Narrative and Anecdote

There was a time when New York City had the gateway it deserved.

Demolished more than half a century ago, the former Pennsylvania Station by McKim, Mead & White was hardly the first great building in town to face the wrecking ball. The Lenox Library by Richard Morris Hunt and the old Waldorf-Astoria by Henry Hardenbergh on Fifth Avenue also came down. For generations, New Yorkers embraced the mantra of change, assuming that what replaced a beloved building would probably be as good or better.

The Frick mansion, by Carrère and Hastings, replaced the Lenox Library. The Empire State Building replaced the old Waldorf.

Then, a lot of bad Modern architecture, amid other signs of postwar decline, flipped the optimistic narrative.

Penn Station Was an Exhalted Gateway. Here’s How It Became a Reviled Rat’s Maze., by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times. April 29, 2019

You hear a lot these days about narrative. I don’t know anyone better on the topic, at least in the world of economics that I follow, than Mary Morgan, of the Department of Economic History at the London School of Economics

Morgan is an expert because she is an accomplished practitioner. The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think (Cambridge, 2012), is based on eight scrupulous case studies of how mathematical models gradually supplanted words in workaday  technical economics. The philosophical examination established Morgan among the world’s leading historians of economic thought.

A related group research project on the nature of evidence produced an edited volume of essays, How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge (Cambridge, 2011).  Since 2016, she has led a scholarly European Commission research project on “Narrative in Science.”  Elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012, she served four years as its vice president for publications.

From Morgan’s introduction to a special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, “Narrative knowing is most immediately relevant when the scientific phenomena involve complexity, variety, and contingency….”

From her essay in the same issue, “What narratives do above all else is create a productive order amongst materials with the purpose to answer why and how questions.”  Their power is illustrated in novels, she writes; their question-answering and problem-solving capabilities are most evident in detective stories.

I’ve been reading Morgan in connection with an economics story.  But I thought of her in connection with events these last two weeks in Washington, D.C.

I had no time to listen to the impeachment hearings this week. I gathered from the news reports I read that the testimony was damning.

Republicans seem to believe that the attempted extortion of the government of Ukraine was, as Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Daniel Henninger put it, nothing more than Donald Trump’s  “umpteenth ‘norms’ violation.”  The Ukraine caper wasn’t a constitutional crisis. But is clearly was a crime. The fake Ukraine election-interference story was even more shocking.

Therefore it seems right to bring the case. Still, it doesn’t seem sufficient reason to remove the president from office at a time when an election is at hand, especially since a significant minority of voters seem not to think the president did anything out of the ordinary. Impeachment forces Republicans candidates to clarify their views – and to go on clarifying them for years to come.

The thing to do is to take it to the electorate.  The attempted extortion was an anecdote –a short, grimly entertaining account of something that Trump did, an illustration of a good tradition torn down.  But it is only one anecdote of many.

Next year’s election is the key event. The order of American presidents is among the most fundamental narratives of the history of the United States.  Let the House leaders draft the impeachment articles, the membership pass quickly them, and the Senate debate. Move on to the Democratic Party primaries.

The Moynihan-conceived plan to convert the Farley Postal Building across the street across the street from Penn Station (also designed by McKim, Mead & White, into a new train hall is going forward.  But only Donald Trump’s defeat next year can begin to flip the pessimistic narrative of the nation.

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