John Nichols on our unelected senators, Robert Dreyfuss on the Newtowns in Afghanistan, Natasja Sheriff on suicides in Tibet, Preston L. Schiller on Jane Holtz Kay


UNELECTED SENATORS: The US Senate, never a perfectly representative body, is in the process of becoming a good deal less representative. One new senator, Tim Scott, has been appointed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Another senator has been appointed by Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie to fill the vacancy created by the death of Dan Inouye. A third is expected to be appointed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to replace Secretary of State nominee John Kerry.

These senators will have the power to approve or reject cabinet and Supreme Court appointments, decide tax and budget policy, and send the country over a “fiscal cliff ”—or to war. Critical votes will be cast by people who never earned a single vote. Why?

Because of a deliberate misreading of the Constitution, whose Seventeenth Amendment sought to end the corrupt process of appointing senators, but included a loophole allowing governors the authority to make temporary appointments. Not only have dozens of people served in the Senate without having been elected, but appointed senators often serve for two full years. South Carolina’s Scott will not face the voters until 2014. This means that, to the end of the 113th Congress, a senator chosen by one governor will have the same power as a senator elected by 7,748,994 voters, like California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Former Senator Russ Feingold tried to address this problem, proposing an amendment to require special elections to fill Senate vacancies. “No one can represent the American people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters,” he said in 2009. “The same should be true for the Senate.” Feingold can’t complete the process he began. But his former colleagues should.   JOHN NICHOLS

NEWTOWN, AFGHANISTAN: Twenty children are killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and there’s a huge outpouring in response: wall-to-wall media coverage, an avalanche of flowers, flags flown at half-staff nationwide.

Scores of children are killed in Afghanistan, and the response: almost nothing. Are Afghan children any less precious? Or is the difference that the killers were wearing American uniforms or piloting US aircraft?

In March 2012, there was the army sergeant who “methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan…. The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them,” reported The New York Times.

In October 2012, three children were killed in Helmand Province. They “had been sent to gather dung, which farmers in the area…use for fuel,” when they were fired upon by coalition forces. That same month, the Times reported, a firefight between coalition troops and the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan “killed four children who were in the area grazing their sheep and goats.” 

And in 2008, a United Nations human rights team “found ‘convincing evidence’ that 90 civilians—[including] 60 children—were killed in airstrikes on a village in western Afghanistan,” the Times noted.

There are hundreds of these cases, dating back to the earliest days of the war. Just don’t expect wall-to-wall coverage on CNN anytime soon.    ROBERT DREYFUSS

DYING FOR FREEDOM: “I have already doused my body with petrol. I am only left with the battery water to drink before I burn myself,” Lobsang Gendun told his friend over the phone shortly before taking his own life in Tibet on December 3. He was the ninety-second Tibetan to self-immolate in the region—and the seventy-fifth to die of their injuries—since 2009. According to the news site, Gendun’s “hands were clasped in prayer as he raised slogans urging Tibetans to be united and avoid infighting.”

Similar reports came with depressing regularity in the run-up to the eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held November 8 to 14 in Beijing. Twenty-eight self-immolations occurred in November alone. Although Chinese state security makes it difficult to verify the deaths, reports from the region claim that these protesters died calling for freedom of religion, the preservation of Tibetan culture and the return of the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government describes the self-immolations as “incidents of instability.” On November 14, authorities in Qinghai Province, where many of the suicides have taken place, outlined punishments—including a loss of financial aid—for the families of self-immolators. Although Qinghai is more than 1,000 miles west of Beijing, the Chinese government took precautions during the party congress, posting firefighters in Tiananmen Square to douse the flames of anyone attempting to burn themselves alive in protest.  

Speaking to the BBC on November 18, the Dalai Lama said of the growing number of self-immolations: “There is courage—very strong courage. But how much effect?”   NATASJA SHERIFF

REMEMBERING JANE HOLTZ KAY: Jane Jacobs often comes up in discussions of the viability of modern urban life—and understandably so, given the singular influence of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But there was another Jane—Jane Holtz Kay—who worked for decades in the trenches of architecture and urban design criticism, historic preservation, civic activism, and environmental journalism. She was also The Nation’s longtime architecture critic.

Kay, who died in November, published scores of articles on topics ranging from architecture to Appalachia to Olmsted to urban ecology and design. Her list of articles for The New York Times fills four webpages; ditto for The Nation. She wrote Lost Boston (1980), an architectural and social history chronicling centuries of destroyed heritage, yet with hope about preservation efforts. Her most influential work, Asphalt Nation (1998), explored the transportation waterfront, from our destructive overdependence on cars to the promising reform efforts of the 1990s.

In 1990, Kay helped Dorothea Hass launch WalkBoston, which would become a model for groups devoted to pedestrianism. As the critic Martha Bianco once wrote, “Her mission is to urge readers to action, to help light the fires of anti-auto activism…. Voices such as hers need to be heard if we are to avoid lapsing into a complacency that got us so mired in the car-dependent culture in the first place.”   PRESTON L. SCHILLER

John Nichols and Robert Dreyfus blog regularly at 

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