Heart of a heartless world: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, March 2023

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view.
Ross Laurence Wolfe, The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

For the life of me, I don’t know how we managed before the internet.

Of course there was the 1960s underground press scene with hundreds of local papers around the country. I regularly picked up copies of the Los Angeles Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, and the mother of all alternative newspapers, the Village Voice, from Anne Chicoine’s Books. Anne was an expatriate New Yorker who ran a literary bookshop in a shotgun storefront along Main Street when I lived in Ventura, California. She smoked a meerschaum pipe, spoke with a Manhattan accent, and gave me suggestions for books to read from her wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. She kept the alternative papers with the underground comics in the revolving newspaper racks at the front of the store.

“So what’s this?” I asked, pointing to the Credentials of Ministry from the Universal Life Church with her name on it beside the cash register.

“I’m a fully ordained minister,” Anne smirked. “I got my minister’s license from a classified ad in the Freep for ten bucks. You need a wedding, baptism or funeral done I’m your gal. All perfectly legal apparently.”

I got my minister’s certificate soon thereafter. Kirby J. Hensley’s ULC and his pay-to-play ministry licenses were beginning to be tested legally in the early 1970s with a 1974 ruling in “Cramer v Commonwealth” granting the organization a religious tax exemption. By then Hensley had ordained over a million ministers. Whether the UCL’s license constitutes a fraudulent religious affiliation for tax avoidance purposes remains a contested issue. Whether or not a supposed religious organization is due a tax exemption is a matter of “church and state” in that America’s religion has always been the almighty dollar.

ULC’s airy-fairy motto is “Do that which is right,” a blanket ethics that covered Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, pagans, atheists and whoever else. It’s a vanilla version of Aleister Crowley’s rule for his Abbey of Thélème that “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of The Law.” I bounced between atheism and agnosticism in those days so I got the minister’s license on a lark. I was just coming out of a six-month stint as an evangelical Christian after having been a Catholic through my sacramental Confirmation. I would go on to experiment with Unitarianism, Baháʼí-ism and Zen Buddhism, and I continue to have an ongoing interest in spirituality today.

That’s because throughout my life I’ve had what we called in the 1960s “spiritual experiences” produced by contemplative walking, religious conversion, meditative practices, and psychedelic drug usage. I never considered these experiences to be interventions from some spiritual being or realm outside myself. They were all the result of my individual biochemistry, but this isn’t a matter of crude materialist interaction. At base Aristotle’s expression that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” holds true in that, minimally, the accumulated parts need to be augmented by the relationships between those parts. Dialectics emerged in the nineteenth century while gestalt and synergy arose in the twentieth century all to describe the interaction or cooperation between elements of a totality to account for it being greater than the simple sum of those parts.

William James gave a series of lectures to categorize the different spiritual encounters humans have had across the world throughout time which were compiled into the book The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. Two common elements that seem to constitute universalities, are the mystical sensation of transcending the ego and of communion. Every hippie worth their salt in the 1960s had a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap with those text-heavy labels that read like schizophrenic word salad but which always started with the declaration “All-One!” The spiritual sense of communion, of belonging to some greater whole or that “I contain multitudes” as Walt Whitman announced in his poem Song of Myself, is paralleled by what those of us who took psychedelics in the 1960s called “ego death.” The drugs forced a temporary loss of a sense of self which we equated with Eastern religions that promoted negating the individual’s attachment to a separate sense of ego through various spiritual practices. James chose to limit his studies of mystical moments to direct, immediate religious experiences, explicitly excluding any examination of religious theology or institutions. Several of my mystical experiences occurred in the context of churches and other religious organizations that had extremely negative theologies and religious practices.

I encountered plenty of heresy, dogma, sectarianism, orthodoxy and schism during my brief involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ at Ventura Community College in 1970. The friend who converted me, upon expressing frustration at the rabid leftwing bent to my born-again Christianity, dismissed my politics and my friendship by insisting that I forget about all worldly concerns and simply study my bible. When our campus was invaded by a Children of God “commune” whose “hippie” members denounced “The System,” predicted the rise of a totalitarian One World Government under the Anti-Christ’s brutal dictatorship, and preached its revolutionary overthrow by Jesus in the Second Coming, my orthodox Christian friends were understandably confused. They considered themselves frontline shock troops against evil, so when the Hare Krishnas periodically showed up to dance and chant at our school the Christians confronted the saffron-robed dolts as demon-possessed. During one debate when a Krishna pointed to the chest of that same Christian friend to indicate that some fanciful Hindu deity resided in his heart, my friend yelled vehemently back that “There’s no devil in me whatsoever, no sir!” That was the first time I experienced the evangelical tendency to profess a love for Israel and the Jewish people while simultaneously expressing vile anti-Semitic insults against Jews. Christian Zionists consider Jews as both “globalist devils” and an eschatological tripwire for the End Times in which the Second Coming of Jesus restores a fully resurrected Israel to its rightful place as a religious and cultural beacon in the community of nations. It’s the metaphor of “Christ’s long suffering bride,” both abused and redeemed.

After community college, I eventually started reading Karl Marx, who wrote that:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

This tempered, dialectical understanding of human faith runs counter to the actual history of religion—the intolerance, oppression, sectarianism, mayhem, torture, slaughter, mass murder, and warfare that is SOP for religion. Doris Lessing made a similarly balanced evaluation of Marxism when she wrote:

I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.

Religion is far and away the more destructive ideology when compared to Marxism. There are no “holy wars” between branches of socialism unlike the Catholic/Protestant or the Christian/Moslem bloodbaths that stain history and the present. I don’t accept the capitalist insult that socialism is an odious form of religion (Ludwig von Mises) or the bourgeois atheist’s claim that Christianity or Judaism are fundamentally socialistic in nature (Ayn Rand). Instead I’ll briefly touch on Marxism’s eschatological tendency per Raymond Aron to see the working class as humanity’s “collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” “One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship,” according to Ross Laurence Wolfe in his salient essay “Demonology of the working class”. “’It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,’ observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. […] Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker.”

The problems of Marxist “theology” aside, my time in various socialist organizations and movements acquainted me with a number of similar “spiritual” moments. There are analogous experiences of egolessness, communion, and community to be had on the Left compared with religion. Referring again to Wolfe’s brilliant essay, I reveled in the “mad rush” of direct action and the “demonic character” of revolution. Certainly the “Faustian dimension of Marxist thought”—his exaltation of the proletariat as “not just Promethean but Luciferian”—appealed to me viscerally. Wolfe’s lengthy discussion of Marxism’s deification of the proletariat versus the need to abolish the working class is well worth reading in full.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Introduction” by Karl Marx (1844)
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman (1855)
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)
The Golden Notebook, “Introduction” by Doris Lessing (1971)
“Demonology of the working class” by Ross Laurence Wolfe, The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus (2016)

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Addiction: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, March 2022

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.
W.H. Auden

I got nasty habits / I take tea at three / Yes, and the meat I eat for dinner / It must be hung up for a week
Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, “Live with Me,” Let It Bleed

I was newly sober thanks to Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. It was 2012 and I wasn’t doing Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead I was sitting zazen at the Page Street Zen Center every Monday night for the Meditation in Recovery meeting which melded soto zen with AA. I’d started putting out cushions for that meeting on a regular basis, but suddenly it was determined I needed to be vetted for such an innocuous volunteer task. So I went out for a cup of coffee with Tom to discuss the state of my recovery. He prefaced our talk by saying that, while the AA 12-steps fit hand-in-glove with Buddhist meditation, AA is absolutely necessary whereas Zen is not. Then he proceeded to quiz me about whether I’ve committed to a higher power yet and how far I’d gotten in my fourth step to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. Continue reading

By any other name: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2021

I picked up an archaic paper flyer pinned to an obsolete cork board in the now-defunct Market Street branch of FLAX Art Supplies. The handbill advertised a web designer and mobile app developer—Daniel Goodwyn—who offered to teach virtually any platform or software. I wanted to learn social media to prepare for self-publishing my novel 1% Free, so I called. He was cheap. We arranged to meet at Philz Coffee on 24th Street.

“I only drink Philz coffee,” Daniel said.

We met six or seven times at the end of 2015, beginning of 2016. Daniel was an evangelical Christian favorable to fundamentalism, but he wore his religious beliefs close to the vest. He didn’t proselytize. Instead, he would produce his worn King James Bible from his backpack before starting each lesson. I pulled out my Handbook of Denominations by Mead, Hill and Atwood our third meeting and we were off discussing Christianity between social media tutoring. We talked dispensationalism, cessationism, and biblical inerrancy. He’d attended 24/7 worship and prayer events, and would soon do web design for the messianic Jews for Jesus organization. Continue reading

Of Trotskyists & stockbrokers: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” May 2021

Is this just ultra-revolutionary high-voltage subjectivism of a petty-bourgeois gone wild—or what?
—Otto Wille Kuusinen, on Trotsky at Comintern’s Sixth Congress

Anyone who has been through the Trotskyist movement, for example, as I have, knows that in respect to decent personal behavior, truthfulness, and respect for dissident opinion, the ‘comrades’ are generally much inferior to the average stockbroker.
—Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man

“Lenin and Trotsky were sympathetic to the Bolshevik left before 1921,” the man insisted. “Really they were.” Continue reading

Revenge!: “What’s Left?” December 2020

Anytime somebody bullies you, you should thank them every day. Right now, this bully is the only person in your life who’s giving you an actual challenge. Everybody else is anesthetizing you; hugging the power out of you; making you weak. You think the struggle of living in the world gets easier? People stop giving you a hard time? Learn to stand up for yourself now and give it right back to them. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

—“D” (“Darius Pringle”), character, TV show Chance

Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge.

—Scott Adams Continue reading

The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Continue reading

Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.” Continue reading

De-Identity Theft: “What’s Left?” January 2017, MRR #404

header
When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. When tired, sleep.

― Attributed variously to Baizhang (720-814), Tanxia Tianran (736-824), Huihai (788), Linji (867), or Bankei (1622-1693)

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.

I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

—Gilles Dauvé

I’m going to start a new philosophical movement while I wait to learn whether this country elected the corporatist-globalist-multiculturalist or the nativist-isolationist-populist to be president. It’s like waiting to hear whether the terminal diagnosis is heart failure or cancer. Or the COD is death by firing squad or death by lethal injection. Either way, it’s not good. As for my philosophical movement, I think I’ll call it de-identity.

The germ for my de-identity philosophy started when I took a writing workshop from Cary Tennis who used the Amherst Writers & Artists method developed by Pat Schneider. The AWA appropriated writer William Stafford’s aphorism—“A writer is someone who writes”—and built it into a writing methodology that emphasizes spontaneous writing techniques employed in a group process unencumbered by criticism or deadlines. The whole experience was a little too hippie-dippy-new-agey for my tastes and not at all conducive to honing the craft of writing. So I was glad when Cary developed the idea of the Finishing School, which helped me finish rewriting my second novel.

The phrase “a writer is someone who writes” remains troublesome for me however, not the least because it’s a tautology that means little and tells us less. A dancer is someone who dances. A policeman is someone who polices. A bricklayer is someone who lays bricks. These statements are not just self-evident, they are redundant. Am I a writer if all I do is write a grocery list every morning? If I write the orders for the execution of prisoners on death row? If I write nonsensical word salad screeds because I’m schizophrenic? And how long do I remain a writer once I stop writing? Five minutes? Twenty-four hours? Or once I earn the appellation, is it good for life? This all sounds rather hazy even as the phrase seems vaguely self-congratulatory.

Yes I can be harsh on the AWA’s inspiration and methodology even as I acknowledge that it works for some people to encourage them to write. I have similar reservations for the process and declarations of AA, including their signature “I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” statement, even while I grant that AA does work for some people to keep them sober. If nothing else, the placebo effect is quite real even though any “cure” remains elusive. My concern is with the identitarian claims that such statements foster and whether they hinder or help the efforts of those who make them. I think that the attempt to fix one’s identity—“I am a writer” or “I am an alcoholic”—in order to fix one’s problems—“I can’t write” or “I drink too much”—ultimately does more harm than good. Rather than face their declining writing abilities, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Certainly, creative individuals like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were tired and depressed from constantly dealing with their self-admitted addictions and may have committed suicide as a consequence. Issues of declining health and mental problems combined with issues of addiction and creative obsession complicated matters for all four of these individuals, but this but doesn’t negate the point I’m hoping to make.

In line with Gilles Dauvé’s above distinction between opposing imperialism and being an anti-imperialist, or opposing fascism and being an anti-fascist, I rarely call myself an anarchist, a left communist, or even an anti-authoritarian these days. I support most, if not all the positions associated with these political identities at the same time that I reject the inclusive wingnuttery of anarchism, the vulgar dogmatism of left communism, and the kneejerk sectarianism of both. A similar attitude informs my comments in a previous column that sometimes a vote is just a vote. I’ve voted in the Peace and Freedom Party primaries much of my adult life, which doesn’t make me a leftover 60s Leftist. I voted for Barack Obama for president both times around, which doesn’t make me a Democrat. And I voted for Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make me a democratic-socialist.

Defining a political identity based on voting, or even electoral politics, is ludicrous because that’s not all I do. To expand on a bumper sticker type of mentality, I vote but I also sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate, protest, commit civil disobedience, and riot. Pointing out the broad range of my political involvements is one way of de-indentifying with any one particular political activity, but it doesn’t actually decontextualize me and my politics. Quite the opposite. If I sum up all my individual political tactics into a personal political whole, I arrive at an overall political strategy, that being of an independent-minded, left-of-liberal kind of person. What I’m after instead is what I alluded to above in discussing writing. I’m trying to be overly literal with the phrase “a writer is someone who writes.”

I am a writer only when I write. I am a reader only when I read. I am a critic only when I criticize. I am a voter only when I vote. You get the idea.

It’s one of the flip sides of the Zen saying at the top of this column. And it has some interesting implications. A tongue-in-cheek Zen aphorisms I like is “don’t just do something, sit there” which flips a common saying. When I sit zazen, my intent is to be mindful, to be here now, to be in the moment. So if I’m doing nothing, I’m being nothing. At the moment I sit, my intention is to have no ego. My intention is to have no identity.

And I bet you thought I was going to rail against identity politics.

MY PREDICTIONS

I’m one for four on my electoral predictions, the same odds according to Nate Silver that the Cubs had of winning the World Series or that Trump had of winning the election. Or, more precisely, one for three, with one that doesn’t count. I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective primaries, but I was wrong about everything else. There were no riots at the RNC, indeed there was much more action outside on the streets and inside on the convention floor at the DNC. I certainly was wrong when I thought Clinton would squeak by Trump to win the presidency. And it really doesn’t matter how Gary Johnson did as he was incidental to November 8th’s outcome.

The big news is that Clinton might have won the popular vote, which is still to be determined, but lost to Trump in the electoral vote. I’ll wait until next column to do a more thorough analysis, but for now, a couple of points. Michael Moore early on predicted that the anger and alienation felt by America’s white working class, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, was so intense that Trump was likely to win if the Democrats didn’t take them into account and do something dramatic. And Nate Silver, whose prediction metrics based on crunching poll numbers, had Clinton leading Trump at around three points just before the elections, with the caveat that three points is well within the margin of error. So while Silver said: “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome,” he also said: “But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime.” I echo his sentiments.

Now I need to practice some of that detachment I try to cultivate sitting zazen.

A commie punk walks into a bar…: “What’s Left?” September 2015, MRR #388

I first visited New York City in the fall of 1988. I walked all day, everywhere, for weeks straight until I had blisters on my feet and I’d developed a crick in my neck from looking up at all the tall buildings. It was glorious.

The anarcho/ultra milieu was jumping at the time. Folks from WBAI, many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, the Libertarian Book Club, Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, Neither East Nor West, and that was just the politics. Probably the least interesting encounter I had was with Hakim Bey aka Peter Lamborn Wilson, while the most impressive was with Joey Homicides aka Bob McGlynn. Libertarian things were popping all over because the Warsaw Pact had just crumbled, and the old Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.

Then there was all the touristy stuff I wanted to do, first time in The City. I spent a whole day at the Museum of Modern Art, making a beeline for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” then walking around the rest of the building in utter rapture. I turned a corner, aimlessly, only to stumble upon Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” I was floored. The oversized painting had its own room, and it wasn’t in the best of shape. Cracked, peeling, warped, the somber black and white canvas made the hairs stand up on the back of my head.

Picasso is one of those people who elicits wide, often violent opinions. If you look at his drawings and paintings from before he went Cubist, during his Blue Period for instance, you can well understand why he was considered a brilliant artist. His politics were a bit more dodgy. Apparently, Picasso had entrusted “Guernica” to the MoMA after his death to keep until such time that the return of democracy to Spain allowed for the painting’s return. As I stood in the MoMA gazing at what I thought was an anti-fascist icon, a deal had been cut with the museum to return the original “Guernica” in 1981, despite the fact that Spain was a constitutional monarchy and not a democracy. I realized many years later that what I had seen in 1988 was not “Guernica” but the related masterpiece “The Charnel House,” so similar in style and power. Picasso was a member of the Communist Party, which meant he was an apologist for Stalin and his crimes, including the crimes committed by the Spanish CP during the Spanish Civil War. And he was a complete asshole, personally, when it came to women. Of his wives, lovers, and mistresses, two killed themselves and two went mad associating with a man who said: “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

“Loyal, generous and affectionate when it suited him, Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers,” wrote Mark Hudson. Lots of artist types turn out to be brilliant at their art, and thus publicly praised, while their private lives often reveal profound personal and moral failings. Of course, this disassociation between the public and the private goes both ways, with a common if mundane observation being that Hitler, arguably the world’s most brutal dictator, loved dogs and children and was loyal to Eva Braun. It’s easy to come up with a list of 15 or 20 great artists who were nasty people, but not so easy to name even 5 people generally considered evil who have also done demonstrable good. The idea of the brilliant genius artist who is simultaneously a monumental jerk is so frequent as to have become a trope. And when genius and asshole reside in the same individual, dispassionately evaluating famous people and their contributions can be tricky.

It becomes immensely more so when passion is involved. Gregory, the youngest son of Ernest Hemingway, wrote to his father spelling out the pros and cons from his traumatized perspective: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick, and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” To someone who loves Hemingway’s writing, or who admires good literature in general, any evaluation of the worth and cost/benefit of the man and his work might be substantially different, bringing to mind Tolstoy’s famous quote that “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Evaluating merit is not much easier when we switch from the life and work of an individual, whether famous or not, to gauging the merit of our not-so-personal relationships, with the organizations and movements we belong to or support. I wrote a column some time ago about how I experimented with every drug in the book during the 1960s, and only alcohol managed to kick my ass. I was more or less a daily drinker, not heavy but strong and steady, for 30 years up until January 1, 2010. It was all just maintenance at that point. My habit was fucking with me, my relationships, my pancreas, and to my mind the costs of my regular alcohol intake far outweighed the benefits. So, I decided to quit, and I did so through the Chemical Dependency and Recovery Program at Kaiser, of which I am a member. CDRP provided me with regular professional counseling, access to a shrink who could also prescribe drugs in case my withdrawal symptoms got too heavy, classes on the science of dependency and withdrawal, and lots and lots of meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, I went to every meeting and every class and every counseling session for 90 days until I no longer had a problem staying sober. The scientific knowledge alone—of what your mind and body go through 30, 60, and 90 days after withdrawal—was worth the price of admission.

Of course, AA was and is ubiquitous, as the oldest and best known absolutely free recovery program around. But AA impressed me as a cult from the very first chanted call-and-response. I freely admit to having cherry-picked different principles from different programs to get the recovery that works for me—among them the notions of surrender and forgiveness from AA, the ideas of secularity and self-help from LifeRing, and the medical use of prescribed drugs when necessary to help with withdrawal from harm reduction. Still, virtually everybody around me was in AA, working an AA program, so I accepted the validity and efficacy of AA in going about not drinking. I started sitting zazen at the San Francisco Zen Center, with its meditation in recovery meetings being my anchor for five years. But over those years the focus of those meetings, equal parts Buddhism and 12-step recovery, has grown thin, not because of the zen but because of the steps.

Whether or not there is a god has absolutely nothing to do with the existence, nature, and solution to suffering. That’s basic Buddhism, whose founder cautioned: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I’ve been pretty much an atheist after giving up Catholicism for Lent at 13. Buddhism is about as non theistic, and zen as atheistic, as you can get and still call it a spiritual practice.

I never saw or felt the need for a god to help me stop drinking, and no matter how much AA papers over it, some concept of god is required for their program to work. Court-ordered AA participation is thus a direct violation of the basic Constitutional right to religious liberty, in this case the freedom to not have a religion. All that “your ‘higher power’ can be anything, even a doorknob” AA bullshit I find theologically imbecilic, spiritually vacuous, and personally insulting. Surrendering to a “higher power” isn’t necessary to experience the need to forgive and be forgiven, or to simply surrender and ask for help. Whether or not a god exists has absolutely nothing to do with stopping drinking and staying sober.

The debate over whether alcohol abuse is a disease or a choice is not resolved, although more and more scientists are supporting the disease model. Prolonged alcohol abuse chemically restructures the alcoholic’s body and brain and causes the difficulties in withdrawal, according to current scientific research, and there is much evidence that certain individuals are born with a proclivity for addiction to alcohol. AA’s main problem is that its central metaphor of “alcoholism as disease” clashes with various other aspects of AA’s program. If alcoholism is a disease, then why blame the alcoholic for the moral failure of not staying sober? If alcoholism is a disease, then why does AA resist the use of drugs like naltrexone to lessen the desire to drink? If I had a disease like cancer I would do everything in my power—prescription drugs, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery—to control or eliminate that disease. I certainly wouldn’t sit around making a “fearless moral inventory” of my personal failings, asking for forgiveness for my moral shortcomings, then seeking moral support from a god that doesn’t exist when cold, hard science is crucial to my cure. Or, as Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her recent Atlantic Monthly article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous”: “Why do we assume they [alcoholics] failed the program, rather than that the program failed them?”

Aside from Glaser’s excellent article there is a whole website (orange-papers.org) devoted to systematically and thoroughly debunking AA—its history, program, and claims. AA is ranked 38th out of 48 common alcohol treatment methods, not very effective at all. Given that it is “anonymous,” recovery statistics for AA are hard to come by and even harder to verify. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes puts the actual success rate for AA somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. Every disease has a spontaneous remission rate, and Harvard Medical School calculated that the annual rate of spontaneous remission in alcoholics is around 5 percent. Which means that AA’s track record is at, or at most just 3 percent higher than the spontaneous remission rate for alcoholics. Hardly worth all the hoopla surrounding AA’s supposed successes.

But even one recovered alcoholic is success enough, many in AA would argue. Combine the abysmally low rate of recovery with other problems in AA such as 13th Stepping and AA’s cons far outweigh the pros. Thirteenth Stepping is when individuals, oftentimes mandated by law to attend AA meetings, take advantage of AA’s horizontal and relatively leaderless organization in general, and its unsupervised sponsor/sponsee structure in particular, to prey upon and sexually exploit newbies, most often young naïve girls. CBS’s 60 Minutes did an entire segment, “The Sober Truth,” that, along with The 13th Step Film by Monica Richardson, exposed the underreported realities of 13th Stepping. But the rampant problem of 13th Stepping is not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by AA’s national/international organization.

When I was running around NYC back in 1988, I hung around a crew of friends and comrades, many of whom were heavy drinkers. And since it was a vacation for me, I was drinking more than my usual. One of my companions at the time wisecracked: “The liver is a muscle that must be exercised.” Well, the brain is also a muscle, and our capacity for analysis and coming to reasoned conclusions needs to be exercised as well. My judgment is still out on whether Picasso’s or Hemingway’s art was worth the human damage those artists inflicted. Not so with AA, where its paltry success rate is not offset by it problems, everything from its moralizing guilt tripping to 13th Stepping. There are lots of evidence-based non 12-step recovery and support programs out there, including a promising Buddhist-based one pioneered by Noah Levine called Refuge Recovery. As for AA?

Don’t believe the hype!

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Evidence-based Recovery and Support Groups

Secular
SMART: Self Management And Recovery Training
Women for Sobriety
Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves/SOS
LifeRing Secular Recovery/LSR
Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support/HAMS
Moderation Management
Rational Recovery
Naltrexone/Sinclair Method

Buddhist
Refuge Recovery

Of raccoons and terrorists: “What’s Left?” October 2013, MRR #365

I regularly do a little gardening, more so when I was living in San Francisco’s sun belt south of Market, but still a little now that I’m up in Eureka Valley, just in the tomato zone west of Twin Peaks. Tomatoes are my specialty. But whereas I used to grow tons of heirlooms in SOMA, I haven’t had very good luck up here in the hills. I haven’t gotten the hang of gardening up here yet. The climate hasn’t helped. This past spring and summer it’s been incredibly cold and foggy, unusually so even for San Francisco’s clammy climate. My zebras simply did not make the grade this season. But my stupice tomatoes, well, they are incredibly sweet and abundant, perfectly suited for the climate. When tomatoes are this good, it makes you realize that tomatoes are truly fruit.

Now the problem is raccoons. We have a family of raccoons living in the immediate neighborhood, and once the initial score or so of delicious tomatoes were picked, they wised up and started grabbing the rest as soon as they got remotely ripe. I tried timing matters to outfox the raccoons and pluck the crop ahead of them. No dice. Then I rigged up some chicken wire in ever more sophisticated arrays hoping to protect the plants. The raccoons kept breeching my fences and security, always getting my ripening tomatoes. Finally, I enclosed the remaining tomatoes, still incredibly productive, behind a half inch steel mesh fence, modifying the security so that now it looks like I have a chance of getting a few tomatoes out of the deal. I’m getting indications that frustrated raccoons skirting the perimeter so far have been unable to figure out how to penetrate my tomato enclosure. So far.

I’ve spent perhaps ten times what I originally invested into the garden trying to get some payback. I guess I’m pissed at being outwitted, time and again, by these crazy-assed raccoons. I mean to say, crazy smart raccoons. These wild little fuckers are urban born and bred, intelligent and resourceful as all get out, capable of making meals of someone’s koi pond or backyard garden or unsecured garbage cans, willing to intimidate your pet cat or dog or yours truly if need be. Raccoons have opposable thumbs, and the acuity to outwit most traps set for them. I fully expect my local family of raccoons to continue giving me grief over those tomatoes.

Raccoons are far too wily, far too ingenious, far too brilliant to be limited by that updated adage: “build a better mousetrap, evolve a better mouse.” The anthropomorphic version of this saying is: “build a better lock, train a better thief.” And while the latter is slightly less insulting than the former, both rely on comparisons to common undesirables (mice, thieves). Unfortunately, I’m stuck using these analogies and their unfortunate use of aphoristic lowlifes, to illustrate my point.

Humans are obsessed with their own security, and for finding ways to combat threats to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. At the most basic, our battle against disease exemplifies these maxims at work. We are constantly throwing antibiotics against bacterial-based infections, killing off good bacteria as well as bad, until the antibiotics no longer work and we breed more powerful, drug-resistant bacteria. The use of antibiotics in the raising of livestock only exacerbates the problem. Superbugs, and the threat of uncontrollable, worldwide plagues, are the potential consequence.

Our response to so-called “vermin”—insects, mice, rats, even raccoons—has been to throw every possible means—chemical, biological, physical—in order to exterminate them. In the short term, this produces massive ecological disruption as creatures thoroughly integrated into the natural environment are killed off. In the long term, the results are super insects genetically immune to pesticides, super mice and super rats genetically immune to standard poisons, and super raccoons genetically immune…well, okay, for once, the raccoons seem to be one step ahead of the game. They’re smart enough to be able to outwit most things that humans do to kill them off, flourishing despite everything we do to eradicate them. Short of hiring a pest control company, setting elaborate traps, and immediately exterminating them, raccoons are a fact of urban life in San Francisco.

So, how does this all relate to the most obnoxious pest humans have to deal with—other humans? Ever since 9/11, the US government has geometrically escalated its anti-terrorism measures hoping to keep us, the American public, safe and secure. From FBI surveillance activities, CIA drone programs, and NSA PRISM and XKEYSCORE programs, the Federal government has actually done a halfway decent job of preventing another Twin Towers attack from occurring. But smaller acts like the Fort Hood assault or the Boston Marathon bombing can and do happen, despite the best, most extensive, thorough and encompassing efforts to prevent them. That’s because terrorists are always looking for ways to circumvent whatever anti-terrorist steps the government takes in order to prevent them from initiating terror. No matter how sophisticated a counter-insurgency program put in place by the state, insurgents can and do manage to succeed in foiling that program.

Just look at the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Palestinian guerrilla infiltration and warfare, through plane hijackings and hostage takings, bus bombings and suicide attacks, to intifadas and rocket attacks—the Israelis are engaged in a war without end where the casualties for the Jewish state are modest but by no means insignificant despite high technology, overwhelming armament, social isolation and geographic internment. The Israelis have never taken to heart the historical truth that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” much as Americans have failed to understand Benjamin Franklin’s saying: “Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security.”

REVISIONS:

#1: Several columns ago, I alluded to some of the tenets of Buddhism, which I didn’t quite accurately depict. Buddhism has nothing to do with belief in a god, or lack thereof. When one of his followers asked the Buddha whether there was a god, or how many gods exist, Buddha replied that he had no opinion on such questions. All the Buddha concerned himself with was the inevitability of suffering in life, and the way suffering might be ended. One can be a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, even an atheist, and still be a Buddhist. Technically. Of course, there are many millions of Buddhists who would contend otherwise, who believe in various gods and goddesses, who have deified the Buddha despite his request not to, and some of whom have engaged in sectarian terrorism against Muslims in the name of religious purity. As for suffering, I identified old age, sickness and death, just three of what Buddhists consider the four great causes of human suffering. I left out birth. Not because childbirth has become painless, thanks to medical advances. It hasn’t. The birth in question has to do with the Buddhist belief in rebirth and reincarnation, a belief I don’t share. Despite attempts to medicalize, anesthetize and pharmacize our ills and fears, the basic forms of human suffering will continue to be with us.

#2: The BYOB Youth Movement ’82 gig was not held at the Hollywood Bowl, but at the Hollywood Palladium. Thanks to Ryan Timothy for the heads up!