This article was originally published by Salon on December 1, 1997.
Of all the misnomers of our political vocabulary, “progressive” is the most abusive and the most abused. “Progressive” is the accepted term for the political left today, just as it was 50 years ago, when it was used as a self-description by Communists and fellow-travelers who sought its protective cover even as they supported the most oppressive regimes in human history. In the later years of the Cold War, it was the term of choice for liberals as well, who thought that the Soviet system was “converging” with Reagan’s America, just before the Communist fall.
One of the more interesting characteristics of progressives is the way they seem to learn nothing from their experience, confounding the very idea of progress as a process of escaping from the myths of the past and acquiring knowledge. Today, self-styled “progressives” can be found supporting economic redistribution and state-sponsored racial discrimination, or memorializing the death anniversaries of totalitarian legends like Che Guevara, just as though the history of the last 50 years had never taken place. And progressives can still be counted on to lend their support to the discredited domestic legends of ’60s “revolutions,” most notably the Black Panther vanguard.
In Oakland, recently, something calling itself the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation launched a “Legacy Tour” of “historic” Black Panther sites as a step toward making the Panther stronghold into a local monument like Lexington and Valley Forge. On a glistening October day, three busloads of former Panthers and Panther supporters, along with Oakland city officials, began the tour with visits to the former Oakland homes of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Panther “Field Marshal” David Hilliard. Hilliard, who was their guide for the day, once spent a year in jail for threatening to kill President Nixon in front of 100,000 anti-war protesters in Golden Gate Park. The executive director of the Foundation, he describes himself as a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Other sites included various Panther headquarters; the street corner where Newton shot an Oakland police officer in an incident that launched the “Free Huey” movement and made the Panthers a national cause; the shootout scene where a Panther named Bobby Hutton was killed after a Party hit squad attacked San Francisco police in an attempt to “avenge” the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and the sidewalk where Newton met his long-deserved end at the hands of a crack cocaine dealer he had burned.
Not included in the Legacy Tour were the sites where Newton killed an 18-year-old black prostitute, raped a black mother of three and shotgunned the doorman of an after-hours club that had refused to cooperate in a Panther shakedown. Also missing were stops at the sites where Party members were “mud-holed,” whipped with cat o’ nine tails or beaten with chains by Newton’s goon squad for infractions of Party discipline. (One editor of the Party paper, by her own account, was bull-whipped for missing an editorial deadline.) Missing also was a visit to the house where Panthers tortured former Ramparts employee Betty Van Patter before smashing her head with a pipe and throwing her body into the San Francisco Bay.