Charles Manson, convicted for the brutal 1969 murders of nine individuals in California, died a natural death last Sunday , at the age of 83. His passing however will not diminish the profound influence that he and the “Manson Family,” a quasi-commune comprising mostly of abused and broken young women, had on the popular culture of the 1960s, a troubled decade that witnessed an intensifying battle for civil rights, the peak of the anti-war movement, and the “counterculture” associated with hippies, drug abuse, and free love. Manson and his followers were regarded by some as symbols of the dark side of this counterculture movement. Their notoriety came in August 1969, when, acting upon Manson’s instructions four of his followers, three women and a man, entered a posh Hollywood Hills home and slaughtered a heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate – also the wife of film director Roman Polanski – and four of her friends. One of Manson’s followers, Susan Atkins, scrawled the word “pig” on the front door with the Ms. Tate’s blood, hinting at Manson’s paranoid delusions about fomenting a race war by framing African-Americans for this gruesome killing spree. Again, directed by Manson, his “family” went on to murder a wealthy couple in Los Angeles, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, the following day, and they separately killed a Hollywood stuntman and another acquaintance of the group. Although Manson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1971, he escaped capital punishment after California outlawed the death penalty a year later.
Despite the depravity of Manson’s actions, his legacy has unfortunately been a contested notion. The fact that he achieved pop culture infamy through a variety of antics during his trial, and that this spawned an entire genre of “true crime” books and television movies, has muddied the recognition of the true horror of his outlook. Manson had a well-documented hatred of Jewish people, African-Americans and women. Rather than the liberal counterculture movement of the 1960s, his bigoted philosophy bears a disturbing resemblance in some respects with the far-right or alt-right brand of neo-fascism that has mushroomed in certain pockets of U.S. politics recently. Take Dylann Roof, for example, the white supremacist who also murdered, coincidentally, nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. He too spoke of “race war” and lapped up alt-right materials online, indulging in the very same apocalyptic race-ramblings that Manson did. Manson was also known for drawing inspiration from the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which he interpreted as a description of an impending a race war that his band of white heroes had to survive. This narrative of race hate is currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts in the U.S., and this has coincided with the vitriolic campaign and administrative tenor of President Donald Trump. Neo-Nazis such as Richard Spencer appear emboldened by Mr. Trump’s wink-and-nod approach. The legacy of Manson should serve, if anything, as a poignant reminder to liberal America that the pillars on which their pluralist democracy was built must never be taken for granted.