There was a period, shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution, when the history of the Russian temperance movement became thoroughly intertwined with the history of Russian social reform in general. “The history of the Russian temperance movement” may sound like a world’s-shortest-book joke, but in fact it is the subject of the very readable book Alcoholic Empire: Vodka & Politics in Late Imperial Russia by Brown University professor Patricia Herlihy. Her thesis is that there’s a very simple reason why so many reformers allied themselves with the temperance movement: The campaign against alcoholism provided a convenient cover for other forms of political agitation, especially for causes that would have attracted the attention of the authorities if espoused on their own terms.
Campaigners for women’s suffrage, for example, could argue that women needed the vote because they were being victimized by their husbands’ excessive drinking and deserved some political power in order to fight back. Socialists could begin their soapbox speeches by saying that workers drank too much because they were oppressed and then have a pretext to spend the rest of the speech on the evils of capitalism, which of course was what they wanted to talk about in the first place. In cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, museums, libraries, and theaters obtained public funding by claiming that the root causes of alcoholism were boredom and illiteracy. In Moscow, employment agencies, soup kitchens, and hospitals for the indigent used the same tactic, claiming the root cause was poverty. Everyone in Russia from Nicholas II on down agreed that alcoholism was a serious national problem. That was why, as Herlihy puts it, “much could be said under cover of battling drunkenness,” including much that could not have been said otherwise.
I mention all this because something roughly analogous now seems to be true of American culture. Addiction recovery programs in general, and AA in particular, have become subjects of enormous interest even to people who have never walked the twelve steps. (In case it matters: I haven’t.) The religious novel is in eclipse, but the recovery memoir has never been more popular. Recovering addicts show up in high-brow shows like Enlightened, middle-brow shows like The West Wing, and low-brow shows like Prison Break, almost always portrayed sympathetically. When the writers of HBO’s Girls needed, for the purposes of their season 1 plot arc, to get across in a single revelation that the character Adam was not a thick-skulled hound dog but a decent guy with a complex inner life, all they had to do was reveal that he was in AA. Buzz Bissinger, in that weird article he wrote for GQ last week where he admits to spending $587,412.97 on clothes in the last two years, didn’t say “I use designer clothes to fill the emotional hole left by the collapse of my family” or “The sins I struggle with most are greed & vanity.” He said that he has a shopping addiction and that he’s going to meetings.
The language of recovery seems especially popular with those segments of the population where religion is weakest. Aaron Sorkin, who usually comes across like someone who thinks the plural of “Christian” is “lynch mob,” has been very open in his TV writing and his public statements about how much he esteems twelve-step programs. The people who call David Foster Wallace the voice of his generation are the same ones who make snide remarks about the Republican Party’s theocratic agenda. The irony is that the aspects of AA that seem to resonate with them are the things they hate about organized religion: the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem vapid, sentimental, or silly.
Sacrifice may be the clearest example of this hypocrisy. These days, if a man says he’s going to give up some activity because he’s worried it’s putting his salvation at risk, people will tell him to follow his bliss and stop being so uptight. (Perhaps you encountered comments like this during Lent.) Take the example of a woman who wonders whether she should go to the gym less frequently, for fear of indulging her tendency to vanity. Any east coast advice columnist would tell her that, if going to the gym every day makes her happy, she should keep doing it, and that she has a right to be proud of her appearance. But if she were to call her gym-going an addiction, the advice columnist’s answer would change. The connection doesn’t even have to be that direct. Once it becomes known that someone is in AA, then all kinds of sacrifices apart from not drinking become admirable rather than foolish or inexplicable. A man who drops his old good-time buddies when he finds God is sanctimonious; a man who drops them when he joins AA is just doing what it takes to stay sober.
In some ways, this widespread fascination with recovery is encouraging. If the young hip kids of today are willing to embrace David Foster Wallace’s famous Betty Crocker cake mix analogy for AA (“It didn’t matter one f—ckola whether Gately like believed a cake would result, or whether he understood the like f—ing baking-chemistry of how a cake would result: if he just followed the m—f—ing directions . . . a cake would result”), then they’re only a small step away from grasping Credo ut intelligam, I believe so that I might understand. If they feel the need to smuggle the language of religion into their moral universes under the cover of the twelve steps, then the absence of religion from their lives must, at some level, be bothering them acutely. It’s annoying that so many people are unable to talk about obedience, mortification, or the quiet heroism of everyday life except in the context of recovery from addiction, but at least these concepts still make sense to them.
The danger is that the gains made by recovery language will be seized by the other faction with an interest in framing everything as an addiction—psychologists and public-health professionals. Calling gluttony an addiction may help some dechurched people deal with their sins in a language that feels comfortable, but it also opens the door to people like Mayor Bloomberg who argue that New York City needs to ban fatty foods because people just can’t help themselves. It opens the door to psychologists who apply the word “addiction” (or “disorder”) to everything that doesn’t fit their prejudices, or who say that it’s irresponsible for someone with a problem to seek help from their priest or their sponsor instead of a professional.
Luckily, twelve-steppers and the medical establishment generally hate each other. The science-minded call the twelve steps irrational and untested, and recovery advocates respond that you can’t test an anonymous program, and that, in any case, there’s plenty of evidence that the program works if you work it. When that battle heats up—as I expect it will in the next decade, with, e.g., calls for rehab centers to be more strictly regulated and licensed—those of us who belong to a church (Sinners Anonymous?) shouldn’t stay neutral. Just as it was in imperial Russia, the battle against alcoholism is about a lot more than drink.