Monday, August 10, 2009

Forty Years of Charles Manson is Enough

For the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of media publicity about the fortieth anniversary of the Manson killings.

But America doesn't live in a "post-sixties" world any more. Whether we like it or not, things have changed. Not that we've forgotten the sixties, but the major events of that decade--the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, the counter-culture, and second-wave feminism--have lost the sense of tangible immediacy they had for so long.

It's the eventfulness of our own era that's pushing the events of the sixties to the back reaches of the public mind. Much as the sixties pushed WWII out of immediate awareness, the sixties are now being pushed back by 9-11, the Iraq War, the failures of George W. Bush, and the Obama presidency. Given that our time is so urgent, the sixties is now looking more like WWII, the Depression, and the Jazz Age. Yes, the sixties were highly significant, but the major events, personalities, and trends of the sixties no longer have much immediacy.

And that includes Charles Manson and his killings.
Manson's crimes continue to evoke a strong reaction long after public obsession over other high-profile cases has faded. He was the bogeyman under the bed, the personification of evil, the freaky one-man horror show. For years, when prison officials still allowed it, he gave television interviews, never failing to shock. The interviews kept memories of him fresh long after he was locked up.

The memories may have been fresh, but Charles Manson is no longer the model American mass murderer. That belongs to Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Columbine was the model for the Virginia Tech killings, Northern Illinois University killings, the rash of school shootings in Kentucky, and threatened school killings everywhere. The Columbine model of guys who viewed themselves as outside the magic circle of success and were determined to "go out in style" was still active in last week's Pittsburgh shooter George Sodini.

Of course, Charles Manson is titillating because the Tate/LoBianca murders were so monstrous. But sensation and titillation are not the same as cultural importance. Like the rest of the sixties, Charles Manson is not nearly as important as he used to be.

And why should he be? Isn't forty years of Charles Manson enough?


CBL said...

I didn't realize it was the 40th anniversary (if one wishes to speak in commemorative terms of such a thing).

I've actually done some thinking about this earlier this year after returning to the area. I have a friend who's one of these people who somehow can't "get over" his interest in Manson; as of last week, he was reading a biography of Squeaky Fromme. He is fascinated with the idea of Manson being an institutionalized personality and being able to walk out into the world of the late 1960s and create a harem for himself, engage in a crime spree, and become a sort of prophet in the aftermath.

Manson's crimes, like Alatmont, marked the end of the 60s as a "coherent" decade, and my friend, a staunch Republican, sees some interest in that as well. I think along these lines it is employed as an urban legend and cautionary tale about what can happen when "liberal ideals" run amok.

Perhaps there is some postmodern irony in Manson's position in our culture today - his image, his name, his deeds, are floating signifiers that retain somethings of a "charge" among people who can remember what he was truly about (much like the notion of the (60s"). I personally don't get it, but that's all I can come up with.

Anonymous said...

The sixties are forgotten because many of those that lived through it and reveled in it have now become the more mainstream middle class American yuppies that make a good living and wouldn't dream of allowing their children live a sixties lifestyle.

Rebellion against society of those times has been replaced with the same people who elected Ronald Reagan twice as president.

That was a difficult time for some of us. Vietnam was on one side of the planet and the anti-Vietnam world on the other. The sixties were devastating.

Some believe that the "Leave it to Beaver" sense of community, look after your neighbor attitude, and a touch of cultural naivety could benefit the cultural wasteland of the Jerry Springer world of society today.

On the other hand, the sixties confronted a stiff social order that openly discriminated against people of all sorts and really kept a bite on creativity in many areas of society. It was a pretty harsh place for those on the other side of the mainstream.

Too often the sixties are romanticized in icons (good or evil) like Kennedy, Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles. MLK Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Woodstock and yes, even Manson.

Charles Manson was a mass murderer and an example of what society can spiral down to left to its own devices. His saga represents the base nature of humanity that drove the likes of other degenerate notorious figures.

Manson represents the dark side of the sixties that we would forget about a lot sooner had he not lived to keep his persona in the public arena for decades later to provide social context.

The sixties had the death penalty in many more states and had Manson and his crew been executed, like many thought they deserved; he would have joined the ranks of other demonized and forgotten idiots. He can't die in prison soon enough for many of us who would rather not recall the sixties with him on the front page.

Todd Mayo said...

The answer to your question,” Isn’t forty years of Charles Manson enough", is an unqualified YES!! If there was anything to be learned from the things this man inspired I am certain those lessons have been assimilated. Now, those horrible murders are part of an entire canon of psychological/sociological history long-since replaced in our collective frame of reference by Timothy McVeigh, Columbine and other tragically damaged people whose tortured lives spilled over and destroyed others.
An anniversary of the "Manson Murders"? I'll skip it.

robert.fischl said...

Manson held a spell over his followers - I would compare him to Jim Jones and others who have brought an early death to their followers - ala Waco. He is a fascinating fellow, forty years later.