In American cultural and intellectual life, New York City sets the tone. As the main hub for the country’s media and frequent originator of trends that percolate through US society, what’s “in” with the New York scene today is often central to American culture tomorrow. And politics, too – as US conservatives never tire of noting – is often downstream of culture.
But New York City’s intellectual landscape is increasingly split between two warring scenes, divided by geography, aesthetics and politics. Which of these prevails could affect whether America shifts right or remains where it is.
In Brooklyn, the borough associated with the “hipster” revolution from the late 2000s, writers energised by the Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020 retain their faith in left-wing politics through new “small” magazines. But on the island of Manhattan, a self-consciously transgressive artistic and literary scene is brewing downtown. In podcasts, plays and literary journals, a different sensibility is being elaborated. Scornful of the “woke” sanctimony of Brooklyn-based media, some flirt with alternative ideologies, while others claim not to be interested in politics at all.
Who wins in New York’s clash of cultures is high-stakes for the future of American political culture. One does not have to go far back to see how scenes deemed cool in New York often become political reality. During the Trump years, college students and struggling young professionals across the country looked to Brooklyn for the podcasts, publications and organising models of a new democratic socialism. This cultural energy soon took broad-based political form with electoral victories in major primaries for figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Then came the pandemic. 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 centred 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.
But Brooklyn has not left the field of cultural battle. With the electoral fortunes of democratic socialism having ebbed after the defeat of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign – and as the Biden administration’s progressive agenda has been largely neutralised by moderate Democrats – the Brooklyn scene’s political hopes are pinned on growing unionisation in companies like Amazon and Starbucks, amid a red-hot labour market.
In recent years a number of new little magazines have been founded to replenish the intellectual energies of the borough’s left. One of these is the Drift, founded in 2020 as the Sanders campaign collapsed and the country boiled over in mass protest over the killing of George Floyd.
The magazine is left of centre but takes a carefully calibrated distance from US liberal pieties – publishing, for example, a searching critique of Anthony Fauci, the public-health official who attained a cult status among American liberals during the height of the pandemic. The Drift editors are seeking to navigate the altered landscape on the “post-Bernie” Brooklyn left – adding playfulness, but without abandoning the political commitments. “We want to help the left arrive at the best versions of its own arguments,” founding editor Kiara Barrow told me.
Its staff is younger than the main stalwarts of Brooklyn-based left media, who are in their mid-thirties and therefore vulnerable – rightly or wrongly – to accusations that their critique of Manhattan has more to do with their own failures and resentment of a new generation that is having more fun.
Tension is simmering between the two scenes, pitting left-wing Brooklyn against reactionary Manhattan. “There is nothing more pathetic than the New York ‘downtown’ scene today,” Noah Kulwin, a contributing editor at the Drift, wrote on Twitter. “Shitty art and selfishness.”
Barrow is less severe. “We are interested in these developments like everyone else,” she said. “There are always going to be people who are contrarian, looking for ways to feel like they’re in the avant-garde.” When, during the pandemic, the dominance of liberal and left opinion meant that even seeing friends felt radical, the development of something like the Manhattan scene was only natural.
Still, the battle lines are drawn, and not just on Twitter. In the queue outside a Drift issue launch party in March 2022, I was having a conversation about the Manhattan scene. At the mention of the phrase “Dimes Square”, a woman standing nearby promptly intervened: “Dimes Square? I hate those people!”
It is fitting, then, that the latest Manhattan cultural sensation is an off-off-Broadway play about the Dimes Square set – called, simply, Dimes Square. Performed in packed lofts across town – I attended a showing in an apartment belonging to novelist Joshua Cohen, recently awarded a Pulitzer prize for his novel The Netanyahus – the play dramatises the petty rivalries and self-serving ambitions of the scene. The actors – including veteran book critic Christian Lorentzen and Martin Amis’s daughter Fernanda Amis – are mostly members of the downtown set themselves, and play characters that sometimes resemble their own off-stage personalities or biographies (Amis’s character is the daughter of a famous writer).
The play’s author, Matthew Gasda, found himself in lower Manhattan during the pandemic for the same reason many others did – there was nothing else happening. Wasn’t the crowd there a little vulgar? Perhaps – “But they don’t judge,” he said. “They don’t cancel.”
Is there really a left-right divide between Brooklyn and Manhattan? “Manhattan seems more comfortable with a post-party, post-binary world,” he explained. “I didn’t vote in 2020.”
And taking money from Peter Thiel? His play doesn’t, but for those who do, “To me you haven’t done anything different from someone who gets hedge-fund money,” Gasda says. “This is historically always the issue with the patron class. Would we not want Michelangelo because the Medici were putting people in towers?”
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.
This could be true even if one accepts the idea that the sensibility of the new Manhattan scene is fundamentally apolitical. If, influenced by this sensibility, young people entering employment in elite media, tech and political institutions feel less intent on finding ways to apply ideas about social justice to their work, this itself would represent a major change in American politics.
If progressive cultural dominance turns out to be more fragile than it looks, and the Manhattan “post-binary” sentiment catches on in broader elite circles, that could prove the biggest threat yet to the pose of its originators. Instead of being detached observers, they could become instruments in the very kind of interlocking cultural-political machine they criticise. And then what?
But it is too early to be sure anything like that will happen. The structural position of the American media class – matching economic precarity with cultural power – will continue to incline it towards a politics somewhere between the pro-corporate “wokeness” of Democratic-aligned capitalists and the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders. That is the range within which the Brooklyn scene operates. And for now, the American university remains an influential inculcator of codes of behaviour based around “identity politics”, the siren songs of lower Manhattan renegades notwithstanding. The battle for cultural dominance in New York – and in America – rages on.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special