Politics in the Rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous

By Harry Healy 03/22/15

We have no opinion on outside issues. Or do we?

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I am the proud owner of a baseball cap that bears the insignia of Brigade 2506, the CIA-backed Cuban invasion force that was decimated at the Bay of Pigs. A cross claims pride of place in the graphic, a Christian icon co-opted by the rebel regiment to denote their contrast with the godless ideology of the Castro regime. A Cuban flag is superimposed over the cross. Embracing the insignia like parentheses are the words “Bay of Pigs Veteran.” 

And then I considered stolen valor. 

I established an exaggerated connection to the Cuban exile community during a ridiculous but desperate episode of my life, when I was trying to break-even on the palm-lined streets of Miami Beach. The sons and daughters of Cuba kept me alive with their cheap, sidewalk-vended sandwiches and café con leche. I have only the deepest sympathy and affection for them. I feel like I owe them.

The Bay of Pigs incident, as it is referred to in the history books, occurred in 1961, and if it is remembered at all, it is as a Cold War flashpoint that prefigured American escalation in Vietnam. Which is another way of saying that the conflict is deeply obscure, but I know a lot about it. I like that. And to top off these esoteric (if not unknowable) reference points, the three-day battle at the Bay of Pigs was an abject failure for the rebel force, and as such, is charged with the romance of a lost cause.

I wore the hat everywhere, especially at this time of year, the anniversary of that ill-fated amphibious assault. 

Sporting this jaunty lid, I was a sight to behold. The open-mouthed stares of passersby, as they struggled to deconstruct its meaning, were deeply satisfying. Wearing it around New York City AA meetings gave me something to talk about afterwards. I could show off my familiarity with this arcane bit of military history, hold forth on the doomed battle, and brag about how I had met a couple of the principals, as the eyes of my listeners (if that’s what they were) rolled back so that only the whites were visible. 

But that Bay of Pigs Veteran-tag proved a bridge too far. One night as my home group was swarming on the sidewalk in front of our meeting space, I was finishing up a cigarette with a guy named Alan, a man who saw actual combat in World War II and Korea. He scrutinized my hat.

“Bay of Pigs, huh? What a fiasco. Why are you wearing that?”

I started to regale him with one of my standard renditions, but he dismissed me with a wave, took a final pull off his Lucky, and ditched the butt into the street. The meeting was starting anyway. 

Alan wasn’t angry. He didn’t upbraid me. But during the meeting I thought about our exchange. What was that hat conveying? It was arrogant of me to expect anybody who encountered it to do the math on my life and realize I couldn’t possibly have fought at the Bay of Pigs, as I was 16 months old at the time. I did want to attract attention, demonstrate my sympathy with La Causa, advertise my deep-rooted Catholicism (in word, if not necessarily in deed) and not least, bait liberal Manhattanites into thinking that I was some kind of revanchist right-wing freak, which I wasn’t, and I’m not, but if that’s the impression I gave them, well, so much the better. 

And then I considered stolen valor. I have performed precisely zero days of military service. What if, in the unlikely event, I encountered a genuine veteran of the Bay of Pigs, a soldier who persevered through combat and the loss of comrades, the humiliation, the pain of capture and imprisonment? Would I present myself as a history buff? A lover of lost causes?  Who was I? I was a guy who was wearing a hat.

Vague and blurred by the passage of time though it was, I had to admit that the incident still had the power to provoke intense feelings, one way or the other. Bemusing on the street, at an AA meeting, my Brigade 2506 cap might as well have acted as a tracer round. I was expressing a strong opinion on an outside issue, which the Tenth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly cautions us against.  

Right around this time, I was much involved with another AA group that met in my downtown Manhattan neighborhood. A man was showing up there for several months, friendly enough guy, a few years of sobriety under his belt. He lived outside New York, but his work on a construction project was bringing him into the city. He belonged to a trade union, and the union was either holding an election or facing an up-or-down vote on some proposal, and this guy had a very definite opinion on which way the vote should go. He wore a button that told you as much. But before he entered the room, he removed that button and stuck it in his pocket.

Unions are, by their nature, political. There’s nothing wrong with politics. They organize ideas and ideals. I quite enjoy them, in case you haven’t noticed. But this man took care to literally leave his politics, as inconsequential as they might have been to anybody else attending that meeting, at the door. My face reddened with a secret shame.

A group that meets in Greenwich Village is overly subscribed with members counting days of sobriety. They’re young in years and they’re young in the program. They’re “back” from their most recent day-counting forays. I can’t figure out why some of them are there at all, but hey, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. 

Given the demographic and the location, the political winds prevail in a staunchly progressive direction, which I’m used to, and in fact, have come to expect. I’ve been around AA a long while, and I’ve been to that meeting a hundred times. Not that big of a deal. These people aren’t unintelligent; they’re finely educated if uninformed on AA tradition, and nobody, at least by my lights, has yet taken the pains to put them wise. And so they spout liberal positions from the floor; winking references to the same might come from the speaker leading the meeting, and occasionally, from the individual acting as chairperson. Ho hum.

Recounting the days leading up to the national election of 2012, a friend noted the coincidental overlap of President Obama’s campaign slogans, Hope and Change, with two of the major benefits of membership in AA. Yes, hope and change. I certainly believe in those. What AA member is against hope and change?

But my friend goes on to say that this particular meeting began to resemble an Obama campaign field office, with its watchwords emblazoned on t-shirts and hats, and the ubiquity of the couldn’t-be-more-explicit rendering of the politician with his eyes fixed on the distant horizon (not a bad portrait, and frankly, well done for what it is). He noted ruefully how some struggler, brand new to AA, took a look around the room and said, "This just isn’t for me."

What the callow members of this group seemed to be communicating—I saw a great deal of this sentiment similarly expressed elsewhere, although I had become either indifferent or immune to it—was: "This is New York City! We’re all in this together! And my adherence to the political orthodoxy here is the defining characteristic of my identity." Put another way, the campaign paraphernalia was saying: "My political bullshit is more important than this meeting. Politics? Religion? Who cares? We’ve got 'Hope and Change.' And since everybody seemed to share that view, no harm, no foul?" On the contrary. That’s what made these manifestations so troubling. 

The material supporting a particular political candidate, in this case, the President of the United States in a hotly contested election (although in New York, not so hotly) was my Brigade 2506 cap writ large. The difference was one of degree, and not of kind. At least the members of the Village meeting had naivety on their side. I could hardly say the same. 

The hat has entered permanent retirement. In its place I wear a cap that represents the New York Giants, who once upon a time played their baseball in upper Manhattan. Wistful perhaps, though the team moved before I was born, but hardly provocative. The Giants abandoned New York after the 1957 season, relocated to San Francisco where they’re doing just fine. And speaking of lost causes, they’re never coming back.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a newspaper columnist, author and a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about being a sober bartender, as well as a sober Catholic, and about the reason AA is anonymous.

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