Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review of A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle

A People's History of American Empire is a graphic adaptation of parts of Howard Zinn's more canonical A People's History of the United States, itself a controversial book, dubbed as anywhwere between demonically revisionist or brutally accurate depending on your prejudices . American Empire isn't the version I'd rather be reading, but I picked it up after reading a favorable comment on another blog, and typically, anything that's bookmarked on my Amazon shopping cart is only a six-pack away from ending up on my credit card. Zinn takes an overt anti-imperial tone here to which I'm sympathetic, and I was worried about the temptation to read it uncritically, especially a graphic version that's necessarily light on context. As it is, I've been squandering many of my thoughts on the official patriotic lies lately, and my next couple of book reviews , as well as an upcoming post or two, are doomed to the topic. Hopefully I won't alienate the last of my readers as I sit on my pasty ass and get all radicalized.

I guess I can start with the medium. The book is a graphic novel (or rather, in the style of one), adapted from sections of A People's History of the United States and Zinn's own autobiography. The historian gets top billing, but the actual text and art are by Mike Konopacki, who has been doing cartoons for labor publications for years. (Paul Buhle lists himself as the editor.) A couple of Konopacki's collages were affecting (one was gut-wrenching), and historical photographs were integrated cleverly into the pen and ink stuff--I particularly liked the segues between photographs and cartoon version of the historical actors, really made you appreciate the guy's eye--but that said, Konopacki clearly takes his inspiration more from cartooning than he does from comic art, and doesn't always make the best compromises to get the book into narrative form. There's something about his dynamics of moving from panel to panel that's a little bit too sprightly, using too many of them maybe, that makes the thinned content feel even thinner. His somewhat bulbous human forms feel more at home in various newspaper sections than in a graphic novel, and his facial renderings get that vibe too, where the victims of empire are in a constant state of honest sadness or righteous anger, and the perpetrators range in expression from self-righteous contempt to paunch-patting superiority, lacking only mustaches to twirl. Konopacki was much more effective when he deviated from the linear strip form, and turned his pen to more realistic representations and cleverer page spreads. I wish he did so more.

A People's History of American Empire takes us through a short tour of the imperial project, raising a stark and necessary reminder that the U.S. has been hungry for conquest nearly from the get-go. Zinn begins with the final stages of the subjugation of the Sioux (letting a sad-eyed Black Elk speak), the last nail in the artifice of our internal dominion. He gives slavery and our Mexican campaign a quick and ignoble mention, and proceeds to the disgusting lowpoints of the adventures in the Phillipines and in Cuba, of the labor movement, and of the first world war, painting a picture of a collaboration between industry and the government that generates or protects profits at the expense of lives. With the opportunity to intervene in Cuba's revolution against Spain for the right reasons, we declined, but as the sugar industry felt threatened, we are told, it gained critical importance. I find many of Zinn's interpretations difficult to refute, but on the other hand, I am doubtful that helping those serious Cuban peasants for their own good would have been any better, or any different, than doing it for protecting industry. His economic version of empire is an interesting and almost refreshing viewpoint in some cases though, especially when more recent history is concerned. For example, did the U.S. violently hasten Japan's surrender in 1945 so that they'd surrender to us instead of the Soviets? So that we'd guarantee an economic advantage? The privatization of military services is a fact that's become blatant over the last couple of conflicts, and it's depressing enough to imagine a hand in Middle Eastern resources as a motivator for war, doing it to gain exclusive contracts to slop swill and wash uniforms is even more depressing.

Given this sort of thesis, it makes sense for the authors to include the labor movement in the story of American conquest. Zinn's autobiographical sections are a little more sketchy in their level of relevance, but experiences in the war, and experience with the quantification of the alleged virtue of "hard work" manage to weave in what depth there is in the book. (Fair enough. I'm warped by the life stories around me too.) I felt he went too far to describe youth rebellion as a real movement against the subjugation of peoples (it never seems to stick as they grow up), and while I can dig the disrespect for authority, his lionization of zoot suit rioters is as filthy with nostalgia as anything the boomers produced twenty years later. To put it another way, I saw Kevin Bacon kicking his heels a dozen times in my day, and while I accept the final injunction to live well, I'm still not convinced by the power of the dance. Maybe you need to have a draft hanging over your head to really appreciate it.

If you look back on British colonial history, say, it's not hard to pick apart the root drivers: it was a money maker, at first kept breathing under government approval, and then government protection, and then finally absorption of business interests by the state. Missionary zeal for the betterment of backwards peoples may have been red meat to the masses by design or by apology, and relief of demographic pressures for the homeland (too many people with not enough to do) had its importance at different points in history too. I've read similar economic models advanced (by astute amateurs) for the Roman empire, and certainly I'd map similar mechanisms of conquest for the other European colonial powers. When the naked lust for dominion is thrown around, it's generally reserved for the evaluation of ancient empires, or those pursued by our mortal enemies, but it's not as if Americans are made of different genetic stuff. Probably it's well that I'm reading a cartoon book to support my own casual view of history, but enhancement of money and power are usually safe bets for motive, and they give Occam a closer shave than the litany of "existential threats," that in the case of our own empire anyway, have proven either vastly overblown or, perhaps, orthogonal to the underlying point. And here's why we need a guy like Howard Zinn: America, as a world power, is as hungry and as ugly as any other, and someone has to give it scholarly weight. I may balk at the insinuation that it's uniquely horrible, but what the hell, it doesn't need to be.

LATE UPDATE: From the posting on BTC News, Phil Ball replies:
You say "...but the actual text and art are by Mike Konopacki..."

This is not true.

This book was written by David Wagner. It was brought to life by Paul Buhle and inspired by Howard Zinn, and illustrated by Mike Konopacki.

But the writing, scripting, much of the original research and the organizational structure are the product of Wagner’s amazingly productive mind.

That he is not credited with writing the book when in fact he wrote the book is the result of childish squabbling and tantrums on the part of Konopacki; ‘credit me, and not Wagner, with writing the book or I won’t finish my drawings.’

And he won, simple as that.

But he did not write the book, and it should be a source of embarrassment and shame to all involved with this work that not only is credit not given where credit is due, it is purposefully given where it is not due.

I know.
I was there.


twiffer said...

i wonder if the need to portray american imperialism and governmental actions/policies/incompatence/etc as somehow worse than any other culture in history is part of our pathological need to feel special. if america is supposed to be the very bestest country ever, then by god (your choice of god, mind you), it's also got to be the very worstest ever. otherwise, we'd be just like everyone else.

then again, such a need is not uniquely american. because we are just like everyone else. we even bring that to a species level. i picked up the latest copy of "discover" recently, and one of the books reviewed seems to illustrate this perfectly. can't recall the title right now, but the subject was "what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom?" with the discover (read: realization) the other animals have language and emotion, use tools and have cultures, we've pretty much lost exclusive rights to the qualities we once claimed kept us seperate from the beasties. so now, at least in this book, we've moved on to magnitude as the diferentiator. okay, so other animals might have language, emotion, tools and culture, but we have more of them and we're better at 'em too! seriously, that's the argument. might as well just say "cause we think we are, so we are different, damnit!"

we're fairly clever social animals with a penchant for discovering new ways to complicate our lives, repeating the same grievous errors every few generations and occasionally producing bits, moments of sublime, exsquisite, blinding beauty. nothing is really ever new but the packaging.

Keifus said...

What differences? Scale for one, not many of the historical versions, for all their killing, had this kind of ammo. We are still the only nation that's priveleged itself to drop the fucking bomb, after all. Style is another difference (yeah, packaging). Sure history repeats, but each civilization brings it's own colorful signature, that special personalized flair, when it comes to attempted world domination. Ours involves a lot more lying to ourselves than others frequently have, and requires us to pretend that we're not as greedy and murderous as everyone before us, plastering on that liberty bullshit right thick for the rubes.

I sometimes think that the official story of freedom-n-fairness is worthwhile, giving us handy markers to measure the shamefulness of our governors. Other times, I think it's just too cynical, even for me.

One of my choice epitaphs for the human race: Talking animals, who'da thunk?

Artemesia said...



I just want to mention this book that is one of great hilarity and tragedy: ENGLISH PASSENGERS By Matthew Kneale.

Our American genocides were not as thorough as what was done in Tasmania, but for murder of other races and ethnicities, we are no different than cells in our own bodies that roam the blood stream looking for that which is ‘unlike’ themselves..the specialist viruses that can also go mad and blossom into cancer..which is what genocide is, once begun, it takes on a life of its own..Darfur for example.

What we are as humans has so many levels, from macro to micro that what we see and rationalize as history is the study of effects, not causes. I know that greed, territorialism and notions of god, good and evil, trade as we understand it have all contributed to war, individual and mass murder..But what are we? Was it the gift of fire that turned on the third lobe of the brain that takes tool making beyond the realm of our ‘opposable thumbs?’

Thanks for another excellent review. The topic of interest put the genre of the book into its own perspective. The ‘cartoon’ after all, has been a great tool for propaganda because of how ‘exaggeration’ can be illustrated..Obama’s ears for example or Bushes close set eyes and chicken nose. As you mention, where the graphics go too far, they detract form the book.
But..The subject remains a very important one.

twiffer said...

"Ours involves a lot more lying to ourselves than others frequently have, and requires us to pretend that we're not as greedy and murderous as everyone before us, plastering on that liberty bullshit right thick for the rubes." c'mon, everyone does that. just different names. the romans were just civilizing the world, right? no different than spreading liberty.

historical context is important. we aren't worse because we've got better toys, because there is no way to know that, say, alexander or ghengis khan wouldn't have dropped the bomb, had they had it. besides, tech continues to improve anyway, and we're likely to think up something worse that some other culture will use.

think about it. the major conquering cultures have all tended to be at the forefront of technology for their slice of history. they've all been propaganda machines, driven by a belief that their way of life was the correct one, and should be shared (er, imposed) by all. the plebes have always been sucked into believing the political rhetoric or distracted by bread, circuses and crushing debt. and so on.

the river may always be changing, but it's still the same damn river.

Keifus said...

Oh, I'm sure it's a good thing no ancients had the power of the atom at their disposal. We're more dangerous because we have better toys, not more evil. Different magnitude, but certainly more or less the same direction (or hell, maybe even in a direction slightly less bad).

As for the tools for popular control, I can't disagree with you, even as I find the American democratic do-goodism just a smidge ironic. I guess today's depth of imperial history and the access to information are different too. And the fact that I have the time to puzzle over it.

Jesus, you're making it difficult for me to keep up my righteous indignation.

Artemesia, I'll check out the book (sounds great). Looking at people in the big picture, cells in the body, is interesting (couldn't get it out of my head eight months or so ago). One thought is that civilization and empire are functions of population density, and we may yet force ourselves beyond the condition we've been gliding in for eight millennia. One slim hope is that whatever future state isn't horrible beyond the life of today.

Yeah, this book was it's own animal thought, part political cartoon, part comic book, not quite either. A patina of being educational too. I wondered a lot who the audience was supposed to be.

Keifus said...

(omit "thought" in the last paragraph (even though the idea of being one's own animal thought sounds interesting))