Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10 - A.A. Day

Story: June 10th, 1935 is the traditional day of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The story goes that “Bill W” and “Dr. Bob” were both alcoholics searching for ways to cope with their problems. Both of their real names are matters of public record, but by tradition they are called Bill and Dr. Bob, or variants of these names. Both had had partial success with medical treatments for alcoholism, and partial success with religious approaches to dealing with alcoholism. “Bill W ” had become convinced that spirituality was part of the solution, as was medicine, but that the other element he personally needed to stay sober was the caring support of other alcoholics who were trying to do the same thing, who had been there, who somewhat understood. So Bill W. searched discretely for another alcoholic to share his troubles with, and found Dr. Bob. Now, Dr. Bob was skeptical at first, but rapidly became friends with Bill W. Indeed, Bill moved into Dr. Bob and his wife’s house.

They talked about what worked and what didn’t, what helped them stay sober and what wasn’t quite right. Dr. Bob returned to drinking heavily at a medical convention, but when he got home Bill W. rode him to return to sobriety. They made plans to take their proposals for alcoholics mutual support groups on the road. On, June 10, 1935 Dr. Bob had the last drink of his life, a single beer to steady his hands for performing surgery. June 10, 1935 has become the traditional date for the founding of AA, because it was the first time the AA approach WORKED, the first time that the combination of spiritual surrender and mentorship by another recovering alcoholic was used intentionally to allow an alcoholic to remain sober the rest of his life.

Shortly, there after Bill W. and Dr. Bob began targeting other alcoholics for their planned treatments, and Dr Bob’s home became a kind of center for alcoholics, in Akron OH. The method wasn’t exactly the 12 steps at first, and indeed they thought of it largely in terms of the ideas of the Evangelical Christian Oxford Group. Before long, Bill W. moved back to New York and established a group there as well. By 1937, Bill W.’s group in New York and Dr. Bob’s group in Akron were working quite differently, and Bill W’s group was coming into increasing friction with the Oxford Group. Eventually there was a split, the Oxford group understood this as Bill W. quitting, but Bill’s wife claims they were kicked out. Nonetheless, Bill W.’s group continued, focusing solely on alcoholics rather than a mix of spiritual problems, and accepting practicing Catholics, or others whose religion wasn’t quite in line with the Oxford group. By 1939, the Akron group split with the Oxford Group as well, and both groups agonized about how to spread their method more broadly. Bill W. proposed a grand plan involving writing a book, sending out paid alcoholic missionaries, and setting up a recovery center, which went against several of the spiritual principles of the Oxford Group. The 18 alcoholics still with the Akron and New York groups took a vote, and in the end approved the writing of the book by 1 vote, but refused to fund the more elaborate plan.

Bill W was the primary writer at first, and was working to secure various sources of funding. He succeeded in getting a little funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr., but did not receive the millions he hoped for, for the recovery center and professional ex-alcoholic missionaries. Rockefeller argued that the power of Bill’s method was one man carrying the message to another man out of goodwill and having been there, and that money would ruin the spiritual power of the approach. Yes, "man," AA was all male at first. By 1939 the “Big Book” was published, it was entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous” and was over 400 pages long. Bill had expanded the initial draft of 6 steps into 12 steps, somewhat modeled on the 12 apostles. In 1939 AA had around 100 members in 3 cities, and the book did not sell well. But things did slowly pick up. AA started publishing a newsletter. In 1946, Bill W developed the “twelve traditions” to help govern individual AA meetings. By 1950 there were 100,000 AA members, and soon Narcotics Anonymous was created as the first AA spin-off group. By the 70s there were a million AA members. Today it is estimated that there are over 2 million AA members, and there are over 100,000 official AA meetings, in 150 countries.

Now, I’ve never benefited directly from AA, but I’d wager I know plenty of people who have. Part of what interests me are the personal characteristics of Bill W, and Dr. Bob. Yesterday I praised experimental charity. Both of Charles Dickens experimental charities worked only passingly well. They probably weren’t wastes of money, but neither were they heavily imitated in later years. But Dr. Bob and Bill W. struck upon a model for charity that was fairly novel at its time, and has worked extremely well and been widely imitated since. But they didn’t strike upon it all at once. The idea of group psychological counseling cropped up in several places in the 1930s, including another of my heroes Jacob Moreno. AA got it largely through the Oxford Group, a group spiritual and religious practice. Similarly the medical model of Alcoholism as mental disorder rather than moral weakness, predates AA, and the idea clearly got to Bill W via one of his earlier doctors, Dr. Silkwood. But the model, not of doctors helping alcoholics, or religious professionals helping alcoholics, but alcoholics helping each other - that was novel. Similarly, the 12 step format was a spiritual path that is reminiscent of, but isn’t exactly like, earlier Christian ideas of humbling and healing. Similarly it was more than a decade after AA’s founding that it developed the 12 traditions, the rules of anonymity, neutrality, non-professionalism, openness and so on, that explicated the model for how AA was going to work at the group level, rather than just at the personal level. The 12 traditions are a sociological innovation, at least as much as the 12 steps are a spiritual one. And Bill W., himself, disagreed with several at these at various points of the story. The alcoholics group he ran in 1935 was only open to alcoholics who were still sober and had already undertaken a serious surrender to God, rather than open to anyone at all that is trying to recover, as specified by the third tradition. Bill W. argued strenuously against traditions 7 and 8 when he was looking for financial support from John Rockefeller in 1937. AA, evolved, changing many times in its first few decades. Bill W. was amazingly willing to let it evolve. Another good example is political neutrality. Bill W. himself was quite conservative politically, but he wanted AA to stay out of politics, to be as open to all alcoholics as possible. He continued even after founding AA, to be very open to new possible spiritual or medical approaches to treating alcoholism. He participated in medical experiments with LSD, under Aldous Huxley in the 50s, and studies on niacin in the 60s. He was interested in spiritualism and parapsychology, his house had a "spook room" where he and his wife used the Ouija board and conducted seances. He believed that the spirit of a 15th century monk named Boniface helped him write the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Much of that was later swept under the rug, but my point is that he was very open and innovating, intellectually and spiritually.
Bill W. was undoubtedly a terribly flawed individual. He drank his way to flunking out of law school. He was a failed stock speculator in the 1920s. There is decent evidence that he cheated on his wife with 3 or 4 AA members after AA started letting in women. After he gave up alcohol, he smoked like a chimney, (starting that AA stereotype, Dr. Bob forbid smoking at the early Akron meetings …) and he died of emphysema. But he kept trying, and he was flexible in his approach. He was also supremely humble, building his success on humbling himself at the beginning, calling on others to humble themselves, seeking to structure his organization in ways that would insure continued humility, writing genuinely heartfelt praises to the value of humility that are quite unique in 20th century literature.
Dr. Bob, who took his last drink on that June 10th, was never the humble leader, or writer, or theorist that Bill W was. But he, too helped forge AA in the early days, and he was the personal sponsor of over 5000 recovering alcoholics during the last 30 years of his life, and was by all accounts an amazing sponsor.

I am grateful for all the lives saved, and improved by AA.
I am grateful for the many spin off organizations to AA.
I am grateful for the pluralistic model of recovering victims helping other recovering victims, rather than the hierarchical model of superiors descending to aid their inferiors.
I am grateful for the spiritual searchers dedicated to looking for ways to apply the spiritual to solving the problems of today.
I am grateful for flexible minds willing to try new things and adapt and experiment.
I am grateful for the humility of the 12 traditions, seeking to minimize organization lest the organization be suborned
I am grateful for skillful use of neutrality, understanding when to be open to many political positions, or religious positions, or walks of life.
I am grateful again and again for everyday heroes of self-reform.

Other Notables for me for today
The births of b. of Howlin’ Wolf(musician), Judy Garland (actor), Maurice Sendak (children’s author), Kim Deal (Musician, Pixies Breeders), Elizabeth Hurley (actor)
The martyrdom of Giacomo Matteotti, the last real opponent of Fascism in Italy. The death of Alexander the Great, Marcus Garvey (controversial racial theorist), Bernard Williams (2003, philosopher, promoter of virtue theory, I’ve used his textbooks).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9th – Charles Dickens Day

When I taught philosophy, one stunt I pulled occasionally, was to have my students write a short essay on which fictional character they admired most and why. I remember being gobsmacked by one very surprising choice, Ebenezer Scrooge. Here, the student argued, is a man that with much difficulty managed to perceive his failings, and set his heart to earnestly mending his faults. I can’t think of Dickens without remembering this essay, and as it turns out it has echoes in his own life.

Charles Dickens was one of those rare authors that combine lasting critical acclaim with stunning popularity in his own time. His novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is still the best-selling book of all-time, originally composed in English. (The Bible, Quran and works of Chairman Mao dust it, for example). He is still the best-selling all time author in English, although J. K. Rowling is getting close. Much about his life and works is well known, and well explored, but I want to meditate a little on it anyway.

His dad was thrown into debtor’s prison when Charles was young, and he was reduced to a fairly working-class life. Charles had an education in a crappy school with the occasional side jaunt to working in a shoeshine manufacturing factory. He eventually became a junior law clerk, and then a journalist, then a journal editor and novelist. His first novel brought him immediate fame, and by the age of 30, he had published 5 novels (only one of which I’d heard of), and was famous enough that during his trip to the US, they threw a ball in his honor in New York, and he visited President Tyler at the White House. He spent the whole of the rest of his life writing novels, and giving public readings of them, frequently as part of literary tours. Most of his novels were published in monthly or weekly installment in popular journals of the day, before being reprinted in whole as novels. Social reform and social commentary was a long abiding theme of his work, and once he was famous he was involved in trying to create new forms of charity that would not suffer from the problems of existing charitable institutions, such as the “Urania House” that was funded by the richest lady in England, and run largely by Dickens. On the other hand, he and he wife Catherine “separated” when he was 45 and lived with a much younger woman named Ellen Terman, whom he seems to have spent the rest of his life with. The split was bitterly painful too, some of the children sided with Charles and some with Catherine, and even Catherine’s sister Georgina took Charles side rather than hers during the split. Charles Dickens was one of the early members of “the Ghost Club,” a London based paranormal investigation club founded in 1862, which appears to be the first of its kind. He also survived a major rail crash in 1865, but managed to keep his name out of the papers. He died in 1870, at 58 after a series of strokes.

The obvious things to say about Dickens involve his social commentary. Dickens was a liberal’s liberal and wanted people to understand what life was like for the less fortunate. He was keenly interested in how people could fall through the cracks of the social system, and was always looking for ways to patch the cracks, as well as to point them out. He was a fierce opponent of poverty and of social stratification, and worked to “humanize” people who occupied various marginal positions, such as prostitutes or criminals. He tackled the legal system in one novel, and corrupt patent offices and unfettered market speculation in another. Karl Marx said of Dickens that he (and other Victorian novelists like him)
"...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together..."

Charles Dickens is also one of the most famous Unitarians of England, well kinda. He was born and raised as an Anglican, but had little patience with Anglicanism as a young adult. When he first visited the US, in 1842, at age 30, he met and interacted with a number of Unitarians, whom he found both humorous and impressive. He makes fun of them in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In his own notes to himself, he writes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays that they contained "much that is dreamy and fanciful," but also "much more that is true and manly, honest and bold." Back home in England, he began attending the Essex Street Unitarian Church several times, and then took a pew at the Little Portland Street Unitarian Church. According to Dickens, Tagart, his minister, had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." Dickens wrote to Unitarian Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, "I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration." He remained a Unitarian for around a decade, and it’s not that hard to see its influence on him. During this time, he wrote the Christmas Carol (and most of his other Christmas work), as well as several of his other novel. This is also the part of his life where he was involved in running experimental forms of charity. He also wrote a purely religious book “The Life of Our Lord” that was intended only for his children. It was read aloud in the family every Christmas, and he begged that the manuscript never be taken out of the house or given to publishers, although it was published in 1934, after the death of his last surviving son. The book begins
“My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”

By the 1850s, a form of Anglicanism called “Broad Church” had developed that emphasized Latitudinarianism, and what we would call religious liberalism. Dickens, returned to the Anglican Church, but remained friends with many Unitarians including his ex-minister, to his death. He accepted Darwin’s theory of Evolution, had an interest in Biblical criticism, and when the curate at his Anglican Church was replaced with one he found dull, he just stopped attending.

In many ways, Dickens is the creator of the modern version of Christmas. Historian Ronald Hutton (who I like a lot on many fronts), argues that the current state of observance of Christmas in our culture is a result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Christmas Carol, and I agree. I’ve written elsewhere about the many subtle changes in our understanding of Christmas represented by Dickens vision, but here are a few points. Dickens imagined a family centered celebration of generosity, rather than a church-centered or community-centered celebration, and he wedded the commercial message and the religious message together as intimately as he could.

Another interesting story about Dickens involves his anti-Semitism and racism. A lifelong champion of misunderstood underdogs, it’s nonetheless possible to find evidence of racial bias against Eskimos, Indians, and Jews in Dickens corpus in various ways. But most interesting to me is his anti-Semitism. His early work Oliver Twist, has an impressively vile villain named Fagin, a Jew, who runs a gang of child pickpockets. Fagin seems to have been based on Ikey Solomon, a real criminal that Dickens interviewed while he was a reporter. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin, who is frequently refered to in the novel simply as “the Jew” does not seem free from bias. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathizing heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed." Then in 1863, one of Dickens friends, Eliza Davis, wrote to Dickens complaining to him about his portrayal of Fagin, and arguing that he had "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. What is interesting to me, is that he responded to the criticism. He halted the printing of the book version of Oliver Twist, and altered the wording on the sections that had not yet been sent to the typesetters. Then in his next novel he made a caricaturishly good Jewish lady, named Riah (friendship in Hebrew), and at one point gives her the line: "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews ... they take the worst of us as samples of the best ..."

I remember keenly a discussion I had with my father as an adult, when I described a black girl I had had a crush on in high school, but never worked up the guts to ask out. He said that he didn’t know how he would have reacted if I had, or if he would have been able to act honorably. I said, c’mon you’re not a racist or anything. And he said, oh yes I am. I have been all my life. It’s part of how I was brought up. But as an adult, I’ve struggled against it, and tried to hide it from you kids because I didn’t want you to grow up to be be racists too. That’s kinda how I see Dicken’s anti-Semitism. He has it, and it isn’t really that hard to see if you look. But he’s embarrassed by it, he tries to cover it up, or make up for it, when he can perceive it. He was trying to grow beyond it.

I am grateful for Christmas as a holiday of family celebrations and generosity.
I am grateful for Scrooge’s example of self-reform.
I am grateful for Dicken’s tireless work to humanize all classes of society and shed light on where social systems are failing.
I am grateful for people who fund and direct experimental charities, looking for new ways to deal with societies flaws.
I am grateful for serialized narratives as an art form, from Dickens to comic books and TV shows.
I am grateful for religious toleration, where people of different beliefs work together for mutual goals.
I am grateful for the inner urge to reform our own flaws, the secret good side of embarrassment

Other Notables for me for this day
Donald Duck’s debut, Joseph Welch stands up to Senator McCarthy during the 1950s.
birth of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, death of Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi (last master of Ukiyo-e)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Gratitude Project - Project Story

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Year of the Flood” which depicts a fictional environmentalist religious cult, God’s Gardeners, operating in Canada some decades into our future. I could speak the praises of this thought-provoking novel, and indeed of Atwood, but maybe another time. One of the many bizarre habits of this remarkably admirable and weird little fictional cult, is their calendar. Every day of the year for them is a saint day, holiday or feast day, but their choices are typically environmentalists or biologists, like a strange mix of early Christianity and 20th century environmentalism. For example, Saint Rachel Carson Day is named after the patron saint of all birds who was sainted for warning the world of the dangers of pesticide.

Now, I’m not really a biologist, or a novel writer, but the project of dedicating each day to some hero of the past well it niggled at me. I’ve thought about it off and on for the last several months. Eventually, I decided that I would try to decide on one person or event or organization to be grateful for each day. Part of my goal was to cultivate my own sense of gratitude, as I can be a, well, a bitter old cuss. But as I’ve actually begun to work on the project, I’ve found it also a kind of interesting way of re-telling old stories that deserve to be told again.

I’ve been working on it privately since May 26th, but haven’t shared any of my decisions or rationales with anyone other than my wife. But I think, I’m going to attempt to be a little more public about it. Here’s my goal, I’m going to try to pick some person or event, for each day of the year, that was born or died, or happened, or had some important link to the date. Someone or something that is important to me, or I’m particularly grateful for, or I think deserves to be raised up a bit. And I’m going to tell their story in my words, leaning heavily on Wikipedia as I often do. Each entry will also have a section to remind myself what I’m grateful for it. Feel free to follow my progress, or suggest other folks or stories for a day. Obviously these are my own choices, guided by my interests and tastes in philosophy, politics, art, and so on. As a flick of the hat to Atwood’s book, I’ll even call some of those I especially admire “saints,” so long as they are dead.

I'll also back date the posts to the day they are about, even if I wrote them a little early or late, or didn't post them until today.