Many with ties to the Civil Rights movement will recall the racist rhetoric used by white Southerners to denounce efforts to promote integration. This rhetoric includes arguments about states’ rights, “massive resistance,” and the dog whistles accompanying these efforts. And leading the pack when it comes to dog whistles is the infamous trope about “outside agitators” coming in and upsetting the established order, used to distract from the call for fundamental human rights, including the right to vote.
And so it is telling that the Diocese of Florida standing committee deploys this tired but incendiary dog whistle to argue in favor of consent for the election of Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor, even as it claims no one was denied the right to vote.
On this matter, here’s what the Episcopal News Service has to say:
The standing committee stood by the November election as “procedurally fair and valid.” It denied allegations against Holt and the process, which it said were fueled by “agitators outside our diocese.” If people were excluded from the voting pool, it was because the ineligible clergy member didn’t qualify for canonical residence or hadn’t requested it, “not because of their sexual orientation, their theology of marriage or their views on human sexuality,” the response said. (Emphasis added.)
But that reply is facially illogical, for the whole issue is that some clergy were allegedly improperly excluded from canonical residence and thus couldn’t vote.
In other words, just like literacy tests in the 1960s or voter suppression efforts in recent years, the whole matter rises and falls with the issue of who is allowed to vote. Yet, the diocese conveniently tries to sidestep that issue.
There’s also a more significant issue at play: the diocese’s invocation of this language is a wink and a nod to haters.
The notion — or rather fiction — of the ‘outside agitator’ was a persistent trope, especially during the early years of the civil rights movement,” said Thomas C. Holt (no relation to the Charlie variant), 77, a professor of African-American history at the University of Chicago who helped organize demonstrations during the 1960s.
“Part of the motivations for the charge was to sustain the myth that the locals were satisfied with things as they were,” he said, “and if you could just crack down on the outsiders, the protests would cease. As the movement grew and spread, that myth became more difficult to sustain.”
This trope was repeatedly deployed by the Trump administration in support of its white nationalist rhetoric, with Holt going on to say:
There can be little doubt that the Trump administration is using the ‘outsider’ ploy much as segregationists did in the 1960s, to justify extreme measures against all of the protesters under that guise,” he said. “As then, tear gas and rubber bullets don’t distinguish between natives and visitors.”
During the civil rights movement, the term “outside agitator” often implied links to communism, which officials used as a boogeyman to distract from demonstrators’ demands for basic human rights.
So where does that leave the election of Charlie Holt?
It’s hard to know what this means for the election of Charlie Holt. But given the Florida standing committee’s resort to this incendiary trope, profound caution is warranted.
We also draw a connection with the sordid antics of George Sumner, who increasingly seems a Trojan horse, determined to undercut the denomination from within.
Yes, he claims to be loyal to his ordination oaths, but right behind the scenes, Sumner has repeatedly tried to shut down anyone who holds him accountable or has views different than his own. Indeed, the fact that he continues to cover up #metoo issues at St. James Texarkana tells us this is a bishop devoid of integrity, regardless of one’s views on inclusion and same-sex marriage.
We’ve also been down this road before with the Lawrencians in South Carolina. “The outsiders are coming, and they’re trying to take away your church,” was the dog whistle there, even as Lawrence lied and claimed he had no plans to initiate a schism.
A world of irony
The great irony is that conservatives don’t need to play these games to kill the Episcopal church. Indeed, the church does just fine in this regard, all on its own. Between the church’s refusal to follow its canons, its failure to insist on integrity for its clergy, and its refusal to act with integrity in its day-to-day operations, the Episcopal church is digging its own grave faster than any outsider could.
Of course, we also can’t discount the possibility that this is merely another bit of profound cluelessness on the part of the Episcopal church.
Just like the Province IV bishops who decried racism at Sewanee, but did so using the “all deliberate speed” dog whistle from Brown v. Board of Education, a bit of weasel-wording that gave whites in the South time to organize resistance to desegregation, it may be that Florida diocese just doesn’t get it.
Of course, that assumes that the Sewanee bishops were, in fact, clueless versus malicious.
But the former seems to be the case because one of the significant faults of the denomination is its narcissistic lack of introspection.
Yes, folks stand up there every Sunday and prattle on about respecting the dignity of every human being, yet they see no contradiction when they misbehave toward each other or those with whom they disagree.
Our take on it
Given the hostile and argumentative tone of the language coming from the Florida standing committee, Anglican Watch believes that while the Florida standing committee may not have been using the phrase to endorse racism, it was using it deliberately. This conclusion aligns with the historical uses of the phrase, which include:
- Discrediting protests.
- Distracting from underlying issues.
- Ignoring the interconnected nature of social justice efforts.
- Justifying violence.
- Deterring local sympathy for protestors by focusing on property destruction and violence.
And whether the phrase is used by white southern racists, wealthy industrialists, or William Barr, it’s always deployed by the person in power.
There’s also a meaningful discussion on National Public Radio about the Song of the South mentality behind the phrase:
Whether it’s to denounce the left wing or anti-racist forces, or to even denounce culpability, it’s historically been something that has been utilized as a trope to defend white supremacy. It’s pleading either white innocence by saying, these black folks who are protesting are not authentic black folks. And that has a very, very long history of white Southerners saying in the South, we treat our colored people good and our Negroes love us and we love them.Trouble only happens when you have Northerners who come in and tell us that there’s something wrong with our traditional folk ways. (Emphases supplied)
We recognize that folks in the Diocese of Florida also will feign outrage, even as they say, “Well, we didn’t mean it like that.” But given the average age of folks in the denomination, there are plenty around who understand the historical context of their reference to “outside agitators.”
So yeah, we get that the Diocese of Florida loves all the little children. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in their sight.
But outside LGBTQ+ agitators? They need to scram. We love our gay people down here, and they love us. Don’t be stirring up no trouble, else we gonna have to secede.