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From modus vivendi to casus belli (Part I)

by Ron Roizen
    I had the pleasure yesterday to read over a really intriguing historical report.1

    It offered a fascinating window on the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence's (or NCADD's) vision of its own history.

    Many of you reading this will know that the alcohol social arena teems with moral-entrepreneurial interest groups. Why then take a particular interest in NCADD's historical view of itself?

    The answer lies in NCADD's unique historical position. This organization-- under its co-founder and articulate and indefatigable leader, Mrs. Marty Mann (1904-1980)--was the standard-bearer and chief protagonist of the so-called "Modern Alcoholism Movement" (MAM) in the United States.

    Indeed, if I had to pick the single person and the single organization most responsible for the social promotion of the disease concept of alcoholism in the post-World War II America, Mann and the NCADD (more familiar under its previous name, the "National Council on Alcoholism" or "NCA") would certainly be my first choices.

    Mann's organization and the movement she championed was (and to an extent remains) strongly associated with a single famous theme: that alcoholism was an illness rather than a vice and should be treated by society as such.

    Like any complex social movement or change agenda, however, the MAM involved all manner of corollary and related propositions and implications, some explicit and some not. For example, one of the movement's most important social implications was that the American temperance movement's preoccupation with beverage alcohol per se (as the essence and source of the nation's alcohol-related troubles) was altogether mistaken. Alcoholism, not alcohol, Mann and the NCA argued was the nation's most important problem focus.

    This orientation was important to the new movement in a number of ways. For one, the nation's general citizenry was by all accounts fed-up with the long and seemingly useless battle between the drys and the wets over, first, the imposition of national prohibition (which ran 14 years from the beginning of 1920 to the end of 1933) and, next, prohibition's repeal. Consequently, Mann's claim that it was alcoholism, not alcohol, that should be regarded as the nation's central alcohol-related problem made possible a conceptual shift that allowed the nation to break the grip of the temperance movement's "ownership"2of this social-problems turf.

    Moreover, the fact of alcoholism's disease character implied that merely legislative controls on alcohol--whether outright prohibition or any of a variety of less draconian measures--were simply going to be useless in addressing the core problem. Alcoholics, after all, comprised the group least likely to be diverted from their drinking patterns by the mere imposition of higher taxes, fewer liquor licenses, shorter hours of sale or the like.

    Moreover, most of the alcoholics who made-up the membership of the new group known as Alcoholics Anonymous (founded in 1935)--including Mann herself, often described as the first woman to achieve sobriety in AA--had become alcoholics during national prohibition's tenure. Small wonder, then, that the MAM's original voices had little patience with social policy aimed at alcohol controls or a conceptual framework that placed alcohol per se at the focus of attention.

    The MAM offered the nation a viable alternative to the temperance movement and its discredited paradigm. Mann and the original NCA placed the misunderstood and mistreated alcoholic at the center of the nation's alcohol-related concerns--thus also displacing the temperance movement's once celebrated preoccupations with alcohol, alcohol sellers (esp. the infamous saloon), and alcohol manufacturers.

    All of which forms the interesting historical backdrop to the NCADD's more recent efforts to redefine its organizational mission and place itself at the forefront of a "New Temperance" or "New Public Health Approach" (NPHA) to alcohol-related problems--which would re-focus public attention and policy on alcohol per se.

    Interestingly, NCADD does not wish to repudiate or even distance itself from Mann's original goals--even though the NPHA paradigm it now embraces represents the very ideas and policy orientations that Mann struggled against and consistently denigrated. Instead, the NCADD's historical picture of itself--as offered in this fascinating report--makes every effort to integrate and smooth over any divides between the old NCA's the new NCADD's problem orientations.

    And that, I submit, is what makes this historical account so very interesting to examine in detail. I'll take up a further examination of it in RR #2.


    1 The document I have (an e-mail copy only) appears to be a revised version of a report titled To Arouse Public Opinion and Mobilize it for Action: The History and Future of the Alcoholism Constituency. If I'm reading its context correctly, it was prepared as a backgrounder for an October, 1993 NCADD conference or seminar organized by the Stepping Stones Foundation and held at the Edith Macy Conference Center in Briarcliff Manor, New York. The report appears to have been authored by a single individual, but I have not been able to locate the author's name in the text I have--whoever it was, BTW, did a superb job! The report--either in the original or revised form--also appears to have once been posted to the World Wide Web at http://www.sbh.org/wsdocs/ssfinal.htm. Naturally, I'd be grateful if any of RR's readers may be able to shed more light on its provenance, author, or current publication status.

    2 The very useful metaphor of organizational "ownership" of social or public problems is itself the intellectual property of sociologist Joseph R. Gusfield. For a discussion of this idea, see pp. 249-254 in his recently published collection of essays, Contested Meanings: The Construction of Alcohol Problems (Madison: University of Wisconsim Press, 1996).

© 1998 Ron Roizen


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