A People’s History of American Empire, Howard Zinn

Metropolitan Books, 2008, 273 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-8050-8744-4

A book doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be fascinating. In fact, it can be more interesting to criticize a flawed work than stay inadequately mum when faced with perfection.

So when I say that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire is fascinating, understand that I mean “interesting, frustrating, revealing, naive, clever and annoying” at the same time. It’s a look at American History like no other, but that shouldn’t mean that readers should leave their skepticism at the door. It also means that there are a lot of other things to take in account beyond the strict confines of this didactic book.

Because there’s no doubt that A People’s History of American Empire is out to reshape a few minds. It’s in its pedigree, in fact: I understand that Howard Zimm’s A People’s History of the United States is now a standard college textbook for left-leaning history classes, or just anyone who wants a slightly different flavor of American history than the triumphant tribute to the glory of the nation that is so popular with bipartisan school boards. This “Graphic Adaptation” of Zimm’s work is practically an original work, focusing on the notion that the American Empire was built on the back of oppressed workers and war-torn foreign nations.

Then there’s the nature of the graphic adaptation itself. It’s a comic book, for goodness’ sake. It’s designed for easy reading. It’s not even twenty dollars! Forget EC Comics: Frederick Wertham was after this kind of material when he was complaining about the innocents being seduced by them illustrated funnies. A People’s History of American Empire is a painless, accessible way to understand American History from a more socialist perspective. The art may be rough and too-dependent on processed photographic reference, but it’s hard to stop reading: you have to admire the way the authors use the strengths of their medium to make casual readers absorb a colossal amount of information that would otherwise be too dense in any other format.

The main thesis of the book is that the American Empire was created thanks to a set of foreign and domestic policies designed to maximize corporate profit and encourage military domination. So we get to read how the United States government manipulates its population, over and over again, to cheer for foreign wars that have substantial economic benefits. (The historical precedents to the Iraq invasion as numerous and reach early in American history: The Invasion of the Philippines and the war with Spain over Cuba, as presented here, offer clear parallels with recent history.) On the home front, the American Empire was strengthened by periodical purging of labor movements, both to keep corporate profits up and to keep the population hungry and cowering.

To non-American readers, this seems like a surprisingly reasonable thesis: The willful and baroque justifications of so-called “reasonable pundits” against labor movements, national health-care and deep cuts to military spending can often look like pure comedy –until we realize that most of the US population pays dearly for those “moderate policies”. (And that the US’s continued neurosis is holding other countries back from even fairer societies.) Zinn’s book is preaching to the converted as soon as it crosses national borders.

But sometimes, the book overreaches. I’m not too fond of conspiracy theories when social pressures do just as well, but conspiracy theories are often simpler to explain than taking apart entire systems of self-justification, self-interest and self-reinforcement. The weakest moments of A People’s History of American Empire are those where Zinn and his co-authors anthropomorphize deep social tendencies and suggest we blame a small cabal of politicians, operators, lobbyists or businessmen: Not only do those moments get close to conspiracies, but they take away from the bigger problem of a population massively deluded into doing harm to their own best interests.

A similar complaint concerns the numerous personal testimonies used in the book, from union leaders to soldiers in foxholes: while evocative, they remain isolated data points in a much bigger context. The plural of anecdotes is not data, and it can be frustrating to see the book rely on an illustrated diary account to make points that can be dismissed by “Oh, that’s just one person’s experience.” While it’s one of my favorite maxims that history is something that happens to people, it doesn’t feel as if Zinn, in this book, has earned the right to hinge part of his argument on eyewitness testimonial. Said testimonials often work better when their context is familiar: The chapter on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, for instance, feels like one of the book’s highlights because the rest of the story is so familiar. Other chapters dealing with Zinn’s own autobiography are also more interesting, because they are presented as one man’s brush with history and not history itself.

This feeds into the other big problem of the book (and, I’m supposing, Zinn’s source material) in that it’s conceived as being in opposition to the mainstream view of American history. If you don’t know mainstream American History (and I’m not an expert either), it often feels as if you’re missing another half of the story entirely. (And the half that Zimm presents does regrettably downplay a lot of the better episodes in American history.) This is a didactic work, yet it often forgets to mention crucial chunks of the material being discussed. The often-episodic structure of the book probably makes sense in a bigger context, but if interludes like “The Jitterbug Riot” and “The Cradle of R&B Fandom” are fun to read, their relevance to Zinn’s larger argument (ie: disenfranchising more segments of society keeps it from demanding more rights) is best felt by inference.

But as I re-read chunks of the book for this review, I’m struck at how these issues aren’t problems per se as spiderweb threads leading from this book to a more sophisticated understanding of American society and culture. There are many sources out there for those who want to tear down the happy facade of American triumphalism to take a look at the seedy underpinning of the American Dream, but it’s books like this one that will allow readers to make their own first connections between what hey haven’t considered before.

My first reaction to this book was to find someone, anyone else with whom to discuss it. As simplistic as it may often feel, it contains a lot of material for thought, and would make an ideal choice for book clubs. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a welcome broadening of the conversation in a social context when even so-called left-leaning Americans hold opinions that would be considered profoundly conservative in other countries. Buy it (it’s cheap), read it and think about it.

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