What Would Charlie Do? Part 1: Change Comes Slow Then Fast

This series looks at the origins of American counterculture through the lens of Charles Manson and the murders credited to his name.

Dateline: September 8, 2022 –

Queen Elizabeth the 2nd has died and been laid to rest. Elizabeth was born in 1926, and with her death, one of the last links in the chain to an earlier period of both British and American history passes from living memory. The world before World War 2 and the participants in that conflict, as well as the culture it produced, is passing from living memory. the last soldier, the last airman, the last Holocaust survivor, will be gone soon, forever.


Now that she is gone, Elizabeth’s ‘baby boomer’ son, Charles, has taken his place on the throne at the age of 73. Charles was born in November of 1948 and is the oldest person ever to ascend to the throne. His record as a younger man does not bode well for the British monarchy. The boomer generation has a long history of fundamentally changing the institutions they pass through and often, not for the better. With the passing of Elizabeth, one of the world’s oldest institutions passes into the hands of a generation that was burgeoning in 1969, when Charles was 21, and another Charles, Charles Manson, was 35.

Charles Manson was born in Ohio on November of 1934 to a teen prostitute. His life was distinctly not royal, and he fell into delinquency at the earliest possible moment; by age 9, he was setting fire to things and shortly thereafter, stealing cars. The institutions he belonged to were prisons for young boys, and later, prisons for adult criminals. By the time he was released from a long stint in jail in 1967, he was 32 and had spent half his life incarcerated. It was in this period, 1967 until his capture and permanent imprisonment in 1969, that he influenced portions of American culture, and consequentially the world, and some portion of the ideas he championed are stuck in the head of Prince Charles, now King Charles, enthroned on the 1000-year-old British monarchy.

What happened in and around Charles Manson during those three years, from 1967 to late 1969, is both well-known and unclear. For this series, I have relied on several sources, including two very interesting books.

The first is Helter Skelter, the most popular true crime book ever written. It was penned by Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor who brought Manson and his followers to trial. The term ‘helter skelter’ is a British name for a type of amusement park ride, and it was seized upon by one of King Charles’ subjects, Paul McCartney, for a song released by The Beatles in 1968. It also was the name that Charles Manson used for a violent vision he had of the future, and Bugliosi claimed this vision was the motive for the murders that occurred on August 9 and 10 in 1969. This popular book is the repository of the dominate narrative about Manson, his followers, and the murders.

But this vision of Helter Skelter was always so weird and ridiculous that, even if Manson did invent it, it would be a subpar explanation for what happened on the two nights or murder described in Helter Skelter. Several young people, all born around the same time as Prince Charles, committed seven murders up close with a small pistol and several knives, and smeared messages at the murder scenes with the blood of their victims. The victims had histories that were wildly divergent, and some had criminal involvement in their own right. Only Manson seemed to tie them together via the twisted vision of ‘helter skelter.’ But how could something that foolish be true? Was he and his vision the only link?

Which leads to the other book I am relying on; Chaos by Tom O’Neil. Chaos doesn’t question the outcome of Manson’s life which is clear enough, but it declares an entirely different motive for the murders, one that contradicts the idea of Helter Skelter. And it is here that we have a cross-section of such complexity and importance that the ‘truth’ is likely not knowable. The fact is that the black box of Manson’s complete life can’t be fully known.

It is Manson’s insrutable nature and destructive outcomes that make him a perfect proxy for the rise of the counterculture. There are hours of interviews available where Manson talks and talks, and the counterculture certainly values ‘dialogue.’ Perhaps some of what he did for the cameras was performative, but there is always the odd sense of conman, abused child, quotes from parts of books he read or been told about, and a bit of actual insight on his part, all mixed together. His ramblings are proxies as well; his confused jumble of ideas is as good a proxy for the counterculture.

The outcome of this entire period is very well known; the summer and fall of 1969 was a bell weather period in the cultural history of the United States. When it happened, it happened fast.

The timing here is critical. The night of the murders at 10500 Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and four others died, was only 20 days after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Armstrong was born in 1930 and a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth. Putting a man on the moon was the penultimate achievement of humanity at that time, and yet in 20 days, a career criminal would alter the course of American cultural history via an act of murder he directed by didn’t even participate in. Further, the actual killers were majority female.

A few days after those murders, when the LAPD was still trying to figure out who did it, the boomer generation had their giant coming out party at Woodstock in New York. The cultural direction of the country was clear to all. The boomers were ascendant and they would bring their hippie ethos to the mainstream of the US. But were they good hippies, living in peace with each other and at one with the land, or drug addled monsters, sexual vagabonds, and witless dupes easily led by those with other motives? And, what were those motives? Put more simply, was the counterculture good or bad?

Also in July of 1969, the ancient traditions of the British throne were used to present then Prince Charles with the ‘investiture’ that put him on the path to his current office. The ceremony acknowledges a new Prince of Wales, the office that is now occupied by the son of King Charles, Prince William. Regardless of where we look, we see this critical window, from July to mid-September of 1969, is when much of our current cultural pillars were put in place.

But that gets to the point of change, which we are seeing as Queen Elizabeth passes into memory. Change happens slowly, and then very quickly. Things fall slowly, and then suddenly.

Certainly things happened quickly after 1969. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. Having seen the burgeoning power of the boomers at Woodstock, the political classes wanted to get them to the ballot box and harvest their votes as quickly as possible. After 1971, the boomers could vote in masses and they did.

In 1973, the US left Vietnam and in 1975, the former US ally was overrun by the Communists. In 1974, Nixon was forced out of office for acts that pale into comparison to what was coming.

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1972 and afterwards, all economic development would have to pass through their hands first. Environmentalism was enshrined into law and this clearly reflected the boomer and hippie ethos regarding nature.

By 1992, the first boomer president, Bill Clinton, defeated a WW2 combat veteran and was elected to the country’s highest office. Unlike Richard Nixon, he was impeached but not turned out by the Senate. His offenses revolved around his sexual treatment of a ‘young love’ as Charles Manson called the teens he pimped out. Like Manson, Clinton used his superior age and experience to induce a young women into being his sex partner, and the act had a terrible negative consequence for her. Monica Lewinsky, at least, hadn’t spend her entire adult life in jail.

The downstream cultural effects of 1969 became known as ‘PC,’ for politically correct, and now the cultural direction is simply known as ‘woke.’ Woke is the dominate strain of American (and British) culture, and we didn’t just land here; we were pushed, and a part of that push came from a mixed bag of boomers who formed a ‘Family’ led by a barely literate career criminal named Charles Manson.

Why does any of this matter? I believe it matters because of the destructive elements of the counterculture, which is now the dominate culture. Our mainstream culture is not the one that made the nation initially. It is as if an entirely different culture began to interpreted the county’s foundations from an entirely different framework, and that is like altering the foundations of the country.

The counterculture had and still has a very strong tribal nature, as opposed to the civilizational nature it replaced. Tribal societies have radically different ideas about family life. They view the natural world differently. They view elements that alter consciousness (drugs) very differently. They have entirely different views of religion, and what is Devine. They are far less individually focused and more communal. It was the European and British inheritance that formed the United States, and the counterculture has altered that inheritance. Those were not minor alterations; they were, and are, huge.

Understanding the rise of the counterculture, a culture that burst into the national consciousness in 1969, is critical to understanding where the culture is now. This is not a story about Charles Manson, or the past. It’s about us, now.

July 1969
July 1969

Next: Turning Points in American Culture

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