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Andrew Spear for The Free Press

When Opioids Steal Your Parents. Plus. . .

Ben Kawaller meets Extinction Rebellion. Alexandr Wang’s case for meritocracy. Eli Lake on Project 2025. Caitlin Clark. And much more.

On today’s Front Page from The Free Press: Ben meets more of America, the virtue of replacing DEI with “MEI,” and was Caitlin Clark snubbed? 

But first, our lead story.

West Virginia has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation: half of all grandparents living with their grandchildren are also raising them. It’s an astonishing statistic. But in the state’s southwestern Lincoln County, an employee for the local school district estimates that the majority of kids are now being raised by their grandparents.

Who are the children whose parents have been stolen by opioids? And what do these American grandfamilies look like?

Olivia Reingold spent a week in Lincoln County, stopping into diners, speaking with local preachers, and venturing down gravel roads to reach families who had never spoken with journalists before.

The piece is a testament to the power of on-the-ground reporting to bring readers the stories of Americans often ignored by the media. We’re proud to be publishing it, along with striking photos taken by Andrew Spear, an Ohio-based Free Presser. 

In a one-story house at the bottom of a gully in Branchland, West Virginia, Debbie Vance is sitting in her recliner, watching a rerun of Mama’s Family, when her two grandchildren burst through the front door. Her 15-year-old grandson, Owen, who Vance says looks “just like his father,” kicks off his tan cowboy boots onto a mat. His sister, Autumn, drops her purple bookbag on the floor and runs to her bedroom, where a miniature dachshund named Bandit has been barking up a storm. 

“Oh, Lord,” Vance says, rolling her eyes as Bandit races out of the room and onto her lap. 

Andrew Spear for The Free Press.

This is not just a weekend with Grandma. This is every weekday at 4:15 p.m., when a school bus hugs the foothills of the Appalachian mountains to get Autumn and Owen safely back into the arms of their grandmother, a 56-year-old widow who’s been watching the two teens since “basically at birth.” 

Their father, Vance explains, is currently “running from the law” after he was caught trying to sell opioids in the parking lot of a doctor’s office. Together, the three of them form one of the tens of thousands of “grandfamilies” rising out of West Virginia’s opioid epidemic. Read on for more on the grandparents dealing with the wreckage of the opioid crisis. 

Hear more from Olivia about grandfamilies—and from the women she spoke to for her story—below. 

Remember when two kids poured soup on a Van Gogh? Or maybe you’ve caught a headline about activists gluing themselves to roads to protest fossil fuels. Those, er, protests are usually courtesy of the Extinction Rebellion movement or offshoots of that group. For the latest installment of Ben Meets America, the intrepid Ben Kawaller speaks with the activists of Extinction Rebellion. Here’s Ben:

I spent a chilly Sunday afternoon in April trying to interview members of the New York City chapter of the international environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion, or “XR.” Known for their disruptive tactics, the activists may be familiar to readers for their recent disruptions to a Broadway play, the U.S. Open, and the flow of traffic

On the day I tried to engage with them, XR had set up shop on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, for whom they had a series of demands

I had questions—largely centered on why, given a supposed need for global action, the group was so set on stunts that seem to turn the public against their cause. I also wanted to know why the orientation materials for a group ostensibly out to save all of humanity were so focused on countering “white supremacy” and “colonialism.” Lots of people care about climate change; had these guys given up entirely on the normies who don’t take for granted that the United States is the sister organization of the KKK?

Sadly, I did not get much chance to hash it out with XR at the museum, as my attempts to engage were repeatedly stymied by the apparent leader of the brigade, who determined, not without justification, that I was “not an ally.” 

So I headed to Brooklyn, having seen on the group’s events calendar an environmentalist street fair in Bushwick happening that same afternoon, where I had more success in finding people who were willing to let me shake my fist and engage in something like good-faith debate.

  1. Two new polls underscore two of the defining dynamics of the 2024 presidential race. The first, from Gallup, finds that a record-high 32 percent of Americans would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion. The change is mostly due to the issue’s growing importance to pro-choice voters. (Gallup)  

  2. The second, from Pew, finds that a quarter of voters hold a negative view of both Trump and Biden. The number of so-called “double haters” is higher in this cycle than at any point since at least 1988. And the group is a lot bigger this year than it was four years ago, when only 13 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the same two candidates. (Pew)  

  3. Some people are taking their “double hating” to the extreme. In the West Utah desert, an off-grid cooperative community bills itself as a haven for people fed up with the “craziness” of the world outside. The residents say they are building alternatives to failing American institutions—but shun the term preppers. (Deseret)

  4. The parent company of Temu, a China-based online marketplace, is stuffed full of former Chinese Communist Party officials. Temu, which is also one of the most downloaded apps in America, is the subject of increasing suspicion. In April, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton called on Joe Biden to investigate the app amid concerns over data security, intellectual property theft, and slave labor. Cotton says the app might be “more dangerous than TikTok.” (New York Post)  

  5. What motivates the anti-Israel protesters? Cliff Asness says the root cause is not the well-being of the Palestinians but “the far left’s worship of failure and a concomitant hatred of success and merit—an anti–free enterprise, anti-Western, anti-progress, anti-prosperity dogma.” The omnicause in action. (Commentary)

  6. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut and self-styled Washington, D.C., grown-up, has called the Supreme Court “brazenly corrupt and brazenly political.” Remember, the current frenzy started over the matter of the flags flown by the wife of Justice Samuel Alito outside their homes. (Axios)

  7. A British judge recently stepped down from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, warning that the territory is “slowly becoming an authoritarian state.” As this editorial notes, “You can tell Lord Sumption’s bomb landed on target because the Hong Kong Government responded with a 2,800-word press release saying Lord Sumption’s words are ‘utterly wrong, totally baseless, and must be righteously refuted.’ ” (Wall Street Journal

  8. What have we liberals done to the West Coast? asks West Coast liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “The West Coast’s central problem,” he concludes, is that “it’s infected with an ideological purity that is focused more on intentions than on oversight and outcomes.” Why the sudden moment of self-awareness? My theory: Nick Kristof has read Nellie’s book. (New York Times)

  9. It’s getting harder and harder to find beauty in everyday items, argues Ted Gioia. Starting with train tickets, which are now just a barcode on your phone but once conveyed “a sense of wonder and enchantment,” Gioia argues that a slapdash aesthetic permeates everything, and points to a deeper problem. (The Honest Broker

  10. If you thought the movie industry couldn’t get bleaker this year—a year in which the box office was briefly ruled by The Garfield Movie—consider this: a film in which Jesse Eisenberg plays a “grunting” Sasquatch is currently getting glowing reviews. The Guardian says that while the costumes are “unsettling and artificial” at the beginning, before long the viewer is “engaging with the distinct, if rather basic, personalities of each of these hirsute humanoid creatures.” Really? (Guardian)

→ Meritocracy now! DEI is on the way out, and not a day too soon. But what should replace it? When it comes to recruitment, the short answer is surely: hire the best person for the job. One person sticking to this once uncontroversial, now edgy proposition is Alexandr Wang, the 27-year-old who became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire after he dropped out of MIT to co-found AI firm Scale in 2016. In a memo announcing the company’s new hiring policy, Wang writes “Scale is a meritocracy, and we must always remain one.” The guiding principle, he notes, is “MEI: merit, excellence, and intelligence.” He continues:  

That means we hire only the best person for the job, we seek out and demand excellence, and we unapologetically prefer people who are very smart.

We treat everyone as an individual. We do not unfairly stereotype, tokenize, or otherwise treat anyone as a member of a demographic group rather than as an individual. 

We believe that people should be judged by the content of their character—and, as colleagues, be additionally judged by their talent, skills, and work ethic.

There is a mistaken belief that meritocracy somehow conflicts with diversity. I strongly disagree. No group has a monopoly on excellence. A hiring process based on merit will naturally yield a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas. Achieving this requires casting a wide net for talent and then objectively selecting the best, without bias in any direction. We will not pick winners and losers based on someone being the “right” or “wrong” race, gender, and so on. It should be needless to say, and yet it needs saying: doing so would be racist and sexist, not to mention illegal.

Upholding meritocracy is good for business and is the right thing to do. 

→ Who’s afraid of 2025? President Biden’s campaign and Democrats in Congress have found a new election-year villain: The Heritage Foundation. The conservative Washington think tank once known for promoting free trade and increased military spending is now in the spotlight, thanks to Biden’s reelection effort. 

Heritage launched Project 2025 two years ago, putting together a policy document that the think tank hopes will set the agenda for the next Trump administration. But right now it is Biden’s, not Trump’s team, mining the document for policy details.

Last week, House Democrats formed a working group expressly aimed at opposing the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. One of the working group’s members, Rep. Jared Huffman of California, told The Guardian that the agenda’s recommendations on religious freedom would end up “embedding Christian privilege into our government and public policies.” According to Axios, the Biden campaign thinks that the phrase “Project 2025” resonates on social media, as a stand-in for how Trump will govern if he wins in November. The campaign is planning on using it against him. 

The 900-page document reads like a conservative policy wish list. Heritage, for example, recommends removing layers of senior bureaucrats in the federal government and scaling back the Department of Education to focus on school-choice reforms, and empowering localities. In this respect, if Trump does enact Project 2025, he would be pursuing a fairly standard Republican agenda. 

There’s only one problem with the plan, and that’s Donald Trump himself. For the last six months, Trump’s campaign has gone out of its way to distance itself from Project 2025. A December 8 memo from the Trump campaign’s two senior advisers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita said, “People publicly discussing potential administration jobs for themselves or their friends are, in fact, hurting President Trump. . . and themselves. These are an unwelcomed distraction.” 

Ellen Keenan, a spokeswoman for Project 2025, told The Free Press, “Project 2025 does not speak for any candidate or campaign, and it is ultimately up to the president to decide which policies to implement.” 

Sources close to the Trump campaign tell The Free Press that they remain annoyed at the Heritage project. “The message we are sending to Heritage and others is the same as it was in December,” one source said. “You’re not helping.” —Eli Lake

→ Does Caitlin Clark deserve to go to Paris? The Indiana Fever rookie that we can’t stop talking about, Caitlin Clark, was targeted with a hard foul earlier this month and quickly became the center of a media frenzy. Now the WNBA star is back in the news because she was left off the Olympics roster. After being passed over by Team USA, Clark told the Fever’s head coach Christie Sides, “Hey coach, they woke up a monster.” 

Wake up a monster they did.

“How dumb are these women?” said Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy. He called the selection committee “braindead” for not including Clark. NBA analyst Steven A. Smith added, “This is about the idiocy of Team USA women’s basketball.” And Clark has the chops: she is off to an unbelievable start in the league, averaging a stunning 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists per game so far. 

So why was she left out? 

It’s not because of petty jealousy or league politics, as some have suggested. It’s that she was too busy winning: Clark missed both the 2023 and 2024 USA training camps because her college team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, were competing in the NCAA Final Four. And making the Olympic roster requires more than just three stellar weeks—it takes three years of team practice, bonding, and proven success. The three first-year Olympians who did make the team—Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper—had all played together on the USA squad that took home the FIBA World Cup in 2022. 

While having Clark in Paris might have been “good for the game,” that doesn’t mean she was good for this year’s team. Clark will have to earn her place, and that takes time as much as talent.

But for all the Clarkies out there, there is a silver lining. In a few months, Clark will have her chance at revenge: this year’s WNBA All-Star Game will pit the Olympians against the “snubs” like her. —Evan Gardner

Doug recommends Blinded by the Light: It’s ostensibly a movie about Bruce Springsteen’s music—but really a masterclass on race relations that we could all use nowadays.

Danny recommends Paul Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon: Terrible album name but absolute musical gold. Must be an inside joke that we're not privy to. It had two megahits in “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” but those are not the best tracks on the record. It’s as close to a perfect album as you can get.

What do you recommend? Send your tips to thefrontpage@thefp.com

Editor’s note: A previous version of The Front Page misstated that a majority of grandkids in West Virginia, and in Lincoln County, are being raised by their grandparents. This was based upon a misreading of Census data. In fact, it is a majority of grandparents living with their grandchildren who are also responsible for their care. The Free Press regrets the error.

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman

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