I have no interest in the personality of that exoskeleton of solidified bile that is Katie Hopkins. None. But as dead bodies are taken out of the sea, destined for unmarked graves, we might ask how the language she speaks, and the flaunting of murderous wishes towards people who have nothing but the clothes they are found in, has become so mainstream.
To see the vocabulary of genocide casually used by Hopkins in her Sun column has disgusted many, but it does not come out of nowhere. The “debate” around immigration is rarely a debate at all; it has become a void which people fill with more and more extreme and disconnected statements.
Those who preach “honesty” – Nigel Farage staring down the camera, telling us that we at home are thinking what he is thinking, that unlike other politicians he will “tell it as it is” – are lying. The far right’s fantasy of pulling up the drawbridge to stop this great flow of desperate humanity in transit is just that: a fantasy. The politician who promises control of all borders, and pledges to further strengthen that control by withdrawing further from Europe, is selling a simplistic idea. This idea is now indeed itself Europe-wide, as the toxic language around immigration has moved from the margin into the mainstream.
Only recently has this been challenged properly. As we have veered rightwards, pulled there often by out-and-out racists, the only stance seen as vote-winning is to be ever more “tough” on immigrants. We now have a situation where there are good immigrants and bad ones. Good ones work in the NHS, or go back to Poland. The bad ones are a jumble of refugees, asylum seekers, rogue eastern Europeans, criminals of all descriptions and, oh … boat loads of men, women and children who haven’t even got here yet.
This indistinguishable mass are to be feared as they flee all kinds of horror, now through the failed state that is Libya. They are both far away, and ever closer. Many drown anonymously. Their stories on the whole do not interest us, as they are too complex. Too many countries are involved, too much conflict, too many journeys push them out to sea. When Mare Nostrum, Italy’s search and rescue operation, was stood down last October, to be replaced by a much smaller EU operation, it was predicted that many more people would die. But our connection to these people is tenuous. We feel we have no responsibility to them, still less understanding of who they are. They are simply “other”.
The discourse of the BNP, the EDL, and now Ukip – which, whatever it says, attracts out-and-out racists – has contaminated public life. Far from saying what cannot be said in some courageous manner, these groups channel hatred towards some of the most persecuted people on the planet. If someone who was fleeing from a place where they had witnessed mass beheadings were drowning right in front of us, I don’t think most British people would turn away. But if it is now acceptable to want to shoot them before they drown, or to think of them as insects, maybe I am overestimating our common decency.
If we are encouraged to project all the problems we face around education, housing, employment and health on to one group of people, our lives are made easier and their deaths more likely. The fact that it’s not true, that immigrants are not the source of our problems, no longer matters. The “tell it as it is” crowd don’t tell it as it is at all. They are cowards. Our political class, both Tory and Labour, has been pulled so far right that it cannot, and will not, tell the complicated truth about the consequences of conflict, about a globalised economy, about our interconnected world, a world that we cannot simply step off, or stop.
The truth is that migration is not a temporary crisis but a permanent one, that we chose to withdraw from rescuing these people so more of them will die. How did we end up in this moral vacuum where we lose any sense of connection to other human beings? It’s fairly easy: people who aren’t human beings don’t need any rights, or any sympathy, so we dehumanise them via language both political and personal. We talk of them as disease, contagion, a virus. They are not us. They cannot become us.
We then say repeatedly that we are saying the unsayable, when the unsayable is now the bread and butter of populist media. Funny how these free-speech warriors only ever pick on those already worse off than them in every conceivable way – and now we see the logical conclusion of legitimising hate. Their rictus grins as they feast on actual corpses.