I’ve waited for an opportunity to write a variation of this post since December 2019 when the New York Times published this commentary by author Holly Whitaker trashing Alcoholics Anonymous and peddled false information about the organization. I held back because among A.A.’s few rules are the organization doesn’t engage in politics or promotion, and no one is authorized to speak on its behalf. Given that A.A. survives entirely on word-of-mouth testimonials and has millions of devotees with more than 118,000 groups in some 128 countries, it doesn’t need my PR counsel or insight.
But last night I came across an article about the CDC, a federal agency that I, and nearly 50 percent of other Americans increasingly distrust, that angered me. Amid the pandemic when the CDC’s efforts should be focused on assuaging concerns of 90 million Americans about the safety of Covid vaccines, it published an “inclusive language” manual designed to promote “health equity.” You can find the CDC’s revised terminology here. In a moment I will explain why its harmful to efforts to convince anti-vaxxers of the urgent need to get jabbed.
What immediately alarmed me is the CDC recommends that people who can’t control their alcoholic intake no longer be described as “alcoholics” but rather as “persons with alcohol abuse disorder” or “persons in recovery from alcohol disorder.” For an organization whose decisions are supposedly science based, removing the “alcoholic” label risks undermining the most far-and-away proven treatment to combat the disease.
A fundamental tenet of A.A. is the admission that one is an “alcoholic.” It’s how attendees at meetings introduce themselves. The intent isn’t to shame but rather admit communal suffering from the disease. The only requirement to attend A.A. meetings is a desire to stop drinking. If there is a more compassionate, supportive, and inclusive organization than A.A., I’m not aware of it.
The Times, the Atlantic, and other publications that delight in maligning religion or anything requiring acceptance of personal responsibility, have published articles and commentaries in recent years questioning A.A.’s effectiveness and promoted more flexible therapies that don’t require unconditional sobriety. But a comprehensive examination published by Stanford School of Medicine last year evaluating 35 studies – involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants — found that A.A’s program without exception proved the most effective path to abstinence. The achievement is particularly impressive since A.A. doesn’t impose membership fees and relies solely on voluntary donations, typically a few dollars.
The study’s author, Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, even admitted to once being biased against A.A. “How dare these people do things that I have all these degrees to do?” Humphreys initially wondered.
A.A. was founded in 1935 by two men in Akron who organized a support group for individuals who wanted to stay sober. They later developed the guiding 12 steps, the first admitting one’s powerlessness against alcohol and the last committing to help others wanting to combat their alcoholism.
Here’s the prism through which Holly Whitaker, the author who trashed A.A. in the Times, saw the organization:
The values baked into (A.A.’s) founding continue to shape the way the organization works, and it still has too many echoes for my liking of the ways women are expected to blame themselves, follow instructions and fall into line in a patriarchal society.
Participants are expected to accept the tenets of A.A. without question, and there is a common refrain that the program “works if you work it.” In other words: Don’t ask questions, and any failure is your own fault. The 12 steps include things like admitting powerlessness, turning one’s will over to God, cataloging defects of character, asking God to remove those defects and making amends for any wrongdoing.
This program, which was designed to break down white male privilege, made sense for the original members: It reminded them that they were not God and encouraged them to humble themselves, to admit their weaknesses, to shut up and listen. Perhaps these were much-needed messages when it came to the program’s original intended audience. (Keep in mind, this was just 10 years after women’s suffrage, at the height of the eugenics movement and 30 years before the dismantling of Jim Crow.)
But today’s women don’t need to be broken down or told to be quiet. We need the opposite. I worry that any program that tells us to renounce power that we have never had poses the threat of making us sicker.
To be clear, A.A.’s requirement that one accepts their powerlessness over alcohol applies to everyone regardless of gender identification, race, creed, or color. Accepting one’s powerlessness over alcohol is no different than accepting one’s powerlessness over the ravages of cancer or Covid. Atheists or those uncomfortable with references to God are encouraged to substitute “higher power” or whatever other characterization floats their boats.
As for being patriarchal, women are featured in the so-called “Blue Book” recounting battles with alcoholism as often as men. They often form their own exclusive A.A. meetings, as do gays and lesbians. A.A. welcomes everyone who desires to stop drinking and wants the fellowship support of others who successfully went down that path. Selflessness and being “of service” to others is a critical part of recovery.
CDC’s attempt to replace “alcoholic” with a less-harsher sounding “person in recovery from alcoholic disorder” is an attempt to minimize that alcoholism is a deadly disease and that those who are victims of it are but one drink away from relapse. Committing to forever giving up alcohol is very much akin to someone who suffered a heart attack forsaking red meat and other high cholesterol foods. CDC notably didn’t seek to reclassify heart, lung, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases as “disorders.”
It’s not an irresponsible reach to surmise that many of those who fear or are skeptical of vaccines aren’t embracers of politically correct language, particularly from an organization that’s supposed to be entirely science based. There is a time and place for everything, and even those who support or embrace CDC’s language revisions should appreciate that initiatives that potentially distract from the critical goal of getting more Americans vaccinated are ill advised.
From the get-go I’ve been skeptical of so-called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing. While I applaud those who want to support ethically responsible companies focused on doing good, ESG’s squishy metrics too often provide PC cover for companies engaged in ethically challenged or questionable activities
I’m delighted that my skepticism has been validated by one of ESG’s earliest proponents. His name is Tariq Fancy and he was BlackRock’s first global chief investment officer for sustainable investing between 2018 and 2019. BlackRock is one of the world’s biggest investment management firms and CEO Larry Fink is among Wall Street’s biggest wokesters.
Fancy recently published a commentary arguing that so-called sustainable investing is a “deadly distraction,” allowing companies to continue to engage in questionable business practices. I try not to toot my own horn, but I made the same argument in this post I published two years ago.
I’ve previously asked why someone would look to Wall Street for ethical guidance on investing and Deutsche Bank reaffirmed my skepticism. The giant German bank disclosed last week its under investigation for misleading clients about the nature of its sustainable investment offerings. Other Wall Street firms are expected to come under scrutiny for their ESG offerings. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 10,000 times . . .?
After reading Fancy’s commentary I decided to revisit Vanguard’s ESG fund (ESGV) to see whether it had the same holdings I deemed inappropriate two years ago. Sure enough, it did. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google’s parent, and JP Morgan are among the biggest holdings.
Tesla has since been added, a company whose profitability is driven selling carbon credits. Tesla accepts Bitcoin, which uses more energy than American Airlines; $1 billion in crypto inflows is equal to owning 1.2 million cars. I’m guessing Tesla gets bonus points because Green New Deal sponsor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drives one.
ESG’s tenth largest holding is UnitedHealth Group, which is driving up U.S. healthcare costs and turning doctors into hired help. No one with even a modicum of healthcare industry knowledge would argue that UnitedHealth is remotely a socially responsible company. BlackRock is among UnitedHealth’s biggest shareholders.
Omitted from ESGV’s top holdings but included in Vanguard’s S&P 500 index fund are Berkshire Hathaway and Johnson & Johnson. Mmm. A company that developed and markets a vaccine that supposedly can save untold lives doesn’t make the cut as a socially responsible company.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: ESG allows investors to profit from most of the holdings in the S&P 500 while feeling especially good about themselves. I’m proud to say that Fancy lives in Toronto, where I was born and raised. Maybe prolonged exposure to that city’s perennially gray skies allows one to see more clearly.