The Confused Middle

In Madison, the rancor has worn us down

We live in a time of moral confusion. In the last year we have been buffeted by constant acrimony.


These controversies, and the issues swirling in their wake, have made a difficult year for any person of conscience. It has shaken our belief in ourselves. We fear that we can no longer talk, negotiate and proceed without vitriol. Or lobbing a Hitler metaphor.

We have become Frank Galvin, a character played masterfully by Paul Newman in The Verdict. Galvin was a fine man but the sheer pain of life led him to drink and crash. Just when all seems lost, he is offered redemption with one last chance to fight for an excruciatingly elusive goal: justice.

In his summation, the underdog Galvin, weighted by despair, begins with quiet words to the jury. You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’ And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become … a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims … and we become victims.

In Madison, the rancor has worn us down. It seems damn near impossible to determine what is just and true while drums bang and the smarmy politicians, exploitive media and flush lobbyists blare in our ears like vuvuzelas.

But there is a standard that a former Catholic boy is trying to use as criteria. It is a platform that transcends conservative vs. liberal definitions. It is the concept of social justice, a value shared across many faiths and political ideologies. The core of this philosophy is two-fold: respect the dignity of each person and, when in doubt, show preference toward the poor or most vulnerable.

This criteria will anger some. No surprise. Right now Wisconsin has more anger than field corn and more victims than cheese curds.

But let us proceed nonetheless. Using this standard, the first persons voted off Justice Island are anyone associated with Wall Street and banking. They drove us off the cliff while being paid ridiculous sums. Sure, they help maintain a free market, but they failed to do it responsibly. They should remain quiet—and happy they aren’t joining the conversation on a cell, from a cell.

The next to be ignored are politicians. This call is easy. Both parties are (to borrow a verb from Michael Moore) awash in lobbyist money. Which takes us to lobbyists. It doesn’t matter if it is WEAC cash or Koch coin, their lucre is being delivered in dump trucks to sway votes. They have immense amounts of cash and they use it in every election to obtain power. Ignore them.

Now comes the morally confusing part: the rest of us. Like a final episode of Survivor, events have conspired to pit friends against each other. Today unprotected private sector workers seem to be vying for justice against state workers who, though secure, are hardly wealthy.

The Edgewater debate posed another justice question. Can you help a decimated business sector, and local construction industry, with tax incentives when the city is strapped and cops and firemen are taking wage freezes?

The concept of Madison Prep gets even more confusing. How do you weigh the rights of children and families of poverty and color against the position of an already embattled teacher corps, many of whom spend much of their lives helping those very kids in jeopardy?

The moral tension is enough to make the average person wretch.

Complicating all of this is the relative comfort most of us have enjoyed. This economy requires sacrifice anyone born after 1930 has never, ever pondered. In other times Americans sold apples on street corners to feed their families. Or endured the rationing of sugar and gasoline. But now, as one person protested hysterically to me, “We have had to give up our season tickets to American Players Theatre!” From an historical perspective, my dear, this is not sacrifice.

So how do we decide on what is right? Well, I have reached a position with a qualification. I choose not to demonize those with whom I disagree, because I know these times suck for pretty much everyone. In  the end, I will make decisions according to my new, incredibly complicated formula for justice: C-M-L=J. Or, the Cause With the Least Money and Fewest Lawyers Gets Justice. Frank Galvin’s final words offer us hope that we can do this. If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.

Of course, this leaves me with another confusion headache. Frank Galvin, the character played by Paul Newman? He was a lawyer.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed
Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed


Madison Magazine August 2014 - August 2014 $19.95 for one year - Subscribe today