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When optimism is a Sisyphean task


At the beginning of the year, I decided to focus my biweekly Stanford Daily column on positivity in politics. I would highlight productive steps to take and long-term reforms to advocate, aimed at overcoming the systemic shortcomings that fuel our most intractable crises. This week, I planned to write about the incredible work of Stanford Votes, my conviction that the student body can achieve a 50 percent voter turnout rate, and the power of civic engagement to uplift our spirits and initiate change. I planned to write about tuning out negativity that I am powerless to address and instead focusing on small, positive steps to bring about a better Stanford and a better world.

In some sense, this has been my coping mechanism since the election. Instead of spending Inauguration Day at the protest on campus, I arranged an emergency meeting with my pre-major advisor and spent hours poring over the Cardinal Service database, figuring out where I wanted to complete a summer internship in public service. This year, I have been one tiny part of an enthusiastic, well-mobilized network of students, faculty and community members taking every opportunity to register voters and put the midterm elections on Stanford’s radar. I have annoyed everyone in my life, at Stanford and at home, by talking and posting about voting at every opportunity. (As much as it feels like #slacktivism, you’d be surprised at how many people reached out with logistical questions about absentee ballots when I posted a picture in a Stanford Votes shirt on Instagram.) I have spent nearly an hour picking out every single red and blue M&M from a Costco-size tub so that the patriotic cake at my house’s voter registration party would be enticing enough to get a few more people to come downstairs and request their absentee ballots. Of course, I still pay attention to the devastating news and constant frustration of national, global, and campus politics, but I have been able to turn down the volume – proverbially, since I can’t think of the last time I watched the news on TV – and instead focus on putting some good out into the world.

For example, within the Jewish community, one of my greatest sources of excitement and pride has been our new Tikkun Olam at Stanford Team, AKA TOAST, which engages in direct service projects and brings public service leaders to speak about the intersection between their work and Jewish values. After our inaugural speaker last week – a representative from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger – we were inspired to launch a hunger advocacy initiative, and planned to start discussing preliminary plans for it on Sunday.

Instead, of course, we found ourselves pulling together a last-minute vigil for the 11 people murdered in an act of anti-Semitic terror at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. We are still in mourning, and the pain will not dissipate anytime soon. Since Saturday, my impetus toward optimism – deemphasizing the negative, tuning out the untenable and amplifying the good – has felt naïve, perhaps even irresponsible. The pain became more personal than ever before, and I felt the full weight of two years of checking the news each morning and seeing what tragedy, or despicable political ploy, occurred in the three hours between my family waking up back home on the East Coast and my alarm going off before class. From mass shootings to hate crimes to political violence to the proposed rollback of birthright citizenship or the denial of transgender existence, it seems like each day a thread is torn in the patchwork of American identity and our nation’s moral conscience. Sorting M&Ms will not fix it.

Taking back Congress next week will not fix it either, but that has always been and still remains the most important place to start. If Republicans retain control of the House, America will have endorsed the status quo and given the green light to the further stoking of hatred, demonization of the Other and abandonment of the values that, in its better moments, our country has strived to embody. My heart will break if our country does not vote the purveyors and enablers of hatred out of office.

Control of the House is not a panacea; checks and balances alone will not eliminate the need for protests and vigils and rallies. More importantly, anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry go deeper than the ever-changing balance of political power. Yet the Jewish community, like all other minority groups, can only thrive in a pluralistic, democratic society that respects the rights and lives of all its people. I hope to see at least one branch of government that believes in this vision for America, that reinforces acceptance and support for the vulnerable, as the Tree of Life Synagogue has exemplified in its dedication to refugees. I want to feel that fighting for a more just and equitable society is not a Sisyphean task.

No call to action can undo loss of life, quell the sadness and uncertainty that my community faces, nor prevent tragedies from repeating themselves. I am in no place to write the upbeat column that I originally intended to write, to tout the power of positivity, to set the scene for the midterms with hope and encouragement. Yet, we are approaching a referendum on a troubling status quo, and I cannot grieve without calling upon America to reject the hatred that bleeds into tragedy.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at coop20 ‘at’

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