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

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Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”

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