Paul Schulzetenberg's Reviews > A People's History of American Empire

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn
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's review
Apr 10, 2011

it was ok
Read in April, 2011

This is a retelling of A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present in comic book form, with an emphasis on American foreign policy that downright imperial. And we're not talking classic American soft power here, where we send Coke and McDonald's in order to get people to buy American products in an effort to spread our cultural values. Rather, we're talking about a cynical examination of American international actions like the Spanish-American war, Manifest Destiny, Iran Contra, and other incidents that make the good old US of A look less than savory.

I agree with Zinn's politics, for the most part. Zinn has an agenda, and he's clear about it. As such, it's the responsibility of the reader to take what he says with a grain of salt. But that aside, he does paint a pretty bleak picture of the USA's human rights record, one that We Americans like to pretend that we don't have many human rights violation, except for a few isolated incidents. What Zinn points out is that our violations are not restricted to a few isolated incidents, but rather are a systemic abuse, repeated over and over throughout history. If American policy results in significant human rights violations in nearly every decade, can we really claim to be the white knights that we like to pretend we are? Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to really evaluate our foreign policy and tell ourselves the truth.

That said, this book is still a long, long way from perfect. I've never read Zinn's People's History, so I'm afraid I can't compare this volume to it. But whatever I would think about the parent title, this comic rendering has its issues. There's an extreme cult of personality surrounding Zinn in this book, which is ironic considering that Zinn spends so much iconoclastic effort tearing down politicians and generals. The image of Zinn, an old white guy, lecturing to an anonymous audience from a podium is repeated frequently, and without any kind of acknowledgement of just how strange this is in relation to the idea that this is "a people's history." Heck, some of the book is even autobiographical, in a way that seems very, very odd and stuck on there haphazardly. Perhaps the book should be called "Howard Zinn's History of American Empire?" Or "A People's History of American Empire and of Howard Zinn?" It certainly feels that way.

And this cult of personality issue ties into a larger issue. Zinn's point in this book does not seem to be that the reader should think for herself, but rather that we should switch from the dictated version of history that we were taught in school to Zinn's more radical version. A lot of time is spent tearing down the old history and establishing a new point of view, but the evidence given is extremely one-sided. I'm no expert on most of these topics, but there are omissions that I caught, and points that the standard history espouses that are never addressed. The history that comes out of this book is not necessarily fuller, it's just a different viewpoint. So, for all of Zinn's criticism of the mainstream, his history is still not telling the whole story. And thus, it's implied that being dogmatic about history that isn't the problem, it's that we follow the wrong dogma.

Finally, the comic art itself is lacking. It has a bit too much Sunday funnies feel, with stilted paneling and art that begins to feel repetitive. The caricatures are good, but the whole book is lacking soul. In some ways, this feels like Zinn said "I want to bring my work to more people, so I'm going to make it more accessible. And what's more accessible than comic books?" So, a comic book gets made, but somewhere in the process, the things that make a good comic book get lost. Maybe Zinn or somebody else in the process who was unfamiliar with making comics micromanaged the process too much, or maybe the studio didn't take enough liberties with the pacing and story, or maybe the dialogue wasn't cut down enough. Whatever happened, the comic turned out firmly mediocre.

And so although you have a story that needs to be told, it is told in a misleading fashion, and the telling is flubbed. This isn't a book I'd recommend.
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