Thursday 4 March, 2021

Jonathan Steinberg RIP

Jonathan (centre), on his 80th birthday with his brother and fellow-historian Chris Clark

Jonathan died today. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s, so I suppose it was a relief because he hated getting old and it must have been agonising for someone who had the sharpest, most retentive memory of anyone I knew, to lose it. A mutual friend wrote to me the other day about spending a day with him last summer:

We spent the first hour and a half watching a video of him delivering a lecture about Bismarck [of whom he wrote a magisterial biography] and handling questions with great verve and wit. He was transfixed by it. When it was finished, he said, looking at me intensely, “That man, Jonathan Steinberg, no longer exists. He belongs to the past. And Bismarck belongs to the past. They both belong to history.”

Theres a great sadness implicit in that story, but also a great consolation: it was Jonathan at his succinct best, able to say things that more fastidious scholars would habitually avoid.

He was a great historian but also a very dear friend whom I’ve known and loved for decades. It’s impossible to succinctly sum up his life or even his career(s). He came from a German Jewish family in New York, where his father was a celebrated Rabbi who I think expected Jonathan to follow in his footsteps. But the draft stopped that idea and he served in the US army during the war, coming home home determined to live in Europe. Sigmund Warburg, the great banker, spotted his talent and brought him into the bank and I think thought of him as his possible successor. But history claimed him in the end, and for most of his life he taught in Cambridge, where he was a Fellow of Trinity Hall and a member of the History Faculty which — in my opinion — never properly appreciated him. In the end it was the University of Pennsylvania that gave him the professorial Chair he deserved.

Mostly, our friendship revolved around lunch, which started around 12:30 and often went on until 3 or 3:30, after which I would come away with a long list of things I should read, because he seemed to have read everything, in several languages. I never came away from those long conversations without learning something. I think that one of the reasons we got on so well was that we were both ‘insider-outsiders’ as he put it. That is to say, we both liked and valued Cambridge, but were never entirely ‘of’ Cambridge. Which meant that we were able to properly enjoy the more comical aspects of an ancient institution while appreciating its many good sides. In one famous episode, a tramp had wandered into the Senior Combination Room of his college and the other Fellows didn’t quite know what to do about the intruder — who had settled himself in an armchair and was enjoying a cup of coffee. It was Jonathan who solved the problem by indicating in best New Yorker style that the guy was out of order and had better scram while the going was good. Whereupon he did. Afterwards everyone relaxed, but nobody said anything. It was a case-study, Jonathan said, on the English disease of politeness and the avoidance of embarrassment. “If I hadn’t done something”, he said afterwards, “they’d have elected him Master before they’d have kicked him out.”

He wrote like an angel, with a lovely pellucid style. For years he had a delightful column in New Society. And he occasionally wrote for the London Review of Books. If you want to get a flavour of what he was like, see this lovely LRB diary piece he wrote in 1984.

He was a wonderful, life-enhancing, generous friend. I was lucky to have known him. May he rest in peace.

Quote of the Day

“I can’t see the sense of making me a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). They might as well make me a Commander of Milton Keynes. At least that exists.”

  • Spike Milligan

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Man of the World | 1969


He doesn’t half sound gloomy about his condition, though. Thanks to John Darch for suggesting it.

Long Read of the Day

How Law Made Neoliberalism

Insightful long essay by Yale scholars Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Amy Kapczynski, and David Singh Grewal.

These crises are often analyzed in terms of the political economy of neoliberalism, an ideology of governance that came to predominate in the 1970s and ’80s. Neoliberalism is associated with a demand for deregulation, austerity, and an attempt to assimilate government to something more like a market—but it never was as simple as a demand for “free markets.” Rather, it was a demand to protect the market from democratic demands for redistribution.

This analysis of neoliberalism too often overlooks the critical role that law plays in constituting neoliberalism. Law is the essential connective tissue between political judgment and economic order.

Many people recognize that the law has changed in anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic ways in recent decades—for example, that Citizens United amplified the role of money in politics, or that the construct of “colorblindness” has become entrenched in constitutional doctrine and helps sustain structural racism. In our view these are not isolated changes, but part of an orientation—an ideology about markets, governments, and law that has become foundational to our legal infrastructure. We call this orientation the “Twentieth-Century Synthesis” in legal thought.

Under the Twentieth-Century Synthesis, areas of law that concern aspects of “the economy”—for example, contracts, corporations, and antitrust—were given over to a “law and economics” approach that emphasized wealth maximization. Meanwhile, other values—such as equality, dignity, and privacy—were supposed to be realized in constitutional law and areas of public administration. Shaped by these ideological currents, constitutional law turned away from concerns of economic power, structural inequality, and systemic problems of racial subordination. Other “public law” areas did the same. The result was that deep structures of power at the meeting place of state and economy were shielded from legal remedy and came to seem increasingly natural… En passant: I’ve often thought that tech companies are what the wet dreams of neoliberals must be like. Take those End User Licence Agreements (EULAs) for example. Although you’re supposed to belong to a ‘community’ (e.g. Facebook’s 2.2B users), actually you’re being treated as an atomised individual for whom everything in your feed is ‘personalised’ (i.e. targeted). Which brings to mind Margaret Thatcher’s famous observation about there being “no such thing as society — only individuals and their families”.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  How to have an (indoor) exercise bike without breaking the bank. Helpful piece. I have an exercise bike in the old-fashioned sense — it goes on roads. And isn’t networked. But then I’m lucky to live where that’s easy and safe. Just checked the other day and I’ve done nearly 5,000 miles on it. Link


Apologies to Andrew Curry for getting his first name wrong yesterday. Unforgivable, especially given that I read his blog every day. And thanks to Doc Searls for alerting me.

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