Salvo 02.23.2021 5 minutes

Amazon’s Digital Bonfire

Image of book burning in woman hands in dark forest

The mega-retailer disappears a controversial bestseller in an ominous gesture toward our sanitized future.

If you’re lucky enough to have maintained your income through the lockdowns, you might consider hoarding some new books with the cash you saved not traveling or dining out. I mean printed books, not the kind floating on digital clouds. Focus on those volumes you would wish to pass on to your children: Think the Loeb Classical Library, or the Western canon more generally, or heck, any “controversial” fiction or nonfiction that matters to you.

Buy them now. Because soon, you may not be able to. Or rather, you won’t be permitted to—by the publishers, media outlets, e-tailers, Internet service providers, payment processors, server operators, and other corporate entities that collectively form the business end of our privately owned, all-American repressive apparatus.

Consider what just happened to Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. As recently as last week, you could purchase the book on Amazon. This week, you can’t—not in hardcover, softcover, new, used, digital, or audible. It has been canceled, delisted, disappeared, without account or explanation. And given that Amazon controls most book sales in the United States, it means Anderson’s book simply doesn’t exist,as far as most book buyers are concerned.

How incendiary is Anderson’s book? Actually, When Harry Became Sally is a sober and compassionate treatment of an explosive topic. Anderson, the new president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, argues that the rash dismantling of the sex binary, in the name of transgender rights, is scientifically unsound and socially harmful. To make the point, he marshals a mountain of evidence, drawn from biology, psychology, medical science, and his own reporting; Anderson is a man who proceeds by cautious reason.

Which is another way of saying that if Anderson’s book is subject to cancellation by Amazon, few other books are safe.

After all, any decent library—spanning literature, poetry, history, theology, philosophy, scripture, science—attests to the basic truth that sex is immutable, that sex differences are inscribed in the human body, that maleness and femaleness are embodied realities; the past is one long deadname. Today’s gender and sex-liberation ideologues by nature can’t stand such reminders. That’s why my claim that no book is safe is not overstating the case

Yet there is a tendency among many blue-check types—including and perhaps especially conservatives—to approach episodes like this with a kind of wan resignation, not to mention ironical amusement: “Oh, I wish that would happen to my book! Who can complain about the Streisand effect on royalties?” Hardy-har-har.

Yes, those in the know can still buy the book from the publisher or non-Amazon sellers. But that’s beside the point: We’ve come very far from the openness and pluralism promised by liberalism’s theorists and publicists, including conservative or “classical” liberals. What makes these episodes so shocking, and so hard to fathom for a certain type of conservative, is that the repression is meted by private, rather than public, actors.

For some classical liberals, of course, the private form of the repression signals the end of the debate: The boot stamped on their faces tastes yummy, so long as the foot inside belongs to a Silicon Valley CEO, instead of an agent of the government.

This kind of servility to the principle of free markets has lost much of its grip, especially upon the intelligent young. Yet most on the right remain unwilling to follow these developments to their logical conclusion: namely, that it was classical liberalism itself that has incepted our world of vast inequalities in wealth and power (between individuals, firms and social classes); of unaccountable corporate power; of relentless privatization of public space and public discourse; of the tyranny of private actors now crystalized in Big Tech censorship.

The laissez-faire right itself contributed to the creation of the private repressive apparatus now being used to silence . . . the right.

Over the past two generations, the right’s ideologues told us that freeing private actors to pursue their selfish interests at every turn would somehow yield a more virtuous, more healthily “competitive,” more small-“c” conservative society, thus fulfilling the promise of the nation’s Jeffersonian founding. Yet the corporations that aligned themselves with this vision, and the mega-donors who underwrote it, knew exactly what they were getting: perfect conditions for private tyranny.

So let’s purchase the soon-to-be-proscribed books—preferably not on Amazon. But the Right needs to acknowledge the obvious: private action will not prevent the private tyranny of America’s powerful woke monopolies.

Photo credit: strixcode

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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