Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: Jack Thompson – "Out of Harm's Way"

NOTE: This review was written in December 2005 for the now-defunct pro videogaming website (Global Gaming League). During a discussion of various controversies embroiling the videogame media on my podcast, Culture Vultures, this review was referenced and it would be better preserved here than lost in the digital ether.

As the cheerfully self-appointed Public Enemy #1 of violent videogames and those who make and sell them, Florida attorney Jack Thompson has made his crusade to protect children his life’s work and in the process managed to alienate everyone from those who balk at his efforts to those who would nominally be allied with him, like the National Institute on Media and the Family, themselves recently in the news for attacking the ESRB ratings system.

For gamers, the release of his book “Out of Harm’s Way” was another opportunity to act out their displeasure against their nemesis and a roving band who dubbed themselves “pixelantes” stormed the reader review sections of Amazon, posting one-star reviews and generally fulfilling the obnoxious stereotype of gamers that the general public has. The irony is that if these people had actually read Thompson’s book – and not just claim they did – they would’ve known that they were only feeding Thompson’s sense of mission for he writes of speaking tours where the hostile college crowds honed his rhetorical skills and gave him a sense of mischievous fun.

When my editor suggested that I review “Out of Harm’s Way” after my ironic commentary piece “Why Jack Thompson Is Right and Gamers Are Wrong” ran, my initial reactions were, “He has a book?” and “Why would I give this guy the time and money?” Since I’m troubled by others who rail against subjects they know little about, it did make sense to find out from the horse’s mouth what he had to say. What I found was an occasionally candid self-portrait of a man who has been on lonesome crusades to protect children for nearly two decades and despite his best intentions has turned into his and his cause’s own worst enemy.

While a bit of a slog at times for anyone not interested in Christian testimonial, the early portions of the book are interesting in his relation of his early years as a newlywed law school graduate who initially failed to pass the bar exam and had to rely on his wife’s lawyer income to support them while he got his act together with a mixture of faith and getting over his admittedly arrogant attitude.

After working for various practices and hanging out his own shingle, his life was changed in autumn 1987 when he heard a Miami morning radio “shock jock” that Thompson describes as openly gay soliciting young men to send in photos of themselves and descriptions of their sexual fantasies in order to win a vacation trip with the personality. Prior to this, Thompson considered himself to be a broad-minded libertarian with an attitude that speech shouldn’t be curtailed, but this tested his beliefs.

In a savvy move, he didn’t protest this nameless – the DJ is never named, a mystifying decision since he calls out others by name - shock jock’s conduct on the basis of his personal tastes being offended, but on the basis that it was in violation of FCC rules governing the broadcast industry. He started writing complaints to the station and FCC and in return, the local authorities – including Dade County prosecutor Janet Reno, years before her stint as U.S. Attorney General - generally gave him the brush-off and more distressingly, the host retaliated by reading Thompson’s name and address on the air, leading to harassment ranging from pizzas being sent to his house to outright death threats to be made.

After his protracted battle with the jock and the station marked by suits and countersuits, the victorious Thompson started getting contacted by other groups about other issues of concern regarding children including a teen help line that encouraged children to experiment with drugs and their sexuality, denigrated religion and told kids that their parents didn’t understand them and to go to their peers or school counselors for advice.

When Thompson investigated, he found that this was part of a deliberate scheme of extreme liberal interests – some of whom found employment in Cabinet positions of the Clinton Administration - to slip their anti-family agenda into the mainstream under the radar. When Thompson blew the whistle on them, part of the blowback against him was a suit from the Florida Bar Association that required him to undergo psychological evaluation to determine whether he was obsessed with sex since he was complaining about it. (He passed.)

Throughout his confrontations up to and through his attempt to have Miami rap group 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty As They Want To Be” declared obscene, the disconnect between what he was doing and why and how it was responded to by the politicians who are supposedly sworn to act in their constituents best interests is interesting. Frequently portrayed in the media as a maniacal religious zealot who was trying to inflict his morality upon everyone else, such a characterization ignores the opposite possibility that perhaps it’s the shock jocks, rap groups and social engineers who are trying to impose their immorality upon the public.

The common retort to his protests – then and now - was to STFU (i.e. shut the f*** up) which is an ironic response from those who proclaim free speech to be sacrosanct. For his part, Thompson states that freedom of speech is limited to political speech and that advocating brutality against women and homosexual pedophilia isn’t protected. He also points out that the end of the First Amendment allows citizens “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” and that’s what he’s done.

In contrast to Rosa Parks who was recently giving a hero’s sendoff for her simple act of disobedience challenging the prevailing government segregation policies, Thompson has routinely been vilified for his attempt to oppose the unmistakable coarsening of the culture. While no enthusiast of unchecked hedonism is going to like a buzz-killing, moralistic Puritan, for those not reflexively opposed to people’s right to protest, his tale is both interesting and sobering when we realize that if the powers-that-be are ideologically sympathetic to those being protested, they’ve got a whole lot of tools available to crush that dissent.

If Thompson wasn’t a lawyer with intimate knowledge of the system – with a wife whose income kept the family afloat when he was too hot to hire - he would’ve been flattened, which may be a thought that brings cheer the gamers who despise him, but it shouldn’t for what it means for individual liberties in general. In other words, if they can silence him, they can silence you, too.

While Thompson has an annoying habit of referring to himself in the third-person and the book’s editing is inconsistent by having his refusal to name names later slip in partial mentions (e.g. he attacks a “popular talk radio host” and then mentions “Rush”, referring to conservative talk icon Rush Limbaugh), where the book and Thompson plow headlong into trouble is the portrayal of the Ice-T song “Body Count” and his current activities against violent games. While he cuts a few corners in describing the song which was portrayed as calling for the murder of policemen, he really steps into it with his wholesale distortion of games, but a new villain (to gamers) is introduced that is at least partially responsible for his persistent misinformation: Lt. Col. David Grossman.

The retired Marine has made a notorious name for himself promulgating the theory of “killology” which states that people - initially military recruits - can be desensitized to violence through training and that violent games are “murder simulators” that teach impressionable youth the “skill and will to kill.” While that makes for a catchy slogan, it’s shaky social science when the isolated incidents that could be tenuously blamed on games are contrasted to the millions of players whose strongest violent impulse is to yell at whoever took the last frosty beverage in the refrigerator.

Because Grossman shared Thompson’s Christian beliefs and had a plausible-sounding, yet specious theory, Thompson divorced himself from the very reason and quest for truth he insisted was important to him in the beginning and started upon the downward road that made him the nemesis of gamers, the game industry and eventually himself and his best intentions.

Fed by his go-to status by news shows such as “60 Minutes”, he increasingly starts to bend truth and make unfounded connections between research studies and what they mean in practical terms. This is where gamers and the gaming industry has had him dead to rights, for in his campaign to save the children, he has recklessly and repeatedly broken the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shall not bear false witness” (i.e. “don’t lie”.) When he writes about the ability to pick up prostitutes in “Grand Theft Auto” and then kill them to get your money back and says that it allows you to “win the game faster”, he is deliberately distorting one of the seamier elements of the game, most notably that the game requires such behavior in order to progress.

While distortions like this and his contention that “Doom” was a training tool of the homicidal punks who murdered classmates in Paducah and Columbine will immediately elicit a raised eyebrow from those knowledgeable about these games, it’s important to note that “Out of Harm’s Way” isn’t targeted toward the gamer population or even the general public, but the Christian community. (My bookseller had it filed in the Religion section.) What makes this positioning troubling is that when Thompson starts talking about the reasons he wants games restricted there is a strong probability that these readers will not know that they’re being misled. Just as Thompson swallowed Grossman’s misinformation whole and regurgitates it, so will ignorant readers of this book.

He devotes a sizeable passage to a speech he delivered to his son’s Christian school which is so chock full of unfounded statements – a more polite way to say “outright lies” – about how parts of the brain deal sexual and violence stimuli and how there is an dastardly plan to market “murder simulators” to young, impressionable gamers, consequences be damned, a whole separate article dismantling it piece from piece could be written. Before he gave his talk, his son was afraid of what his classmates would say, but in Thompson’s telling, not only did they not duct tape him to the flagpole afterwards, Thompson received notes from students who said that now that their eyes had been opened to the insidious plot of evil, greedy corporations to sell them murder simulators and that they’ll never play them again. (If he received any feedback calling out his malarkey is unmentioned.)

Thompson leads the appendices with a section entitled “25 Culture War Tips From The Trenches” to guide anyone inspired to wage jihad against Satan and his greedy corporate minions. Filled with common sense advice, albeit contradictory at times (one rule is to “make friends” while another is to “trust no one”), the most ironic tips are, “Remember that it’s not about you,” and “Pick fights you can win,” because, “Every time you lose a battle, you give the other side a victory.”

With his recent bizarre and self-sabotaging behavior – offering a $10,000 prize for a game to be made that depicts the killing of the head of the Entertainment Software Association, then rescinding it when someone actually did it; complaining when a web site made a donation in his name to the ESA’s charity fundraising drive; sending out press releases calling people “Nazis”, drawing the ire of the previously allied NIMF; and being disbarred in Alabama and tossed off a police shooting suit in the scant months since this book’s writing and publication, the value of such advice must be weighed against how the advisor has done by his own counsel.

The book opens with a sickening dedication to the victims of the Paducah shootings, including the note that “When I die, I shall read this book to you in heaven,” but when an estimated 500 children (at a minimum) are reportedly dying annually from what’s called “the choking game” – cutting off the air supply to the point of near-unconsciousness to attain a euphoric high – his decision to obsessively pursue a legal agenda based on unproven science and specious claims of insidious corporate activities is questionable.

Multiples more children are dying in a fortnight than all the school incidents in the past decade he wishes to attribute to violent games. Aren’t these children worth saving or does the lack of a wealthy defendant to blame and sanction prevent his caring about them and their families? Does the lack of a villain – real or imagined – to vanquish make their lost lives too insignificant?

In the final analysis, “Out of Harm’s Way” is really the story of a man who may’ve started his journey fighting lonely battles against formidable foes and daunting odds, in order to stand against what he sincerely thought was wrong, only to fall victim to the hubristic belief that the ends justified the means. Perhaps he was led astray by the beguiling sooth of David Grossman – an intriguing thought considering Thompson writes that “Satan…is more brilliant and clever than you…[he] is always trying to lead the precious souls in this world astray.”

Or maybe he has just transformed into a latter-day Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of Take-Two and Id Software thinking they be dragons. For someone who fancies himself a humble David taking on corporate Goliaths in the service of God, he has been laid low by his own ill-considered actions and as a result, put himself on the sidelines of the culture war he once zealously prosecuted.

Jack Thompson is a hard man to feel much sympathy for and it is natural, if less-than-admirable, to take some pleasure from his recent foibles and setbacks. I started reading “Out of Harm’s Way” with the usual negative preconceptions of who Thompson was based on years of reading his outrageous rhetoric, but even though he frequently retails Grossman’s bogus theories as proven fact and rankles with his distortions of what even casual gamers know to be untrue, I finished with an unexpected reaction: Pity.

While Jack Thompson has undeniably become a shameless liar and erratic personality, I don’t think he’s an evil man intent on doing evil deeds as much as he is a well-intentioned fool who has lost sight of what is true in the pursuit of what he believes to be right. If there is a moral to his story for readers, it may be that no cause – no matter how righteous or true – can be advanced when truth is abandoned to achieve a desired goal. While this probably isn’t the lesson Thompson sought to teach with “Out of Harm’s Way”, it’s worth remembering to avoid following in his tragic missteps.

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