Still Not Convinced on Amazon Boycott

     

As most readers already know, Senator Joe Lieberman publicly called on Amazon to stop hosting WikiLeaks on its servers. When Amazon capitulated to this request, many heroic opponents of US foreign policy — whom we at LRC respect very highly — demanded a boycott of Amazon (e.g. here, here, and here). I did not understand the hostility to Amazon, and wrote a column explaining why. Justin Raimondo was not convinced, and reiterated calls to boycott Amazon.

I'm still not convinced, and in particular I think Mr. Raimondo's article does not explain — as my original piece asked — why are we singling out Amazon?

Why Single Out Amazon?

The main reason I personally was not outraged at Amazon's decision, is that I initially was very surprised that they hosted WikiLeaks in the first place. I had been driving in the car, listening to some right-wing AM talk show (much the same way I use my tongue to play with canker sores because I'm curious about how bad it will be). During the news break, the announcer said matter-of-factly that WikiLeaks' main host had gone down, and that Amazon was now hosting the controversial website instead.

I was extremely surprised, bordering on flabbergasted. After all, for months public figures had been calling for the "treasonous" Assange, with "blood on his hands," to be executed without trial. In such a climate, for a huge, public company like Amazon — which depends on a huge volume of traffic for its low-margin business — to publicly stand with WikiLeaks, bordered on extraordinary. I was expecting the announcer to say that some obscure server in Australia was hosting the site, not Amazon for crying out loud. This was like Disneyland opening up an Abu Ghraib ride.

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Teaching Amazon a Lesson

With this background, let me reiterate my point about what "lesson" a painful boycott of Amazon would actually serve. The lesson is not, "If you fail to disseminate information that is critical of the U.S. empire, then you lose my business." As I pointed out, there are plenty of companies that have done far more to promote the U.S. empire, than Amazon ever did. Some candidates include:

  • The radio station I listened to earlier this morning, which reminded people of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in a very rah-rah sort of way.
  • The airline (I don't remember which one) that had a stewardess ask us to clap for the servicemen and women on board the flight as we taxied toward the gate, when I flew on Veteran's Day.
  • Walmart because of this.
  • Judge Napolitano's show because it's on FOX.
  • 30 Rock because it's on NBC.
  • The Daily Show because Jon Stewart is obviously still an Obama supporter, when all is said and done.

Now it's true, if the Amazon boycott were large enough to cause a huge dent in their business this holiday season, then other visible corporations who were already associated with WikiLeaks might think twice before seeming to capitulate to U.S. government demands.

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However, it is also true that no other visible business would become associated with WikiLeaks in the future. For example, suppose there were a major law firm, thinking about representing Assange because its younger partners are actually true believers in civil liberties.

However, some of the older partners warn them, "We don't want to take this guy on; he's too hot. We'd have Bill O'Reilly calling us traitors, and we'd have senators asking us to drop Assange. We'd lose lots of business from clients who didn't want to be associated with a firm that was sticking its finger in the government's eye, because they'd be worried that our trial cases would go against us."

Now suppose some of the younger partners say, "Well let's at least try and see what happens. You're just assuming all of those bad things. But let's at least take Assange on, present our arguments to the press that this is a free country where we're ruled by laws, not men. If the heat gets to be too much, then OK we'll back off. But let's at least give it a shot."

Yet that option is no longer available to our hypothetical law firm. Once they become intertwined with WikiLeaks, if they ever disassociate from it, then they are on the wrong side of the barricades. Unless they are willing to get dragged off to jail, saying, "To hell with the government!" they are subject to a boycott for their cowardice, at least according to Raimondo's explanation for the Amazon boycott.

So if those are the alternatives, how many companies are going to help WikiLeaks with any of its business operations, going forward?

Holding Up Amazon to a Stricter Standard Than Oneself?

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I also want to reiterate that it is naïve to think that Amazon had nothing to fear from Lieberman. We don't really know what happened behind the scenes. But the idea that Amazon could have hired expensive lawyers and been fine, is silly. The FBI has been raiding multi-billion dollar hedge funds for the amorphous crime of "insider trading." Don't those Wall Street fat cats know how to hire a lawyer?

If the people running the U.S. government wanted to apply pressure to Amazon executives, they could simply announce that they were investigating them for child pornography, and then name some of the top people at Amazon who were under suspicion. It wouldn't even matter if there ended up being no shred of evidence at all, save some anonymous leaks to reporters. Those people's lives would effectively be ruined. Who the heck is going to go to a cocktail party of someone accused of child pornography in the New York Times?

Do not misunderstand: If a large corporation went to the barricades, like Sewell Avery, and its top executives ended up going to jail in defense of liberty, then they would be heroes in my book. My point is, failure to throw away your life in defense of WikiLeaks — when the capitulation meant that WikiLeaks was down for a matter of hours — is not a sufficient reason in my book to boycott Amazon.

How many of the boycotters would take, say, a 10% pay cut this year, in order that WikiLeaks not have its site interrupted for a few hours? That is the immediate decision that Amazon may have faced. (If Lieberman and other government officials called for a boycott of Amazon heading into the holiday season, accusing them of aiding a troop killer and committing treason, that could have been disastrous for their sales.)

As I pointed out in the previous article, it would be much more logical — in response to the Lieberman/Amazon episode — for websites to publicly call for a boycott of the IRS, to say, "We can no longer in good conscience send our money to this organization." But that's not what happened, because that would have drawn too much heat. The lack of such a call is not a sign of cowardice, but of prudence.

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Conclusion

It is true, as Raimondo pointed out, that some libertarians are praising Amazon's business model (although that was never part of my argument). Yet by the same token, there are many antiwar activists who are clearly picking on Amazon precisely because it is a big, rich company. The most obvious illustration of this is that Glenn Greenwald — on the same day he called for a boycott of Amazon — expressed nothing but sympathy for Tableau, a Seattle-based software company that stopped hosting completely innocuous charts for WikiLeaks in response to Lieberman's demands. As I read Greenwald's post, I kept waiting for him to explain why Amazon was evil but Tableau was a victim; he never did so.

It should go without saying that I (and presumably everyone associated with LRC) applaud the heroic work of Justin Raimondo and others who were outraged with Amazon. I am simply questioning the rationale behind their calls for a boycott.

It is an unfortunate fact that many Americans do not agree with our assessment of the growing American empire and police state. Rather than launching punitive campaigns, and drawing lines in the sand saying that you are either with us or against us, I think the causes of peace and liberty will be better advanced through gentle persuasion.