TDE Note: I'd never even heard of a nascent Right movement in Manhattan, much less one that is gentrifying Chinatown and intentionally going to war with the Wokists in Brooklyn. But that's what is happening. The twenty-somethings are open to anything to get past modernity, including embracing premodernity. Some are even converting to Catholicism. If you read TDE's "Existence Strikes Back" series, you'll see these are the "kids" I'm trying to reach.
New York’s Hipster Wars
Why the city’s clash of cultures between progressive Brooklyn and transgressive Manhattan marks a new era in American politics.
The Brooklyn-based cultural scene took the pandemic seriously, and in-person parties and events largely ground to a halt. Not so across the East River in Manhattan. Filling this sudden void in the city’s culture was a nascent, mostly younger, twenty-something crowd centered on a gentrifying area of Chinatown sometimes known as “Dimes Square” (a portmanteau of Times Square and the name of one of the scene’s preferred restaurants). The defining ethos was scorn for the hyper-cautiousness that reigned in Brooklyn – and more generally for the sanctimony of the “woke” left.
Even as pandemic restrictions have rolled back and Brooklyn returns to life, lower Manhattan has maintained an attitude of brash hedonism that aims to recapture earlier no-holds-barred eras in the borough’s avant-garde. That attitude is on display at the scene’s gatherings. At a reading launching the latest issue of Forever magazine, a publication associated with the new downtown Manhattan scene, a fist fight broke out over photographs of someone’s girlfriend. The striking performance of one reader featured her critique of contemporary male sexuality for being insufficiently dominant – followed by five full minutes of untranslated Japanese.
Some critique the habits of the “professional-managerial class”, while others toy with converting to Catholicism. There is tech money sloshing around in the Manhattan scene, too. Some use the cash from foundations attached to conservative venture-capitalist Peter Thiel to put on festivals of “transgressive” film. Supporters hail the resurgence of art that refuses to trade in its power to shock in exchange for adherence to political dogma. Critics see a scene that practices transgression for its own sake – or for mercenary ends – and warn of the consequences of flirtation with reactionary concepts such as the abandonment of ideals of social progress, Catholicism, and an admiration for the aristocratic past. . . .
A recent article in Vanity Fair drew connections between the lower Manhattan scene and a new brand of right-wing politics. Republican candidates on the ballot in Ohio and Arizona share with some Manhattan cultural figures the notion that elite institutions – in the politics, media, tech, and corporate worlds – are ideologically unified and function as a single unit.
The appeal of this idea is not hard to understand. In the run-up to the 2020 election, for example, a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son was limited from being shared on major social networks, on the presumption that it contained misinformation – but later reporting showed key claims in the article were accurate, giving the impression that a political intervention had been made in favour of the Democratic candidate by technology companies.
On a recent episode of the podcast Red Scare – another focal point for the Manhattan scene – the hosts discussed the dominance of an ideological-material alliance between capital and the Democratic Party. Analysing the work of James Burnham, an influential 20th-century Marxist turned conservative, the Red Scare hosts sketched out a theory of politics in which being ruled by an oligarchy is inevitable and, without quite abandoning all hope, the main objective for individuals is to preserve some modicum of independence while acknowledging their broader submission.
Though a bit lacking in sociological substance, there is genuine appeal in this mix of realism and tempered hope. But these Manhattan figures’ sense that they are detached observers of an all-encompassing elite ideological machine underrates their own burgeoning influence on US culture. “Woke” ideas, after all, hold sway within US institutions because they are in fashion with many of the people who staff those institutions. If the attitudes of lower Manhattan become more generalised – and some, speaking of a wider “vibe shift”, think they are spreading already – that could change.