The Libertarian Theme in Anti-AA Rhetoric

Hopping on the Ron Paul bandwagon as it pulls out for Campaign 2012, guest blogger Eoin Cannon speculates on why Libertarians don’t show more love for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dr. Bob and Bill W.: Authors of Big Book, Haters of Big Government

In the book manuscript I’m currently revising, I look at the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in relation to its political moment in the mid-to-late 1930s, building a case that AA belongs, in quite specific ways, to the culture of New Deal liberalism–despite the FDR-derangement-syndrome of its co-founders. In developing this idea, I have become attuned not only to ideological analyses of AA and its founding, but also to what one might call the political flavors of the popular critiques of the recovery movement. I find myself oddly fascinated with superficial contempt for AA and twelve-step culture, in part because it is so common, but moreso because it seems to spring from that hard-to-pin-down nexus of identity and sensibility that underlies more formal beliefs. That is, people who express this contempt tend to do so in the same terms that inform their political orientations. Sometimes this connection is explicit, but just as often it comes in signs of cultural identity and social attitude.

Leftish and rightish anti-AA attitudes are fairly predictable. The former are keyed to AA’s focus on individual rather than systemic reform or on its insistent theism, while right-leaning folks often express contempt for the disease concept and its apparent evasion of personal responsibility. One consistent form of anti-AA rhetoric that has surprised me, though, is libertarian. Since I’m talking about popular discourse here, it’s more fair to call this “criticism by certain libertarians,” or “criticism with a libertarian sensibility.”

On its face, it seems all wrong. AA should be admired by libertarians (as I’m sure it is by many, including those who are also AA members). It’s private, its (mostly) voluntary, it’s radically democratic in organization. It’s a model for the kind of institution that can serve the social needs that remain in the post-welfare state utopia. Heck, its Twelve Traditions could serve as the Constitution for that utopia. Bill Wilson, who as both Chamber-of-Commerce free-marketer and New Age anarchist went the Full Libertarian Monty, thought as much. But a number of contemporary libertarians just don’t like AA’s style.  This clip from a South Park episode is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Sobriety, South Park Style

In addition to Stan’s hammering the disease concept, the backdrop itself presents a common theme in anti-AA rhetoric: the dismal meeting. In these scenes, the droning agreement and insipid argot are cultlike, but worse, the people are just dull and gutless. AA members often know themselves as people who have been granted a great victory; these critics see them as utterly defeated, clinging to their slogans as a substitute for making real choices. You see this contempt coming from both right- and left-flavored libertarians. The civil libertarian feminist Wendy Kaminer opens her 1992 recovery movement takedown  I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional by painting just such a scene.

South Park’s creators and lead writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been claimed by young conservatives as their own because of the way they satirize liberal do-gooderism, especially by Hollywood figures. But they’re more accurately placed not as conservatives, but as anti-liberal libertarians. Parker is a member of the Libertarian Party, but it is Stone who has summed up their  sensibility best, telling an online forum, “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” Their attitude reminds me of Lionel Trilling’s diagnosis, in The Liberal Imagination, of twentieth-century American conservative thought as a set of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Similarly, I don’t think these critical portrayals can be engaged as analyses, though they remain interesting as cultural phenomena.

Simply put, AA doesn’t suit these libertarians’ image of what freedom should look like. Libertarians tend to be people who aspire (whether in reality or fantasy) to the vigorous life. From this perspective, AA can seem like a bunch of sad sacks hiding from reality. AA is made up of people who have admitted defeat–and sought help– in their lives in ways that no one who admires the fiction of Ayn Rand could respect.

         He Shrugged Off His Drinking,           Why Can’t You?

Other political orientations come with temperaments and visions of the good life, of course; but these tend to be more explicitly tied to their ideas about what kinds of social structures best fit their systems. Liberal democrats often urge some form of civic republicanism or communitarianism to produce the kind of values and bonds that procedural liberalism can’t. Laissez-faire capitalists often claim that “traditional” social hierarchy is necessary to enforce the kind of morality that smoothly-functioning markets require. I think it’s fair to say that among libertarians, this level of social theorizing is comparatively thin, at least at the popular level. Libertarians very often want to remain neutral on such questions. It is important to them that social relations remain private and based on individual choice, so the idea of mandating or even encouraging particular arrangements is anathema.

But, of course, when they express their own social preferences with an intensity that reads as prescriptive, it’s hard not to draw a connection to their political beliefs. Both seem to spring from the same source.

2 thoughts on “The Libertarian Theme in Anti-AA Rhetoric

  1. I think Parker and Stone object to AA for two reasons. One is, as you say, that they don’t see alcoholism – or drinking, at least – as a disease. What they parody in that episode is someone who is not a big drinker using the disease concept as an excuse for drink-driving and as an excuse to keep on drinking. Their other objection is that they see AA as an almost cultish religious organisation which tries to convert people to Christianity over time. They have parodied this as well, although it may have been a different episode.

    I don’t know if these criticisms are valid but I don’t think they’re confined to libertarians. And, of course, a lot of the time they’re just trying to get laughs.

  2. Christopher, I think you’re right that Parker and Stone’s basic criticisms are those that have been leveled at AA for some decades. My interest is in the way they make them, especially in this particular kind of portrayal of a meeting. I think it fits with the libertarian-associated pattern I described, and with South Park’s own pattern of satirizing cultural politics. The chair of the meeting speaks in the whiny, condescending voice that the show uses for liberals who are afraid of other people exercising freedom of choice. And the member who talks at the beginning speaks in the semi-articulate monotone that the show uses for reg’lar Americans who have been brainwashed by said liberals into giving that freedom up.

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