The ‘World’s Largest Bookstore’ Gets Into the Censorship Business

Just a week ago, I received an email from Ryan Anderson, who was recently tapped to lead the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and who wrote When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment for me at Encounter Books back in 2018. A reader who had tried to order his book from Amazon reported he was unable to find the book listed on the site. I looked myself and, yes, that reader was correct. Other books by Anderson are listed, as are various books on the “transgender” phenomenon, including a now out-of-print title that purports to rebut When Harry Became Sally. But the book itself is nowhere to be found. 

How odd. The book was controversial when it was first published—the New York Times devoted not one but two columns to abusing it. But it sold well and, outside the precincts of wokedom, it was regarded as what it is: a thoughtful, compassionate, and well-researched discussion of the devastating psychological costs of embracing the latest fad of sexual exoticism. 

What happened? Was it an accident? A little digging showed that, like the Earl of Strafford, Amazon’s motto was “Thorough.” It was not just that a book that had been listed and sold by Amazon for the last three years was “out of stock” or “unavailable.” It had disappeared without a trace, more or less like Nikolai Yezhov standing next to Josef Stalin in that notorious photo by the Moscow Canal. One day he is seen smiling next to the great leader. The next day he is gone, airbrushed from history.

RIA-Novosti Moscow/AFP via Getty Images

So it was with When Harry Became Sally. Amazon had pushed it into the oubliette; the book was gone, “canceled” by the wardens of wokeness at Amazon. Further inquiries show that it was also gone from the Kindle store and from Audible, the audiobooks emporium that is owned by Amazon. As of this writing, the book is still available at Barnes and Noble and other emporia, including at the Encounter Books website.

We’ve heard a lot about “cancel culture” recently. Here was the latest example. The delisting, without any sort of warning, notice, or explanation of a serious, well-regarded book because . . . because, why? After multiple inquiries, we were informed that the book was removed because it violated Amazon’s new “content guidelines” against “offensive” material or “hate speech.”

Not for the first time, I was reminded that the wokerati of Big Tech and Big Media have become drunk with power and, emboldened by the Democratic sweep of the levers of power, have begun to regard Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a how-to manual instead of what it is, a scarifying warning about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Amazon, which presides over more than 80 percent of the book sales in the United States, decides to erase a book, ostensibly because it violates a nebulous policy regarding offensive content but really because it violates today’s standard of political correctness. After all, Amazon has no problem selling Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the lunatic, anti-Semitic ravings of Louis Farrakhan

I very much doubt that whoever made the decision to remove When Harry Became Sally from Amazon is a secret admirer of the book, but I did wonder. The immediate effect of the ban was to spark a run on the book. We instantly sold out of the 2,000 copies we had in stock and, as of this writing, we have orders for some 3,000 more. 

If Amazon hoped to bury the book, they made a big mistake. Ryan Anderson has been ubiquitous on prominent news and opinion shows discussing the ban. And on Wednesday, Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) sent a blistering letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding an explanation for his company’s sudden termination of the book.

“In its decision to remove Mr. Anderson’s book from its platforms,” the senators write, “Amazon has openly signaled to conservative Americans that their views are not welcome on its platforms.” How’s that for understatement? They go on to point out the obvious: “Amazon’s shortsighted censorship of this well-researched and thoughtful contribution to modern American discourse is not just a decision made in poor taste, but an assault on free speech that carries weighty implications for the future of open discourse in the digital age.”

We at Encounter will make sure that Ryan Anderson’s book, which is an important contribution to a matter of exigent public debate, remains available. But in its brazenness, Amazon has signaled a new escalation in Left’s war against free speech. I know it will not stop with the attempted erase of a single book that, partly because of the force of its argument, is cordially hated by the Left. On the contrary, Amazon’s behavior is part of a growing current of intolerance, conducted, ironically, under the banner of “diversity.”

At times, it seems surreal. February is Black History Month, but Amazon nevertheless decided to cancel Michael Pack’s award-winning documentary about Justice Clarence Thomas because Thomas, although black, is apparently not the right sort of black. 

I will have more to say about this new totalitarian movement of intolerance in due course. It goes far beyond the attempted canceling of a book that fails to pass muster with the custodians of correctitude. Indeed, it amounts to an existential challenge to the fundamental principles that underlie American democracy. For now, though, I will end with another observation from George Orwell. “If liberty means anything at all,” he wrote, “it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”

 

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

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