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Worst Book Review Ever


It’s hard to imagine a more hackish book review than what Ira Stoll pulls off at Reason. Reviewing Rich Cohen’s new book on the United Fruit Company (this is the first I’ve heard about the book although I’ll probably take a look at it), Stoll notes that the story of Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray and capitalism writ large is a story of great things, with the occasional blemish.

What are the great things Stoll ties to Zemurray and United Fruit? Upward mobility! Technological innovation! “Bias-free marketing creativity!” Egalitarianism! Decentralization! Philanthropy (properly used to help create Israel of course)!

And then there’s a tiny paragraph showing the supposed downside:

And the United Fruit story also reminds us of some of the hazards when capitalism becomes cronyism. The book recounts all the Washington insiders hired by Zemurray as lobbyists, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran. A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it.

Let’s see, so the story of United Fruit is almost perfect, like an almost unblemished banana with one tiny bruise. I wonder if United Fruit had any negative connotations. Oh let’s see, there’s only like 100 books on the utter evil of United Fruit and the banana trade. So there’s the destabilization of Guatemala through the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz because he threatened to nationalize unused United Fruit lands. There’s the horrible labor and environmental practices of the fruit companies that led to, among other things, workers turning blue. There’s the monocultures that led to banana diseases that continue to threaten the long-term supply of the fruit. There’s the time that Guatemala and Honduras almost went to war when each was controlled by a particular banana company that both wanted on the border. There’s the fruit company not respecting the sovereignty of their respective hosts, quite literally creating the term “banana republics”; capitalist hero Sam Zemurray himself hired mercenaries to overthrow the Honduran government in 1910.

And there’s so many more terrible things that these companies did to Central America.

But none of this matters for Ira Stoll or Reason. No cost to labor, nature, or human life is high enough if the end is a justification of extremist capitalism.

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  • DrDick

    the story of United Fruit is almost perfect, like an almost unblemished

    Irony just immolated itself in a Banana Republic.

  • joe from Lowell

    The whipped cream of irony on this hack sundae: Reason magazine assailed the State Department’s denunciations of the Honduras coup, and their insistence that the coup regime not merely “run out the clock” until the deposed President’s legal term ended, as…

    …wait for it…

    “American imperialism.”

    Not the coup itself. Not the apparent involvement of right-wing American figures like John Negroponte in the coup. Not even some imagined U.S. government backing for the coup. No, the “American imperialism” they objected to was the State Department’s opposition to the coup, which they hated because of how “anti-imperialist” they are.

    Ta-da! That’s a pretty neat trick.

    • Can you blame them? There’s a lot of people to exploit in Honduras!

  • bradp

    That’s probably the worst piece I have read this year. It’s embarrassing.

    • DrDick

      Why? Because it is generally representative of libertarian reasoning?

  • wjts

    A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it.

    Indeed, United Fruit would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling governments.

    • And of course notice the single lobbyist mentioned is Tommy Corcoran. Damn that FDR and his Democrat corruption!!!

  • Fats Durston

    Silly Loomis, brown lives are externalities!

    • joe from Lowell

      And as we all know, the only meaningful way to internalize externalities is to establish an ownership stake.


  • jake the snake

    Adventurism in Central America was a big part of what lead General Smedley Butler to write “War is a Racket”. On that subject, My father’s brother served in the Marines in Nicaragua in the 1930s.
    At one time we had some pictures he had taken there. If I remember correctly there was one of Gen. Butler.

  • Cheap Wino

    Those “only like 100 books on the utter evil of United Fruit” must have been penned before the Supreme Court taught us that United Fruit was actually a person under the constitution and, as an American citizen, could not have been evil.

    Thank goodness Cohen is here to revise and update history for us.

  • Rehabilitating the reputation of United Fruit — a task worthy of The Onion.

  • swearyanthony

    But what about all the good things the Nazis did?

    Yeah, Godwin, but FMD, that piece ain’t far off it. The comments are amazing too – someone brings up negative stuff, and is immediately asked to prove it.

  • Pathman25

    Smedley Butler characterized his service in Nicaragua as “helping make things safe for United Fruit Company and big bankers.” Things haven’t changed much have they?

  • wengler

    It falls into the realm of religion when the the capitalists can’t admit that control of the means of production by those with capital can be exploitative and awful without some claim of evil government interference.

  • Cohen’s next triumph: The Congo Free State–an unblemished rubber tire with, you know, a few hundred thousand corpses in it.

  • Marc

    It’s difficult to beat the Stanley Fish review of the Palin “biography” in the all-time hack Olympics.

  • Davis

    Get this idiocy:

    “There is the egalitarianism. The banana companies figured out they could make more money by lowering prices and making bananas a fruit for mass consumption rather than a scarce and expensive luxury.”

    Did they lower prices by exploiting labor? That’s egalitarian! To a libertarian.

  • Margarita

    What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain a third-floor ballroom complete with a pipe organ and a crystal chandelier, and lose his own … Oh, “There is the bias-free marketing creativity.” Just so, just so.

  • Sly

    The Mafia gave gainful employment opportunities to classes of people who were chronically unemployed or underemployed (mobility!), greatly changed the shipping, pharmaceutical, and personal protection industries (innovation!), uplifted those not directly connected with the organization through remittances (philanthropy!), and operated as a loose confederation of interests (decentralization!) that cooperated only to the extent that mutually-advantageous norms were upheld (egalitarianism!).

    And it all went downhill, because a bunch of greedy cops and politicians insisted that the Cosa Nostra bribe them in order to stay in business.

    • wjts


      There is the opportunity it offers for upward mobility. William Walker started out as an immigrant’s son in Tennessee. He eventually became the president of Nicaragua.

      There is the efficiency. Walker relied on a small private army to topple the Legitimist regime, accomplishing in five months what the traditional, governmental military failed to do in more than a year.

      There is the innovation. Walker quickly realized that cumbersome governmental regulations pertaining to slavery were stifling Nicaragua’s economic growth. By reintroducing slavery, Walker, in his own words, provided the means by which “capital can be secured from the attacks of the majority in a pure democracy“.

  • Yosemite Semite

    I especially like Marine Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler on his service to business interests in Central America and sundry other hot spots:

    “I spent 33 years…being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism….

    “I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1916. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City [Bank] boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street….

    “In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested….I had…a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions….I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three cities. The Marines operated on three continents…”

    BTW, Butler was a highly decorated soldier, one of the very few to win the Congressional Medal of Honor twice.

  • Jameson Quinn

    Arbenz didn’t just threaten to nationalize unused UFC land; he actually did it. The fact that it was contested from the start, and then the new regime destroyed the records and spent a lot of energy killing anyone who dared recall what had happened (the 55-56 genocide was tiny compared to the 83-84 one, but still real), doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

  • Pingback: On the United Fruit Company in Central America (and Terrible Book Reviews) « Americas South and North()

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