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I just rewatched Gattaca recently, and it strikes me as one of the most surprisingly radical Hollywood films of the past few decades, and a very rare example of a film that could be considered hard sci-fi. Now, I often tend to find that label a little precious and irritating–there is plenty of good “soft” sci-fi that explores human nature, politics and society with depth and perceptiveness, and plenty of hard sci-fi that is pointless and boring. It’s a label that tends to automatically confer a certain level of quality or respectability on a work, regardless of how imaginative it is or what fictional qualities it brings to the table, and tends toward self-importance a la Martin Starr’s Party Down character. Still, it is a real distinction, and this movie definitely passes the test by playing around with big ideas and presenting a scientifically possible (if admittedly allegorical) future. What’s really great about the film is how it visualizes the perfect meritocracy–peoples’ lives are essentially determined at birth due to how they happen to be genetically designed, with the implicit understanding that the only people having natural children are either poor people or “weirdos” who are made to regret it. All the strengths and weaknesses, all the contradictory impulses and unknown potentials of a human being are reduced to a single, binary piece of data which is ubiquitously, endlessly tested, which is, if not the logical conclusion of Big Data, most definitely a logical conclusion, and probably not all that far off. When Ethan Hawke’s character applies for a job, the “interview” is just one of these tests, not any real sort of assessment of his qualifications or fitness for the job. He is part of the “impartially” determined elite, which after all is based on science and for which there are endless justifications within arm’s reach. It’s a system that looks at itself as promoting excellence on fair, objective grounds, and that even has de facto legal protection against genetic discrimination. It’s Mike Bloomberg’s paradise.

And yet, it doesn’t work. That legal protection isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Ethan Hawke’s character is out of the in group based purely on the possibility that he may develop a fatal heart condition, which means it’s a waste to devote precious resources to developing him to be anything more than a janitor, despite his being a brilliant scientist. The tests, it turn out, just measure what the tests measure, regardless of the actual possibility of the individual. He switches identities with Jude Law, who is part of the in group but is an embittered, unemployable drunk who bears the burden of having failed to live up to the meritocratic ideal due to having been disabled (and, it is hinted, wasn’t living up to it even before his accident). Much of the plot has to do with how Hawke avoids the hilariously obtrusive attempts by the “Valid” group to keep out the rest, but it’s largely about just how ridiculous this extensive apparatus is. The effort seems more than desperate, reflecting enormous insecurity on the part of the Valids as they frantically preserve a power structure that continually fails to work as advertised. Lots of other interesting stuff at play here–Hawke’s former janitorial supervisor not even recognizing him after he makes the switch, say, or how Alan Arkin’s detective immediately follows the lead of an “In-Valid” (not exactly subtle, but still) exclusively, when it turns out that the supposedly genetically non-violent Valid was the killer. The movie is very effective at pointing out the necessary prejudices needed to keep up a meritocratic system, and the blindness, the lack of examination of them that keeps it going. And it’s not as though Hawke brings it all down at the end–he is able to beat the system to accomplish his personal dream, and there’s the hope that his example might bring some truth to the proceedings. But other than that, it’s going to continue, at least for now. Contrast this with the slick bullshit of Elysium, say. Or Serenity, where a dominant power structure is brought down by a YouTube clip. That’s a movie that too many Firefly fans embraced despite it being a mash-up between a generic action movie (replete with a fight over a bottomless chasm!) and a political change message about as accurate as an off episode of the US House Of Cards. But I’ll hold that for another day.

Gattaca has a few flaws–the romance between Hawke and Uma Thurman is pretty perfunctory (hard to believe the marriage didn’t last with that chemistry), and there are the usual inconsistencies that you find in any movie. But the movie–in addition to being well-plotted, acted, and all the rest–takes on some big issues in the best science-fiction tradition with palpable righteous anger, and it came out a decade and a half before people were even talking about these sorts of things. It’s aged beautifully. Give him credit, Andrew Niccol really managed to slip this under the wire.

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Paul Waldman has written perhaps the most significant single piece about the Democratic election to date. Definitely read it. The basic contention is that Clinton has failed to tell the story (or a story) of her campaign well, or to provide a coherent vision of what she’d like to see happen. Sanders, of course, has done quite a bit of each, to criticism both fair and unfair. Maybe Hillary Clinton just isn’t as great a politician as people think she is? No doubt she’s smart and knows a lot about policy and details about how the government works. Staying relevant for so long is also a sign of something. But there’s no gut-level element to her pitch, just like there wasn’t in 2008. It’s lamentable but true that voters go more by personality than policy, by impression rather than by rigorous study. It’s the difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on the one hand, and Al Gore and John Kerry on the other–similar enough on policy to the others, but not able to hit that gut-level. At least, not when they ran.

This is why something like her giving those Goldman Sachs speeches is so immensely damaging to Hillary Clinton: it provides that gut-level element and tells a story which is deeply unflattering, and in the absence of an affirmative story, it becomes her story. Hillary definitely understands that it is a problem, hence her rhetoric about how she cannot be bought. But not why it is a problem. If you or I were offered six figures to give a speech, of course we’d say yes (within reason–I’m not taking 675 grand from the Aryan Nation, obviously). But while I am a Bay Area tech industry type and thus made a pretty good living, I could still use the money (have you looked at housing prices up here recently?). And my guess is so can you. For someone who doesn’t need the money to just pocket it from a hated company that nearly made the world go boom (unsurprisingly, heaping praise on the old vampire squid), and then turn around and say it meant nothing and, hey, look at my stringent plans to reform Wall Street–it just doesn’t cut it. There’s no way to square it. Obviously, the reason is because the Clintons live in a world where taking cash to give a speech to Goldman Sachs is entirely unremarkable–nothing that needs to be answered for, nothing that should ever be questioned. That is the problem. That world is inherently unrelatable to 99.5% of us. And all the policy plans in the world are not going to make up for the impact of that story.

Ultimately, what Clinton does have is nostalgia, which is what you get when you implicitly run on the ’90s while disowning or ignoring the actual laws passed during that era. GenX-ers who remember the awesome job market they got into back in the ’90s. Boomers who spent the 1990s in solidarity with the Clintons, rallying to their defense, controversy after controversy, whether invented or idiotically self-inflicted. And so on. Young people care nothing about any of this. Sanders speaks to their problems now, connects, gets it. I can easily think of politicians–mostly Democrats–who continually bought into the fiction that policy and probity alone would bring them to the top: Gore, Kerry, Bruce Braley, Martha Coakley. Each of whom was better on policy than their counterparts, for all the good it did them.

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Err, not so much:

The real estate mogul’s win is likely to send shudders through the Republican establishment, which fears his explosive rhetoric targeting women, Mexicans and Muslims could hamper the GOP’s chances of appealing to a general-election audience.

A hoarse but jubilant Sanders proclaimed his victory to be the result of a “huuuuge” turnout. His emphatic performance will now propel him into a nationwide battle against Clinton as he attempts to shatter the firewall among ethnically diverse voters that she has built in South Carolina and other Southern states.

My own predictions were kinda sorta accurate. On the Democratic side, pretty much dead on. As for the other, swap Rubio and Cruz and it looks about right. Trump overperformed rather than underperformed. But Christie is likely dropping out–meaning Carly “If You Think My Resume Sucks, Wait Until You Find Out About My Character” Fiorina is next. Honestly I’m surprised that Rubio fell so far–one might have figured that the beating he got would engender some sympathy and might make some NH voters protect the guy from the vicious mainstream media. But no. Instead they basically killed his campaign. Clearly nobody outside of the DC/NY area with a disposable income under $275,000 per annum ever gave a damn about him. At. All. The haste with which the MSM pivoted from the “Republican Savior” narrative to the “Damaged Robot” narrative was pretty startling. Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who did choose to run for president and advocates all manner of truly horrible things (“no exemptions” anti-abortion policy, John McCain’s foreign policy, a tax cut the size of the Pacific Ocean). Not to mention someone who called the President of the United States a willful traitor on television. Marco Rubio is in so many ways the perfect example of everything that is wrong with modern politics, and while his downfall will not fix all that, at least the bad guys will not be rewarded for once.

Looking ahead, South Carolina promises to be interesting. It’s been underpolled, though while the conventional wisdom seems to be reasonable in suggesting a Clinton victory, Sanders has been improving his position. If he gets a bump from New Hampshire, it’s hardly impossible to imagine him getting to 40-45% of the vote there, which would mean he’d get a good share of delegates. He may be there already, for all we know, as the last poll was several weeks ago. As for the Republicans, a Trump-Cruz-Jeb! trifecta strikes me as the almost certain outcome. The Bush family knows how to play dirty there, after all, and a second consecutive third place might mark that Bush comeback that narrative-creators keep attempting to will into existence. Kasich has nothing going on there, and while Rubio does have a credible organization, he’s going to have to overcome several extremely negative news cycles, as well as a recent impression that he’s unable to handle the pressure in a state well renowned for knife fight politics. Carson should drop out after that, though I tend to doubt he will. He’s taking directions from The Man Upstairs, after all, as well as a cabal of grifters, and I suspect all parties will want him to remain in the race. It would be like Tony Soprano leaving the sporting goods store before it gets closed down:

Update: Carly’s out.

 

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My prediction is that Bernie beats Hillary about 60-40 on the Dem side. Bernie outperformed his polls in Iowa and HRC isn’t even in the state right now. It’s a writeoff for her. Still, she’s not going to lose by 30 or some such.

On the Republican side, if Rubio tanks and finishes in fourth or fifth he’s probably done. But purely out of partisan self-intrest, I don’t want him out just yet, nor do I think that bad a finish is in the cards. Rubio remaining in the race as a diminished force would mean that he’d continue to split up the establishment-inclined voters with Kasich (for sure) and Bush (most likely), though probably not Christie. A third-place tie with Bush well behind Trump and Kasich would be a rough outcome for him–even though objectively he would have done as well or better than Bush in both primaries to date, it’s likely Rubio who will be more pressured to step aside in favor of Kasich or Jeb! Here’s my prediction:

Trump 27
Kasich 18
Rubio 15
Bush 15
Cruz 12
Christie 8
Fiorina 2
Carson 2

Trump underperformed a bit in Iowa and will probably underperform a bit here, since he apparently just learned what a ground game was and I don’t think there are many people flirting with Trump–they’re either on board or really not on board. But he’ll still win. Kasich will take second and then lose a couple of contests for want of campaign infrastructure while trying to consolidate the establishment behind him. Rubio will have his “strong third place finish” which will, unlike his last one, be treated as a defeat. Bush and Carson will not exit the race. Christie and Carly Fiorina will.

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It used to be that every four years, Donald Trump would make some kind of vague rumbling about maybe running for president as a radical centrist, and then everyone would take it seriously. Then Trump would back out, again, having secured his goal of making us all pay attention to him. Now that he’s quit that game for a different one. So it’s up to Michael Bloomberg to fill the gap I guess. He’s once again floating interest in a presidential run, not coincidentally right before the New Hampshire Primary. Does anyone care?

Whether it’s Bloomberg or someone else, if the general election match-up winds up being Trump vs. Sanders, there’s going to be a third-party centrist candidacy. It’s a natural opening, as such a match-up would amount to a double-rejection of party establishments, or alternatively a rejection of much of the bipartisan consensus points–trade, “entitlement reform,” endless war–that the public dislikes but is rarely given a choice to have a voice in. Still, there are some people who support this agenda and Bloomberg would undoubtedly put all of it front and center in his pitch. Whatever success you think he might have depends largely on your assumptions about the electorate. The view among many of our nation’s narrative-makers, if I had to boil it down, would be that Americans are tired of partisan politics, and are just waiting for politicians to reach across the aisle and work together. Under this view, a Bloomberg bid would be very successful. But a more reasonable view is that much of the American public has simply had it with the nation’s business and political elites, and that while this is expressing itself in different ways among Republicans and Democrats, there is a true appetite for fundamental change. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has had difficulties because she, like much of Washington, has no idea how to respond to this, and I’m not sure Michael Bloomberg would fare any better.

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The new, repetitive voice

Yet another mainstream media narrative goes up in flames. Perhaps they should give up on narratives altogether and just report things.

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The surge is real, but at this point, reading media accounts of it might make a person forget that Trump still leads at least 2-1 in most new polls. And while Rubio does have “momentum” it’s still basically the case that if, say, John Kasich winds up getting second place in NH (a very real possibility), the party will be over before it starts. My point is, “Trump is deflating” and “Rubio is going to win” are the mainstream media’s two dominant narratives about the Republican race. There’s reason to react to the media pushing those narratives with the proverbial grain of salt, especially given that Trump’s YUUUUUUGE deflation meant he underperformed by 4% in a rigged game that (especially for Republicans) barely even pretends to have anything much to do anymore with generating a plausible president.

I do keep going back and forth on whether to be worried about Rubi. It’s very true that Rubio has mastered many of the presentational arts of politics but has essentially no substance – it’s almost as though the Republican Party willed a collection of corporate and political buzzwords into sentience. But then again, personality is basically how people approach politics, and the lust of parts the MSM for Rubio brings up unwelcome memories of Bush-Gore. Then again, Rubio doesn’t seem like someone who is ready to face the Clintons and survive that especially well either. And that he’s been able to fly strangely under the radar for much of the primary season means there might be some undetonated bombs in that particular history. On the balance Kasich would, I think, worry me more.

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