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Two Short, Separate Conversations with Ben McDonald and Howie Slugh


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/03/15


Two short, separate conversations with Ben McDonald and Howie Slugh. Both interviews were conducted in late 2017 with recommendations from Pardes Seleh. McDonald discusses personal background, personal studies, the general state of America, the media and journalism, cross-political conversations, blanket demonization, and assessment of Trump. Slugh discusses personal background, Orthodox Judaism, cultural and media representations of Judaism, the state of America for 2017, virtue in the individual and in the society, ethics, the Trump Administration, and a personal hero. 

Keywords: Ben McDonald, conversations, Howie Slugh, media, political science, Trump, Utah, Washington

Two Short, Separate Conversations with Ben McDonald and Howie Slugh[1],[2],[3],[4]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some family background regarding religion, geography, culture, and language.

Ben McDonald: I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am not personally religious. My grandpa is an Episcopal priest. I grew up around Mormons too, living in Salt Lake City. I have a bunch of family members who aren’t religious as well.

2. Jacobsen: What are you studying in school?

McDonald: I am a political science major and a journalism minor.

3. Jacobsen: When you’re looking at the general state of America, what is your perspective on it?

McDonald: I think it is becoming a little more divided, but as more time goes by things become more divided because everyone is so polarized with everything. You see this with politics being involved in every aspect of everything. I think it is starting to turn back to where you see people who are more set in their ways.

It is hard to have a discussion with people. But you have people who still don’t care as much. There are people who want to go about their own business. I think there are people who aren’t interested in politics are being made to be involved in it.

4. Jacobsen: If you look at the landscape of the media, in our own field of journalism, tied to politics to a degree, do you think that the media are doing their job sufficiently or do you think that they are failing in their journalistic duties?

McDonald: I think there are the journalists who do a good job. But I think people are starting to distrust the media, even fake media or the smaller newspapers, but even national things and YouTube. The reportage on things that aren’t necessarily a story or a worthy cause.

A lot of not truthful things that the media reports on makes people not trust them. I think the gap of people not trusting them is growing more and more, the more and more it goes on.

5. Jacobsen: Do you think this contributes to a mild decline in cross-political conversations? In other words, Republicans speaking to Democrats and vice versa, or other political orientations.

McDonald: I think so because I think people want to watch their side and see the other side as the bad guys. They don’t want to have a conversation with them. I think people can be portrayed as – whatever side you’re on – the bad guy, which makes you not want to converse with them, in my opinion.

6. Jacobsen: In a way, it is a form of blanket demonization so you don’t have to think about the other side.

McDonald: Yes, it is othering the other side, so you’re right no matter what you do.

Jacobsen: In a way, does this amount to a form of moral self-exaltation? “I am right. they are wrong. Therefore, I am better.”

McDonald: Yes.

7. Jacobsen: With regards to the two areas of your expertise, we talked about one, which is journalism. We also talked about politics a bit. For the Trump administration and the surrounding rhetoric, do you think President Trump is doing a good job, an okay job, or a poor job, in his position as the President of the United States?

McDonald: I think he’s doing an okay job. I think he’s done what he can do personally. But a lot of the agenda had gotten stopped in Congress for multiple reasons, whatever they may be. Though I think his rhetoric could be better, which has set him behind of what he wants to accomplish. But I he’s done a relatively okay to a good job, overall.

8. Jacobsen: Do you have any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

McDonald: I think politics has become so polarized, so I think people need to re-evaluate and take a look at what is happening.

9. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ben.

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some family background regarding religion, geography, culture, and language?

Howie Slugh: I was born in Queens, New York. I lived in Fairlawn, New Jersey. Then we moved to Hollywood, Florida. I am an Orthodox Jew. My parents are Orthodox Jews. Now, I live in Washington, DC.

2. Jacobsen: With regards to the Orthodox or I assume Hasidic Jewish background with parents, do you still practice?

Slugh: Yes, I continue to be an Orthodox Jew.

3. Jacobsen: With regards to that faith, what do you consider to be some of the more common misconceptions about the faith – beliefs and practices? What truths dispel them?

Slugh: I am not particularly keen on cultural or media representations of Judaism, so I wouldn’t really know. I know the most famous representations of Judaism are not religious or only religious in shallow ways, or in “spiritual but not religious” ways.

None of those would accurately represent Judaism, obviously. I have not seen a super amount of representation of Judaism in the culture.

4. Jacobsen: Taking that and pivoting into perspective, I want to get your perspective on the state of America 2017. If you look at America, broadly speaking, to set the groundwork of this part of the conversation, what is your general take on what are the more things? Do you think things are positive, relatively stable, or negative?

Slugh: So, I am Burkean in addition to being an Orthodox Jew. I think they go well together. I look at 2017 and see a concerning lack of faith in our institutions, and lack of faith and dedication to the permanent things. That is certainly concerning.

I do think things do tend to go slowly. I think things are more resistant than people think they are. I don’t think things are that bad. Things tend to be sticky. They take a long time. I forgot who said it at the moment, but there’s a lot of rot in a country. This is not a bad thing, it means that countries can withstand a lot of negative things.

The country has a negative that we can make better. But America has been around 200+ years and has a lot of social capital. I don’t think it is going away anytime soon.

Things, incrementally, might be headed in a not great direction in some ways, but also, thank God, we’re healthy and living long and generally a still very prosperous country. Even in some social trends, things are improving.

The fact that sexual abusers are getting called out and punished is definitely a good trend, especially if there is an underlying cultural trend. People saying, “Hey, things aren’t arising ex nihilo. People aren’t harassing out of nowhere. There is a general culture of not taking virtue seriously enough. We should foster virtue rather than only going after the bad guys.”

That would be a tremendous change. Things can change quickly. But the permanent things are very permanent, respect and love for family, respect for country, religion in general, even if they wax and wane are very permanent.

Even if something is pulling those permanent things, we can quickly go to strengthening them. All the while they remain fixed and steady. It is easy in the heat of the moment to say 2017 is a super, monumental moment

But if you take a step back, it’s probably not that important.

5. Jacobsen: You mentioned the permanent things and virtue. Two things, a person, and tradition, that come to mind for me are Aristotle and the Abrahamic faiths. So, when you’re referencing permanent things such as family and faith as well as things such as an ethic grounded in virtue, I want to dive a little deeper into that, if I may. What are you defining as virtue, in an individual and in a society?

Slugh: The general thing that comes to my mind is Burke, not necessarily on virtue, but Robbie George on virtue. Working to create an environment Where the pursuit of the good and human flourishing is available, I guess teleology in there too. The purpose of people is to live a good life, to have families, to love their children, to work to the flourishing of their fellow humans.

That is a virtuous life. A way that does not cause suffering of your fellow people. That treats your fellow people as ends and not means. That follows the Golden Rule treating others as you would like to be treated, not subjectively but objectively.

If you want to be treated poorly, you shouldn’t treat others poorly. It is not that. It is how would a human being with the characteristics of a human being want to be treated, not how you as an individual want to be treated.

It is creating those kinds of circumstances where those things that are good for humans are able to be pursued. That you are not interfering with other people’s pursuits. It is a positive and negative. You are fostering an environment where people can pursue the things that are good for people and not hindering those things that are good for people.

You can see this is in history, religion, tradition. There are sources for finding things. It is not the simplest question, but it is also less complex than people think. We have the American ideal of fairly independent people living with their families and loved ones and not harming one another, adding valuable things to the world.

People may scoff at it as simplistic, but it has endured for all of American history and long before that. Sometimes, “simple” is good

6. Jacobsen: In a way, its simplicity may underly the carving out of a lot of excesses that may have been attached to it in earlier times as that kind of ethic developed. 

Slugh: It is certainly possible.

7. Jacobsen: I want to talk about the Trump Administration or President Trump himself. If you were taking the perspective of a teacher, and this is a bit of a lighter question, what would be the grade and comments section?

Slugh: Basically, very incomplete, because of no significant legislation, a lot of stuff he has done that hasn’t required Congress has been quite good because he has released regulations repeating the HHS abortiofacient/contraceptive Mandate.

Which is now in the interim final rule, the contraception mandate now carves out an actual exemption for religious people and religious institutions and even conscientious objectors, as opposed to the prior accommodation that wasn’t a real accommodation.

It still forced people to be complicit with evil, or at least what they considered evil. He nominated terrific judges, Gorsich and a number of appellate and district court judges. He signed the Mexico City Policy very early on in the administration: day 3. It wasn’t day 1, but day 3. It prohibits the funding of foreign abortionists, which saves lives, obviously, and is a terrific thing

So, in those courts, he has done very well. Obviously, his rhetoric has left a lot to be desired, and his personal ethic [Laughing] has left a lot to be desired, but one role of a president is to sign legislation

Somewhat, it is also Congress’s fault, but he certainly hasn’t helped matters on this pointing, getting matters through. He has three more years at least to get some more legislation through. Then we can more fully judge his legacy at that point.

Obviously, if we get wiped out in the midterms, then there will be a major difficulty and stumbling block in the way of his getting any legislation through. That will make it much more likely that he gets a bad grade. That’s where we stand now.

8. Jacobsen: Last question, who is a personal hero for you?

Slugh: I had the privilege to know. I had conversations with him. I met him in Italy in a law school class. I was very impressed by his determination to keep on pushing forward, even when things seemed bleak. He certainly recognized a lot of times when things seemed bleak, and when he was on a bit of a quixotic quest. He realized that. Sometimes, it seemed like he didn’t make a difference, but kept pursuing what he thought was right in a brilliant, funny, and energetic way.

He was not pollyannish about it, saying, “Tomorrow, I will wake up and Americans will realize how the Constitution should be interpreted and what the rule of law means, and what it means to be a country of laws and not men.” But he kept his eyes focused on history and on what the right thing to do was. He kept pursuing that goal. I find that very admirable. He was a terrific person, who was easy to get along with and overall a person that I admire greatly.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Slugh is an Attorney who works in Washington, D.C. McDonald is a Journalist.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 15, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2018 at


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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