If one were to poll pedestrians on a city street anywhere in the country, not all of them would be familiar with the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, or America’s most prolific serial killer, Gary Ridgway. A good deal of them would probably not be able to remember the Bosnian genocide, or remember the names of any school shooters. But no matter where in the country you go, you will encounter a great deal of people who know who Charles Manson is.
The notorious cult leader and psychopath has enjoyed a rock-star like existence among the psychopaths and criminally insane in America, not to mention those who take an interest in such things. His recent death has been met with Facebook obituaries and well-wishing on all social media outlets. He was engaged several years before his death to a woman who is now 29, received an influx of letters from fans and admirers (tens of thousands a day at some points), and has spawned a great many movies and books about cults, as well as being the subject of them.
The question, however, is from whence this notoriety came. It is not the crimes he committed: a popular Google query is “Charles Manson Kool-aid,” indicating that searchers have conflated Manson and his family with Jim Jones, another cult leader. Certainly a debate rages about whether or not it is ethical to provide a platform and such reputation to a man who was responsible for inflicting psychological torture on his followers and for inciting several brutal murders. But these debates miss the point entirely. Whether or not it is ethical is merely a thought exercise: the real question is why this degree of renown.
Manson, who had a swastika tattoo in the center of his forehead, used race and the social progress of the 1960s as a means by which to drive up membership in his cult, convincing his followers of an imminent race-war in which they would arise superior. Watermelons and the bloody word “piggies” were left at one crime scene in order to give the impression that members of a black liberation front movement were behind the murders of several white celebrities. He hoped that these clues would incite a racial conflict which only whites would survive. And when the story broke that there existed a purely-evil and narcissistic man who had these beliefs and opinions about race, there presented itself a bogeyman on which white Americans could pin their guilt. They might have done or said things which were morally wrong and impermissible, but they weren’t the real monster. This burst of media coverage surrounding his high profile targets made him instantly popular, but it is the many sins of Americans everywhere that have kept him in the limelight up until his final hours.
Manson has also served as a conservative recruitment tool, given his associations with the movements of the 1960s. Despite the fact he was in prison for the vast majority of this decade and throughout the 1970s when there was increased and more myriad activism in American culture, Manson is still widely viewed as a ‘child of the sixties,’ and not a child of American capitalism, alcoholism, or the prison industrial complex. Manson had already spent a significant amount of time in prison for assault, theft, fraud, and human trafficking charges before the creation of his cult, and he had been in trouble with the law since he was a young boy living with an abusive alcoholic mother and no father. But his cult is seldom associated with his suffering under the boot of America’s judicial system, and while his experiences could not have driven most people to the creation of a murderous movement, it is possible that his crimes were motivated in part by them. He is seen as an inevitable response to people getting too trusting and hoping for a better future, a predator who naturally arose in the free-thinking 1960s.
Today we find ourselves in a country helmed by a notoriously less-than-sagacious narcissist,who is still revered and supported, perhaps blindly, by some portion his followers. How could such devotion be made possible, if not for the existence of such moral absolutes? How could people be made to accept things which do not make sense, if they were not able to compare themselves to famously amoral individuals and the situations they instigated and pick out little differences which would exonerate them?
Trump supporters would likely argue that admiring Trump is nothing like aiding Manson. “Trump doesn’t try to isolate me from the world,” they might think, “all of my neighbors are supporting him!” The existence of Manson’s celebrity, however, is due entirely to statements like these, which have taken on one form or another over the past 50 years.
Manson is not alone in being scapegoated. Invocations of genocides outside the U.S. sometimes allow us to ignore that which occurred in the acquisition of our 50 states; global terrorist organizations provide a demon to absolve America’s disastrous foreign policy measures in the past several decades continuing into today. These are magnanimous and histrionic targets for self-justification and undeserved absolution, and while they may be fascinating, we must all contemplate what our reasons for finding them so are.