Thursday, April 23, 2009

A People's History of American Empire

A People's History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaption
© 2008 Howard Zinn
273 pages

Earlier in the week, I read A People's History of American Empire, composed by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle. The book is a graphic novel, and framed through a lecture given by Howard Zinn -- featuring Zinn as a character, introducing his lecture on American imperialism in the introduction before beginning it in chapter one. The story of American imperialism is expanded in twelve chapters, beginning with the end of the "Indian Wars" and ending with the invasion of Iraq. Most of the text is Zinn speaking, with the pictures providing illustrations. There are numerous "stories" set in the text, in which Zinn-as-narrator almost disappears. Given the nature of the book -- or the graphic novel, as it were -- its narrative reads very well.

This is very much a book about individuals who have resisted American and corporate imperialism as well as government and corporate indifference to the misery they cause. There are two general themes: one, the developing nature of imperialism, and two, the reactions of the 'people'. The reader thus will be engaged in a critical history of the United States which gives the labor, civil rights, and peace movements their due. Both stories are developed pretty well, I think, and the illustrations were good as well. (I'm not exactly sure how to comment on a graphic novel other than to say I enjoyed the pictures.) I did find fault with one panel, in which the Lusitania is shown carrying tanks. The Lusitania was sunk before the development of tanks, and one of the tanks appears to be a model from the Second World War.* As for its historical credibility: I knew much of this before, having accidentally learned it for the most part. If he took liberties with the facts, they weren't obvious to someone who is -- in my and other's estimations -- a fairly well-read history student. Some interpretations are more questionable than others: no one can deny the self-serving motives of the Spanish-American War or the Indian Wars, but it's also fairly difficult to cast World War 2 in such a cynical light.

Although the book's story can be seen as somewhat grim, the number and conviction of people who have stood against the book's villains gives the reader cause for hope -- and indeed, Zinn deliberately concludes the lecture/book on a hopeful note. "There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory."

I'm going to recommend this one.

* This may be excusable on the basis that lay readers will more easily equate "tank" with 'weapons" than unmarked boxes of ammunition.

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