The word "propaganda" has an almost universally negative connotation. Whenever we use it, we generally mean to refer to systematic and deliberate misinformation. But it's worth remembering that the word is etymologically derived from the same root as the word "propagate," to increase or grow. Propaganda, as the word was originally used, is simply a means of spreading the news, of getting the word out to large numbers of people, of disseminating information that needs to be disseminated.
It's in this original sense of the word that A People's History of American Empire is propaganda. Using the medium of the comix or graphic novel, Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle get the word out about a side of U.S. history that almost never gets taught in public schools, and about which many Americans even today remain clueless. Their treatment is entertaining and accessible--which means that it has a potentially huge audience--but neither patronizing nor simplistic--the book contains an extensive bibliography, and references both graphics and narrative claims. It's ideal for folks who have neither the time nor inclination to read Zinn's bulky classic A People's History of the United States, from which much of the volume is mined.
The format is ingenious. Zinn (wonderfully drawn, by the way) is the up-close narrator of the book. He begins by expressing bewilderment that the U.S. response to 9/11 has followed the same old violent pattern that the U.S. (and, of course, not only the U.S.) has typically adopted when threatened. This response, Zinn argues, ultimately only makes matters worse because it does nothing to get to the root causes of unrest. It is "an old way of thinking," one that tragically keeps following the same destructive script, and Zinn proceeds throughout the rest of the book to chronicle its many historical manifestations, ranging from the Wounded Knee massacre to the invasion of Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Central American nations such as El Salvador and Nicaragua (according to a list published by the State Department in 1962, the U.S. militarily intervened 103 times in foreign countries between 1798 and 1895). Zinn also discusses governmental and big business response to domestic workers' strikes (the Pullman strike and the Ludlow massacre, for example), and draws a connection between this "internal" imperialism and the "external" variety.
Of particular interest are Zinn's treatments of what he calls the "cool war," a culture and ethnic battle over black music in the 1950s, and the current Iraq War.
Another especially interesting feature of the book is its inclusion of Zinn's life story (derived from his autobiographical You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train) which traces his childhood poverty (and tenderness for his parents), his radicalization, his repudiation of violence following his service in World War II, his activism at Spelman College (which led to his dismissal), and his anti-war work--including the famous peace mission to Vietnam--during the Vietnam conflict.
Although the story of the insidious partnership between state and money is shocking and even horrifying at times, Zinn ends the book on an upbeat note. There's much to be hopeful about, he insists, when one considers the extraordinary achievements of the last fifty years. Legal racial apartheid in the U.S. was ended; the Vietnam war was stopped by public protests; velvet revolutions throughout Europe and South Africa succeeded in overthrowing tyranny in relatively bloodless fashion. So "to be hopeful in bad times is not foolishly romantic," Zinn concludes. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness" (p. 263).
Both of those messages deserve propagation.