
I tried! Other journalists have reached out, and there have been stories that posted yesterday, stories that posted today. And the universal thing that the journalists are reporting is that Amazon is refusing to comment.
In one story I read, the reporter said Amazon pointed her to its guidelines on hate speech. So let’s talk about the content of your book because that seems to be an inference that they’re classifying it as hate speech. If so, it took them three years to discover it. It’s sold tens of thousands of copies through Amazon. And so the timing of this is suspicious, it being the very week when the House of Representatives is going to ram through the Equality Act.
But also, anyone who has read the book will tell you that even if they disagree with it, it is a model for how someone with my perspective on the issue should write. It has 30 or 40 pages of footnotes. At the end of the book, I cite all the relevant scholarly sources. It was endorsed by the former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, by a professor of neuroscience at Boston University, by a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, by a former professor of psychology at New York University, by a medical ethicist at Columbia’s medical school. This isn’t some fringe, bomb-throwing, red meat, name-calling book. This is about as mainstream as you get from someone who holds the positions that I hold.
So it seems like it doesn’t matter how charitably you say it, or how rigorously you argue if you have the opinion that I have. It’s about the position that Orthodox Christianity holds on this issue, not about the way that we say it.
Given that Amazon has so far not responded to requests for comment from any news outlet, do you feel like they are testing the waters with your book, seeing how long they can hold out? You know, all throughout the Trump years, there were various hearings on Capitol Hill, and the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. There were real fears from Big Tech that if they engaged in too much blatant censorship, there might be legal ramifications. Now they may be saying, there’s a new sheriff in town. But I don’t know because no one from Amazon has said a word about this to me or to the publisher, and so far they’re not responding to the press.
As far as tactics, I’m looking at what happened with Abigail Shrier’s book. Target similarly delisted it. But once there was mass coverage in the press and public outcry, they reversed course. Should conservatives continue to make their voices heard through complaints and boycotts now that they have less power in Washington? Is that enough? In the short run, yes, it’s going to have to be enough. Consumers complain and perhaps cancel Amazon Prime accounts and start shopping at Barnes and Noble, Target, and directly from Encounter Books. And it may very well be that economic pressure in the short run is what forces Amazon to change its policy.
But in the long run, I think conservatives are going to have to think about what the limits of economic liberties are when it comes to Big Tech. We have various limits for mom-and-pop stores, right? They have all sorts of rules and regulations that they have to comply with to be on Main Street. We also are going to have to think about, what are the rules and regulations that a business is going to have to comply with to be on the cyberstreets? Just saying it’s a private business, they can do whatever they want, really doesn’t address those questions at all.
The timing was interesting with Apple and Twitter making some moves on your book. Someone said [Twitter and Apple] might have, you know, initially gone along with what Amazon was doing and then had second thoughts. Who knows, right? Because again, no one’s communicating. And there’s a lack of transparency on these issues, which I think also leads many consumers to be a little skeptical: How much can we just trust that Big Tech is actually doing what’s in the common good vs. their own private interests?
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