Another day, another free-speech controversy. This is actually a repeat performance for Amazon.com, which in 2002 weathered a storm over listing Understanding Loved Boys and Boylovers, a philosophical justification for male pedophilia. A host of family-friendly organizations-including Focus on the Family, The Traditional Values Coalition, and the United States Justice Foundation-threatened boycotts and litigation. But when the noise died down, Amazon still offered-and offers-the book for sale. Last week, a new controversy arose over The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, available at Amazon's Kindle store. The title in question is apparently more practical than theoretical, but no less bashful about subject matter.
Though threatened with boycotts and litigation, Amazon's stated position is that it will not remove the book from its website: "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions." Yeah, yeah-censorship, freedom of speech, First Amendment-next time just phone it in.
For the record, it is not censorship to exclude a book from one's inventory. Censorship is the official restraint (by government) on the publication or distribution of material. The office of "censor" originated in ancient Rome and consisted of two individuals with legal authority to shut down a play or a publication in the interest of public morals. Amazon has no such authority; if it refuses to sell pro-pedophile books, the books will still be available from other sources.
Amazon pretends to take no moral position but couches its policy in moral terms, putting the principle of freedom over the principle of decency. Better to allow some titles "we find objectionable" than start limiting choices. If we ban Boylovers today, what will stop us from banning neo-Nazis and Sarah Palin tomorrow?
Why not say that pedophilia is objectionable, wherever one is located on the policial spectrum? And it's illegal-so far. But there are those who would like to change the law and they're willing to push and push and push until public revulsion is overcome. And it will be, unless enough people push back. Law is made from culture, but culture is made from millions of individual decisions. When I started writing this column, I had no convictions about what action to take. Now that I am here at the end, I have decided not to order from Amazon anymore. Not because it will change the policy of the world's largest bookseller, but because it's one little push back.
UPDATE: I've been informed that Amazon has removed the book. This is both encouraging and instructive-encouraging because protests and boycotts do occasionally work, and instructive for me as a reminder to double-check my assumptions. The title mentioned in the first paragraph is still part of Amazon's inventory, suggesting that the decision to remove The Pedophile's Guide was more practical than principled. Two cheers for Amazon and my apologies to you, gentle readers: I'll be more careful in the future.