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Insights From The Fish That Ate The Whale (#27)

I personally think it’s a fitting time to read books that detail public figures in history who more than dabbled in corruption and public manipulation (fake news), because a good amount of people these days are questioning whether the whole coronavirus situation is like some money-grab by Bill Gates or the Epstein guy or the Illumanti or whatever dumb new conspiracy theory that gets tossed around the Internet these days.

I mean it’s understandable, we ALL tell ourselves stories to make sense of confusing stuff in the world (aka the narrative fallacy) - a term coined by Nassim Taleb in the Black Swan.

Luckily, in this day and age legit non-partisan & non-profit websites in the US like exist (great website!!!!) to help navigate the BS. 

The Fish That Ate The Whale by Rich Cohen is an extremely well-written and amazing book about Sam Zemurray (, a poor Russian Jew immigrant who started off selling discarded ripe bananas from town to town and eventually rose to become super influential in the US with his banana company in the 1900s - which today is now Chiquita bananas.

He helped fund two different coup’d etats in Honduras and Guatemala (to ensure his company was still basically running the show in those 2 countries aka a “banana republic” - not the clothing line). He was also instrumental in getting the UN to vote to approve the establishment of Israel by his influence in Latin America and used his money to help rescue thousands of Jews escape the Holocaust.

Despite all the good and bad stuff aforementioned, the man was extraordinary for knowing his business/craft inside out, hard work, and sacrifice.

Here are some of my insights, business stuff first, corruption and public manipulation stuff later:

Interesting Quotes

  • The world is a mere succession of fortunes made and lost, lessons learned and forgotten and learned again. 
  • Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.
  • Revolutions are born when there is a massive gap between expectation and reality. 

Zemurray’s Character Traits

  • Men who channeled all their love and fear into the business, the factory, the plantation, the shop. Did he love his wife, his children? Of course he did, but he needed the company more. 
  • The greatness of Zemurray lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation. Bad things happened to him as bad things happen to everyone, but unlike so many he was never tempted by failure. He never felt powerless or trapped. he was an optimist. He stood in constant defiance. 
  • A self-made man, filled with the most dangerous kind of confidence; he had done it before and believed he could do it again.
  • “He was one of those guys, part of him is always figuring. You listen to a man like that. He knows something that can’t be taught.”
  • He was forever on the attack, at work, in progress, growing by trial and error, ready to gamble it all. 
  • There was not a job he could not do, nor a task he could not accomplish. (He considered it a secret of his success.)
  • Strength, charisma, shrewdness, power - his defining characteristics
  • His motivation was clear: he wanted to win
  • He does not say much, because he considers small talk a weakness. Wars are not won by running your mouth. 
  • He refrained from giving interviews, addressing shareholders, or attending functions, all of which took away from his work. 
  • Zemurray was never heard to bitch or justify. He was a member of a generation that lived by the maxim “Never complain, never explain”. 

Business Insights

  • Unlike other bosses, Zemurray lived in the jungle with his workers, spoke their language, knew what they wanted and what scared them.
  • A businessman marrying the daughter of a colleague has the added benefit of strengthening ties all around. That’s what people mean when they call marriage an institution. 
  • There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to. 

  • Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite where the stock was manipulated to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow. 

  • It’s the neediest among us who go the farthest.

  • Zemurray believed in the transcendent power of physical labor that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body. 

      • Life in an office, deskbound, was for the feeble and weak who cut themselves off from the actual.

  • Zemurray, an entrepreneur at the key moment, when you knew, just knew, you had to risk everything, that this was your shot, but the banks had turned you down and your money was on the table and you had neither wealthy uncles nor elite contacts, where would you go?

  • Every decision was made with confidence and authority. Zemurray could move without waiting for permission or a committee report. 

Why Corporations Die

  • A corporation ages like a person. As the years go by and the founders die off, making way for the bureaucrats of the 2nd and 3rd generations, the ecstatic, risk-taking, just for the hell-of it spirit that built the company gives way to a comfortable middle age. 
  • A corporation is a product of a particular place and a particular time
  • Which is why, a corporation, though conceivably immortal, tends to have a life span, tends to age and die. 
    • Unless remade by a new generation of pioneers - in which case it’s a different company - most corporations do not outlive the era of their first success. When the ideas and assumptions prevalent at the time of their founding go out of fashion, the company fades. 

Lessons From A Banana Company For Business Survival

  • Get Big - A banana company needs to be fat enough, with enough capital in reserve, to weather inevitable freak occurrences, such as an earthquake or hurricane
  • Grow your own - A banana company needs its own fields so it can control planting and harvesting, thus avoiding ruinous competition in the event of a down season.
  • Diversify - A banana company needs plantations scattered across a vast terrain, stems growing in far-flung countries, so that a disaster that wipes out the crop of a particular region will not destroy the firm’s entire supply.

Quotes from Zemurray:

  • “You drink with a man, you learn what he knows”
  • “There is no problem you can’t solve if you understand your business from A to Z”
  • “If you’re going to fight me, you better kill me”

Corruption Stuff

  • “A mule costs more than a deputy (officer)
    • He was big into - kicking back a percentage back to a bureaucrat who landed him a concession, in New York they call it honest graft, in Chicago they call it the Machine.
  • One definition of evil is to fail to recognize the humanity in the other: to see a person as an object or tool, something to be put to use. 
  • Cuyamel  ( was built on the kickback, the bribe, the threat delivered in symbols: the photo with a face blacked out, the scythe busted in two. 
  • It does not matter how many bananas you ship: when you lose your reputation, you lose everything
  • The best tycoons are like magicians. They know when to share information and when to withhold. 

Latin American Influence

Master At Manipulating The Public - Edward Bernays (

Note: Zemurray hired Bernays as a PR man to help him overthrow the Guatemalan government in the 1950s and did it with some

    • If I align the interests of the company (United Fruit) with the interests of the country, but the interests of the people in charge of the country - then the US will secure my needs.
    • First, modern society with its millions, is essentially ungovernable. The public must instead be controlled by manipulation. The men who do this manipulating, in government or not, are the true leaders, philosopher-kings. They need not manipulate all the people, only the few thousand who set the agenda. The drivers of history are not the people, in other words, nor the elite who influence the people, but the PR men who influence the elite who influence the people
    • Second, the people can be made to behave as you want them to behave via the subconscious of the public mind - no one else believed such a thing existed - which can be directed with symbols and signs. “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind.” “is not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without knowing about it?”
    • If you want to advance a private interest, turn it into a public cause.
    • Bernays coined the term “public opinion”
    • He described the grand strategy as indirection.
    • Rather than fight for a single season of sales, he would make the world more friendly to his product.
      • A consortium of book publishers - concerned about a dip in numbers, hired Bernays. Did he go into schools and make the case for books? No, he talked to the architects and contractors who were designing the new suburban homes and convinced them a house is not modern if it doesn't include built-in bookshelves. Indirection. 
    • His belief in indirection kept him focused on the big picture

  • Bernays set various goals: convince the American people of the Communist presence in Guatemala; convince members of Congress the issue is a winner, convince the CIA, which can actually do something on the ground, it’s time to act, Bernays wouldn’t make the world better for bananas, he would make the world better for American politicians, who would make the world better for the CIA, which would make the world better for bananas. Indirection.

  • “In almost every act of our daily lives whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

  • If you don’t want them to find the truth, give them a better story

“We must never forget”.

P.S. Two decent articles I read recently:

Interesting thought piece on why people believe conspiracy theories from a pretty entertaining newsletter:

How people reacted in the 1830s to lockdowns during the cholera epidemic (1st 2 paragraphs):

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