Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Essays

AA Envy

Helen Andrews

Still Life, No. 1 (detail), 1962, by Tom Wesselman (1931–2004); Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Images; art © estate of Tom Wesselman/licensed VAGA, New York.

In the nineteenth century, belief in temperance as a political cause was usually one item in a larger constellation of progressive and enlightened views. A man who favored greater legal restrictions on the sale of alcohol tended also to be a believer in women’s rights, public sanitation, sex education, and all the other right-thinking causes of his day. The British feminist Josephine Butler, whose life’s work was to campaign against a law that penalized prostitutes who had venereal disease but not the johns who infected them, found that the only men willing to join her fight against Victorian double standards were “the temperance men.” No surprise there, she wrote: “They are the leaders in good social movements.”1 On the other side of the Atlantic, the American South remained hostile to temperance for years because the cause was so closely identified with Boston progressivism.2

This is not the picture of a temperance activist in anyone’s mind today. We think of the Bible thumper brandishing Proverbs 23 (“Be not among winebibbers”), H. L. Mencken’s puritan haunted by the fear that someone somewhere is having a good time, the Salvation Army prude who needs only a few Bacardis-and-milk with Sky Masterson to set her bell a-ringing. The elegant and refined temperance man of history, if he could see the temperance man of our imagination, would be surprised, affronted, and most of all puzzled. He would tartly point out that modern society has embraced all the views that earned him a reputation as a starry-eyed radical—public provision of education, shorter hours for factory workers, industrial safety regulations, animal cruelty laws. All of his favorite causes, in fact, except temperance, which, far from being taken for granted, is roundly reviled.

Or is it? The branch of the temperance movement that wanted legal prohibition is a universal punching bag, but what about the older strain that put its faith in moral suasion? It is hard not to notice that when modern man speaks of vice, he reaches instinctively for the vocabulary of addiction. When a public figure is caught out, the standard way to demonstrate contrition is not by resolving to find a good church or a good therapist but by promising to enter a twelve-step program. This is true even when the sin in question has nothing to do with intoxicants. Journalist Buzz Bissinger went into rehab for his shopping addiction, singer/songwriter Ke$ha for her eating disorder, singer/serial batterer Chris Brown for “anger management.”

What could possibly account for this wholesale pilfering of a specialized set of terms and procedures designed for the very particular problem of uncontrollable alcoholism? The answer would make Carrie Nation smile for the first time in her life: We are all as green as a bottle of Rolling Rock with AA envy.

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