The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Britain’s great Laura Spence debate moves into its third week. Translation: Laura Spence, a star pupil from a British state school, was denied a place at Oxford University but won a scholarship from Harvard. This prompted Gordon Brown, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, to attack Oxford for admitting students on the basis of an “old-boy network.” Oxford’s vice chancellor replied: “[I am] dismayed that claims of this kind are made without knowledge of the real facts behind the headlines.” Alan Ryan, the warden at Oxford’s New College, argued that Spence’s rejection had nothing to do with her having come from a state school.
Richard Riley, the U.S. secretary of education, implicitly criticized the Blair government by defending Oxford and Cambridge against charges of classism. Ironically, the professor who rejected Spence turns out to be a champion of state school education. Maureen Freely, who interviews potential British students on Havard’s behalf, argues that Harvard is actually more elitist than Oxford, because the children of alumni get preference. Meanwhile, a report on higher education in Britain calls for the introduction of American-style SATs. Alan Ryan attacks the SAT and the Educational Testing Service in his review of Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

Film director Errol Morris says that he likes “the idea of making films about ostensibly nothing. That’s what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we’re in a position of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we’re just a bunch of apes running around.” His latest film, Mr. Death, is about execution technician and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter. Ron Rosenbaum calls the movie “a brilliant, provocative meditation on the nature of evil, the nature of innocence and the nature of truth,” though Slate’s David Edelstein charges that Morris’ “beautiful detachment suggests a form of cowardice.” (To buy the recently released video and other Morris movies, click here.) Click here (Shockwave player required) to read more on Morris’ series of televised interviews, “First Person,” and here to read Time’s rave review. In an interview with Salon, Morris says of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “I’d like to grind an ax against his head.”

HACKING’S WARS Ian Hacking is “the most intellectually curious and imaginative philosopher of science now writing,” according to Richard Rorty. His latest book, The Social Construction of What?, rebukes those theorists who believe that reality is socially constructed. For Hacking’s views on Imre Lakatos—his “contribution to the philosophy of mathematics was definitive”—and Paul Feyerabend, click here, and for essays on psychology, fairness, and other aspects of science, click here. Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, is a study of “ a psychiatric epidemic of ‘hysterical fugues’—cases of people who suddenly left home, suffered from amnesia, and took on a new identity,” people who didn’t just suffer from normal escapist desires but who traveled madly.

Norman Foster rebuilt the Reichstag in Berlin and has been commissioned to design the new Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He’s also built banks, airports, and many other remarkable buildings around the globe. His Millennium Bridge—the first new London bridge in 100 years—opens June 10. For a live view, click here. Also, to read about a British bridge-building craze, click here.

A report commissioned by the Authors Guild (Adobe Acrobat required to download it) says that publishers are putting out too many serious books, not too few, but marketing most of them poorly. Slate’s Chatterbox says that while this may be bad news for authors, it’s great for readers. Random House’s Jason Epstein believes that the Internet can save literature. To read Newsweek’s roundtable on the future of publishing, click here. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that independent booksellers are planning to strike back at and the superchains with a Web site,, and that Brill’s Content founder Steven Brill intends to follow with, which will join with several small booksellers to market books, magazine articles, and other editorial matter. For more adventures in the book trade, read, Publishers Weekly, and Publishers Lunch.

American evolutionary psychologist Kevin MacDonald was one of two witnesses British historian David Irving called in his unsuccessful libel case against Deborah E. Lipstadt, who had written that Irving was a Holocaust denier—for more on Lipstadt and Irving, click here. Now MacDonald has been asked to make a public defense of his views on Judaism. (In January, Slate’s “Culturebox” said MacDonald is an anti-Semite.) Meanwhile, Irving, who must pay Lipstadt’s and her publisher’s legal expenses (estimated at $2 million), is in California on a fund-raising trip.

Traffic is strangling cities
, says Michael Massing. If you think this is only an American problem, click here for the latest on gridlock around the world. To view Atlanta’s traffic jams—the worst in the nation—click here. Like weather, traffic has become “news” (or maybe just mundane narrative: Click here for a dull tale of Florida gridlock), and when accompanied by an accident, traffic is “breaking news” (see the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of major accidents). If the highways can be both deadly and deadly boring, they’re also a cause of rage. To see if you’re prone to road rage, take the American Automobile Association’s test. After surviving a head-on collision, Time art critic Robert Hughes said, “There was no damage to my spine or to my eyes or to my brain or to my balls, and these are the essential components of a critic’s activity. I feel as though I’ve been handed something on a plate, namely the rest of my life.” For French film director Jacques Tati, gridlock was comedy, but in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1968), gridlock is a massacre, less about the wreckage of modern life than about modern life as wreckage.

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Christina Hoff Sommers attacks the work of developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan: “The research commonly cited to support claims of male privilege and male sinfulness is riddled with errors.” Gilligan replies to the charges here. In other gender news, Mary Warnock lambastes feminist philosophers for relativism: “ I’m not going to take one single step down the postmodernist path which says there is no such thing as one truth.”

For Edward Said, Jean-Paul Sartre “has always been one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century, a man whose insight and intellectual gifts were at the service of nearly every progressive cause of our time.” Director Richard Eyre explains why the French philosopher loved the theater. Search for philosophy on the Internet at Hippias. To join a philosophical discussion, try the Socrates Argument Clinic.

No, the smart Manhattan restaurant is vermin-free. Read the New York health inspector’s report to find out if you’ll be dining with critters at your favorite restaurant. Feed asks whether such reports will damage restaurants’ reputations. Meanwhile, Jim Leff, a k a the Chowhound, shares his latest food adventure, and the cheeky reports on obnoxious customers. Search for restaurants at Zagat’s. Click here if you’re thinking of starting a restaurant in New York. Also, asks what vegetarians will make of synthetic meat

A piece by Michael Specter in the New Yorker (which is not, alas, published on the Web) reports on Google’s efforts to build a better search engine. Favored search sites for Omnivore include The Big Eye, Ask Jeeves, Northern Light, Voice of the Shuttle, as well as Yahoo!, GoTo, Hotbot, MSN, and AltaVista. For more-esoteric Web log discoveries,  try Linkwatcher

HARPER’S TURNS 150 The monthly celebrates its birthday and a new anthology   with a bash at New York’s Grand Central Station. Publisher John MacArthur explains how he bought the magazine, and its well-known “ Index” is parodied by Modern Humorist.

Photographs of: Sir Norman Foster by Russell Boyce/Reuters.

Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.