Kathy Sheridan: Presumption evident in Séamus Woulfe’s attitude is arrogance crystallised

At a human level, judge is in a pitiable position. At institutional level, he’s a source of fascination

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: Man of majestic self-certainty. File photograph: Alan Betson

Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe: Man of majestic self-certainty. File photograph: Alan Betson

 

It’s such a seductive line as we look at the shenanigans in the Supreme Court and the White House: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.

Sadly, a 2014 psychological investigation into Blaise Pascal’s 400-year-old theory pointed up its futility for our time. Subjects were so upended by being stuck alone with their thoughts in a bare room for 15 minutes that they opted to give themselves painful electric shocks.

For the record, a buzzing two-thirds of the men chose to press the shock button while just a quarter of the women did, in the University of Virginia-led study.

Either way I’m not convinced that Pascal’s theory generally holds up.

Had Séamus Woulfe chosen to sit quietly in a room and game some big picture scenarios with every single piece of public health information at his disposal as opposed to shouting across a courtyard for advice about a golf outing that failed to mention the dinner, would he now be settling in as a vanishingly discreet Supreme Court judge?

To say yes assumes that everyone will reach the correct conclusion if well-informed and left alone to think. But nothing about Woulfe’s interviews or correspondence since the outing suggests that lengthy contemplation achieved anything but entrench his belief that everyone is to blame but Séamus.

At a human level, he is in a pitiable position. At institutional level, he is a source of fascination. When he had every chance of squeaking past the unpleasantness with a three-month salary forfeit (and lots of time to improve his golf handicap), he set out to lose his own chairman, the board, the entire locker room, the supporters’ club, everyone who attended the toe-curling golf bash and just want the story to go away and millions of citizens who had never heard of him up to a couple of months ago and are looking on in slack-jawed bafflement.

All in all it had the ring of a man of majestic self-certainty, someone who believes in that chilling old saw of the mulish, the bullish and the self-deluded

With daily battles raging over transparency and accessibility of information in this republic, what normal person, still less a Supreme Court judge who is the subject of a formal interview amid a massive public controversy, could rely on such contents never seeing the light of day? The presumption so evident in Woulfe’s attitude towards Susan Denham is arrogance crystallised. The fact that he was oblivious to it is perhaps the heart of it.

Majestic self-certainty

How many in such circles are equally oblivious? It’s entirely possible that Woulfe single-handedly took the decision to go legal/technical (the building surveyors’ report was a cracker of irrelevance to the bigger picture), and to perform that tragically misguided appeal to Susan Denham’s non-existent golf culture sensibility. All in all it had the ring of a man of majestic self-certainty, someone who believes in that chilling old saw of the mulish, the bullish and the self-deluded: Be true to yourself. Block your ears to the critics. Never doubt yourself.

Donald Trump, the alpha man currently cowering to the White House wreckage, is the master of that message. He embodies it. The base devours it; fight for your freedom by whatever means at your disposal, the freedom to never take criticism, to be your authentic selves, to never doubt yourselves again.

History and the past four years suggest that such a degree of personal certainty is terrifying in any forum, wherever it takes root.

Observe all the people of certainty and ask: are they prepared to extend such a blessed state of self-certainty to their opponents?

In a week that often seemed surreal for legitimately terrified anti-Trumpers, the relief of victory was studded by warnings not to gloat or sneer at those who had lost and were devastated. Bad things happen when certainty is shaken. Do they not bleed too?

Of course they do. But around seven in 10 Republicans now say they don’t believe the election was free and fair even as the party celebrates its Senate and House wins in the same “rigged” election.

Both claims cannot be true. But that Trumpist certainty creates a fertile ground for such notions to flourish. How does the other side, however magnanimous, compete with that?

It’s worth remembering that back in 2016 after Trump’s shocking elevation, no fly-over state or rust-belt town was safe from swarms of liberal media types, desperately combing the ashes for insights and understanding, returning home to cry their lib tears into Hillbilly Elegy. The lesson was digested.

And when a model of decency and compromise was required to get Trump out, the result was decent, normal Joe Biden, the man who can show passion but lacks the drug of certainty, who actually sat in a room alone for much of the presidential campaign and was relentlessly derided for it. The same “Sleepy Joe” who, sprung from the bunker, fought his own strategists to return again and again to Pennsylvania.

There was palpable joy, relief and a blessed normality in that multi-generational, multi-racial gathering on the stage in Delaware on Saturday night. There was also humility, love, gratitude and dancing. The big absentee was the fanaticism of certainty.

Alpha males and world, please copy.

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