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January 7 2013

Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Emily Esfahani Smith

Charlotte Hays

At the ripe old age of 25, former Dartmouth Review editor-in-chief Emily Esfahani Smith is making a national name for herself as a cultural critic. Smith is an editor at Roger Kimball’s highbrow New Criterion. The 2009 Dartmouth graduate also blogs at Ricochet, the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas and posts on pop culture at the Acculturated blog. She lives in New York.

“The real battles in this country are cultural battles,” Smith says. “If you are trying to talk to people about issues, it’s smarter to talk to them about it from a cultural platform.” Smith has tackled such cultural subjects as the “faux creativity” of Lady Gaga, the decline of chivalry, and the hook-up culture.

Smith isn’t limiting herself to conservative publications. She recently penned buzz-producing pieces for the Atlantic and the Daily Beast—hardly stalwarts of the right. Smith most recently profiled Camille Paglia for the Daily Beast—an appropriate match since Smith sometimes comes across in her writing as the next Camille Paglia. Both women revere tradition without being the least bit hidebound. Both women have lamented that we are marooned in the present, cut off from the great ideas of the past.

“When I got to Dartmouth I considered myself to be pretty apolitical but I always had a respect for tradition and loved religion in its many variations,” says Smith. Her own religious background is interesting: Smith grew up in Montreal, where her parents--an Iranian mother and an American father--ran a Sufi meetinghouse. Sufism is a mystical version of Islam. In an Acculturated piece on the importance of silence for artists, Smith fondly recalled growing up Sufi:

When I was a child, I lived in a Sufi meetinghouse in Montreal. The twice-weekly meetings there, where dervishes–largely Iranian, but some Western–would gather in a large room in our brownstone, was centered around silent meditation. People would sit on the ground, legs crossed, on cushions, their eyes closed, their chins to their chests, and lose themselves in a silence that would be considered oppressive to most ordinary people. The idea was to achieve oneness with God by transcending your ego and the distracting trappings of everyday life.

At Dartmouth, Smith’s Sufi background would, interestingly, be a factor in her becoming a member of the Dartmouth Review, the conservative publication that blazed its way to fame in the 1980s when such conservative firebrands as radio host Laura Ingraham and author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza were on staff.

“I found my way to the Dartmouth Review,” Smith recalls, “because I realized that there were some like-minded people there who also respected religion, classical learning, and tradition and didn’t consider them to be forms of white, male oppression of minorities. Since I am Iranian, a lot of people on campus simply would keel back in shock when I told them that I worked for the Dartmouth Review.”

A philosophy major at Dartmouth, Smith—who happens to be fluent in Farsi—held internships at National Review, the American Spectator, and the New Criterion. She was also awarded an Intercollegiate Studies Institute Fellowship that took her to the Weekly Standard, where she reported to veteran Washington writer Fred Barnes.

Smith recalls that “like many wayward seniors,” she toyed with the idea of going to law school after college. But a 2009 Robert L. Bartley Fellowship at the Wall Street Journal caused Smith to set another course. Smith was assigned to work in the Wall Street Journal’s editorial department and there she realized how much she loved writing and determined to make a life of it. She remains more intensely drawn to cultural issues than the overtly political.

“The point of the Acculturated blog,” she says, “is that young people get so much of their news, what they take to be pure reality, from the pop culture. And so what are the messages the culture is delivering to people, young and old, and what does that say about where we as human beings stand? As a cultural conservative, I believe in the values of tradition and restraint. A lot of the negative parts of our culture such as sexual promiscuity and violence that are degrading and not morally elevating result when we give up these cultural constraints.”

But she concedes, “Politics are important and certainly inescapable, especially if you work in the media,” adding, “I consider myself a cultural conservative above all. When it comes to politics, I tend to be a libertarian, simply because I believe the less government is involved in life’s endeavors—especially cultural ones—the better. But I define my conservatism in terms of the culture which makes me a bit more of a traditionalist when it comes to a lot of issues. I am pragmatic and I take it issue by issue when it comes to politics.”

She names as favorite writers David Brooks of the New York Times, Who Stole Feminism? author Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute, eighteenth century statesman and orator Edmund Burke, and Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology.

Smith calls herself a feminist in the Hoff Sommers sense of believing in equality but not going to the wilder shores of so-called “gender feminism.” She thinks that it is time to end the seemingly endless debate over whether women can “have it all.” “If we are going to keep this up, then shoot me now,” she says with a laugh.

“I think the questions of sex and civility are where feminism should go next,” she says. “I think women are already realizing that they can’t have it all and that that debate is coming to a close. I have friends who are clearly ambitious and who are saying they want to get married and have a career and kids, and if having kids means stepping out of their career for awhile, that is fine. It’s amazing, but I think that is where our culture is heading. I think women are realizing that the conceit of having it all is crazy. No man expects to have it all. It’s a crazy conceit, you have to make sacrifices in your life, and you have to decide what you want to prioritize.

“The debate that is taking its place—and you see this in Judd Apatow’s work—is has the sexual revolution been good for women when it comes to sex and relationships. I think there is a push back that is saying no it’s not. We don’t want this,” she says.

One of Smith’s recent forays into the feminist culture wars was a piece in the Atlantic headlined “A Plan to Reboot Dating,” on the campus hook-up culture, which she says is harming young women. Smith took on another prominent Atlantic contributor, Hanna Rosin, who in her Atlantic article “Boys on the Side” hailed the hook-up culture as essential to women’s continued progress.

“What [Hanna Rosin] was saying is that feminism not only gave rise to the hook up culture but depends on the hook-up culture,” Smith tells IWF. “She argues that the hook-up culture allows women to delay marriage and provides opportunities to advance in their careers. Other feminists—and I don’t know if Rosin goes this far—believe that the hook-up culture isn’t just indispensable to women’s liberation but it is actually a way to communicate that women are empowered and can truly reach equality with men.

“If you watch shows like Sex in the City or Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll see that the women behave with as much sexual promiscuity and license as you would expect from the most predatory men. Not only do they behave that way, but they assume this masculine air of ‘Oh, I just had a one-night stand.’ The girl acts like she's brushing the guy off. It is kind of this role reversal of the female and male role…. The whole problem with the hookup culture is that you are using somebody else.”

Smith thinks that women have more power than they realize.

“Women have historically always had power when it comes to sexual decisions,” Smith says. “In the hook-up culture, women completely abdicate any kind of power that they have in the sexual arena.

“I think that they need to take the power back and realize that if they abstain from the hook-up culture, it’s not going to ruin their chances of dating period. I wish all women would get together and have the moral courage to say, ‘We want to be respected more, We’re not going to participate in the hook-up culture, we’re not going to frats where guys are participating in the hook up culture.  We’re not going to frats where men are abusing women or putting things in women’s drinks’.

“If women would band together and say ‘We aren’t going to put up with this,’ it would go a long way. If they had the moral culture to do this, they would be helping not only themselves but hundreds and thousands of other women who are afraid to take a stand against this culture. They need to stand up and demand dating, and if a guy doesn’t want to date, then he’s somebody you shouldn’t be wasting your time with. ” 

Older conservatives who share the goal of returning to a more civil culture can take comfort not just in Emily's writing, but in the very existences of such a young, powerful advocate for these ideas.


Read more Portrait of a Modern Feminist features >>

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