Paranoid delusions enter the mainstream when the mainstream opens the gates and welcomes them in.
Sometimes the gatekeepers have Boris Johnson’s smirk or Donald Trump’s leer on their lips: the smiles of nihilists who will exploit any lie if it furthers their interests. More often, the gatekeepers are just cowards who offer only fixed grins. Politicians too frightened of losing their seats or their shot at a place in the elite. Journalists who give their readers what they want. They know they should slam the gate shut on deranged ideas and movements. They dare not, for fear of the price they may pay.
The demagogues get the political coverage. QAnon, anti-vaxx, white supremacy, antisemitic, Covid and great replacement conspiracy theorists generate a horrified fascination. But the cowards are the most significant actors. You barely notice them, but their acquiescence gives deranged ideas respectability and their nervous support puts strongmen in power.
If cowardice can be vast, many Republican politicians are displaying it on an epic scale. Even now, they dare not admit that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election for fear his movement will turn on them and destroy their careers. If you wish to see cowardice in microcosm, however, with its self-interest and retreats from responsibility delineated with the precision of brushstrokes on a miniature portrait, the Bath Liberal Democrats endorsement of raging fantasies about 5G phone masts is hard to better.
Bath, I hear you say. A university, in fact, two-university city, whose Georgian crescents and Roman baths make it not only a Unesco world heritage site but home to members of the educated middle classes. And the Liberal Democrats? Not the Somerset branch of Britain First or the Brexit party or the Piers Corbyn wing of New Age leftism, but politicians we assumed were pro-Enlightenment centrists the last time we looked?
The very same. Bath is home to a group campaigning to stop the mobile network operator EE upgrading a mast on the edge of the city so it can deliver 5G signals. Its Facebook page “Stop Bath 5G” talks of a “clear danger to health and wildlife” and of wifi causing arthritis in children and breast cancers in women. It’s bullshit: the frequency of 5G radio waves is 66 times below the safe level set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. But it is bullshit that has conquered the world since Covid-19 appeared in China.
The misinformation pandemic has matched the viral pandemic. Tens of millions have watched Facebook videos claiming that the virus had its origins in a 5G rollout in Wuhan. Propagated by celebrities and sports stars, the story has changed with Darwinian efficiency as it sought the mutations that would maximise its chances of reproduction. In one version, 5G masts increased the lethalness of infections. In another, the official narrative that Covid-19 even exists was a lie, “to hide the fact that people are dying from the 5G frequency”. Attacks on phone masts followed. About 60 were targeted in the UK in the most widespread outbreak of political violence 2020 brought us.
The misinfodemic has been documented and exposed by the Guardian and Observer, Financial Times and BBC: just the sort of media outlets you would expect Liberal Democrats to notice. The centrists must know that, if the world’s population is ever to accept the mass vaccination campaign we need to free us from the pandemic, a full-frontal assault on conspiracy theories will be essential.
Instead of rebutting them, the Lib Dems have encouraged them. When 343 Bath residents objected to the council granting planning permission for the mast upgrade, Lib Dem councillors, with the support of Bath’s Lib Dem MP, Wera Hobhouse, decided to comply with the wishes of the dupes and cranks. I can guess the political calculation. A few hundred angry residents might not support the Lib Dems at the next election if the party did not bend to their wishes. The broad mass of Bath voters, who may well want better wifi, will not be following the debate or know what the party has done. In Bath, as everywhere, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The convenience of the cowardice makes the Lib Dems’ behaviour symptomatic of our times. Their lesson is that no one is punished for biting their tongues when they should speak out.
Republican politicians will seek to wash off the slime of the Trump years, and act as if nothing has happened when they emerge from the shower. If you think they won’t get away with it, ask how many people remember the mainstream Labour MPs who survived the Corbyn years by condemning fights against antisemitism as “deeply unhelpful and divisive”, to use the words of Lucy Powell that have never returned to haunt her. Conservatives are not prepared to take a stand against anti-Muslim conspiracy theories or anti-black prejudice dressed up as criticism of Black Lives Matters as they don’t want to face the conflict it would generate among their own supporters.
Hobhouse was unable to return my calls. Does she really believe for a moment that 5G threatens anyone’s health? Her office told me “she does not dismiss official guidance in any way”. Why then is she supporting the campaign against the mast? Her office referred me to a statement in which Hobhouse said that, given the concern of “Bath residents who claim to be extra vulnerable, I believe it may be worth applying a precautionary principle”.
Whether the concern was rational or not was not her concern. And by citing the precautionary principle, she could say she was keeping an open mind, as so many do when faced with dangerous ideas it is risky to oppose. The best reply to anyone who passes off cowardice as open-mindedness is the old advice not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out. If you are in search of a new year’s resolution, I will offer the follow-up that, if you are with a political movement, employer, social network or partner that insists you let your brains fall out for the sake of a quiet life, run as fast as you can.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist