Mar 082019

Evanston RoundTable, March 7, 2019

Five times in our nation’s history, including twice in the last generation, the will of the people has been subverted by a process that is obsolete and undemocratic. I am referring, of course, to the Electoral College.

It is hard to justify its continued existence. Every four years it disenfranchises a minority of citizens in any given state, whose electoral votes are wiped out by the “winner take all” system. “Too many Americans don’t believe their vote matters,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer in introducing a bill in 2016 to abolish the Electoral College. She called it “an outdated, undemocratic system that doesn’t reflect our modern society.”

The system was devised for a number of reasons (preserving slavery may have been one), principally James Madison’s fear of “factions,” that is, domination by special interest groups, and Alexander Hamilton’s concern that the presidency should never fall to any man “not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In addition, the system was designed to “balance” rural America vs. the more heavily populated urban regions.

Some people—currently a third of those polled—evidently think those are still valid reasons. Let’s examine them one at a time.

Clearly the founding fathers distrusted the common man. The Constitution of 1787 stipulated that only landowning white men could vote, hardly a show of support for universal suffrage. They may have been influenced by their study of ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and ancient Rome, the model of the American republic, where early forms of democracy led to violence and “mobocracy,” according to Alex Hobson, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Chabraja Center for Historical Studies. “The founders saw democracy as too much of a free-for-all,” he said.

In that context, Madison’s concern about “the tyranny of factions” might have been understandable. Today such a concern would be considered laughable if not dangerous. Imagine a proposal to revert to indirect election of Senators.

Hamilton’s objection presupposes that selected electors are more qualified than the average citizen to select a chief executive. That may have been true 230 years ago, when an estimated 40% of the population couldn’t read and many people didn’t have access to newspapers and such resources as the Federalist Papers. But it is certainly untrue today in our media-saturated age. We are in no danger of a dearth of information or opinions!

The founders also were predisposed to “protect their own economic interests” and to “legitimate their right to rule” by narrowing the electorate, said Dr. Hobson.

As for advantaging underpopulated rural areas, establishing some kind of balance between different parts of the country was probably even then an unrealistic and unjustifiable goal. There is only one way to ensure fairness and accuracy of the popular will: count one vote per person. This principle was firmly established in a 1964 Supreme Court decision. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the case that established the one person-one vote principle: ”People, not land or trees or pastures vote.”

The Constitution Project has written, “… the value of ‘one person, one vote,’ once brought to light, seemed so profoundly rooted in the Constitution its practice became inevitable.”

Does the Electoral College have any place in the modern world? Writing on the day Michael Cohen testified in Congress about the President’s avarice, duplicity and criminal behavior, clearly Hamilton’s belief that the system would screen out unqualified office-holders has failed.

“The founding fathers must be spinning in their graves now,” said Northwestern History Professor Leslie Harris. “This is not what they envisioned, this is what they were trying to prevent—using the office for personal gain.”

One person equals one vote is the gold standard of democracy. Overturning free and fair elections should never happen. If we fear the majority then we fear democracy. And while majorities can sometimes be wrong, that is a risk we willingly take in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”


Nov 182016

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 17, 2016

The death two months ago of a Northwestern freshman on her bicycle underscores the seriousness of the recent heated debate in Evanston about how far to go to protect cyclists from cars and trucks.

Chuyuan Qiu, 18, a first-year student from China, died after hitting a cement truck Sept. 22 on Sheridan Road.

For those who missed the debate (reported in recent issues of the Roundtable), it involves protected bike lanes, which have been installed on Dodge Avenue from Church Street to Howard Street and on Church and Davis Streets downtown.

Protected (or separated) bike lanes, so-called because cyclists ride next to the curb, with parked cars to their left to protect them from street traffic, are the latest approach to bicycle safety. In many cities they are replacing conventional bike lanes, in which cyclists ride between painted corridors just to the right of auto traffic and to the left of cars parked along the curb.

While there are many reasons drivers give for disliking the new protected lanes, two points seem incontrovertible. Pitting a 20-pound bike against a two-ton car is no contest. And putting a line of parked cars between a cyclist and traffic, in effect creating a safety wall, will make the cyclist far safer than if he or she were riding in traffic.

In the U.S., more than 700 cyclists are killed and 50,000 injured per year. Aside from the Northwestern freshman, a young woman was killed in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood Sept. 26 when she was hit b y a flatbed truck. A 25-year-old cyclist riding a Divvy bike July 1 on Chicago’s northwest side was killed when a truck plowed into her. A few weeks before that a 29-year-old bike messenger was killed when he was struck and pinned under a tour bus near North Avenue beach.

Protected bike lanes have been found to be the safest option for cyclists. A recent Canadian study (Teschke et al) found a 90% reduction in accidents for cyclists on protected bike lanes.

Nevertheless, they are not a perfect solution. Drivers have to be more careful getting out of their cars, because traffic lanes down the middle of the street are narrower than if they were parked at a curb. And bicyclists have to be wary of unsuspecting passengers opening their car doors, and have to be more careful at intersections, since cars turning right may not see them. There are other issues too, though the City of Evanston is working to solve them, thanks to the heated debate that has played out in City Council chambers and in the pages of this newspaper.

Most importantly, protected bike lanes don’t absolve bicyclists of following traffic rules. Car-bike safety is a two-way street, something lost on many cyclists. They routinely whiz past stop signs and even through red lights without stopping or even slowing down.

So here are some obvious but still valuable suggestions for the folks on two wheels. Stop at stop signs and stoplights. Use hand signals to indicate when and where you are turning. Slow down and look both ways at every intersection, even those without a stop sign or stoplight. Wear a helmet with a mirror.

Safety and common sense demand it.



Apr 082013

Evanston RoundTable, March 28, 2013

This was my contribution to our annual April Fools’ Day issue. (Leonard F. Slye was Roy Rogers’ real name.) The published story deleted most of the specifics in the fourth and fifth paragraphs to the controversy, which are true.

By Leo F. Slye

With mounting pressure to repudiate John Evans for his role in a notorious Indian massacre years after helping put Evanston on the map, the City Council last week issued a media advisory saying the real namesake of the City was none other than Dale Evans, famed TV cowgirl and wife of the even more famous TV cowboy Roy Rogers.

Ms. Evans, who passed away in 2001, could not be reached for comment, but the advisory pointed out that the actress was also an accomplished, singer, songwriter and best-selling author. From 1951 to 1957 she co-starred with her husband in the TV hit “The Roy Rogers Show.” “As to this other Evans, the one who arrived here in 1855, where is the proof [he also founded the City]?” the advisory asked.

The surprising action was taken shortly after the City Council went into a closed-door emergency session to deliberate, after which white smoke could be seen emanating from the building’s chimney. Neither the Mayor nor any Aldermen could be reached to elaborate on their somewhat-cryptic announcement.

John Evans was previously reputed to have had a stellar career as a physician, hospital administrator and railroad magnate before arriving in the area now known as Evanston. As one of its earliest settlers, he helped found and was the first president of Northwestern University and helped launch the Illinois Republican Party. But the current controversy swirls around his term as governor of the Colorado Territory, a position to which he was appointed by President Lincoln in 1862. During his tenure a 700-man territory militia attacked and destroyed the Sand Creek village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes people. In the resulting scandal, he was forced to resign. The village is now a national historic site.

Gov. Evans’ role in the massacre has yet to be determined, but Northwestern students have taken up the cry for a full-fledged investigation, and the school administration recently responded by naming a faculty committee to probe the incident.

A spokesman for the City, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said changing Evanston’s namesake “ends all that messy controversy stuff, and aligns us with a star of radio, stage, screen and television, with possible Hollywood money and movie rights to ensue.”

Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign has been launched to bring the stuffed remains of Ms. Evans’ beloved horse Buttermilk to Evanston. Sources say it will be installed, much like the famed dinosaur Sue in the Field Museum, on the main floor of the Morton Civic Center.

Mar 012012

Evanston RoundTable, March 1, 2012

The conductor gives a sharp downbeat, and the orchestra of 60 responds as one, flooding the practice room at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Hall with a richness and depth of music (Dvorak) that is breath-taking. The conductor is both calm and furiously busy. His eyes dart across the room, watching for precise bowing in the strings, proper breathing in the winds and brass. He listens for balance, intonation and dynamics. He waves his arms to show the beat, emphasize accents and provide cues. His face is alive with information: a smile for a nicely executed phrase in the flutes, a frown at a late entrance from the violas. As the music picks up, he bobs with the beat, shaking his fist to emphasize a sforzando. He chides, prods and encourages the young performers. Then he stops.

“No, no.” he says, turning to the first violins. “The vibrato has to come before you move the stick, so when you catch the bow, it is already hot.”

The rehearsal is hot – alive and exciting – no surprise because it reflects a lifetime in music. The conductor is Victor Yampolsky, maestro extraordinaire and Carol and Arthur Rice University Professor of Performance and Conducting at Northwestern.

Prof. Yampolsky was born in Russia. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, was a famous pianist, and frequently accompanied the legendary violinist David Oistrakh in recital. The young Victor studied violin with Oistrakh and joined the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of 23, eventually becoming assistant concertmaster and assistant conductor. He saw the famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich haunting the halls before a rehearsal of one of his symphonies.

The music director of the orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, “was a child of the Soviet system,” Prof. Yampolsky says. “He had dictatorial manners, giving commands like a battalion captain. Within the system, this was the norm.”

During his eight years with the orchestra, he toured more than 30 countries on four continents. “We represented ‘the glory of Soviet life and culture,’ but when we visited the West, it was blatantly obvious they were far better off than we were.”

Nevertheless, there were benefits to life behind the Iron Curtain. Under the Soviet system, health care and education were free. Housing, utilities and transportation were very inexpensive – a fraction of what they would have cost in Europe or America.

His life there changed drastically in 1972 when his brother decided to emigrate to Israel. “I knew right away my career was finished. With a close relative living in a capitalist country, it would be very hard for the authorities to let me tour with the orchestra. I was considered unreliable and a security risk.”

Instead, thanks to a momentary thaw in the Soviet emigration policy, he was able to make his way to Rome, where he met Leonard Bernstein. The famed maestro heard him play violin and immediately arranged for him to go to America on a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. Within two weeks of his arrival, he had won a seat in the Boston Symphony. Within two years, he was principal second violin.

“All this was a dream come true,” he says. “Bernstein was like a godfather.”

But Prof. Yampolsky’s real dream was to conduct. He had gotten a degree in conducting at the Moscow Conservatory. In Boston he closely observed such greats as Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Colin Davis and Bernstein.

His chance came in 1977, when he was invited to be music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “My colleagues at the Boston Symphony were shocked. They said, ‘Victor, there are thousands of young violinists dying to sit in your chair [in the orchestra].’ I didn’t care. I wanted to go where the job was.”

After several seasons in Halifax, during which he was also teaching at the Boston University School of Music and subbing with the Boston Symphony, he got a call from Northwestern: would he be interested in the position of head of orchestras? “He was clearly the top choice,” said Bernard Dobroski, who was then Assistant Dean of the School of Music. “He had the musicianship, the passion, the ability.”

In September 1984 he arrived in Evanston to take command of the program. Since then, he has taken the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra to new heights, and also helped develop two other orchestras: the Chamber Orchestra, as a training ensemble for freshmen, and the Philharmonia, for non-music majors.

Aside from conducting, he teaches music at Northwestern graduate school. Summers he leads the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. Over the years he has led more than 80 professional and student orchestras in North America, Europe, South Africa, South Korea and New Zealand. In addition, he lectures and gives master classes at schools around the world, and serves on competition juries.

“He’s an incredible musician, certainly one of the best conductors and teachers in the country,” said Rene Machado, associate dean in the Northwestern School of Music. “He can be very demanding on the podium, because he’s intensely passionate about the music. But he’s very dedicated to his students and a wonderful colleague.”

“He’s very warm and caring. It’s been a wonderful partnership,” says Robert Hasty, associate director of orchestras at Northwestern and a former doctoral student of Prof. Yampolsky’s. “We’ve turned out such wonderful artists,” he says, citing former students now with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and other first-rank professional orchestras.

Clearly, at an age when most other people are thinking seriously about retiring, Prof. Yampolsky has no such notions. “Retire from what? Being a musician? Being a conductor? No, it’s impossible! Besides,” he adds, “there is still so much more to learn.”