Re: Your Bad Hot Take on Charles Manson

Posted on November 28, 2017

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A few of the people who did the killing in the so-called Manson Family murders.

Many years ago, when people still read whatever was lying around to fight downtime boredom, I picked up and read a discarded copy of the biography of Charles Manson, Manson in His Own Words, by Nuel Emmons. Like almost everyone under 60 today, my knowledge of Manson up to that point came from cultural inheritance of media sensationalism, fictionalized accounts and common mythology. Emmons based the biography on extensive notes from years of interviews with Manson, where he clearly laid out a very believable version of events in which there was no Manson Family, and no mind control cult.

I haven’t thought much of the book or Manson in the meantime. I’ve always assumed based on the “in his own words” narrative, and everything I’ve learned about the way things work in the meantime—especially DA’s offices, corporate media and a lazy public looking for fun stories and easy answers—that Manson was for the most part innocent. I believe the story Emmons told on Manson’s behalf, that he was at best an accessory after the fact who lacked the supernatural powers necessary to compel a squad of young hippies to kill at his whim.

Manson had no reason to lie at this advanced stage of his imprisonment, by then, nearly 20 years with parole ever-unlikely. In fact, it would have been easier for Manson to derive some satisfaction from, and encourage, the image of himself as a superhuman svengali. It was also clear given the self-regenerating life the myth of Manson developed and Manson’s long decline into severe mental illness, he was never going to get out of jail. None of this really concerned me in my day to day, and I barely even noticed when the aged Manson died last week.

Here’s where your bad hot take comes in. In article after article, Manson has been used as a support structure to hold aloft just-so stories about the spectre of the alt-right and neo-nazism. The most widely used play on this theme is Manson as a historical alt-right prototype–with his supposed charisma, organizing power, white supremacist ideology and violence portending the rise of today’s alt-right.

The Forward had one of the most laughable of these formulations, the literal equivalent of watching someone spend 10 minutes pounding a square peg into a round hole.

And yet, in 2017, Manson’s motive and even methods are all too familiar. Think about it: members of Charles Manson’s Family went on their murder spree as a result of Manson’s belief that a race war was imminent. Manson called this war “Helter Skelter,” after the Beatles song. He believed that black people would win the race war against whites, and in the aftermath of Helter Skelter, society would fall into chaos because of black men’s stupidity. Manson and his Family, as the only members of the white master-race to survive, would then reign supreme. The murders were meant to jump-start the race war, since Manson believed that African Americans would naturally be blamed for them.

Sound familiar?

It should. These are the same tactics, minus the mass murder, that are currently deployed by the “alt right.” Indeed, Charles Manson was something of an ideological forefather of today’s “alt right”, which has manipulated counter-cultural currents on the internet, fake news, and racist memes to normalize Nazism, white nationalism and white supremacy.

 

In Newsweek, Lauren Gill had a similarly weird observation:

Manson’s tactics helped popularize some of the white supremacy ideas we’re seeing utilized today by the alt-right, which attempts to use fear and entitlement to position itself as superior to other races.

Baynard Woods takes a few whacks at the premise and creates a comparison to Dylan Roof in this NYT op-ed.

Today, this sort of logic is all too familiar to us. The paranoid, racist and apocalyptic ramblings of Mr. Manson are the DNA of the reactionary alt-right. In the days leading up to Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., he talked to his friends about a “race war” and later used the same language in interviews with investigators. He was an enthusiastic reader of alt-right websites.

 

All of these hot takes on Manson as historical progenitor of white supremacy, the alt-right, and post-Obama neo-nazis rely on the willing acceptance by the reader of several shaky premises. One, that Manson had a developed white supremacist viewpoint; two, that it was executable; third, that the history of systemic and radical white supremacy begins with Manson.

That Manson held deeply racists beliefs is incontrovertible, but they had little to do with white supremacy. Even spending a few minutes examining Manson’s bizarre and proprietary beliefs around race war, finds it was in counter opposite to most of the values white supremacists hold, which is the elevation of the entire white race, supposedly, not simply lording over the winner in a manipulated global conflict. Without putting too fine a point on it, the goal of white supremacy is the supremacy of white people, obviously.

Certainly, Manson’s idea of a race war was a stark opposite to Roof’s, whose goal was Black genocide. His attack was meant to be a practical example for blood thirsty white supremacists, not some kind of manipulative hat trick. Though it’s not a final say on the issue, the Aryan Brotherhood certainly didn’t think much of Manson’s ideas, as he had to be taken out of general population after nearly being murdered by the group at Folsom State Prison.

The meme that Manson was some sort of proto-Richard Spencer; that his supposed cult was a progenitor of the alt-right; and that his adherents were the old version of the new neo-nazis, spread like wildfire, especially on Twitter. Twitterers were especially fond of silencing any actual examination of Manson’s legacy, never mind his probable innocence. Telling any element of Manson’s biography became normalizing Naziness. Manson became just another data point in that massive jenga, that lucrative and socially empowering concern of 2017, fretting over the rise of self-proclaimed Neo Nazis. There are a lot of examples, of which these are a few:

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My views on the antifash fad are no secret. It de facto normalizes systemic white supremacy, occults the way right wing and conservatives use liberal language and rule of law rhetoric to hide their own white supremacy to win over soft racists, invigorates questionable groups like the ADL, and gives way too much discursive power to white people on race. But there is something qualitatively different about the way Manson’s death has been used in these arguments, especially in far left discourse, that I find more dangerous than the ambient daily social media drivel.

The case for Manson’s innocence isn’t very complex. Indeed, the very fact that he didn’t participate in any of the murders itself should lead to questions about whether he received a fair trial and sentence and whether his reputation as a supremely evil figure is warranted. But the case that the state constructed with the help of media is literally beyond belief. Even a cursory perusal of the facts shows the state’s disinterest in logic or even simple physics, a view they seemed to be able to effortlessly transmit to the public.

Though Manson was diagnosed as schizophrenic while incarcerated a few years before the murders, his claims nevertheless make far more sense than the state’s version of them. There was no cult, just a bunch of social drop outs squatting a ranch, fooling around, getting high and committing medium-level crimes together. The murders began when Bobby Beausoleil, a fellow resident, killed Gary Hinman over some drug money, and then sprayed graffiti to blame it on the Black Panthers to keep police off his trail. Others in the group, according to murderers Beausoleil, and Susan Atkins, decided to go on a killing spree to direct police away from Beausoleil. The Manson Family was a creation of the media, fostered by the DA’s office and enthusiastically embellished by the confessed murderers to distract from their role as they tried to get immunity, lower their sentence or avoid the death penalty.

In this, they were egged on by an ambitious Assistant District Attorney. Vincent Bugliosi went on to run for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office in the very next election the following year on the strength of his spectacular prosecution. He wrote a book just a year after that which earned the ex-civil servant a king’s ransom in his lifetime, after selling over 7 million copies. Bugliosi was a fabulist who should have been laughed out of court. He once claimed Manson caused his watch to stop by simply staring at him. But the public at the time, and today’s nazi-obsessed left and liberals especially, seem eerily vulnerable to his magical thinking.

The Manson Family explanation served the interests of every other actor BUT Manson. The countervailing theory, that Manson was simply an associate of the killers who didn’t influence their acts at all, but may have helped them after the murders, seems pretty sober by comparison. Its a simple explanation which fits with the facts, and doesn’t require magic or telepathy. Two of the murderers, Beausoleil and Atkins, insisted in their trial and in later years that Manson had nothing to do with the murders, did not plan them or direct them. But that has been edited out of the history

With the benefit of hindsight and massive research capacity of today’s internet, certainly one outcome of Manson’s death could have been revisiting the case, and Manson’s supposed guilt in it. Given the impact that the narrative of the murders—hippie commune gone amok—had on counter-cultural ideas, its in fact surprising this didn’t happen. The murders indelibly linked counter-culture and communal living to inevitable madness and mayhem during and after the trials.

Sandi Gibbons a journalist who reported on Manson’s trial, and who now ironically works for the same LA DA’s office that prosecuted the case, encapsulates the impact of the case on counter-culture movements of the time: ”it was the death of the hippie [and commune] movement”.  Joan Didion also famously commented, “the sixties ended” on the night of the Tate La Bianca murders. Despite regurgitating the Manson Family mythology, Henry Allen captures the night and day quality that Manson had on the US, from questioning authority to flag decals on car windows.

Though there isn’t a link between today’s right wing movements and Manson’s schizoid rantings, there are echoes of the way Manson was used to smear counter-culture movements that reverberate into the current era. Ironically, one of those echoes, was the right’s attempt to paint “antifa” as the inheritor of the Manson legacy. Its laughable, of course, but reminiscent of the way Manson was used to malign communal living and the sexual revolution.

It’s also worth pointing out that the alt-right/Manson hot-takes rely on erasing Manson’s well-documented mental illness. Manson was first diagnosed as a schizophrenic while incarcerated in 1963. Subsequently, throughout Manson’s entire period of incarceration for the “family” murders, he was professionally evaluated by the California Department of Corrections as having serious schizophrenia, as well as many other disorders, which probably came from a lifetime of imprisonment and isolation.

Even the descriptions of his rants and “philosophy” from supposed followers describe schizophrenic word dissociation as his chief characteristic. There are dozens of professional and anecdotal examples of the fact that Manson’s philosophical or ideological statements were really just neologisms, word salads and incomprehensible language of a schizophrenic. There’s nothing to suggest that Manson is even capable of being a white supremacist, since he seemed unable to hold on to thoughts or ideas from one sentence to the next according to many witnesses, both in the 60’s and since. Most notably, Manson’s schizophrenia and dissociation grew worse in solitary confinement until he was almost unable to communicate coherently in later life–an effect of solitary confinement which anti-carceral activists observe regularly.

Finally, its surprising to see the class differences between the murderers and the man they accused of being their mastermind being so easily ignored by people on the left. Manson was homeless, an ex-con, mentally ill, poor, and practically illiterate. Nevertheless, Bugliosi and mostly affluent killers claim he controlled their minds, even at distances. Surely, the killers had their own interests in mind when they began propagating these stories, but for Bugliosi, the media, mainstream and conservative commenters, there was something more critical at play. The creation of the Manson Family was a convenient way of exculpating white, middle class society of the crime, and putting the guilt squarely on Manson. Manson was given the robes of the hippie movement and was made into a caricature of what conservatives wanted hippies to be—sinister, dishonest, violent, manipulative sociopaths out to corrupt America’s innocent youth. Not surprisingly, when that role was cast, it was given to the one person of the group most powerless to defend himself socially, hadn’t a penny to his name or family to pursue justice on his behalf.

Manson’s story was so easily disseminated and believed , in part, because of  the white middle class’s need to put the atrocities committed by their own on someone else. The media were essentially asking: “how could middle class white kids become mass murderers?” Perhaps there were no answers, but Manson, as a representative of the dark side of the hippie movement became a convenient one.

The final irony is that the most crucial lesson about the “Manson Family” period is overlooked today. Groups can be convinced to believe in outright fabrications and blatantly false explanations if it suits their ideology and direct needs. But that’s a lesson that comes not from Charles Manson’s superhuman mind control cult, but from the institutions and public that nurtured and created that enduring myth, and the new generation using it to back up their own questionable interpretations of reality.

 

**I relied on and was inspired by Carrie Leonetti’s amazing piece on the many problems with the Manson Family trial and social narrative in the Southwestern Law Review throughout this piece. 

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