Kim Kardashian, Real Housewives, and RFRA

by Peter Johnson

A friend of mine—who happens to be gay—has refrained from commenting on the Indiana RFRA. That is, until last night, when he couldn’t help himself and tweeted this: “No self-respecting gay man would serve pizza at his wedding.” I think this tweet pretty much sums up this latest tempest in a teapot.

In a former life, I spent two years in rural Paraguay teaching beekeeping to subsistence farmers. I had no phone, no access to the Internet. About once a month I would ride 9 hours by bus to the capital to do emails, catch up on the latest American news. Could you imagine what I might think about the US, were this still how I got my news? Let me paint a picture of the headlines I might be reading:

Look, I get it. Clickbait pays. Internet traffic is as good as money your pocket these days. In my day job, I raise money for a conservative think tank and often use stats on our organization’s Internet traffic to make a case for support.

Not too long ago I took an op-ed writing class from Sam Ryan, a WSJ reporter turned entrepreneur who now runs a well-respected full-service PR firm in Washington DC that places thousands of op-eds a year for clients. Best memory from this class was trying to shoehorn the name “Kim Kardashian” into an op-ed headline. Sam explained that based on the title alone, an editor oftentimes chooses the top three or four editorials from dozens or hundreds received every day. Putting “Kim Kardashian” (or another degenerate national obsession, ie #RHWBH) in the headline would ensure that our op-ed made the initial cut.

So, again, I get it. None of us are immune from the demands of an oversaturated media market. Ambitious reporters are sent on missions to find bigots—and when they can’t find any—they’ll just manufacture one. Organizations (like the one I work for) who have long been staunch—though measured—advocates for religious liberty are being crowded out by fly-by-night operations that post poorly researched articles with outrageous headlines in order ride the wave of publicity. So, in response, normally restrained organizations like mine up the ante: They post pieces like the one that makes that case that one tweet from a dummy is evidence of burgeoning genocidal tendencies in our society.

Of course, there are the exceptions. The Federalist recently ran a piece that asked both advocates and opponents of gay marriage to write about what most troubles them about their positions. In an age of take-no-prisoners polemics, this was a very refreshing way to treat a subject that continues to be a divisive issue in our country.

So in that tradition, here is my response to the ongoing controversy in Indiana: Freedom of conscience—of which religious liberty is inextricably linked—is perhaps the most important freedom that we possess in this country. I think most people would agree that this is probably the defining characteristic of our great country. Because of this, I think anything that challenges this freedom should be taken seriously. Freedom of conscious is the wellspring of good citizenship and legal protections for free association and freedom of conscience are, in my estimation, foundational for a virtuous citizenry.

That being said, I think that people who share my opinion need to reduce the temperature on the rhetoric about the “attacks on religion.” As someone whose great-grand parents were German Jews who actually lived through Kristallnacht, I would hope we would reserve the holocaust analogies for when there is real violence happening (like, maybe, the sort of stuff happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria). Anti-RFRA tweets don’t tempt Kristallnacht any more than the RFRA itself tempts hate crimes on homosexuals, right?

Experience tells me that in America homosexuals are at greater risk for discrimination, bullying, and violence than devout Christians. I don’t need stats to back this up (though I’m sure someone is keeping tally out there). Anyone who has gone to an American public school in the 50 years knows this is true. While kids going to school today are less likely to bully a gay classmate than they were, say, 20 years ago, I still think it is much more likely that a gay student is bullied than a devout Christian. And it is this truth about our culture that gives me pause when I advocate for laws like RFRA.

Peter Johnson is a graduate of New York University where he studied English and philosophy. After graduation, he lived and worked in Africa and in South America, where he taught beekeeping to rural subsistence farmers. Before joining the Development team at Acton, he held various positions with the National Capital Area Council, Boy Scouts of America. Peter is married to Ashley, a teacher, and has three children.

Indiana’s HIV crisis

Indiana is dealing with an incredible HIV outbreak, centralized in Scott County. The HIV outbreak has been directly tied to needle use for opiate drug users. The Governor has called it a public health crisis, and while normally an opponent to needle exchanges, he is allowing for a 30-day needle exchange to curb the outbreak of HIV.

To give you a sense of the numbers, typically Scott County will see about five new cases of HIV in a year. They saw 26 new cases between mid-December and the beginning of March, and the count is up to 72 cases as of March 26.

The cause of the cases has been traced to intravenous drug use of a liquid form of Opana, a prescription painkiller. Doctors in the area report that the drug addiction problem, like many other places in the US, has been going on for at least the last ten years, with increasing incidences of other blood-borne diseases from needle sharing and deaths due to overdose.

Scott County is struggling against poverty as well as addiction. However, opiate drug addiction is a problem that is spanning all demographics across the US. My article in Salvo Issue 31 looks at nationwide statistics of opiate drug addiction from both prescription pain medicine and heroin use and the underlying causes.

Typically, people start with prescription pain medicines. It can even be from their own prescription that they obtained legitimately for a hurt back or a tooth extraction or any number of reasons that physicians dole out prescriptions for hydrocodone. One guy, mentioned in my article, got hooked on fentanyl after receiving it as an anesthetic for a colonoscopy. He was already abusing alcohol and other substances in an effort to cope with depression over a break-up. Fentanyl, indeed, served as a pain reliever in more ways than one.

Not everyone becomes addicted to opiate drugs when they take pain medicines, but with chronic use, many people do become addicted. And, unfortunately, it is a very difficult addiction to break. Once you’ve tickled those paths in your brain, the tracks that usually take naturally produced endorphins (named for endogenous morphine), you wear a neurological path that is VERY difficult to undo. Unlike endorphins, which our bodies administer through a sophisticated regulatory process that ensures you are receiving the right amounts, opiate drugs stand in as stronger, more potent endorphin replacements.

On a short-term, temporary basis, opiate drugs, like hydrocodone, are supposed to decrease pain, and many of them, when in pill form, are time-released. When our bodies experience pain, endorphins help to quell the effects; however, the endorphins are not enough for injury or sickness, so people take pain medicine. Sometimes people will experience some physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking pain medicine if they have been taking them for a while, but physical withdrawal does not necessarily mean the person is addicted. Even physical tolerance is not the full picture of addiction. Addiction has to do with seeking out a high, and in an effort to do so, the person becomes consumed with overcoming physical tolerance to the point that he or she may grind pills and take them intravenously or turn to heroin which is cheaper and sometimes easier to obtain. Scott County is seeing the effects of people sharing needles for opiate drug use.

My article gets into both the neuroscience as well as the cultural and psychological factors that lead to addiction. Suffice it to say that one of the problems is accessibility to a substance that is too potent and too addictive to be administered for trivial reasons (such as tooth aches or minor aches and pains).

Prior to 1990, opioids were not typically prescribed as painkillers except for cancer patients. But in 1990, that all changed. Doctors wanted a solution to patients’ chronic pain,  patients were desperate for relief, and big pharma was ready to profit from the situation. Fast forward to now. The CDC reports that in 2014, physicians wrote 259 million painkiller prescriptions in a single year, the equivalent of one bottle of pills per American. They have seen a four-fold increase in overdose deaths since 2000.

At the end of the Washington Post article reporting on Scott County’s crisis, Dr. William Cooke points out that this issue is not unique to Scott County, Indiana. They are the canary in the coal mine.

Thoughts from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

Dr. Russell D. Moore shared this image on Facebook recently–a quote from Kierkegaard :

This brought to mind a short piece from the new issue of Salvo. Capital Losses: Nietzsche on Losing English Morality by Cameron Wybrow. After quoting Nietzsche at length, Wybrow writes:

Nietzsche perceives that the ingrained moral habits of a culture can outlast the original religious impulse that produced them. The English intelligentsia, he says, have stopped thinking like Christians, but still feel and act like Christians, by a kind of moral inertia. This characterization remained true long after Nietzsche’s death. The agnosticism of many Britons and North Americans from the 1880s through to about 1945 usually went with a morality that was more or less Christian. Secular humanism in that era was secular in theory but often unwittingly Christian in spirit.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are describing the same thing. This is the culture that you and I find ourselves in today–about 100 years further down the road from the place Nietzsche described.

Salvo Links 3.12.2015

Monks: The Original Hipster Entrepreneurs
by Jacob Davidson, Time
To keep monasteries operational, monks have started artisanal side businesses more often associated with another, trendier and more hedonistic counter-culture group.

Agnostics Among Us and Within Us
by Dr. Everett Piper, The Poached Egg
Question: “Isn’t agnosticism frankly the most honest position? We really all know that we can’t know God. He may be out there but none of us really knows anything about anything other than our own unique experiences and personal realities.”
Response: On the question of agnosticism, I personally think what we are dealing with here is pride—pure and simple. When we boil it all down, the agnostic says, “I am the end of all that can be known. I am wiser than those who are so intellectually naïve as to believe in something they can’t prove.”

Where Do Babies Come From? Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells…Sort of

Recent headlines tout that it may be possible for same-sex couples to have biological children thanks to stem cell technology. Using skin stem cells, scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Weismann Institute found that it is possible to make primordial germ cells, the cells that eventually form into egg and sperm (gametes), from induced pluripotent stem cells created from a donor’s skin.

The opportunity for same-sex couples to have biological children may take over the headlines, but it is not the only, or necessarily the primary reason, scientists are interested in this research. One thing scientists hope to do is to use this technique to study age-related diseases. As we go through our lives, we accumulate epigenetic messages that tell genes when to turn on or off, when to make more cells, or when to stop making cells. Recent research shows that certain cancers and age-related diseases are likely due to these epigenetic factors going awry. These epigenetic factors are “reset” in germ cells, meaning scientists can start over and see how these factors develop at the cellular level. There is still much research that needs to be done in this area, including questions as to which epigenetic factors are passed on and which ones are actually reset in germ cells (See Nature’s recent issue on the results of the NIH’s Roadmap Epigenetics Project here).

While the epigenetic research is interesting, the headlines emphasize the reproductive possibilities. This technique could be another option for infertile couples who want to have biological children, including same-sex couples who want children that are biologically related to both of them. However, what is not touted as loudly is that, for now, the technology only works for male same-sex couples.

The why this technique can be used for two men but not two women has to do with how the cells are made. Primordial germ cells are made from skin cells are taken from each person to be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells. Those stem cells are then converted into primordial germ cells by turning on or off certain genetic factors involved in converting pluripotent stem cells to particular cell types.

Female cells have XX chromosomes and male cells have XY chromosomes, but in order to make primordial germ cells that are precursors to sperm, researchers need a Y chromosome. Lead researcher, Dr. Hannah pointed out, that it is easier to take away a chromosome than to insert one. Women don’t have any Y chromosomes to contribute, meaning that making primordial germ cells from women “is a long way off.”

Finally, one of the more troubling factors in this research is that little has been said about the health and well-being of the children that would be produced from this technique. A key point in the original research article in Cell is that SOX17 is a key factor in the process of making primordial germ cells and likely plays an important role in gene regulation. This was surprising to scientists because SOX17 does not play a key role in mouse development. This means that even though mice have been used in prior studies on creating primordial germ cells, they may not be a good model system for creating the subsequent sperm and egg cells. Often before a procedure or a drug makes it to human trials, it is first tested in mice and then in primates. When it comes to human development, though, things do not translate from animal models to human models as easily.

Once scientists are able to take the primordial cells and advance them to egg and sperm cells, they will be able to create an embryo. However, because the mouse models are different, this is a case in which we have no way of knowing whether these embryos or the children will be healthy until the experiment is actually done.

It is unclear from the interviews or the article if the assumption is that “unhealthy” embryos will die off before they implant in the uterus or how exactly researchers are expecting to test whether this technique work as another reproductive technology. If unhealthy embryos die, this poses an ethical problem for those that assume embryos should be granted dignity in their own right. But even if one does not accept that embryos are accorded a certain level of dignity, what about babies and children? What do scientists plan to do if the children born from this procedure are unhealthy or deformed?

Finally, it is worth mentioning that this technique would provide a source of eggs, which are needed for various other reproductive techniques and research endeavors. For example, The UK just passed legislation permitting what has been dubbed “three-parent IVF” in which scientists transfer the nucleus from one woman’s egg to another woman’s enucleated egg that will then be used in IVF. The hope is to prevent mitochondrial disease which is genetically passed down to offspring from the mother. Obtaining skin cells from a donor is much less invasive and poses less of a risk to the donor than obtaining her eggs after inducing hyperovulation.

This research is rife with ethical concerns, most notably the fact that it amounts to human experimentation on people who did not have the opportunity to choose to be the product of experimentation, but must live with the consequences, if they live at all.

Salvo Links 2.19.2015

Why are jihadis so obsessed with porn?
Recently, London Mayor Boris Johnson described Jihadists as “porn driven losers” who have “low self-esteem and are unsuccessful with women.” He’s on to something important and profound.

Young, Attractive, and Totally Not Into Having Sex
It’s Friday afternoon during finals week, and two undergrads at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are lounging together on a battered couch in the student center, watching cartoons. They’ve only met twice before, but they’re all over each other. Rae, a tiny pixie of a sophomore wearing a newsboy cap, nuzzles up against Sean, a handsome freshman. He’s got his arm draped across her. They giggle and tease each other, and she sprawls into his lap. Their friend Genevieve, perched on the arm of the couch, smiles and rolls her eyes.

It looks like a standard collegiate prelude to a one-night stand. But there will be no kissing, no fondling, and definitely no Saturday morning walk of shame. Sean and Rae do not have the hots for each other—or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, they’re here hanging out at the campus outreach center, a haven for all who question their sexuality and gender identity, because they’re exploring an unconventional idea: life without sex. Or mostly without sex. They’re pioneers of an emerging sexual identity, one with its own nomenclature and subcategories of romance and desire, all revolving around the novel concept that having little to no interest in sex is itself a valid sexual orientation. Rae tells me she’s an aromantic asexual, Sean identifies as a heteroromantic demisexual, and Genevieve sees herself as a panromantic gray-asexual.

Stopping Human Trafficking Before It Starts
Human trafficking is increasingly gaining public awareness. Law enforcement, social workers, first responders – all are beginning to receive training regarding human trafficking. And that’s all very good. But it’s hardly enough.