Katie Hopkins (Image: Instagram)

The principle of the vaccine is that you need to introduce poison into yourself to get better, which brings us to Katie Hopkins. She is presumably on a plane by now, yelling at flight staff about the peanuts, winging her way back to a newly “FREE!” UK, but her brief visit really brought on a fever in a tired debate.

Like a lot of right-wing pathogens, it is said she doesn’t believe COVID-19 exists, or that social distancing doesn’t work, or both together, and it sounds like there was a little difficulty finding a spot on a plane for her. If only someone knew someone associated with a luxury travel company who shared her crackpot beliefs, she would have been away sooner.

That she was brought out here by the Seven network is no coincidence, either. The line is that she’s “controversial”, “exciting”, etc, and it’s a purely commercial decision. But Seven has a lot of these: Sam Armytage comparing twins with different skin tones, brown and white (“good on her” about the last); Prue MacSween calling for a new Stolen Generation, and for a young Muslim writer to be run over; the casual reference to “black footballers” losing the UK’s Euro penalty; and that’s just a recent haul. Proprietor Kerry Stokes doesn’t seem to see cleaning out his Augean stables as a high priority for his khaki-clad patriotism. Hopkins, here for Seven’s Big Brother VIP, wouldn’t have been out of place.

But a lot of the furore about Hopkins’s brief visit appears to be not around the fact that she took up a scarce plane ticket, when 30,000 are trying to get home, but that she was here under any circumstances at all. She is toxic to be sure: a woman who calls undocumented migrants “cockroaches” and suggests there is a need for a “final solution” to them. She’s a professional troller, Seven’s invitation being part of its business plan of having been out of ideas since 1961.

So our public debate isn’t going to suffer from an absence of Hopkins’s thoughts (funny how the British keep saying how racist we are, yet if we want the real primo Holocaust-adjacent stuff, we have to import a home counties type). But we are going to suffer if we re-establish the idea — from the progressive “left” — that people should be barred from entering the country simply because many people find their ideas noxious.

Looks like this idea is going to keep coming round and round, from the progressive left. The commonly understood position on the left used to be that, free speech principles aside, we are the side that advances our cause by the circulation of ideas that question the status quo. As a response to that, for decades the right (in Labor as well as out) imposed the Western world’s most repressive censorship system on us, a vast amount of it devoted to preventing books about racism and human sexuality, especially homosexuality, from getting in — something that materially contributed to our backwardness.

Now that we’ve won a decades-long victory in reversing what common sense is held to be, we want to run the same Customs department panty-sniffer brigade, metaphorically poking round luggage to find a hidden copy of Tropic of Cancer lurking somewhere. There was at least a rational realpolitik then: you could actually keep ideas from circulating by stopping books getting in. Now, with someone like Hopkins available instantly, everywhere, banning her (or others) from entry because of their ideas is pure culture-class war, progressives cracking the whip again.

The worry is that this sort of thing, which has been going on for a while now, may be supercharged by the era of COVID, in which progressives have swung behind the state, and the extension of its powers over everyday life, as the right committed to anti-scientific irrationalism and show-off libertarianism. That marked the final separation of progressives from whatever remnant of a 1960s-era anti-statist attitude prevailed.

Necessarily so, but as the progressives/knowledge class see the era of their power getting ever closer, many are likely to want to dispense with any notions of tolerating speech that simply goes against the grand historical program. There is a hint of “viral logic” being applied to Hopkins, as if keeping out her ideas expressed in the flesh (apparently naked, for the benefit of quarantine hotel staff, though I bet she kept her pearls on) was simply an expansion of community protection. That is exactly the model the censors applied, up to 1974 (1974!): if we let in books about homosexuality, people would take it up, like bowls.

Well even if, as a progressive, you don’t value an idea of free speech or itself, there’s a ways to go before we take the winter palace, and many reversals along the way. Look at the governments of Europe. Do you really think there is no chance we could get a government like that of Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary? That is a smooth and efficient illiberalism, which applies the “virus” approach to free speech at universities, in the media and public service. It identifies the family with the nation, an ethnic unity of Magyars protecting themselves from Western decadence.

Is it really so unlikely that a right of this sort could flourish in a white settler-capitalist country at the unfashionable end of Asia? Would they then hesitate to use it against global writers and organisers whose physical presence might make a real positive difference to our politics — radical non-white political activists for starters? Isn’t it also obvious, with the recent revelations about Israeli-branded spyware, that the state apparatuses of the world are creating a form of counter-globalisation, in which a universal regime of particular nation-state surveillance and control is mutually reinforced?

There may well be a medical case for keeping our borders closed for a while. Free speech has already been turned into a pathology model. Let’s not go the full plague trip. People like Katie Hopkins should enervate our defences against repression, not deepen our current political malaise.

Do you think the progressive left is veering into dangerous territory? Share your thoughts with us at letters@crikey.com.au. Don’t forget to include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.