Let’s be clear: Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally has not been banned, and there are no “free speech” issues involved here. (Not in any precise sense, though I may say more about this in another post.) A retailer has decided not to sell a product. But because the retailer involved is Amazon, and Amazon has such an outsize influence over the book market, it seems to me that every published author ought to worry about what might happen to their sales if they got on Amazon’s bad side.
A number of interesting and important issues converge on this decision. For instance, the fact that by removing the book with no warning, no explanation, and no opportunity for appeal, Amazon is violating its own publicly announced guidelines: “If we remove a title, we let the author, publisher, or selling partner know and they can appeal our decision.” Or the fact that for a couple of days any search for Anderson’s book yielded a result for a book critical of Anderson’s that Amazon would clearly prefer you to read. (That now seems to have been replaced with a standard 404 page.) Or the apparent fact that there are no other topics of current dispute on which dissent is absolutely prohibited: for instance, you can still purchase Pluckrose and Lindsay on critical theory and Douglas Murray contra identity politics — for now. Or the fact that Amazon no longer has an email address you can write if you want to protest such a decision.
But to me, the most interesting point for reflection is this: The censors at Amazon clearly believe there is only one reason to read a book. You read a book because you agree with it and want it to confirm what you already believe. Imagine, for instance, a transgender activist who wants to understand the position held by Ryan Anderson and people like him in order better to refute it. That person can’t get a copy of the book through Amazon any more than a sympathetic reader like me can.
But another, deeper belief lies beneath that one: It’s that ideas like Anderson’s are not to be refuted but rather, insofar as it lies within Amazon’s vast power, erased — subjected to Damnatio memoriae. And the interesting thing about that practice is that it is simultaneously an assertion of power and a confession of weakness. Amazon is flexing its muscles, but muscles are all it has. Its censors don’t want anyone to read Anderson’s book because they know that they can’t refute it. They have no thoughts, no knowledge — only reflexes. And reflexes will serve their cause. For now.