Most critics of Amazon and other world-bestriding technology companies focus on their size and market share, but another problem is their opacity: We still do not know, and may indeed never know, why Amazon has decided to ban Ryan Anderson’s book on the transgender controversy. Inquiries from National Review and from Anderson’s publisher, Encounter Books, have been met with Bourbon haughtiness: Le marché, c’est moi, says Jeff Bezos.
The book, published in 2018, recently has been removed from Amazon, as well as from Amazon subsidiaries Kindle, Audible, and AbeBooks. Amazon maintains, in theory, a policy of contacting publishers and discussing the removal of controversial books before acting, but Amazon has not followed that policy in this case. At least the traditional sort of book-burners felt the need to explain themselves.
Anderson, who is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, represents what might be called the Princeton School of social conservatism, and he has published works in association with scholars such as Robert P. George, among others. He is a serious thinker and analyst (after Princeton he took a doctorate in political philosophy from Notre Dame), not a Breitbart troll. “It’s not a bomb-throwing book of red meat and heated rhetoric,” he says of the book that has been made by Amazon into samizdat. “Even a book like that, as rigorous as it can be and as civil as it can be, is unacceptable. It’s not about how we say it or how we defend it, but simply about the position we hold.”
As a narrow legal question, Amazon is of course within its rights to exclude books from its marketplace, whether those be works of conservative criticism, Lolita, or the Quran. But powerful institutions such as Amazon should stand up for principles, including the principle of free speech and open discourse. Jeff Bezos of all people knows that: When the National Enquirer attempted to blackmail him, he went public at the risk of some personal embarrassment, asking a pertinent question: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
If in his position, and in Amazon’s position, one of the wealthiest men on Earth cannot afford to stand up to the mob demanding virtual book-burnings in order to suppress the communication of ideas and positions with which they are at odds, who can?
But, of course, Bezos could stand up to that mob, if he chose to. Instead, Bezos and his team apparently are content to go along with the mob, if not exactly leading it then providing it with the keys to the library, a can of gasoline, and a box of matches.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t have to prove that he can make money. He has demonstrated that he can do that. But what he has not demonstrated — and what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and many of their peers have not demonstrated — is that he can be something more than rich, that he can take seriously the obligations of citizenship and business leadership, and that he still has some human feel for the moral aspect of the business of books.