Cohen, Friedman and Bruni

Life is good.  The Pasty Little Putz and MoDo are off today.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “Israel’s Mr. Normal.”  He says Yair Lapid has to get past nothingness. What about the settlements?  The Moustache of Wisdom is in New Delhi.  It’s another ode to “connectivity.”  He gurgles that the access to technology has expanded the expectations of many Indians, and others around the world.  In “My Grandfather the Outlaw” Mr. Bruni says chapters in the immigration saga change. The risks and hopes stay the same.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Tel Aviv:

On Shabbat, Yoraan Rafael Reuben and his wife, Anda, light candles, say prayers and watch a Hindi movie. He’s an Indian Jew who settled in Israel in 2005. She is from Romania by way of New York. In their early 30s, they are struggling to make their way in photography and graphic design. Life is expensive. If you are not in high tech, opportunities seem limited. They miss their families back in Mumbai and Bucharest. When Hamas rockets boomed last November, Anda said to Yoraan, “You know what, let’s get out of here.” But the moment passed, they stayed and they voted for Yair Lapid, the new kid on the Israeli political block after the election last month.

“The reason we chose him is we don’t like extremists,” Yoraan told me. “People here think all extremists are in the Arab world, but there are plenty in every religion, including here.” Anda said that two hours before voting she was undecided, but concluded that Lapid might do something because he understood “how much better off we might be” if entitlements for the ultra-Orthodox and investment in West Bank settlements were not “draining the country.”

The concerns of this Indian-Romanian-Zionist couple illustrate an ache for normality among younger Israelis. Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, told me that voters who chose Lapid “decided to vote for nothing, a TV image, a kind of anti-Orthodox Likud lite.”

A ballot cast for nothingness is a curious choice in a nation surrounded by turmoil. Israelis — like the French with François Hollande — went for a Mr. Normal, but a better-looking one. Lapid, a former TV talk-show host and now the second most powerful politician in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is reasonable. He wants everyone to pull their weight, especially the welfare-supported ultra-Orthodox who avoid the draft. He thinks talking to Palestinians is a good idea.

He is also a secular nationalist who made his campaign speech about diplomacy in Ariel, a large West Bank settlement. He is a man who leans right, the darling of the jeep-driving tycoons of start-up-nation Israel who worry more about the country’s battered image than its squeezed youth and middle class, the likes of Yoraan and Anda. His moderation is more aura than anything.

Speaking of auras, Israel’s is both surreal and serene. Its cafes are full. Cranes hover over new high-rise condominiums and high-speed train projects. The land where cheese long came in two forms — white or yellow — has become a gastronomic encomium.

So Lapid fits as a plausible symbol of an Israel that looks more and more like brie-eating Europe. Yet the country abuts a disintegrating Syria, a dysfunctional Egypt and a disjointed proto-Palestine. The Palestinian tortoise remains mired in a disordered morass. The Israeli hare has dashed to high-tech modernity. The race, it seems, is over.

But of course this juxtaposition of development and desperation remains combustible. There are reminders: those Hamas rockets, a handful of Palestinians killed in a sullen West Bank since Jan. 1, and now Israeli airstrikes on Syria aimed at preventing weaponry from reaching Hezbollah. Here again Lapid the anti-extremist fits in. He embodies a nagging Israeli question: Has the country’s isolation been needlessly exacerbated by Netanyahu, and can that seductive surface normality ever be normalized?

Lapid’s medium is vagueness. But he will not answer this Israeli hankering for stability by giving Netanyahu carte blanche for more of the same. A minister in Netanyahu’s departing government, a moderate Likudnik at odds with the party’s ascendant hawks, told me his message to Lapid: “You ran around the peace thing, but you can’t escape it. There will be settlement activity and pressure from the United States and Europe to stop it. If you have a policy on the settlements, state it before you join the coalition.”

To get beyond nothingness, Lapid has at the very least to declare that he opposes settlement building outside the blocks that Israel wants to incorporate through land swaps in any peace deal. He should set this as a coalition deal breaker. He must insist that the continued undermining of the Palestinian Authority — through soldier or settler violence, military intrusions into Palestinian-run areas, scattered settlement expansion — benefit only Hamas. Otherwise the peace talks Lapid says he wants are the talks Netanyahu has wanted: the kind that go nowhere.

As the Reubens understand, Lapid’s domestic themes are tied to the conflict. The superhighways, tunnels and elaborate barriers that accompany settlement expansion in the West Bank are expensive. I went to an outpost in the Gush Etzion settlement constellation. Caravans under army protection had been connected to the electricity grid. “Where’s the money?” was Lapid’s slogan. That’s where the money is. It is not helping the likes of Yoraan and Anda, who should be the hope and future of Israel.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom’s latest ode celebrating how flat the earth is:

I encountered something on this trip to India that I had never met before: a whole new political community — India’s “virtual middle class.” Its emergence explains a lot about the rise of social protests here, as well as in places like China and Egypt. It is one of the most exciting things happening on the planet. Historically, we have associated democratic revolutions with rising middle classes achieving certain levels of per capita annual income — say, $10,000 — so people can worry less about basic food and housing and more about being treated as citizens with rights and with a voice in their own futures. But here’s what’s fascinating: The massive diffusion of powerful, cheap computing power via cellphones and tablets over the last decade has dramatically lowered the costs of connectivity and education — so much so that many more people in India, China and Egypt, even though they’re still just earning a few dollars a day, now have access to the kind of technologies and learning previously associated solely with the middle class.

That’s why India today has a 300-million-person middle class and another 300-million-person virtual middle class, who, though still very poor, are increasingly demanding the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes. This is putting more pressure than ever on India’s elected politicians to get their governance act together.

“Thanks to technology and the spread of education, more and more people are being empowered at lower and lower levels of income than ever before, so they think and act as if they were in the middle class, demanding human security and dignity and citizens’ rights,” explained Khalid Malik, the director of the U.N.’s Human Development Report Office and author of the book “Why Has China Grown So Fast for So Long?” “This is a tectonic shift. The Industrial Revolution was a 10-million-person story. This is a couple-of-billion-person story.”

And it’s not just driven by the 900 million cellphones in use in India today or the 400 million bloggers in China. The United States Agency for International Development office here in New Delhi connected me with a group of Indian social entrepreneurs the U.S. is supporting, and the power of the tools they are putting in the hands of India’s virtual middle class at low prices is jaw-dropping. Gram Power is creating smart microgrids and smart meters to provide reliable, scalable power for Indian rural areas, where 600 million Indians do not have regular (or any) electricity with which to work, read and learn. For 20 cents a day, Gram Power offers villagers a prepaid electricity card that can power all their home appliances. Healthpoint Services is providing safe drinking water for a family of six for 5 cents a day and telemedicine consultations for 20 cents a visit. VisionSpring is now distributing examinations and eyeglasses to India’s poor for $2 to $3 each. The Institute for Reproductive Health is alerting women of their fertile days each month with text messages, indicating when unprotected sex should be avoided to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And Digital Green is providing low-cost communications systems for Indian farmers and women’s groups to show each their best practices through digital films projected on a dirt floor.

These technologies still need scale, but they are on their way. And they are enabling millions more Indians to at least feel as if they are middle class and the political empowerment that goes with that, says Nayan Chanda, who runs the YaleGlobal Online Magazine and is co-editor of “A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century.”

In December, a 23-year-old Indian woman — whose father worked double shifts as an airport baggage handler, making about $200 a month so his daughter could go to school to become a physiotherapist — was gang-raped on a bus after she and a male friend had gone to a movie. She later died from injuries sustained in the rape.

She was a high-aspiring member of this new virtual Indian middle class, and her brutal rape and subsequent death triggered nationwide protests for better governance. “It is one of those turning points in history when a citizenry, so far pleased with economic gain, wants more than material comfort,” said Chanda. “They want recognition of their rights; they want quality of life and, most importantly, the good governance they have come to expect by watching the world.”

Ditto China. In December, noted Chanda, “when a Chinese censor in Guangzhou committed the unprecedented intrusion by physically entering the premises of Southern Weekend paper and rewriting their New Year editorial — turning a critical one into a panegyric of the Communist Party — Chinese journalists exploded. For the first time in history, they publicly demanded the resignation of the censor and China’s Twitter, Weibo, lit up with anger.”

And, of course, the Arab Awakening was triggered, not by middle-class college students, but by an aspiring-to-be-in-the-middle-class Tunisian vegetable seller who was abused by corrupt police. Leaders beware: Your people don’t need to be in the middle class anymore, in economic terms, to have the education, tools and mind-set of the middle class — to feel entitled to a two-way conversation and to be treated like citizens with real rights and decent governance.

Of course, The Moustache of Wisdom wants y’all to work harder, better, faster, more imaginatively, and for the lowest wages possible.  Not that HE wants to do that, you understand…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

My father’s father embodied the American dream. His is the kind of story trumpeted from the stages of our political conventions, the kind of life held up as an affirmation of the rewards this country holds for people willing to take chances, work like crazy and insist on something better for their children than they themselves ever knew.

He left Southern Italy in his early 20s, alone, with only enough cash to make it to the United States and last a short time here. It was 1929. He arrived just months before Black Tuesday and the dawn of the Great Depression and found himself scrounging for day labor as a stonemason.

And somehow, just barely, he stayed afloat and pressed on until the Depression began to lift. Until his luck turned. Until he could make a down payment on a small grocery store — a bodega, really — where he, his wife and my father, the eldest of their three sons, toiled so late into the night that the family dinner was often eaten in a stark, sad room in the back. Until his sons went off to Ivy League colleges and became great successes in their respective fields. And until he saw his grandchildren growing up in spacious homes in leafy suburbs, our charmed youths utterly unrecognizable from his own.

Did I mention that he was an illegal alien?

He took a ship to Canada from France, then entered the United States across a border that immigration historians tell me was famously porous then. A train deposited him in Manhattan, and soon after he settled in the nearby city of White Plains, which had a populous Italian community. He was undocumented, living off the books and outside the law, and remained so for about a decade before finally becoming a citizen.

The details of all of this are fuzzy: he died in 1980, and his wife — my grandmother, also an Italian immigrant — is long gone as well. What remains are their sons’ imperfect memories. But my dad and his brothers know that for a long time, like the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of our current political debate, Mauro Bruni wasn’t supposed to be here. He was trespassing in the country he came to love more fiercely than the one he’d left, the country in which his children and their children would lead highly productive lives, pay many millions of dollars in taxes over time, and get to be a small part of the decision, as voters, about how we were going to treat his spiritual descendants, who traveled here as he did: without explicit invitations or official authorization but with such ferocious energy, such enormous hope.

More Americans than admit or even know it have roots like mine and are the flowers of illegal immigration. And while that doesn’t diminish our need to make cleareyed and sometimes difficult assessments about how many newcomers we can accommodate and what degree of present forgiveness equals future enticement, it must inform our understanding of the people whose tomorrows are in the balance. Their countries of origin tend to be different from those of the illicit arrivals in my grandfather’s day. Their skin might be darker. But they’re really his kin. My kin. And to see them as some new breed of takers or moochers is to deny history and indulge in a cynical generalization, tinged with an insidious racism, whose targets simply change over time.

The uncertain journeys that wave after wave of immigrants have undertaken and the daily sacrifices that such transplants have made reflect a degree of grit that many of the American-born people I know have never been forced to muster, a magnitude of drive that we don’t possess. It wasn’t necessary for us. Wasn’t make or break. And these qualities have contributed in a mighty and essential way to this country’s dynamism, to its competitiveness.

Coming from southern Europe, Mauro Bruni was considered different from, and less desirable than, an immigrant from northern Europe. Donna Gabaccia, the former director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, noted that in some circles back then, “Italians and others were ‘not quite white’ or ‘in between’ people.” From 1899 to 1924, she said, immigration officials even made distinctions among Italians. Those from the country’s north were more welcomed than those, like Mauro, from its south.

He spoke no English. The one person he knew in America couldn’t give him financial support or, for that matter, even put him up for the night. He had no safety net — and wasn’t looking to the government for one, because he couldn’t have the government looking his way. His health, his trade, his determination: these were his only assets.

On his first nights here, he paid by the night for a bed in a communal room. He took what masonry jobs he could get, whether they lasted just days or weeks. One of the best was at West Point, where he constructed a long stone wall. His sweat and that of other illegal immigrants went into the gilding of the United States Military Academy, if the accounts that he gave his sons are correct.

In White Plains he met my grandmother, who had managed to come here legally and was a citizen. They married in 1933, and in part because of that, he was later able to declare himself and, through a kind of amnesty, be anointed an American. This had happened by 1941, which was around the time he bought his market.

Were there taxes evaded before he was documented? No doubt, but they couldn’t have amounted to much, given his income. The long view is this: he was a taxpayer for more years than he wasn’t, and he was the sire of many taxpayers to come. Among his children and grandchildren, there is no one on the dole, no one behind bars, a range of contributions to the vibrancy of this country, a panoply of professions: partner in an international accounting firm, college dean, owner of a plumbing company, investment banker, journalist, management consultant, headhunter, theater director, teacher, professional figure skater.

My grandfather and my grandmother Adelina indeed wanted to wring America for all it was worth. That was selfish, but also very fruitful. And their patriotism was all the stronger because America wasn’t their birthright but their choice. Their wager. They were invested in seeing it as the best possible decision, the only right call.

When I recently asked my Uncle Jim, their middle son, how intent they were on weaving their children into the fabric of this land, he told me about my grandmother’s early relationship with my own mother, whose Irish-English-Scottish family had been here for generations. Adelina Bruni would keep Leslie Jane Frier up late at night, just to prolong the conversation and listen awhile longer to my mother, who didn’t sound like any of Grandma’s friends. Grandma loved the music of Mom’s precise, unaccented English. It was the music of assimilation.


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