Bezo’s Balls: Bigger Than We Think?
SOPHIE JONES // FEBRUARY 22, 2019
Nowadays, it seems we all hate Amazon. We promise to cancel our accounts once our fourth and fifth student Prime deals (@etools.oberlin.edu? @obieapps.oberlin.edu?) finally expire. Hell, some of us even do it. Those of us who don’t sheepishly rush home from the mailroom with Amazon-branded boxes tucked under coats. Amazon hatred, or at least Amazon-related shame and/or self righteousness, is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier.
You see, I’m from a little town where Amazon animosity has been fomenting for nearly a decade. Ah yes, we Seattleites have been loathing Jeff Bezos—and, because his company owns 19% of all office space in the city, ourselves—since Kindles. We were insufferably complaining about Amazon before it started producing its own TV, before it began to buy up pharmaceutical companies, even before Alexa.
Equal parts self-righteous and self hating, Seattleites grumbled as Amazon leveled and rebuilt entire neighborhoods, wooed our mayor and much of our city council, and contributed to a 65% rent increase in over just five years. Some people were happy because they had real estate investments, owned bougie cafes in the right neighborhoods, or worked for Amazon themselves. Some people mobilized against the corporate behemoth’s influence and against the city’s increasing austerity measures in the face of a homelessness crisis; some people still are. A lot of people simply picked up and moved.
I went home for the first time in nearly a year this fall, only to find two four-story glass balls had appeared smack in the middle of downtown. A culmination of Amazon’s $4 billion dollar campus, the “Spheres” are Amazon’s newest innovative workspace and most symbolic intrusion on the Seattle landscape yet. Bezos’ sticky little hands are all over the emerald city, and now so are his goddamn balls. But before the crown jewels reached completion, Bezos announced he wanted to see other people.
In 2017, in a move the Seattle Times called “the end of Amazon’s Monogamy with Seattle,” Bezos announced Amazon’s search for new headquarters. The HQ2 competition was a sickening display of public-private partnership pageantry wherein cities across the country competed for the corporation’s attention with corny YouTube videos and secret tax incentive packages. The town of Stonecrest, Georgia and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo both offered to change their names to “Amazon” if chosen. That spring, Bezos suddenly got super ripped, which was unsettling and might have been a clue that perhaps the richest man on earth was exploring non-monogamy in other arenas, as well (but more on that later).
Meanwhile, the citizens of Seattle watched the spectacle of HQ2 unfold as the Balls bulged into the skyline, clicking their tongues in disapproval while still staying true to the city’s endemic passive aggression, unable to muster much more than a quiet “I told you so,” or a “Look what happened to us.” The same cannot be said for community leaders from the likely candidate cities; already, New Yorkers, Philadelphians, Houstonians and others were mobilizing against Amazon’s potential arrival.
Because of regional activists’ vocal resistance to HQ2, or perhaps because the competition was so garrishly neoliberal, Amazon began to garner more negative press and public sentiment in 2018 than ever before. And not just in Seattle! Bone chilling tales of labor and human rights abuses by Amazon that had been circulating for years suddenly became national news. Amazon Prime accounts were canceled en masse (or at least, more people claimed to have canceled them). Stories broke about the monstrous working conditions in Amazon warehouses, about the exporbanant environmental costs associated with one-day shipping, about Amazon’s 129$ million federal tax rebate, about Bezos eating an iguana. Seattleites grinned knowingly at each other; could this be the beginning of the end?
Indeed, by the time Amazon finally announced the two “winners” for HQ2— a suburb in Virginia, and Long Island City, New York—in November of last year, it seemed that the company’s well coiffed, underdog-book-seller-turned-righteous-and-humble-overlord reputation might be in jeopardy. People were Pissed. Newspapers all over the country wrote about how shitty Seattle is. Ha! We told you so.
And then came the “Alive Girl” texts. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing when The National Enquirer leaked Bezos and his mistress Lauren Sanchez’s steamy texts. You should, too because the release of Bezos’ sexts would prove to be—and I don’t think it’s too early in the year to make such a pronouncement—the most significant cultural moment of 2019. I first read Bezos’ Alexa-dictated sexts (“I will show you with my body, and my lips and my eyes, very soon”) when I was home for the holidays in Seattle. We, the residents of a city whose municipal government has been sucking Bezos’ dick for the last decade, suddenly got a glimpse of the real thing. And we had the The National Enquirer to thank! The rag that for years, and especially since the 2016 election, has been derided as a laughing stock of “journalism” had delivered what we Seattleites, hunkered down in the perpetual half-twilight of Pacific Northwest January, speculated might be a significant threat to Amazon’s already tenuous claim to moral legitimacy.
And lo and behold; Bezos and Amazon were scrutinized and criticized heavily in the weeks after the leak, stories broke about Amazon stealing their driver’s tips, about the ill health of their warehouse workers. Trudging through Seattle downpour, my fellow citizens and I traded secret smiles while bros with airpods averted their eyes in fear. How long before the behemoth would fall? Ha! We told you so.
Then, Bezos spoke up. In a post on Medium on February 7th, Bezos accused David Pecker, Trump ally and CEO of American Media, Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, of “extortion and blackmail”. Bezos’ post includes emails from AMI threatening to publish “below the belt selfies” if Bezos does not cease an investigation into the source of the original sext leak. Bezos speculates he is being targeted because of his ownership of the Washington Post; “it’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy. President Trump is one of those people.” Bezos security and legal team later suggested that a “government entity” might be behind the leak, strengthening Bezos’ insinuation that The Enquirer was politically motivated. And while the leaks and subsequent threatening emails do constitute extortion (sexstortion?) and, coming from the notorious Enquirer, are likely politically motivated, it is worth examining how Bezos has positioned himself in this controversy. What does Bezos stand to gain from publishing these emails himself? What might be the benefit of blaming a shadowy government agency for his humiliation, especially considering that most fingers point to Lauren Sanchez’s brother, not the FBI or NSA or Whitehouse, as the originator of the leak?
In facing up to his scandal, Bezos does more than regain control of the “Alive Girl” narrative; he also obscures mounting critiques of his massive wealth, of his tax dodging, of his labor practices and disregard for human rights and environmental issues. Indeed, in the week since Bezos’ statement he’s been hailed as a radical, as a hero of the free press, even as an “unlikely advocate in the fight against revenge porn.” In allying himself so closely with The Washington Post, and thus carefully positioning himself in opposition to fake news, The Enquirer, and Trump himself, Bezos comes out of this scandal as squeaky as his friendlier doppelganger, Mr. Clean. He becomes part of the #resistance. Seattle, a city with no income tax, has a tendency to welcome shitty people into their version of “the left”; in my hometown, even the most “fiscally conservative” family can Fuck Trump simply by posting an “In This House We Believe…” sign.
“Alive Girl” is funny, the descriptions of Bezos’ “semi-erect manhood [...] penetrating the zipper [...] of tight black cargo shorts” are also funny, but they matter very little. Less funny but far more important are Bezos’ material impacts on the lives of his more than 500,000 employees worldwide, on the millions who live (or have been displaced from) Seattle and elsewhere. Following a year of unflattering press on these and other failings, Bezos’ statement on the Enquirer leak must be read in context; as a political move to position himself back in our good graces. He wrote that post to escape his reputation as the notorious, drone-loving, Iguana-eating, labor-exploiting, Alive-Girl-texting Jeff Bezos we’ve come to suspect (like Zuckerberg before him) might not be just a benevolent nerd in a soft-wash t-shirt.
I believe it is unethical to weaponize sex (or sexts) between consensual adults for political gain. I believe, ultimately, the photos Bezos sent are his, his lover’s, and his (now ex-) wife’s business, and theirs alone. I think to demonize Bezos on the grounds of sex sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of us. Fixating on the Bezos sexts clouds his immoral and exploitative practices in business and politics. What is disturbing here is not his weirdly buff body or whether or not he was wearing a wedding ring in his nudie mirror pic, but his wealth, his massive political power, his flagrant disregard for labor rights, his ability to get away with it all.
I believe Bezos has a right to his privacy, and I believe The Enquirer’s actions were wrong and yes, considering their past willingness to squash stories of Trump’s affairs, probably politically motivated. Yet I struggle to muster a lot of sympathy for the richest human on earth. Not just because he is unspeakably wealthy and also basically evil, but because he and his company have been working for years to strip the rest of us of the same privacy he argues he’s entitled to. It's deeply ironic that Bezos points to government surveillance as the culprit, given that a large part of his wealth is derived from working with ICE, the Pentagon, and the NSA to develop sophisticated surveillance weapons. In 2014, Amazon won a $600 million deal with the CIA. In 2017, Amazon released its Orwellian crowd face recognition software “Rekognition” for use by police and governments. Bezos’ other company, Blue Origin, works with the US Air Force to develop spy satellites. While I certainly would not be surprised if the NSA, FBI, or other state intelligence agency were abusing their power (as they routinely do, with the help of Amazon technology) to spy on a citizen (even a very rich one), there is not evidence that this is the case.
Bezos’ Medium post appeared just before Amazon killed its New York headquarters plan, a victory owed to strategic, local community organizing that deliberately called attention to Amazon’s impacts beyond Long Island, in other cities, countries, and at the border. But the decision to pull out of New York can perhaps also be understood as yet another PR move for the beleaguered Amazon, hoping to save its image. Bezos is a smart guy. Amazon’s primary building in Seattle is called “Day 1,” named for Bezos’ philosophy that “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1 at Amazon.” Bezos and his empire are always consciously reinventing, adapting, repositioning. It's important to keep this in mind as he tries to squirm his way out of critical press coverage, both for his weird sexts and, more significantly, for his deplorable business practices and associations. As this story continues to unfold, we may have the opportunity see Bezos’ balls—the real ones, I mean. Whether or not we choose to look, it’s more essential that we keep scrutinizing his actions as well as his attempts to rebrand them. I envy New Yorkers’ persistence in refusing to accept Amazon as their new overlords; we should all be so angry, so vigilant. In the meantime, we should probably actually cancel our Prime accounts.