The Fish That Ate The Whale is a biography of Sam Zemurray, the banana magnate of the 20th Century. You may have never heard of Sam Zemurray, but his innovations affect your life everyday in ways far bigger than your morning banana.
He pioneered (for better and for worse) many aspects of the modern supply chain, demand generation, public relations strategy, the partnership of private industry and public resources, effective lobbying, international business strategy, and philanthropy.
He was a force of nature. As an individual, his life makes for a good story. But what is really fascinating about the biography is how it keenly raises so many big questions for our hyper-individualistic society like –
- How much credit goes to an individual vs. the timing of one’s life?
- How much blame goes to an individual vs. the timing of one’s life?
- How do you properly weight the suffering of a few now vs. the benefit of many in the future?
- What do you say about technology that brings equal suffering and good?
- How do you actually stop a single individual from having total say in a public decision?
- How much should governments collaborate with their big corporations? And when do those corporations lose their “nationality”?
- Are philanthropic gifts always good? How many strings must come attached before a gift is “bad”?
- What are the ethics of highly effective public relations, marketing & demand generation?
- When there is huge information asymmetry (ie, one party knows *way* more than another) – what is the definition of “fair”?
And the list goes on. But the short version is that real life is always much more complicated than imagined hypotheticals. Sam Zemurray lived a life right in the heart of the beginnings of our modern global economy. The issues that he dealt with and took advantage of are still with us today. But to read about the original, too-crazy-to-be-fiction history, it makes for an entertaining and educational book.
Here’s a few picture notes for examples –
If you don’t know, this story is the beginning of one of the CIA’s Cold War interventions. The overthrow of Arbenz led to a 36 year Civil War, multiple genocides, and more than 200,000 people dead or missing. All of North America is still paying for this colossal evil.
And yet. “This colossal evil” is like so much other evil. It’s banal. It was utterly normal – perpetrated by people doing their jobs. Sam Zemurray was a businessman defending his private property interests. Arbenz was a democratically elected leader seeking to protect the Guatemalan treasury and economy. Communism at the time was defined by the forced nationalization of private property. The CIA’s legal mission was to contain communist influence at every point on the globe. The State Department’s legal mission was to defend the interests of Americans overseas. So, yeah. It got complicated. And Sam Zemurray was in the heart of it.
One of the absolute best parts of the book was the description of pioneering public relations strategies. These strategies are standard playbook today. But reading about their development really helps to understand how these strategies work. Sam Zemurray understood how to advance a private interest via a public cause. And again, it highlights just how complex our world can be.
But Zemurray went beyond PR strategy. He wanted to do things “at scale” – for better and for worse. He pioneered many business strategies that are standard playbook today.
This page was the best page of the whole book. It encapsulates everything about this era, this person, and how it applies to the world we live in today.
Actually – this was the best page in the book. You have to read the book to understand its’ power. That first paragraph really speaks to the passing of wealth and fame. But yeah, this biography, more than any that I’ve every read, really shows how pride, ambition, confidence, hard work, belief in individual agency, and perseverance are incredible virtues worth emulating…but only with a keen eye for context & privilege, a sense of humility, and careful consideration of long-term consequences.
- Editor Rating
- Rated 4.5 stars
- The Fish That Ate The Whale
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A must-read biography. A fascinating life that serves as a perfect microcosm for so many human & modern struggles.