Charlie Manson

What does it actually mean to be free?  Does it mean we can say whatever we want to say to others, however harmful obnoxious or painful our speech may be?  Today conservatives have weaponized free speech, as a recent article in the New York Times argues.

“Legally,” Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan writes, “what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.”  

To a free spirit of the 60s, any imagined tribal identifications that result in a melding of identity and an invention of loyalty, may seem to inspire authoritarians, racists and misogynists to rationalize hurting others.  They may think it’s their right, and a (God-given) expression of their totemic yearning to be of one mind, and one fist.  In primal poetic fashion she writes, “we got so greased up, we fell and we fell and we fell.”

Nancy was lucky to have missed the ugly freedom-worshiping tribalism in today’s political scene, but maybe it was just a mirror image of the hippie grease on the opposite end of the political spectrum current in her day.  She might have put today’s public culture into perspective by recalling the mad tribalism of Charlie Manson.

Today we all have to experience a toxic public tribalism that celebrates division and opposition in America, a tribalism that clashes with the bygone hippies who welcomed a new age of “brother and sisterhood.”  Nancy reacted when she reflected on Manson’s tight group of cult followers.  A “cooler, tighter me” was nothing, though, compared with the pervasive, almost crippling despair that appears to be a widespread collective reaction by us “snowflake liberals” in today’s political climate.

On the plane back home was when I heard about Charles Manson and all the bad things that were happening.

And something inside me said it was in the time we were living in … a small slot where we all fit in … a horrible mistake where we got so greased up, we fell and we fell and we fell.

When I got back home I tried to pull myself back together.  At least I have the sensation of the memory of a cooler, tighter me.

But, in reality, I was cold.  I looked at every dog on a leash in the park and thought, what are we holding on to each other for?

Tracking each other’s every move.  Checking in and following up.

Reporting back and keeping our eyes on the road.  What road?

As an anthropologist I learned that tribal names and tribal identities were invented for political purposes.  It isn’t much different today.  Tribes are convenient truths that create affinity that wouldn’t otherwise exist, as my first teacher in grad school (Columbia anthropology) wrote in his The Notion of Tribe.  The notion of a tribe, though a fiction that sometimes makes possible collective violence, surely can also be sweet and innocent.

On my street a neighbor of mine and I watched her little boy running up the block in a monkey costume.  And after 9/11 (Nancy was still alive!), I saw a little boy on my corner wearing big yellow galoshes with his shorts.

It wasn’t raining or snowing and his father explained to me that they were his ‘fireman boots’.

That’s what the sixties was about.  You acted out your fantasies.

We need to wake up from this dream!

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