Alcoholics Anonymous is Not Like the Washingtonian Movement

Washingtonian Movement

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:

The Oxford Group was a Christian fellowship founded by American Christian missionary Dr. Franklin Nathaniel Daniel Buchman. Buchman was a Lutheran minister who had a conversion experience in 1908 in a chapel in Keswick, England. As a result of that experience, he founded a movement called A First Century Christian Fellowship in 1921, which had become known as the Oxford Group by 1931.

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.

4 thoughts on “Alcoholics Anonymous is Not Like the Washingtonian Movement

  1. I quite enjoyed "Prohibition." I found Burns’s Civil War series intolerable; he had actors read letters by soldiers more literate than the average modern person in a "mah deer Susannah, I-is-gonna-be-in-a-plumb-scary-fight" slow-witted monotone. It wasn’t to make the writers seem dumb, just appropriately haloed and ossified for museum preservation, and it sucked the life out of an important story. I felt the same way about his "Baseball" and "The War," I couldn’t finish any of them.

    But Prohibition features stories told about gangsters (who were usually too dumb or too smart to write letters) and so the story is told by modern descendants and scholars. What a difference speaking normally makes! I could listen to, and enjoy, the spoken information, and because it didn’t annoy me I could focus on the wonderful archival photos/footage that Burns and his staff put together.

    He’s really a talented filmmaker with good instincts. It’s just that being anointed America’s Historian made his work pompous and enervated. "Prohibition" was fun, and his Central Park Five piece was something else entirely — more like "Harlan County" than anything Burns ever did before. I will be interested to see what projects he tackles next. He could do a very good Vietnam series, perhaps. (And, lo and behold, I look up "Ken Burns Vietnam" on Yahoo and that’s exactly what he’s working on now, to air in 2016.) If he includes the recent research by Nick Turse in "Kill Anything That Moves" — and he’s usually good on using the latest research — that could be very, very good.

  2. I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the worst aspects of my MMT program is that I am required to attend 12-Step meetings in order to keep my take out status. Early on in MMT, I brought up my disdain of NA to the counselor I had at the time, and he told me that I didn’t necessarily have to attend NA or AA; that any drug related support group would be acceptable. But that begs the question: what drug related support groups that aren’t 12-Step exist in Northwestern, PA? I’ve looked into it and there aren’t any. So now I’m coerced into attending these worthless fucking circle-jerks and be looked down upon for the sin of using a maintenance drug.

    I kind of understand why they would want people to attend support group meetings, but to require it to maintain take-out status, especially considering NA’s hostility to maintenance drugs, is not going to improve anyone’s chances of staying clean. In fact, the only time I ever even think about drug use, other than in a political context, is at meetings. For me, meetings are annoying, exasperating, and at times embarrassing. I really do hate meetings, and the fact that I am not attending them by choice only aggravates my anger over them. They are not helping me at all, yet there is no way I could keep my take-outs if I were to stop attending them. It’s just another frustrating, counter-productive, absurd and ignorant example of modern drug policy.

    Also, on a related note, I am going to be assigned my first paper in English class on Monday, and I’m thinking about writing it about this very issue. We need to choose an article to write about, so I’m wondering if you could help me out a little bit by recommending some good articles about 12-Step from a critical perspective. I don’t care whether they’re written by you or someone else, but if you know of any good ones I’d really appreciate it if you could some links my way. Thanks.

  3. Mark: Here’s one I found online quickly:

    It’s got some references you could look into, and the host site has several other links to articles. Generally college courses want you to cite print journals, not online articles, but for a writing class the source of the article may not be as important to your instructor as your response to the assignment. Wikipedia’s AA page has some referenced articles on the bottom, too, you could use one of those. Good luck!

  4. I thought that [i]Prohibition[/i] was well made as all this are. I think it was not edited well. The story didn’t integrate the bootleggers with the rest of the story, but I though it worked okay. And I really liked his baseball documentary, but then I have a special fondness for baseball. And I highly recommend [i]Horatio’s Drive[/i] and [i]The Shakers[/i].

    Mack: you could see about starting your own SMART or RR meeting. Maybe even with just one other person. Anyway, I will email you.

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