"And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps." ~ H.L. Mencken
Voluntaryist Vitriol: Anarchic Attacks Against Alcoholics Anonymous
Column by Alex R. Knight III.
Exclusive to STR
Times have changed considerably – at the very least, for myself – since I scribed my first piece even touching upon this subject for STR, a decade ago. As I’ve talked about here in both direct and allegorical terms, I’ve gone from being a chronic, practicing alcoholic, to a recovering one. And my active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous is the reason why.
Lately, due in large part to the publication of a book by psychiatrist Lance Dodes, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind Twelve-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, there has been a torrent of criticism against AA. Surprisingly (at least to me), much of that vitriol has emanated from those who consider themselves part of the libertarian anarchist/voluntaryist movement. I will attempt herein to run through most if not all of the major objections and motivations for attack on their part, in order to effectively address them. But first I think it is in order that I bring to the attention of the uninitiated a couple of points related to this rebuttal, in relation to AA itself.
First, AA’s position with regard to my desire to countermand the assertions of its critics would invariably be to simply let such matters go, to turn the other cheek and walk away. AA’s rationale being that involving one’s self in such conflict invariably intensifies anxiety, and thus, has the potential to result in a resumed regimen of drinking. This is generally sound thinking with respect to an abundance of alcoholics, and by penning this piece, I in no way mean to discredit or diminish the significance of this point.
Secondly, AA’s Tradition 11 (in addition to the 12 Steps there are 12 Traditions) states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”
Obviously, by way of seeing this piece through to publication, I have chosen to disregard this.
Which brings me to my first point of contention with AA’s “libertarian” critics: These positions, as with everything AA, are mere suggestions. There is no Jim Jones or David Koresh within AA to command anyone anything at any time. AA is not a “cult” of any kind. It is itself, in fact, as I have related here in the past as well, “A Fine and Functioning Anarchy” that I would think should be an object of voluntaryist praise, instead of the kind of dogged and persistent criticism it has engendered from so many dogmatists – as I intend to further illustrate. In fact, the sole aspect of AA’s program that might even be remotely construed as obligatory is Step 1, which simply reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
I would submit that the only manner in which such a statement might be construed as any kind of command or mandate is in the obvious fact that if one is not willing to concede the reality of one’s own condition as an alcoholic, then there’s really no point in seeking help in the first place. One might just as well continue drinking. Trying to dissect the semantics of such language really amounts to hollow nitpicking. Yet this is precisely what AA’s critics seem to both insist upon and revel in doing.
In this self-same vein, much ado has been made about the religiosity which permeates much of the 12 steps. There is, before the subject of AA is even visited, a substantial animus in “libertarian” quarters towards religion – and even mere spirituality – of any stripe whatsoever. This topic too, I have long-since attempted to address – largely to the deaf ears and blind eyes of the dogmatists.
It benefits us, in any discussion about AA, to be aware of the fact that its founders Dr. Bill and Dr. Bob created the organization in the 1930s. Since then – rightly or wrongly (a subject we will visit shortly) – AA have chosen to vary very little in terms of original language. The ostensible reason should be very clear: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
At any event, to impugn a culture steeped in Christian orthodoxy some 80 to 90 years ago, one might as well impugn everything about the era, including technology, clothing styles, lack of government bureaucracy – why not? If we’re going to try to put sneakers on an elephant in such a Monday morning quarterback capacity, why not go the whole hog? Yet again – even in the far more austere atmosphere of those Depression-era years -- AA’s position was as it is today: Your view of spirituality is your choice. No one at AA is jamming any kind of dogma down anyone’s throat. Many “libertarians” act as if this simply is not true, as if AA might as well be the Vatican. This is nothing but patent absurdity, and frankly, steeped in a reflexive reaction against anything whatsoever that might actually use the “G-word.” It’s foolishness, ignorance, immaturity, and truthfully, a denial of the very spirit of liberty which Voluntarism – in actuality – proposes.
Further, these same “libertarians” will argue that AA is not non-coercive . . . since many DUI courts and such mandate attendance as part of a convicted person’s sentencing.
At the risk of submerging into inanities here, is broccoli tyrannical and coercive when your mother threatens you with punishment if you fail or refuse to eat it? Your mother’s actions in such a case may well be tyrannical and coercive (as is most clearly the case with government courts) . . . but the broccoli itself? This is not only Philistine – it’s beyond absurdity. In short, get real.
Let’s cut straight to the meat and potatoes here: While it should in no way whatsoever – given that AA is itself a 100% voluntary organization – have any bearing on whether a person can or cannot, or should or should not, attend based on their own personal decision-making, it is still a valid point of interest (as when considering any product or service) to ascertain the efficacy of AA as a program of recovery from systematic alcohol abuse.
Dodes contends in his book that AA averages a 5-10% rate of success, with a corresponding 90-95% rate of recidivism. But he doesn’t end there. He then further contends that, according the the NPR article, “. . . it's harmful to the 90 percent who don't do well. And it's harmful for several important reasons. One of them is that everyone believes that AA is the right treatment. AA is never wrong, according to AA. If you fail in AA, it's you that's failed.”
Let’s address both of these incredibly audacious claims independently.
Dodes allegedly gleans his 5-10% figure directly from AA themselves. Yet, an even cursory glance at another source reveals an entirely different set of statistics. It is perhaps also worthy of note that the source of these counter-numbers extends from a service seeking to profit from enrolling those in alcoholism recovery in a paid rehabilitation plan. They have little or nothing to gain from steering potential clients towards a free, non-profit organization. Yet even then, the assessment of AA tells a very different story.
The link is above, but I will here again (for both clarity and longevity’s sake) provide the most relevant sections:
“AA success statistics are often hard to gauge because of different variables, but statistics released in 2007 by AA reported on the success of AA members and the length of sobriety.
“31 percent of members were sober for less than a year’s time.
“24 percent were sober for between one and five years.
“12 percent were sober for between five and 10 years.
“33 percent were sober for 10 or more years.
“These statistics do not show a failure rate, but they indicate how AA members do succeed in long-term sobriety. The average sobriety time of members that were surveyed was eight years. (Note: The above link, updated in 2014, seems to indicate 10 years).
“Along with these statistics are the numbers that show how important involvement in AA is to the members who continue with the program. One of the mottos of AA is ‘It works if you work it,’ and you will find, if you are considering Alcoholics Anonymous, this is true for most. There are individuals who find strength and hope with AA, and statistics support this sentiment.
“About 63 percent of members continued recovery after initial treatment with AA. Approximately 85 percent were members of a home group, or a regularly attended group.
“The average number of attended meetings per week was 2.5.
“About 79 percent of members have a sponsor, or a fellow member who provides individual support.
“About 74 percent of members reported that AA was an important part of their recovery.”
“What Defines Success in Alcoholics Anonymous?
“Another reason it is hard to represent findings in a study on AA success rates is that is it hard to define what ‘success’ actually means. In the Big Book, AA’s main piece of literature, AA states its approximate success rate is 50 percent, plus 25 percent. This means that 50 percent of members remain sober, 25 percent of members relapse but come back, and 25 percent fail to use AA effectively and do not remain sober.
“Overall, AA is something that offers support, direction and comfort for those striving to remain sober. You may find that AA is something that you do find successful, as you define it. Part of that success, even defined statistically by AA, supports its motto, ‘Keep coming back.’ That seems like the first steps of successfully sobriety, continuing to work for it.”
Note that while these statistics would seem to indicate a substantial degree of recidivism – even some which is permanent, rather than temporary – under no circumstances does it square in any capacity with 90-95%. Moreover, the claims made by Dodes that AA have positioned themselves in such a way as to suggest that they are the one and only, begin all and end all antidote to alcoholism, are entirely outrageous, and without merit. It would seem that – not unlike his “libertarian” critic counterparts (and I do not here mean to suggest that Dodes considers himself to be libertarian in any capacity) – Dodes has conflated the practice of government courts routinely sentencing DUI and other alcohol-related convictions to AA on the basis of widespread availability and veneration with AA themselves making a claim of both monopoly and universal infallibility. And this is quite clearly a false claim. Period. One need only look at the language above, and at the appropriate link (“We welcome opportunities to cooperate with others who are providing help to alcoholics,” “The survey also provides information about A.A. to the professional community and to the general public as part of A.A.’s purpose . . . .”, “About 74 percent of members reported that AA was an important part of their recovery.”) to ascertain this. Clearly, AA recognizes that alternative recovery programs may work better depending on the individual, either by themselves, or in conjunction with AA. At no time, and nowhere, is the foolish claim made that AA is the sole alcohol recovery program, by which a failure to get sober means certain doom to the attendee, irrespective of further help or treatment elsewhere.
In summation, I will hereby go on record as saying that the only possible motivation for Dodes’s position is to carve out a name for himself in academia by positioning himself as a “pioneer” in “exposing” AA and 12-step alcohol recovery, all the while selling books, collecting royalties, and getting paid for speaking engagements.
In a separate but similar vein, many “libertarians” or “voluntaryists” have shown that they are just as susceptible to their own instinctive dogmas as the government apologists they criticize. To these particular partisans, venerability automatically equates to sham. Spirituality equals prostration before authority. Mere suggestions somehow become Hitlerian orders. Voluntary unity with others in the name of self-improvement may as well be apostasy. And all the while, they drink the Kool-Aid of easily disprovable facts and figures as ammunition for their heated cause, which is a cause of absolute intolerance for personal choice, and a salivating desire to burn and destroy anything which even slightly defies their narrowly-conceived definitions of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Be damned with such self-righteous, malinformed, arrogant tripe. By all means, we should keep an open mind towards new science, improved methods, and alternative approaches to all forms of addiction recovery. And in fact – counter to what Dodes and his adherents would like us to believe -- AA already seeks to do that, both intra-organizationally, and with others. But this is not really, by all evidence, what such critics seek to accomplish. They are interested only in ideological retribution for perceived heresies.
Which makes their assaults – those of self-styled “voluntaryists” -- the most hypocritical of all.