From Shirtsleeves to Hair Shirt in Three Generations

And now, a few spittle-flecked words from MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry regarding those who take umbrage with Mr. Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech:

Harris-Perry’s folk-Marxist freakout isn’t that surprising – while the polls are still close, there does seem to be plenty of flopsweat on the left right now. Of course, that’s an ideology that’s always in search of a new Two-Minute Hate; it doesn’t need much to set its adherents off.


But consider the venue: MSNBC, and the history wrapped up in that network’s call sign. Microsoft was, of course, formed by Bill Gates after he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-‘70s, when the idea of a personal computer still seemed like something out of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. NBC, the other half of the equation, has much deeper roots; it was formed by David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant who began as a paperboy in New York, before rising from office boy to commercial manager of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, before building first the NBC radio network in the 1920s, and then the NBC television network after WWII.

NBC is currently owned by a consortium that includes GE, which was formed by Thomas Edison (himself a dropout, even if such language probably wasn’t used in the 1850s) before he went on to invent the phonograph, the electric light bulb, and the motion picture camera. Which brings us to another business with a stake in MSNBC, which is Universal Studios, founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle, who Wikipedia notes was “a German-Jewish immigrant from Laupheim who settled in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he managed a clothing store. On a buying trip in 1905 to Chicago, he was struck by the popularity of nickelodeons,” before founding a movie studio of his own. And finally Comcast, which was founded by 1963 as a cable TV consortium, back when most people considered TV to be three fuzzy channels brought in by a pair of rabbit-ear antennas.


Last week, Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller chided Mitt Romney for his emphasis on entrepreneurialism in his speeches at the Republican Convention. Certainly, Lewis is right that Romney needs to remember “all the voters who aren’t entrepreneurs.” But in an era when the current occupant of the White House can utter to his supporters that “you didn’t build that,” it’s worth reminding that men with foresight did build this country, and the businesses the president and his supporters take for granted — or rail against, as seen in the above clip.

Say, somebody should write a book about what would happen if those businesses all went on strike

In the meantime, “there’s an old American saying: ‘From shirtsleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations,’” the late Alistair Cooke wrote for the BBC* in early 2001:

Not surprisingly this phrase became current during the era – the 1870s and 80s – the era of the so-called** “Robber Barons”, when poor immigrants — Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller were spectacular examples — arrived in an industrial town, laboured relentlessly, spotted the possibilities in some humble element they worked on – coal, coke.

With the young clerk, Rockefeller, it was a sticky oil that oozed from the ground which the Indians had used as a laxative.

The young clerk sank his modest savings in this ooze and it turned him into the head of Standard Oil and made JD Rockefeller what one old diarist called “a leviathan of wealth”.

But both Carnegie and Rockefeller, once they’d acquired their fortune, spent the rest of their lives dispersing it, in medical, educational and other philanthropic institutions which, to this day, are towering testaments to the value of research unfettered by government.

But many more smaller figures of the Robber Baron age made immense fortunes, took no care of them, were not of a generous or philanthropic nature, handed the money on as a life belt to their sons who then squandered it, so much so that their sons returned to the shirtsleeves in which grandfather had landed in the United States.

Hence the merciless phrase: “From shirtsleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.”


Considering that NBC was founded in 1926, before going off the rails in the mid-naughts (remember this moment, when a GE-owned network remonstrated against the very product Thomas Edison invented?), that works out to be just about right.

* Yes, they forgot that advice across the pond before we did; hence the similarities between the malaise-ridden Britain in the 1970s and Mr. Obama’s similarly negative transformative vision for us.

** The “so-called” is certainly appreciated.

Related: “Forget Labor Day,” the Blogfather writes. “How about celebrating Creators’ Day?”



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