I have twelve thoughts about today’s New York Times editorial about Dimes Square by Julia Yost, a senior editor at First Things.
For those who live outside New York City media and art-scene circles, Dimes Square is…well, let me Google that for you. Dimes Square itself is a microneighborhood in Manhattan’s Chinatown, or its Lower East Side, or somewhere. The little neighborhood, which is reportedly not much more than an intersection, has become a hub for a certain species of young person who understandably felt that the most exciting years of their lives were wasted in COVID-19 lockdowns. Consequently, they began rebelling against the breathless morality of liberals who defended the lockdowns, and soon they began rebelling against liberal sensibilities in general, because a) they lived in New York City, where liberalism is the cultural dominant and b) rebelling against the cultural dominant is what young people do.
I don’t feel like writing much more about a New York City “scene” that, in reality, I know very little about, apart from the fact that the popular (and increasingly anti-woke) podcast Red Scare is especially popular among Dimes Square scenesters. Also, I’m 39, an old millennial, and most of the cool kids in my generational cohort moved to Brooklyn, specifically Williamsburg, in the 2000s. I barely know anything about Brooklyn, so I won’t even pretend to know anything about Dimes Square.
One thing I do know, however, is that some of the young people associated with Dimes Square have began experimenting with….traditional Catholicism. Whether these experiments are sincere or just posturing, they have generated a lot of excitement in the traditionalist Catholicosphere on Twitter and, now, in the pages of the New York Times. As usual, give conservative Christians the slightest soupçon of cultural relevance, and they’ll enthusiastically declare victory in the culture wars.
Yost isn’t quite declaring victory in this editorial, but then again, this was written for the New York Times. It’s not hard to imagine that, behind the scenes at First Things, champagne bottles be poppin’.
I apologize that Yost’s editorial is behind a paywall. I’ll quote from it pretty extensively in what follows, so you’ll get a strong sense of what she says. Here are my thoughts:
I don’t live in New York City so I have no clue whether the much-vaunted, much-fretted over “Dimes Square scene” is anything more than a sensibility or “vibe.” I know the Dimes Square scene is “small,” as Yost points out several times in the editorial; I’m not yet sure if it’s “significant,” as she claims.
For many Americans who live outside the Five Boroughs, New York is a fantastical, mysterious place. Yost compares the Dimes Square scene to the undeniably significant “Brooklyn scene” of the 2000s, back when the millennials were still young and dressing like 19th-century apothecarists. But here’s the thing: Brooklyn is a huge place. Its population is roughly that of Chicago. The millennial Brooklyn scene actually encompassed a dozen or more different subscenes, most famously in Williamsburg but also in Greenpoint and (if you had kids) Park Slope…to say nothing of the spillover into Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx. Hipster culture contained innumerable subcultures and sub-subcultures, and eventually developed major centers in rest of the nation: Los Angeles (especially Silver Lake), Austin, Portland, pretty much every college town, etc. Eventually young people across the globe were dressing like hipsters from Williamsburg. Everyone could name major millennial writers, musicians, filmmakers, and fine artists associated with hipster culture.
Right now, Dimes Square—insofar as I can tell from my desk here in Iowa City—is roughly the size of just one of those Brooklyn sub-subcultures. It possesses nothing like the cultural dominance of hipsterdom. As Matthew Sitman, associate editor of Commonweal, pointed out on a recent podcast, we don’t really see much art or literature coming out of Dimes Square (I have heard of one play from the scene that was titled…Dimes Square). So for now, the whole thing seems like a post-lockdown rebellion and general “vibe” that is isolated to a few kids living in one microneighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Maybe this scene will capture the zeitgeist in a year or two. It hasn’t yet.
Yost’s claim that Catholicism possess an “historic ability to accommodate cultural subversion” will ring false to most people who were raised in the Catholic Church. But it’s a very First Things kind of claim, and it’s extremely disingenuous. Many of the Catholic “integralist” writers at First Things explicitly state that their political aim is to seize control of American culture and American political institutions (not necessarily in that order). When liberal writers object to this, the First Things writers will respond with, “You just can’t handle how subversive we are.” Give me a break. Supporting the right-wing of the Republican Party as a Christian in America is not subversive. And whatever its history of “accommodating cultural subversion,” Catholicism has a much longer history of using its institutional power to squash subversive cultural movements and good-faith dissent. Sure, some politically radical Catholics subscribed to liberation theology…but the Pope himself, John Paul II, rejected it.
First Things is practically a Francoist operation these days. Don’t let them tell you they’re “subversive,” except insofar as these far-right post-liberal views, which seek to destroy our political traditions and political institutions, are always morally subversive.
Yost claims that young people with the Dimes Square sensibility are going to revitalize the Church. The idea that Generation Z will discover Catholicism “as a form of youthful rebellion” is not only unbelievably hopeful, it celebrates the kind of conversion experience that is typically skin-deep. But this is a classic conservative hope, that the youth are turning to conservatism, that the youth are going “trad” (as my favorite YouTuber, Brian Holdsworth, frequently claims). I don’t buy it. Church attendance among American youth has been declining for decades and is now historically low. Meanwhile, Evangelicals and Pentecostals are much stronger than Catholics and mainline Protestants when it comes to attracting young people. All of this Catholic hope for future mass conversions smacks of the idea that soccer will become a major sport in America because, y’know, “demographics.” My favorite one-liner: “Soccer is the sport of the future, and always will be.” And while soccer may someday be big in America, I don’t foresee traditionalist Catholicism becoming a national trend.
It’s pretty clear to me that these Dimes Square kids are using Catholicism as an aesthetic posture. They’re certainly not practicing the Catholic sexual ethics that matter so much to the editors at First Things. Do you really think that most conservative Catholics would approve of Red Scare‘s Dasha Nekrasova if she didn’t have a well-reviewed podcasting platform? If she wasn’t semi-famous, if she wasn’t anti-woke, if she was just an ordinary college girl in Madison, Wisconsin, who happened to like Catholic art and who hosted a college radio show with some of the raunchy content you hear on Red Scare, they’d at best ignore her and at worst try to burn her at the stake.
Yost writes that Generation Z’s interest in Catholicism is exciting “whether the new faithful are performing an act of theater or not.” Huh? You don’t care about whether your flock is sincere or not? You only care about how much attention your faith seems to be getting? What kind of Christianity is this?
Yost admits that all the relevant details about the Dimes Square scene “might suggest that the rising interest in Catholicism in certain social circles is just another way of being ironic or chasing a trend,” that this whole thing “may be partly a pose.” You better believe it.
The whole “conservative Christianity is the counterculture now, progressivism is the new Moral Majority” line is so tired. The idea that the editors of First Things reject moral majoritarianism is absurd. They desperately want to be the Moral Majority. Back when the vast majority of Americans identified with Christianity, they constantly touted their status of the “Moral Majority.” They warned their readers that liberalism represented the interests of an evil, minoritarian cabal. Now we’re supposed to reject progressiveness because it represents “the establishment”? Give me a break. The folks at First Things want to be the establishment, and if they’re given the chance, they’ll go back to their old majoritarian appeals.
Writers in the pages of First Things are always lamenting the apparent collapse of Catholicism in the face of Western secularism and are eager to latch onto any indication that the trend is reversing. But the trend is not reversing. And neither is the Church collapsing. As Bishop Barron frequently points out, the Catholic Church is actually growing exponentially…in the Global South. And it really tells you something that First Things and other trads routinely discount the Global South.
Yost describes Honor Levy as “fresh-out-of-Bennington,” perhaps to appeal to the coastal sensibilities of most NYT readers. But I think this also reveals something about the folks at First Things: they want, perhaps more than anything else, to be taken seriously by Ivy League intellectuals and culturally elite taste-makers. First Things is pretty high-brow—it is the intellectual engine of post-liberal conservatism—but it is also aspirationally high-brow. Like a grumpy old academic, it is desperate for validation from its younger colleagues.
(And for what it’s worth, Levy does sound like a very sincere Catholic convert.)
Yost writes: “as the writer Nick Burns told me in an email, rosary beads are…’paraphernalia of the underclass,’ a way to dispel accusations of privilege from the scene’s ‘fellow bourgeois.’ The affectation of religious imagery and faith may be nothing but a controlled use of class signifiers for the sake of political or aesthetic statement.”
I don’t really have a point to make about that quote, I’m just observing that an editor of First Things is appealing to, of all things, class conflict. Is First Things experiencing a Marxist turn?
Defending the idea that Catholicism accommodates subversion, Yost writes that “the Decadent movement of the late 19th century, led in England by figures like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, pursued avant-garde aesthetics and recherché experience, including drug use and sexual experimentation. Conversions to Catholicism became common among the Decadents and were stigmatized by the Anglo-Protestant world as just another pose or experiment — or perversion. The Decadents knew that Catholicism pairs well with transgression.”
Huh? Oscar Wilde? The Decadents? I…I…I just…you literally want to criminalize sodomy!!!!
Yost writes, “The church has long embraced theatricality, and it welcomes converts with motives other than sheer religious zeal — for instance, those who wish to share the faith of a future spouse. ‘Authentic’ internal conversion is not a Catholic demand but a Protestant one.”
That’s a fair point, and it’s one of the things I admire about both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But here’s a thought experiment: what if, in addition to treating rosaries as fashion accessories, the kids in Dimes Square hadn’t defined their whole ethos in opposition to New York state pandemic policies? And what if they all converted to Catholicism but also supported legal abortion (the Dimes Square kids are pretty quiet about abortion)? In those scenarios, I don’t think First Things would write so glowingly about them (if they even noticed them in the first place). In those scenarios, the folks at First Things would likely be very concerned about the authenticity of their beliefs.
Speaking of abortion: after a reference to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Yost writes, “Real-world events will confront young urban Catholics with the full implications of Catholic doctrine, making it hard to view the rosary as a fashion statement. Over time, these developments will sort the converts from the larpers.” In other words, we’ll see whether these Dimes Square kids are authentic Catholics when they’re confronted with the abortion issue.
Once again, the whole of Catholic tradition and dogma and doctrine, the whole of Catholic identity, hinge on one’s deepest, innermost feelings about the abortion issue.
I’m not saying that support for abortion and Catholicism are compatible. I am saying that it’s pretty absurd when trads who consistently accuse a liberal Catholic like Elizabeth Bruenig—who personally opposes abortion but doesn’t want to criminalize women who have abortions—of apostasy. These same trads are willing to give Dasha Nekrasova the benefit of the doubt because…why? Because she trashes Biden, because she hates “wokeism,” because she is willing to have Alex Jones on her podcast?
When I think about my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, when I’m asked why I converted to Orthodoxy Christianity, I usually say something like this: “I loved the art, the aesthetics.”
Of course, that’s only partly true. As a young person, I began to get sucked into historical, liturgical Christianity in general (via the influence of Rich Mullins, et al) and Orthodox spirituality specifically (after reading Dostoevsky and developing an obsession with Russia). In my twenties, a few of my exvangelical friends converted to Orthodoxy, and their faith and practice made a big impression on me. In my thirties, I began to encounter more Orthodox theology, I learned more about Orthodox practices, and I discovered my affinity with both. I became convinced that Orthodoxy represented Christianity’s truest apostolic expression.
But I’d be lying if I said that the iconography, the architecture, and the general aesthetics of Orthodoxy didn’t influence me.
And there’s nothing wrong with that—in nearly all Christian traditions, art and aesthetics serve an evangelical purpose. Art and aesthetics are essential to our lives, and are consequently essential to the faith practice of any believer. Yost writes that she converted to Catholicism because she read James Joyce, and I don’t for a second doubt the sincerity of her conversion. And for all I know, all of these Dimes Square Catholics are 100% sincere, 100% not faking it…or perhaps they’re engaging in a (excuse the oxymoron) “sincerely ironic” Catholicism, the kind of true, double-edged irony that contains and transcends the division between sincerity and faking it. Anything is possible.
Yorst writes, “For those scenesters who have converted and are frequenting the sacraments, we should hesitate to reject their practice as inauthentic.” I want my readers to know that I strongly agree with Yost on this point. Yes, we should absolutely commit ourselves to orthodoxy; to Christian tradition, doctrine, and practice; and to the faith of the fathers. But I also fervently believe that we shouldn’t go around completely dismissing the sincerity of each others’ Christian faith just because our practices, our politics, and our cultural sensibilities don’t completely align with each other’s.
My problem is that First Things has spent decades doing exactly that.