I just watched the Ken Burns: Prohibition documentary. I’m going write about it more generally in a moment, but I just want to address a minor point here. The documentary gives the obligatory shout out to Alcoholics Anonymous at the end. And it notes that the founders of AA did not know about the 19th century Washingtonian movement. The implication is that the two are similar. Well, in the sense that they were both (at least at the start) movements of drunks who helped each other to stay off alcohol. But that’s about all that binds them together.
AA was always and still is an explicitly religious movement. In recent years, the group has tried to deny this fact now by claiming that it is a “spiritual” movement and that one’s higher power can be a “bedpan.” But the 12 steps date back to the Oxford Group. According to Wikipedia:
Buchman summed up the group’s philosophy in a few sentences: “All people are sinners”; “All sinners can be changed”; “Confession is a prerequisite to change”; “The change can access God directly”; “Miracles are again possible”; and “The change must change others.”
The Washingtonians, in contrast, were not a bunch Bible thumpers trying to purify themselves. They were just trying to stop drinking. In fact, they were attacked by evangelicals of that time because they explicitly weren’t using God to help them.
For the record, I think groups like the Washingtonians are really good. I have no problem with drug users trying to help themselves in groups. I have three primary problems with the whole 12 Step movement. First, it is explicitly religious and seems more interested in pushing religion in a general sense than abstinence specifically. Second, it isn’t an effective treatment for those who want to stop ingesting intoxicants (and it blames the user for the program’s worthlessness). And third, the program is forced by courts on the vast majority of those who participate. In fact, if it weren’t for the courts pushing AA, it would be a very small group today.
So let us not soil the great work done by the Washingtonian movement by comparing it to the religious Alcoholics Anonymous movement. And please let us not compare it to the bastardized modern movement that would offend even its founders. Drug addition is an important issue to many people. As a society, we choose to ignore it and assume all is well because of this badly studied, paranoid, and anti-intellectual group, which is now little more than an extension of the criminal justice system. People with actual drug problems deserve better. As a society, we should be ashamed.