It happened today - August 9, 2015

On August 9, 1969, members of the “Manson Family” butchered five people in director Roman Polanski’s Beverly Hills house, including his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. It was a horrifying incident with a major cultural impact.

Manson himself was the product of a miserably broken home, a lost and troubled soul who turned into a monster and attracted other lost souls and sucked them into his dark fantasies. But it mattered to a lot more people than those directly involved because of what it said about the 1960s project of total human liberation.

There was much that was good about the 1960s. First and foremost its commitment to racial equality. Also its re-examination of how women were often mistreated, its rejection of hostility toward homosexuals and casually demeaning labels. And certainly its awakening environmental awareness. But there was something very troubling built deep into its foundations: the conviction that because some rules and social institutions were unsound or badly distorted, all rules and social institutions were.

This idea, logically, led to the notion that freeing people from social conventions would create heaven on earth. It didn’t work. Instead it became clear that the concept of “original sin” had at least some definite validity, and that human institutions were flawed because humans were flawed.

That being the case, getting rid of all institutions, throwing the baby out with the bath water, was a recipe for disaster. And the very weirdness of Manson’s beliefs, his apocalyptic vision of a coming race war from which he and his followers could emerge as rulers of a black-dominated world, his conviction that the Beatles were sending him coded messages, underlined just how bad things would get if we did indeed let it all hang out.

In the short run, the shock of these murders and other unpleasant events from the fatal stabbing at the Altamont rock concert to the drug overdoses of famous musicians from Janice Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Jim Morrison led to a conservative reaction. Manson himself was arrested and, in 1971, sentenced to death. When California abolished capital punishment the sentence was automatically reduced to life in prison, where he has amused himself drawing swastikas on his face. But in the longer term, the undermining of institutions from the family to established churches to standards of dress to public manners seems to me to have been impossible to arrest.

In his superb memoir of those years, Walking on the Edge of the World, journalist George Leonard wrote “Now that it’s gone, how can I recreate that time, that spring of 1966? The dazzling light, the ferocious, incandescent release of energy, the renunciation of all the repressions of the past, the crazy sense that each new day might bring something unexpected and wonderful. It was the season of Eros, when the only sin was to say no. And as for the shadows, they only made the light more vivid, more poignant. Sometimes I had a hollow feeling in my stomach. Maybe I was going to far. Maybe there would be retribution and pain; people I loved could be hurt in the pell-mell rush for transcendence. But maybe not. The air was filled with hope, and if we were falling, we were falling forward too fast to stop.” And so it proved.

That Manson himself became a minor cult figure is of limited importance. But the increasingly coarse lewdness of popular culture (by 1988 a band called Niggaz With Attitude could become a huge bourgeois success with “songs” whose names commentators cannot bring themselves to print, opening the door for a huge industry of “Gangsta Rap” that violates every tenet of political correctness with impunity), skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy and divorce, a surge in crime that tapered off recently at levels far above those of the 1950s, collapsing educational and behavioural standards in schools, all these and many more developments indicate something unclean got loose in our public life.

I do not regret the gains of the 1960s. But I very much worry that we proved fundamentally unable to learn from its excesses.