Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Nation Of Israel? Wait And See.

Back in 2005, in a piece for Harper's, I called attention to a curious petition, filed the year before with Israel's High Court of Justice. The petitioners were thirty-eight citizens of Israel, most of them Jews but a number of them Arabs: businesspeople, professors, entertainers, writers, jurists; a past minister of education, a past head of the air force. Their petition enjoined the court to order the Ministry of Interior to inscribe them as “Israeli” in the Registry of Population. Given how much else was being contested in the country, one would think a petition to recognize Israelis as “Israeli” was frivolous. It was anything but that.

For as I wrote then, the petitioners were asking the state to recognize an inclusive, earned form of nationality, coterminous with and redundant to citizenship. They believed that fifty-five years after Israel's founding—when two-thirds of its citizens had been born in the country, and half of those are third generation—the experience of Israel itself must be determinative of national identity. More important, they wanted to close the door on discrimination against individuals on religious or racial grounds.

“I have staked my life on the moral and cultural power of the Jewish people,” said Yoella Har-Shefi, a civil-rights attorney, who led the group, “but you can't say, ‘Everybody is equal here, it's just that a Jew is valued differently'—and if there is international or internal protest, well, that's proof that ‘the whole world is against us.’ If Arab citizens can't become ‘Israelis,’ the country will come apart. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano, because Israel is the only country on earth that does not recognize itself.”

On Wednesday, the High Court will announce a new decision in this case. Veteran analyst and peace activist, Uri Avneri, sent around a commentary on the case. Here are some excerpts:

The Israeli Interior Ministry recognizes 126 nations, but not the Israeli nation. An Israeli citizen can be registered as belonging to the Assyrian, the Tatar or the Circassian nation. But the Israeli nation? Sorry, no such thing.

According to the official doctrine, the State of Israel cannot recognize an "Israeli" nation because it is the state of the "Jewish" nation. In other words, it belongs to the Jews of Brooklyn, Budapest and Buenos Aires, even though these consider themselves as belonging to the American, Hungarian or Argentine nations. Messy? Indeed.

THIS MESS started 113 years ago, when the Viennese Journalist Theodor Herzl wrote his book "The State of the Jews". (That's the true translation. The generally used name "The Jewish State" is false and means something else.) For this purpose he had to perform an acrobatic exercise. One can say that he used a white lie.

Modern Zionism was born as a direct response to modern anti-Semitism. Not by accident, the term "Zionismus" came into being some 20 years after the term "Antisemitismus" was invented in Germany. They are twins...

Herzl understood that the new reality was inherently dangerous for the Jews. In the beginning he cherished the idea of complete assimilation: all the Jews would be baptized and disappear in the new nations. As a professional writer for the theater, he even devised the scenario: all Viennese Jews would march together to St. Stephen's cathedral and be baptized en masse.

When he realized that this scenario was a bit far-fetched, Herzl passed from the idea of individual assimilation to what may be called collective assimilation: if there is no place for the Jews in the new nations, then they should define themselves as a nation like all the others, rooted in a homeland of their own and living in a state of their own. This idea was called Zionism.

BUT THERE was a problem: a Jewish nation did not exist. The Jews were not a nation but a religious-ethnic community...Herzl had to ignore this difference. He pretended that the Jewish ethnic-religious community was also a Jewish nation. In other words: contrary to all other peoples, the Jews were both a nation and a religious community; as far as Jews were concerned, the two were the same. The nation was a religion, the religion was a nation.

This was the white lie. There was no other way: without it, Zionism could not have come into being. The new movement took the Star of David from the synagogue, the candlestick from the Temple, the blue-and-white flag from the prayer shawl. The holy land became a homeland. Zionism filled the religious symbols with secular, national content... The first to detect the falsification were the Orthodox Rabbis. Almost all of them damned Herzl and his Zionism in no uncertain terms.

When Herzl originated the Zionist idea, he did not intend to found the "State of the Jews" in Palestine, but in Argentina. Even when writing his book, he devoted to the country only a few lines, under the headline "Palestine or Argentina?" However, the movement he created compelled him to divert his endeavors to the Land of Israel, and so the state came into being here.

When the State of Israel was founded and the Zionist dream realized, there was no further need for the white lie. After the building was finished, the scaffolding should have been removed. A real Israeli nation had come into being, there was no further need for an imaginary one.

THESE DAYS Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, is running a TV ad showing selected past issues. The day the State of Israel was founded, the giant headline announced: "Hebrew State!"

"Hebrew," not "Jewish." And not by accident: at that time, the term "Jewish state" sounded decidedly strange. In the preceding years, people in this country had got used to making a clear distinction between "Jewish" and "Hebrew", between matters that belonged to the Diaspora and those belonging to this country: Jewish Diaspora, Jewish language (Yiddish), Jewish Stetl, Jewish religion, Jewish tradition - but Hebrew language, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew industries, Hebrew underground organizations, Hebrew policemen.

If so, why do the words "Jewish state" appear in our Declaration of Independence? There was a simple reason for that: the UN had adopted a resolution to partition the country between an "Arab state" and a "Jewish state." That was the legal basis of the new state. The declaration, which was drafted in haste, said therefore that we were establishing "the Jewish state (according to the UN resolution), namely the State of Israel."

The building was finished, but the scaffolding was not taken down. On the contrary: it became the most important part of the building and dominates its facade.

LIKE MOST of us at the time, David Ben-Gurion believed that Zionism had supplanted religion and that religion had become redundant. He was quite sure that it would shrivel and disappear by itself in the new secular state. He decided that we could afford to dispense with the military service of Yeshiva bochers (Talmud school students), believing that their number would dwindle from a few hundred to almost none. The same thought caused him to allow religious schools to continue in existence. Like Herzl, who promised to "keep our Rabbis in the synagogues and our army officers in the barracks," Ben-Gurion was certain that the state would be entirely secular...

BUT THE white lie of Herzl had results he did not dream of, as did the compromises of Ben-Gurion. Religion did not wither away in Israel, but on the contrary: it is gaining control of the state. The government of Israel does not speak of the nation-state of the Israelis who live here, but of the "nation-state of the Jews" - a state that belongs to the Jews all over the world, most of whom belong to other nations.

The religious schools are eating up the general education system and are going to overpower it, if we don't become aware of the danger and assert our Israeli essence. Voting rights are about to be accorded to Israelis residing abroad, and this is a step towards giving the vote to all Jews around the world. And, most important: the ugly weeds growing in the national-religious field - the fanatical settlers - are pushing the state in a direction that may lead to its destruction.

TO SAFEGUARD the future of Israel one has to start by removing the scaffolding from the building. In other words: burying the "white lie" of religion-equals-nation. The Israeli nation has to be recognized as the basis of the state.

If this principle is accepted, what will the future shape of Israel - within the Green Line - be like?

There are two possible models, and many variations between them.

Model A: the multi-national one. Almost all the citizens of Israel belong to one of two nations: the majority belongs to the Hebrew nation and a minority to the Palestinian-Arab nation. Each nation will enjoy autonomy in certain areas, such as culture, education and religion. Autonomy will not be territorial, but cultural (as Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky proposed a hundred years ago for Czarist Russia). All will be united by Israeli citizenship and loyalty to the state. The inbuilt discrimination of the Arab minority will become a thing of the past, as well as the "demographic demon."

Model B: the American one. The American nation is composed of all US citizens, and all US citizens constitute the American nation. An immigrant from Jamaica who acquires US citizenship automatically becomes a member of the American nation, an heir to George Washington and Abe Lincoln. All learn at school the same core program and the same history.

Which of the two models is preferable? In my view, Model B is much better. But it would depend on a dialogue between the Hebrew majority and the Arab minority. In the end, the Arab citizens will have to decide whether they prefer the status of equal partners in a general Israeli nation, or the status of a recognized, autonomous national minority in a state that acknowledges and cherishes their separate culture, side by side with the culture of the majority.

In four days, the Supreme Court will decide whether it is prepared to take the first step in this historic march.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Israel's Democratic Party: A Thought Experiment

For a great many Israelis, particularly young Israelis, there is a depressing vacuum at the center of Israeli politics; and the most galling thing about it, as my friend Carlo Strenger suggests in his Haaretz column this past week, is that it needs to be filled with liberal democratic ideas so obvious, so unoriginal, that it's astonishing how no political party exists to advance them. So I thought: If such a party existed, what would its platform look like? Can one put things in a way that will not be, as platforms generally are, tedious? Here is the best I can do for now. I warmly invite comments and suggestions from readers of this blog.

Israel's existing parties, each in its own way, fail to confront the main chance of the new global order and the mounting dangers of our regional stalemate.

We know from everyday experience that Israel has the commercial and cultural resources to succeed brilliantly at global competition. We see it changing daily into a large, impressive city-state with a great economic potential. We see a demonstrated power to acculturate new generations of immigrants and minorities into a vibrant, Hebrew-speaking civil society.

At the same time, we know that, like all small countries networked to global realities, Israel cannot solve its diplomatic, economic, and environmental problems alone, that is, without the cooperation of other regional and global powers. Our economy cannot survive political isolation any more than our democracy can. The occupation is ruining our lives.

Internally, too, we are undergoing enormous changes. A quarter of Israel’s first graders are Arab citizens, and a quarter are ultra-Orthodox. Will either group grow up to imagine living in a state with room for the other, or for that matter, with a secular Israeli middle class that drives the economy and expects to be a part of the Western world?

IN THE FACE of this crisis, Israel’s government, and even its official opposition, have been nursing old grievances and worshiping old heroes. They argue, vaguely, that a Jewish state cannot be a state of its citizens. They insist on the region’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, and routinely host Diaspora Jewish leaders as if they exercised quasi-official power, implying that Israelis and Diaspora Jews are somehow parts of the same trans-geographical nation, united by birth and commandments, and that a Jewish state must naturally favor legally Jewish individuals over other citizens; as if the state were not a social contract, but an expression of some common Jewish personality; as if the Hebrew cultural distinction of Israel were not evident to all, Arabs and Diaspora Jews alike.

The State of Israel, in other words, exists. It is time for Israelis to recognize it. It is a Hebrew-speaking society of over seven million people, whose Jewish character is hardly in doubt. That Israel can take the Hebrew language for granted is Zionism’s great triumph. Israelis need need no others. That Israelis celebrate national holidays, which draw on the traditional Jewish cycle, is a source of both joy and artistic restlessness. We do not need to legislate the identity or religion of Israeli citizens, or privilege any clergy or bloodline--on the contrary, these must grow organically, as in all modern democratic states, from the free choices of individuals and congregations.

We must, in short, stop treating the democratic principles and federal pluralism we see all over the Western world as if these amount to an implied criticism of Israel, but rather we must see them as an invitation to move to normalization. We must let Israel’s robust culture compete. We must stop violating, not only international norms, but the genius of Zionism itself.

ISRAEL URGENTLY NEEDS a new, broadly democratic party that realizes the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The state, that document says, “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

This party will be an organization with a clear charter. It will welcome Jews and Arabs, secular and pious, young and old, who accept the basic principles of liberty--who see tolerance enshrined in law as the great achievement of civilization. It will organize from the grassroots: in homes, on campuses, and on the web. It will offer a new social contract whose main points are as follow.

1. Peace. Members of the party will work for a two-state solution. We see two-city states, Israel and Palestine--together, after all, no bigger than greater Los Angeles--maintaining cultural distinction but continuing to integrate economically. We believe Israel has an urgent interest in cooperating with the Western powers to facilitate the rise of Palestine’s entrepreneurs and civil society; this means removing, even before a peace settlement, all the barriers of occupation to the movement of goods and talent within the Palestinian territories and between Palestine and the region. We look forward to economic cooperation, shared jurisdictions, from water to bandwidth, and a common market with Palestine and Jordan. We welcome the presence of appropriate numbers of international forces to maintain calm. We aim to create a Mediterranean Union, anchored by Israel and Turkey in partnership. We aim to achieve a bilateral defense pact with the United States.

2. Economy. We believe in the excellence engendered by market competition but, at the same time, rules imposed for the sake of the commonwealth—rules that keep competition in boundaries that promote equality, opportunity and economic security for all citizens. We see the expansion of Israel’s global, technology enterprises as the engine of economic growth. We see Israel’s intellectual capital as the seedbed for these enterprises. So we support monetary policies that keep Israel’s currency attractive for global investment, but also separate accounting treatment for investments in education. We want to open Israel to the world. We see Israel’s business community as a natural constituency to advocate for peace.

3. Education. We know that our school system, universities, healthcare and communications infrastructure must be second to none. These are not simply services to a democratic citizenry, but investments in our economy. Israel must compete on its brainpower and design innovations. Investments in our human capital will determine, for example, the vitality of our tourist industry, which can grow many times, and in many ways; Israel should be the place people from all over the world come to learn and be cured. Jerusalem hosts under two million tourists a year. Florence and Prague host four times as many.

4. Rights. We will work to enact a formal constitution and Bill of Rights consistent with the Charter of Human Rights in the European Union. We believe that the State of Israel should protect the equality and inner lives of individuals, much in the spirit of the Basic Law of Liberty and Dignity. As such, the state should not presume to legislate identity, national or religious, but should preserve the authority to designate only one national status: that of Israeli. All other “nationality” designations, including Jewish and Arab, should be purged from the Registry of Population.

5. Religion and State. We believe that all people should have the right to build religious educational institutions, but that as in any advanced democracy, these should be voluntary and financed by religious communities at their own discretion. At the same time, the state has the obligation to educate all children to the standards of civil society and inculcate the skills that will prepare children to be productive members of a global economy: a core curriculum of science, mathematics, and humanistic studies. Public schools should not privilege any religion, or any sect within any religion, and state funding for faith-based education should be gradually terminated, much as it was in Quebec a generation ago. Primary schools may be established by local communities in either Hebrew or Arabic, but regional high schools should be gradually integrated and taught primarily in Hebrew. All youth who are citizens of Israel should do two years of national service.

6. Land. We believe that the lands of Israel should be open to all citizens, without regard to origin. The Israel Lands Administration should, over a ten year period, privatize and auction off all holdings, except for those reserved for national parks. Sales should be without regard to the religion or ethnicity of the buyers.

7. Civil Society. We believe the state should regard marriage and divorce as the civil right of consenting adults. The state should create processes to constitute civil unions, no matter the religion or sexual orientation of the parties. This should be the state's only requirement to create legal commitments; rabbinic or other courts should have no jurisdiction whatever over these commitments. So far as the state is concerned, the dissolution of such unions, too, should be handled by civil courts. Burial is a civil right; the state should set aside land for secular citizens to be buried with dignity.

8. Immigration. We believe that citizenship should be earned by Jews and non-Jews alike after a reasonable process of naturalization. Israeli citizenship should in no cases be automatic: citizenship should acquired by landed immigrants in a process of naturalization over, say, five years. The Law of Return should therefore be superseded by an new immigration law—one that gives “landed immigrant” status to all appropriate immigrants, including especially refugees from anti-Semitism. Israel will remain the state of the Jewish people by historic affiliation, but Diaspora Jews will have no legal status in Israeli law. Unending debates over “who is a Jew?” should have no bearing on Israeli law.

9. Non-Governmental Agencies. We believe all institutions left over from the Zionist revolution—particularly the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund—should have no official status in the state apparatus whatever. Rather, these should work in Israeli civil society as self-funding NGOs; they should have no role in national planning other than the role competed for by all NGOs.

10. National Symbols. We believe that the festivals on the Jewish calendar should be accorded the status of national holidays, much as the Islamic calendar will be honored in the state of Palestine. Israel’s flag, anthem and other symbols of state should be cherished and preserved; yet we believe they may be added to in order to reflect a more inclusive standard of citizenship.

The Jewish sages said, “It is not given to you to complete the work, but neither may you refrain from doing it.” We are working for our children’s future, and that of the wider world, of which we are a part.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Zionist Cream

I went to Kfar Yeshoshua this past weekend, which feels like touching a kind of bedrock, and always has felt this way for me--at least since my coming to Israel as an 18 year old volunteer in 1967. The country is so peculiarly tuned to (what I can only call) world Jewish religiosity these days, and so defensive about its mixing of ultra-orthodox land claims with loose, nationalist talk of security--so strident, that is, in its use of the term "Zionism," and so vigilant against people who refuse the term--that one forgets the brilliant cultural innovations real, historical Zionism gave us.

Kfar Yehoshua was the farming cooperative I visited in 1967. Here is how I wrote about it in The Hebrew Republic:

In the summer of 1967, I fell in love with the Jewish National Fund. I was eighteen, and had just finished my first year at McGill University. In what still seems to me an exhilarating rush of events, I arrived in Israel about a week after the end of the Six Day War and wound up volunteering to work on Kfar Yehoshua, the moshav (farming cooperative) of an indomitable couple, Chanan and Esther Shiloh, whose close friend and neighbor had been killed in the Sinai early in the war. They were now working his widow's dairy farm in addition to their own, so they needed an extra hand—a volunteer like myself, Chanan took pains to explain to me, since members of the moshav had always refused to hire wage-laborers, certainly not Arabs, whom they refused “to exploit.”

Chanan did not quite rub it in, but he and Esther made it plain that Israel's collectives, unlike Diaspora Jewish communities, enjoyed a certain authentic self-reliance. The vanguard of the state lived, like them, in the “hityashvut ha-ovedet”—literally, the “working settlement”—from which the word moshav derived. The old Hebrew motto of Labor Zionism was “kibbush ha-avodah,” “the conquest of labor,” where the real thing to be conquered was a Diaspora Jew's civilized sluggishness.

And what had made it all possible was the Jewish National Fund, the Keren Kayemet, the jewel in the crown of historic Zionism, whose green logo was still painted on the sign to Kfar Yehoshua, and on all the collectives in the lush Valley of Jezreel. Members did not own their land, my friends explained; the land had been leased in perpetuity from the Keren Kayemet, which had raised money abroad, penny by penny, then bought Arab estates in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, eventually distributing parcels to socialist halutzim, Zionism's pioneers, that is, their parents.

As a child, I had myself slipped nickels and pennies into the Keren Kayemet's little blue tin collection boxes. I can still taste the sweet, leaf-shaped stamps, which I bought for a couple of cents, and stuck onto a cartoon-like tree. When I had filled up the branches with leaves the tree was “planted.” For the fund kept on raising money for reforestation and other projects after the state was founded in 1948, after Israel could as easily expropriate land as have the Zionist fund buy it—and, again, large tracts were expropriated after the 1948 war, effacing some 400 Arab villages. Anyway, we were now done with wars, and Kfar Yehoshua's land remained the “inalienable property of the Jewish people”—that is, mine. I worked until I dropped. After about a month of this I was smitten: the warmth of welcome, the √©lan of revolution, the conviction that just war had brought lasting peace—that Israelis had won the former and Jews deserved the latter—the pleasingly triangular smell of cow's milk, cow's feed, and cow's shit rising into Hebrew air.

Kfar Yehoshua is not the same--it is rapidly becoming a suburb of Haifa--and readers of my blog and books know how obsolete, and (now) corrupting of Israeli democracy, are the revolutionary institutions I fell in love with 40 years ago: the JNF, and so forth. But Hebrew air is something else again. And the person who paints it more movingly than anyone I know is Elie Shamir, a son of Kfar Yehoshua, who is in a restless dialogue with his parents' founding generation, much like Herman Melville was in dialogue with America's founders.

For Shamir, what the Zionist generation prepared (at least Kfar Yehoshua's did) was an Israeli culture inflected by the literatures, legal commentaries, and aesthetics of the historic Jewish people; but a uniquely Hebrew embrace of enlightenment that would transcend all of that. The founders thought that if they built their farms, and devoted themselves to the IDF, everything would follow. Shamir knows better, alas; there is a sense of tragedy in his giant canvasses. But what is culture if not the slow accretion of individual takes on collective tragedy?

The labor Zionist founder, A.D. Gordon, believed that Hebrew society would provide the milk in which cultural cream would rise. Think of the churning as you look at Elie's canvasses here, at his wonderful website. And while you're looking, listen to Chava's Alberstein's haunting, nostalgic rendition of "Days of Binyamina," about a boy who used to walk barefoot on the farm.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stupid Question

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, is doing the public a great disservice, not only by calling for Ethan Bronner's reassignment, but for asserting a reason, apparently supported by Harvard's Alex Jones, that makes a nonsense of reason itself.

Let me be clear: Ethan Bronner is a friend, and I have followed his writing about Israel and the Middle for 20 years, that is, since before I knew him. If you think my friendship with him means that everything I am about to say is not to be trusted, then you have pretty much bought in to the standard Hoyt is proposing, and you might as well not read on.

The (sublime) problem of truth is not just for journalists, of course. Every scholar, every judge, every scientist, struggles with it. The best answer we have is something like this: Ask a good question. Then hold yourself stringently to rules of evidence. To be sure, how you get to good questions is not a predictable matter: ask, say, Thomas Kuhn. And how you hold yourself to rules of evidence is not a simple matter: ask, say, Karl Popper. But if your question is stupid or you violate the rules of evidence, then you should not be trusted.

Which brings me back to Ethan Bronner. A good journalist knows questions most readers do not and then works diligently to answer them with data, witnesses, and obvious experts. A very good journalist knows questions most journalists do not, and then works tirelessly to answer them with unimpeachable data, by becoming an eye witnesses himself or herself, and finding experts who are not obvious. I have not agreed with the thrust of everything Bronner has written over the past couple of years, but he is very good journalist.

If Bronner had been found to be ignoring compelling questions, or cooking the evidence in some sly way, you would have the right to explore his state of mind: whether some pay-off or family loyalty explains his lapses. But what if there are no obvious lapses? Why go ad hominem when there is no rationale for this? The sophomoric revelation that "we all have biases"--worse, that biases come from determined psychological states, explicable by families, or class, or tribe, etc.--is not enough to discredit arguments or the person who makes them. One son of a factory owner turns out Richard Arkwright; another turns out Fredrick Engels. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but transferring Bronner from Jerusalem for his son's decisions borrows from the same grotesque epistemology with which people were transferred to the Gulag for their son's decisions.

WHAT, IN THIS context, is Hoyt's specific claim? He writes:

[E]ven the best and most honorable journalists can find themselves in awkward circumstances that can affect their credibility — and the newspaper’s — with a public that has little trust in journalists. In this case, the guidelines stop far short of dictating what should be done. They say that if a family member’s activities create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it should be disclosed to editors, who must then decide whether the staffer should avoid certain stories or even be reassigned to a different beat.

In other words--or so we are to surmise--if Bronner's son is in the Israeli Army, most will assume his arguments are biased toward the Israeli Army, and the Times's integrity will suffer. After all, who trusts journalists to begin with? But if he took his job seriously, the Public Editor would not avoid the question of whether most should think this. He would educate, well, the public. I mean to the classical liberal assumptions about how we reasonably get at the truth, assumptions underlying the Constitution, and the freedom of newspapers, for that matter. Hell, the public might even trust journalists more if actually stood for something this important, and held themselves to this standard. (Bill Keller's answer to Hoyt comes close.)

Instead, Hoyt is valorizing crude behaviorist ideas masquerading as liberal ones, that we are, really, nothing but bundles of "socialized preferences." What we think is the product of our "demographic." Our claims of fact (about history, society, etc.) are, by extension, an expression of our material "interests," or if we are deeply socialized, "values." The only truth, as Chuck Todd would say, is "the perception out there." The only game is "shaping the narrative." Perceptions, presumably, can be polled. How scientific of him.

I have written about this problem with the press before. It makes you weep with missing William Shirer and Edward R. Murrow and Alexander Kendrick and the generation of reporters who covered the war of liberal societies over European tyrannies and could smell totalitarian ideas a mile away. Bronner can. Anyway, just because this behaviorism is false doesn't mean it can't win. Moving Bronner would be a small victory. Sarah Palin's demographic--abetted not by a sympathetic press, but a hopelessly cynical one--is waiting in the wings.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Corporate Citizens? Not Quite.

Suppose you were coming up to bat in the bottom of the ninth: man on first, nobody out. Suppose the game were tied, you were a solid bunter, and the pitcher got behind 2-0. But then, suppose your manager knew the pitcher was 37 years old and one loss away from being put on waivers; that the old southpaw has a disabled child, whose expenses were enormous. If your manager were thinking like a citizen, would he take off the bunt sign?

This is a stupid question, of course (and, please, spare me the virtues of the hit-and-run), because citizens expect managers to play to win. A baseball team can appear as if it were a kind of person with (what Adam Smith called) "moral sentiments": the Red Sox might, together, show up for the Jimmy Fund night. But a baseball team is not a social good. It is the competition among baseball teams that yields a social good. A baseball team is nothing but an artificial creation, a kind of Frankenstein community chartered to pursue more runs. It occupies the negative space created by the league's rules and regulations. I need not add, I suppose, that if your neighbor treated the neighborhood with the self-centeredness of a baseball team, you probably wouldn't have much to do with him.

You can see where this is going. There have been a great many articles and blog posts excoriating the Supreme Court for pushing an old (and, from the start, rather shaky) legal metaphor--that a corporation is a person or citizen--to where it has become stupid and dangerous. (My favorite is this comment by my old friend David Boghossian, suggesting that if corporations are citizens, then Google should run for president.)

Still, the most imminent danger of supposing corporations are citizens seems lost in the conversation. I mean the danger to American corporate renewal and to the economy as a whole:

SURE, LET'S THINK about how Congress might put restrictions on corporate contributions to campaigns. But I wonder if the danger isn't exaggerated, at least as compared with established kinds of lobbying. Most corporations sell to customers half of whom vote "the other" party; they generally can't afford to alienate people by identifying closely with any candidate. With bloggers in every quarter of commerce and politics, it is hard to believe any corporate contributions might be kept discreet. Candidates don't need their bribes pushed in voters' faces.

Besides, companies need to recruit the best talent they can. Genius comes in many political wrappings, as any baseball team can tell you. Google has threatened to pull out of China, I suspect, more because it wants to continue to attract and inspire brilliant employees than because of any other long term calculation. If corporations were persons, then open networks and "slash and burn media" have forced on them what Harvard's Lynn Sharp Paine calls (too glibly, perhaps) "moral personality." This means, usually, moral cowardice.

NO, THE REAL problem is American CEOs using shareholder money to buy their way into public conversations: auto execs on global warming, bankers on macroeconomic imperatives, software companies on education. Meanwhile, who is watching their businesses? Again, a corporation is not a social good; it is a creature of rules, legal and strategic. We presuppose corporate megalomania because we assume that competition brings a social benefit: technological refinements, economic growth, management innovations of all kinds. And in case you haven't noticed, competition is really serious these days. (As I wrote here a few weeks ago, Fortune 500 companies are three times more likely to be selected out--fail of be acquired--than 20 years ago.)

There isn't a scarcer resource in any business today than CEO attention. There isn't a business in the world that hasn't been roiled by magical technologies and global assaults. Do we really want senior managers thinking about how to rewrite the legal rules in America while, in the rest of the world, managers are rewriting strategic ones?

Nor are managers of major companies less lazy or risk averse than ordinary citizens. Recently, Malcolm Gladwell had a great piece about flocking behavior on Wall Street. But 20 years ago, the Harvard Business School's Michael Jensen defended the leveraged buyout wave precisely because he thought this would be the only way to keep managers from being, well, business administrators: incurious, subject to inertia, self-important. Better to have Henry Kravis breathing down your neck, Jensen implied, than Korea Inc. stabbing at your back.

The point is, the more CEOs are distracted, the worse their businesses become. No taxation without representation, a CEO might say. I say, it would be better for the commonwealth to forgo corporate taxes entirely--which are only about 12% of the US government's income, and generally passed on to customers as a cost of doing business--in return for a strict ban on companies lobbying or acting politically in any way. We could recapture lost tax revenue by levying a more heavily progressive income tax on big salaries and on the top 10% of the population that own 80-90% of stock. We could put a value-added tax on consumption, excluding such necessities as food, clothes, etc.

And just who is "we"? Ordinary citizens. Which is where my argument falls to the ground.