New-age AA stewardship: announcing the new Traditions 2.0 

Vancouver Intergroup considers banning books, unapproved readings and rituals.
Read, print, share as a PDF - Have you ever heard someone interrupt a 12 Step meeting or group business meeting with this four word sentence: “That’s not conference approved”? These are the words of someone who reads the headlines of a newspaper and looks at the pictures but doesn’t have time for details. Still he or she is confident that they are well-informed because they looked at the newspaper. 

There is no requirement for AA membership to be civically engaged, have a grasp of subtle nuances or even to be well-informed. But when it comes to our trusted servants, standards should be a little higher—at least as far as our own service structure is concerned. Vancouver AA Intergroup is being asked to consider trading in the status quo of our 12 Traditions for a more Orwellian AA era. The argument for this new order uses the phrase “conference approved” as an authority, while missing its intention.
 
In our previous blog post, I suggested that Vancouver Intergroup wasn’t happy with AA’s inverted triangle of service and felt things would be more effective governing groups instead of serving them. Leading up to the recent drama, a staff member got let go from Vancouver Intergroup, just after welcoming two agnostic AA groups into the fold. Viki was brought in and set things straight. The unbelievers were removed from the meeting list and a controversy was fabricated putting the blame on the victim of the discrimination—the agnostic AA groups. To create a crime scene where the bodies had been buried, rules had to be broken. Therefore, rules had to be created, or implied. The new rule (not our Traditions) is that for selected groups, inclusion in the AA fold has to withstand the popularity test of Intergroup reps. In the new Vancouver, two or more alcoholics gathered together for sobriety with no other affiliation aren’t a listable (made-up Traditions 2.0 word) group unless everyone else says so.
 
Viki replied to Rebellion Dogs’ last blog post: “I find this type of publication of derogatory and inflammatory material about A.A. by professed A.A. members to be disappointing.”
 
If a doctor tells us our smoking is killing us and we say, “I find this kind of derogatory and inflammatory conversation disappointing, especially coming from a doctor”—should the concern be with the doctor who confronts the problem or the patient who denies it? Viki would rather judge than be judged; Okay, who wouldn't? I challenged her about engaging in dangerous seat of perilous power type of behavior and kidding herself about the consequences. She diminishes me as a “professed” member.
 
One of her Orwellian violations is uncensored readings. Reality check—before a pamphlet or new edition of the Big Book goes to the printer, our General Service Conference, representing members, groups and areas from every region of Canada and the USA, votes on it, granting approval to publish, copyright and print it with conference approval.
 
What Viki leaves out but the World Service of Alcoholics Anonymous emphasises is that conference approveddoes not imply Conference disapproval of other material about A.A. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and A.A. does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.”[i]
 
In a letter to Intergroup, Vancouver Viki blames two books for the chaos. She writes: “What is the controversy? These groups state they are AA groups stating their right to be so rests with the Third Tradition which states, ‘The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.’ The controversy arises from the fact that these groups do not use the literature of AA at their meetings. They use Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, and they have changed “How It Works,” The Preamble to Alcoholics Anonymous, removing all reference to God or a Higher Power as we understood Him.”
 
Would AA be better if books should be either conference approved or forbidden? That’s not what AA World Service says, is it? AA members who don’t believe in God may be unpopular but there are no rules about what parts of AA can be accepted or rejected. It is neither stated nor implied in AA Traditions, Concepts, or Warranties that to be an AA group, obedience or conformity can or should be demanded of groups by AA as a whole.
 
This isn’t a loophole. The intention was and is to widen AA’s gateway so anyone with the faintest interest in sobriety, regardless of what they believed or did not believe, could try AA on their terms.
 
Viki, we don’t have to burn our books to show our loyalty to AA. On a lighter note, thank you. You flatter both Roger C., author of The Little Book and me for my book, Beyond Belief. It is an honour to be considered, if only by you, to be in the company of banned book-authors James Joyce, Ann Frank, Aldous Huxley, Noam Chomsky, Li Hongzhi, Dr. Seuss, Voltaire and George Orwell[ii]. So, shine on 15 minutes of infamy, shine on.
 
Andrew Loog Oldham said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” If he were alive today, he might say, “It isn’t that the Central Office Manager of the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society disparaged your book; it’s that she brought the books to the attention of every Intergroup rep and every AA group in the British Columbia Lower Mainland.” As manager of the Rolling Stone, Loog Oldham found momentum from letting The Stones be cast as the alter ego to the squeaky clean fab-four from Liverpool.
 
“Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” wasn’t a scare tactic that this brazen manager came up with but he played the hand he was dealt, brilliantly.

In the same album cycle that saw The Beatles release Let It Be, The Stones put out Let It Bleed. So, if Viki from Vancouver Intergroup wants to grasp at my daily reflection book as a culprit in her campaign to have local AA discriminate against agnostic groups, what can I say but, “At least you were thinking of me, Vik. ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it, like it, yes I do.’”
 
Closer to Vancouver that the Rolling Stones, Neko Case is known for her role in the local Juno Award winning band, The New Pornographers. South of the border Case is remembered for taking her shirt off during a performance on August 4, 2001 at an out-door Opry Plaza Concert. The penalty was that she was banned for life from the Grand Ole Opry. Subsequently she recorded a record called Blacklisted. Case said, “People would love [the topless incident] to be a ‘fuck you’ punk thing. But it was actually a physical ailment thing. I had heat stroke.”
 
All these years later, who looks stupid now? The Grand Ole Opry may have been sure, at the time, that they had righteousness on their side, but they might have wanted to ask themselves, “What will the next generation say about our deeds?” Viki, will the next generation of AA members say, “Thanks for protecting AA from the modern lexicon,” or “How could you have be such a bigot?” History is not always kind.
 
Last example—1976 was the year that I said, “Tonight’s the night”—I will never drink again. By golly, November 27, 1976 did turn out to be my sobriety date. Rod Stewart’s LP of the same year, A Night On The Town, has a song called “Tonight’s the Night.” It was banned in many jurisdictions (probably in Vancouver, too) for unforgivably graphic lyrics. Consider what it takes today to get a Parental Advisory warning, let alone to be censored. In 1976 we, the public, were being protected from the lyric, “Spread your wings and let me come inside.”
 
The album also had hits like “The Killing of Georgie” about homophobia and “The First Cut is the Deepest,” but no doubt it was the banning of the first single that earned the album two million record sales from a music loving public that would not be told what to say, hear, read or think. Who understood the zeitgeist of the times and who is being laughed at now for trying to keep society locked in the past?
 
Back to you, Viki—you have zealously struck the Vancouver agnostic groups from the AA meeting list. Let me see if I follow your logic: You love AA; you are our loyal steward and you are protecting the integrity of the AA message. Does that sound like something you might say?
 
Think of how history views the censor and the censored. How do you want to be remembered? Rod Stewart is remembered as an imaginative innovator. The Canadian Radio and TV Commission (CRTC) that censored him is chastised for out of touch, dogmatic buffoonery.
 
Your intolerance isn’t for artistic liberty in meetings is it? You don’t mind that the Serenity Prayer, Lord’s Prayer, “Man in the Glass” or any of the other popular AA rituals are not conference approved. I mean, by your logic all groups that engage in these non-conference approved activities should be taken out of the list too, right?
 
But your intolerance is for nonbelievers. Who would dare doubt the existence of God and/or His role in our sobriety? You don’t want them in your AA. You don’t like liberties being taken with your Steps. Viki, the Steps belong to all of AA. We are not a religion. We have no dogma that needs protection, nothing is sacred and nothing is forbidden. And if I am jumping to conclusions, and you do welcome agnostics and atheists, then we can hardly welcome nonbelievers without accommodating them.
 
Toronto history bears out that if you cast a vote “for or against God in AA,” you can win that battle, framed that way. If you hold this vote, you’ll betray our Traditions. Might you win the battle and lose the war? AA has a place for all members and all of our groups. AA need not govern, expel or judge. Only someone who saw herself or himself as the agent provocateur of literalist hegemony would campaign that our culture of inclusion, love and tolerance is no longer the AA way. There is no emergency, there is no controversy and there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
 
EPILOGUE
Now having said all that I want to conclude by saying I have had Viki in the cross-hairs of my anti-discrimination rant for long enough and I want to take a more global look at things. I don’t know Viki and she doesn’t know me. I bet if we were both sent on the same 12 Step call together we would tell our stories, listen to the newcomer and behave as members of a cohesive, viable unit. I want to bring someone else into the discussion here, too. Viki wasn’t the only one who had something to say about my last blog. Lech from Calgary, someone I respect a lot, said in so many words, “Joe, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Often in life we can’t do both.
 
More literally, he called me on my bullshit. While I point a judgemental finger westward, I am fault finding. The only thing I hate more than a bigot is a hypocrite and I am being one; damn. In the question of the Vancouver Manoeuvre, who is right and who is wrong is beside the point. I am playing the victim card—don’t persecute nonbelievers, minority rights, blah, blah, blah. In truth, we are all persecuted, we are all alcoholics. We have all been demonized for behaving as addicts will behave. So it seems silly to argue over who is the good deviant and who is the bad one. We have all suffered from being stigmatized and, in all likelihood, we have been guilty of it ourselves.
 
This issue isn’t Vancouver’s dirty little secret. While AA is anonymous, we aren’t a secret society. This situation is being discussed in private Facebook groups and coffee shops throughout the recovery community. It is getting rather polarizing and I may be as much to blame as anyone.
 
Does Rebellion Dogs see our role as watchdog? If so, that’s a bit of an ego trip that I, for one, aim to remedy. We aren’t anti-god; we are anti-dogma. We aren’t into a pissing contest about one worldview being more enlightened than another. We are about equality. The moderates would look at us—the “preserving the integrity of the message” camp and the “widening the gateway” camp—and say, “What are you arguing about? Your messages are one in the same. The message to be preserved is that there is room for everyone.”
 
Lech’s message to me was to keep doing the right thing. The problem is out there (the still suffering alcoholic) not in here (the narcissism of small differences). Thank you sir; I will try to keep that in mind.

4 Comments

  • Thomas  Brinson

    Thomas Brinson Seaside, Oregon

    Right & Left on, Joe. More and more I'm beginning to believe that the believers vs. non-believers conundrum is a tempest in a teapot, a faux controversy in which every skirmish -- some of which I too have gleefully sallied forth to engage --results in a pyrrhic victory for all parties. Somehow, we must rise above our seeming differences and live more in the spirit of our First Tradition: "Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery (for believers and non-believers) depends upon AA unity." More and more, I strive in this matter to make progress, never perfection, by remaining true to the spirit of what the Big Book urges us to do, not once but twice, using very similar language: Page 84 -- "And we have ceased fighting anybody or anything." Page 103 -- "Besides, we have stopped fighting anything or anybody."
    Right & Left on, Joe.

    More and more I'm beginning to believe that the believers vs. non-believers conundrum is a tempest in a teapot, a faux controversy in which every skirmish -- some of which I too have gleefully sallied forth to engage --results in a pyrrhic victory for all parties. Somehow, we must rise above our seeming differences and live more in the spirit of our First Tradition: "Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery (for believers and non-believers) depends upon AA unity."

    More and more, I strive in this matter to make progress, never perfection, by remaining true to the spirit of what the Big Book urges us to do, not once but twice, using very similar language:

    Page 84 -- "And we have ceased fighting anybody or anything."
    Page 103 -- "Besides, we have stopped fighting anything or anybody."
  • Joe C.

    Joe C. Toronto, Canada

    Right on and level headed as usual Thomas, I can be an ass in a meeting as a nonbeliever saying things like "God could and would if he existed." Zealots can talk trash too, with "the only reason to work the Steps is to find God." Any of us who step outside of our own personal experience into the how-the-universe-is-unfolding or what it all means pontificating, we have lost grasp of what an AA meeting is for. We have certainly lost sight of these quotes you refer to about getting along, if we are insulting each other's worldview. While there's nothing disloyal about expressing criticism about our fellowship, spending more time fault-finding than connecting with other addicts/alcoholics causes me to miss out on a real opportunity. The fellowship offers an intimate and uplifting level of personal connection that I don't just find everywhere I go. You're point about unity is well taken. While we can't be truly united if we aren't all treated as equals, we can start acting "as if" today. Not every light has to be green to start down the road and not everything has to be perfect in the rooms for me to do my part to engage with others. For me, it's one thing to stick up for my rights and the rights of others, it's quite another thing to indulge the persecuted victim role. The vast majority of AA have a live and let live, whatever works attitude. It's a balancing act for me not to fall prey to an us vs. them mentality. Thanks again for your feedback, Thomas
    Right on and level headed as usual Thomas,
    I can be an ass in a meeting as a nonbeliever saying things like "God could and would if he existed." Zealots can talk trash too, with "the only reason to work the Steps is to find God." Any of us who step outside of our own personal experience into the how-the-universe-is-unfolding or what it all means pontificating, we have lost grasp of what an AA meeting is for. We have certainly lost sight of these quotes you refer to about getting along, if we are insulting each other's worldview.

    While there's nothing disloyal about expressing criticism about our fellowship, spending more time fault-finding than connecting with other addicts/alcoholics causes me to miss out on a real opportunity. The fellowship offers an intimate and uplifting level of personal connection that I don't just find everywhere I go. You're point about unity is well taken. While we can't be truly united if we aren't all treated as equals, we can start acting "as if" today. Not every light has to be green to start down the road and not everything has to be perfect in the rooms for me to do my part to engage with others. For me, it's one thing to stick up for my rights and the rights of others, it's quite another thing to indulge the persecuted victim role. The vast majority of AA have a live and let live, whatever works attitude. It's a balancing act for me not to fall prey to an us vs. them mentality.

    Thanks again for your feedback, Thomas
  • Thomas  Brinson

    Thomas Brinson Seaside, Oregon

    Thanks Joe . . . As serendipity would have it, I just came across this article about Jim Burwell, "Early AA's First Famous Atheist." It traces his long, slow story over the course of his 34 years of sobriety to attain "a spiritual awakening". I salute both of us for following his example to achieve balance, so that we can live without resentment or conflict -- too much anyway -- fully within the spirit of our First Tradition.
    Thanks Joe . . .

    As serendipity would have it, I just came across this article about Jim Burwell, "Early AA's First Famous Atheist." It traces his long, slow story over the course of his 34 years of sobriety to attain "a spiritual awakening". I salute both of us for following his example to achieve balance, so that we can live without resentment or conflict -- too much anyway -- fully within the spirit of our First Tradition.
  • mitchgerson@gmail.com

    mitchgerson@gmail.com Mitch G SanDiego

    Thanks Thomas. I dont make it a point to comment on any site. Yours is different. I have huge respect for Rebellion Dogs. You will notice that I bought a copy of your book. This year marks 30 years of sobriety in the program for me. I remember being accosted by an AA nazi when I was leading a meeting at the old Mustard Seed in Chicago. He was very upset that my meetings were lacking what he referred to as "God Based". One of those guys who would rather practice his uncanny recall of each page of the Big Book, than the principles... With guys like him in AA, its much easier for me to just share my experience, strength and hope. Pressure is off me from spewing merely the rhetoric. I leave it up to the experts in the program to do it for me..... Happy New Year.
    Thanks Thomas. I dont make it a point to comment on any site. Yours is different. I have huge respect for Rebellion Dogs. You will notice that I bought a copy of your book. This year marks 30 years of sobriety in the program for me. I remember being accosted by an AA nazi when I was leading a meeting at the old Mustard Seed in Chicago. He was very upset that my meetings were lacking what he referred to as "God Based". One of those guys who would rather practice his uncanny recall of each page of the Big Book, than the principles... With guys like him in AA, its much easier for me to just share my experience, strength and hope. Pressure is off me from spewing merely the rhetoric. I leave it up to the experts in the program to do it for me..... Happy New Year.