Privacy? What Privacy?

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The Bling Ring tells the mostly true story of a group of Hollywood Hills teenagers who were convicted of burgling over $3 million in cash and personal items from celebrity homes over the course of a year.

It is as much a tale of stalking as it is of burglary. The thieves would track the whereabouts of glamorous celebs like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge by perusing such websites as TMZ.com and the celebs’ own Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Then they would locate the homes through Internet sites like Google Maps and celebrityaddressaerial.com. They were careful at first to take only a few things at a time, things that would probably not be missed from the overstuffed closets and drawers of the rich and famous. Mainly they wanted to wander around the mansions and pretend to live there. The fact that they were able to do this so effortlessly — letting themselves in through doors that had, incredibly, been left unlocked — made this a fascinating story when it broke in 2010.

The film is timely and important as a cautionary tale. Americans today routinely “check in” when they’re at the restaurant, the theater, the sporting event, or wherever else they happen to be. They post happy, smiling pictures from vacations while they are still away from home. Ostensibly they do this to say, “Hey, come join me,” or “Look at how much fun I’m having.” But they tell every person who has access to Facebook (and that’s everyone, period), “I’m not home. Now would be a good time to rob me.”

I avoided using the collective “we” because I never “check in” on Facebook, no matter how glamorous or exciting the place may be. I don’t even put my real address into my car’s GPS map; I use the nearby shopping center as the address to help me find my way home. But how many people drop their cars off at a parking garage and never think twice about leaving house keys, garage door openers, and home addresses along with the important detail, “I’ll be back in four hours”? Sheesh! We complain about the NSA and its Utah spying center, and then blithely violate our own privacy every day.

Although The Bling Ring focuses on this important topic, it is not a very good movie. The characters are thinly drawn and the actors are overdirected. They know their lines, but they wait patiently for their turn to deliver them. They don’t seem to be having genuine conversations. It’s almost like watching a middle-school play. One can almost hear Sofia Coppola in the background saying, “Okay, look like you’re excited. Now look like you’re more excited. Now look like you’re stoned.”

But perhaps Coppola simply didn’t have much to work with. Much of the dialog for the film is taken directly from interviews that were taken with the shallow, star-struck thieves and published in Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Marc (Israel Broussard), based on Nick Prugo, is the gay kid who just wants to fit in; Rebecca (Katie Chang), based on Rachel Lee, is the ringleader who wants to be “part of the lifestyle”; and Nicki (Emma Watson), based on Alexis Neiers, wants to be noticed by celebrities and literally walk around in their shoes. In fact, when told that the victims of their crimes knew who they were, Nicki asks excitedly, “What did Lindsay [Lohan] say?”

The real life Alexis Neiers was involved in creating a reality TV show for E! about the life of a party girl, when she got involved with the Burglary Bunch. Consequently, the reality film crew was following her around during this time, filming her at parties wearing stolen clothing. When she was arrested, according to Sales’ article, they began filming her arrest and directing the family’s reaction to it. (Let’s say it together: what an idiot!)

The irony of having a camera crew following Nicki around might have made this film more interesting and suspenseful, but Coppola chose to leave that out. Instead, Nicki’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann) is a self-appointed guru who raises her children on the “principle of attraction” found in that inane self-help book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006). (See my review of The Secret, “Better Living Through Fluff,” in the October 2007 Liberty.) The premise of homeschooling based on such a cockamamie book could be turned into a hilarious comedy. Laurie greets her three girls in the morning with a cheery, “Time for your Adderall!” She leads them in inane affirmations that she calls prayers and teaches them the principle of attraction from a series of poster boards demonstrating Angelina Jolie as a role model whose characteristics the girls should “attract.” Meanwhile the girls languish on the couch as virtual prisoners. One almost thinks that jail would be a relief.

During a post-arrest media interview, as Nicki and Laurie vie for attention and screen time, Nicki makes a statement she seems to think is extremely profound: “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”

This is exactly what Alexis Neiers said on-camera in her post-arrest interview. But despite being based on real life, these scenes are simply overdone and out of place. Coppola is not skilled enough to create a meaningful juxtaposition between the family scenes and the scenes of out-of-control night-clubbing and “closet shopping.” We don’t see enough of the characters’ backgrounds, beyond what the kids choose to tell us. We see glimpses of what this film might have been in the hands of a better scriptwriter, but those glimpses emphasize the fact that the film has no real point of view, other than recreating an interesting crime spree.

If you are interested in this story, save yourself the price of admission and popcorn, and just read Nancy Jo Sales’ article.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Bling Ring," directed by Sofia Coppola. American Zoetrope, 2013, 90 minutes.



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The Arab Spring and After

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What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. —François de La Rochefoucauld

A few years back, people of Pakistan were fighting for democracy. I thought that Pervez Musharraf, their dictator, was the best they could get. But fashionable women were protesting and burning his effigy. The educated wanted democracy. They got democracy. Now, women cannot protest. And educated people have disappeared from the demonstration scene. The case with Nepal is similar. Since the end of monarchy, it has become a basketcase. How many people can remember places called East Timor and South Sudan? Not too long back the Western world was on the streets fighting for the social movements in these countries without a clue about the social or cultural contexts there.

 The Arab Spring brought a huge amount of excitement in the Gulf countries. The Western world had very romantic views about the protests in Egypt and Libya. Now it will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what has been happening, rationalizing its initial support as good intentions. Or perhaps it will blame the military for the coup of July 3, 2013 that removed the democratically elected President, who soon after his election had catapulted into an autocrat. Is Egypt rapidly heading toward massive civil unrests and disintegration similar to that of Algeria in 1991? Only time will tell, but a few years down the road, one may well look at Egypt under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak with nostalgia. 

India has had massive protests against social ills and corruption.

If you are not supporting the protestors you are seen to be against democracy, liberty, hope, and change. The phenomenon is being repeated in Turkey and Bulgaria, where I have just spent two months. In both these countries, protests seem — from my rather limited outsider’s perspective but verified by my Turkish friends — to have developed for wrong reasons. More than listening to what the protestors say, one must delve more deeply into what they really want, for language is often a tool for deception and self-deception.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it.

Turkey and Bulgaria have progressed significantly over the past two decades. They are very significantly freer. The military in Turkey has increasingly taken a back seat. The mafia in Bulgaria is still a big problem, but a tourist, if he is not totally gullible, can move around safe and unmolested.

But what change is sweeping the developing world? Those with wishful thinking might suggest that it is, according to a survey, libertarians who are protesting in Turkey. They are completely wrong. Alas, even in the United States most people until not too long back did not really know what “libertarian” meant. A Turk explained to me that in the survey done in the Turkish language respondents had chosen what could be translated as “freedom-loving.” The newspaper that reported it decided to translate the word to “libertarian.” And we all know that the world is almost 100% freedom-loving. The question is what the people mean by “freedom.”

The very possibility of joining the masses makes me cringe. Not only do those who protest make jackasses of themselves, but there can hardly be any specific collective aims, for people have different motivations that are often in conflict with one another. Mostly even an individual’s protest is based on sound-bites rather than a coherent philosophy. Even when such groups have a coherent aim, they are often in opposition to some other, less vociferous group. And those who have nothing to do with any of the protests must suffer, for protestors disrupt the public space, aggressing against the uninvolved. While I do understand that it might make sense to protest publicly when the issues are of grave and immediate significance — the likelihood of a nuclear war, for example — it is generally true that only voluntary interactions among people have principled value.

So, if not for liberty, what underpins these protests — in Arab countries, Turkey, Bulgaria, and now in Brazil?

They are a result of several issues, all centred on democracy.

The weed of democracy has spread and rooted itself deeply in the psyche of people almost everywhere in the world. It is no longer seen as a new-age Western religion, which is what it is. When I was a kid in India, it was common for people to discuss why democracy — aka mob-rule — does not work. You would be called too simplistic and blamed for blindly following the West if you talked in favour of democracy. They would make fun of you for trying to look westernized. The winds have changed. I have not heard anyone saying anything against “democracy” for more than a decade now.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. These people no longer have to show their fangs. They no longer have to show that they are ruthless exploiters, trying to steal a cut from wealth producers. Democracy has given them a garb of acceptance and the look of doing good. Psychopaths can now openly work their way up to rule others.

Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size. The size of the state — its power to tax, regulate, and control — has grown everywhere. It is the one-size-fits-all democratic institution in most parts of the world. Given its lack of connection with the underlying culture in many parts of the world, it cannot accommodate changes in society, including the fact that people are now more informed and much more mobile. The state had depended on a stable populace. But by encouraging people to get involved in democracy, it has opened a can of worms.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it.

Democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. In those systems of mafia organizations called the state, people see themselves in opposition; they retain the ability to see the state for what it is: a group of people who cannot take responsibly for their own lives but believe that they can, through threats of violence, tell others how to live, meanwhile skimming off a large portion of wealth generated by the people. Democracy has made the state an inherent part of the society. The chains are no longer visible ones, but the ones within people’s minds. Those are the worst chains.

My Russian friend tells me that after the breakup of the USSR, people had no interest in standing up to sing hymns at a piece of their cloth or salute it. In Canada, until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were hardly any displays of nationalism. Now, flags fly everywhere in Vancouver. In India, when I was a kid, people used to walk away or ignore it when the national anthem was sung. But recently movie theaters have started running the national anthem. On a recent visit, everyone — except me — stood up. I could even see their glutes tightened — muscles that their personal trainers had failed to help them isolate — while they stood in complete discipline. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how much the State has become a part of society’s DNA.

Democracy is now in the DNA of individual people, too — a cultural meme that has found no competition. Even the ultra-religious in the Middle East must now give at least lip service to democracy, for they have failed to counter the ideological challenge. Democracy is seen as a given and a universal good, as if it were a first principle.

Democracy has encouraged herd instincts and lack of self-responsibility. Democracy has given equal participation to those who have no interest in social affairs, to those who are driven mostly by a 9-to-5 materialistic lifestyle, forever waiting for the next weekend.

Democracy has been propagandized as something that provides wealth as if by a magic. Young people in the developing world have grown up to think that democracy is a cure for all their problems. Somewhere in their minds, they have come to believe — as is the case even in the West today — that democracy creates something from nothing. They are on the streets asking for their share of this something.

Their protests have absolutely nothing to do with any libertarian mindset developing in the world. People around the world have come to depend more — emotionally and materially — on the state. They are not asking for a smaller state but for a more efficient state, which to them means a bigger and more influential one. Alas, given that democracy is a one-size-fits-all, alien institution for most societies, it has made the state less malleable than it would have been had those countries continued with the system of governance they had naturally evolved.

But even in the West the state has been increasing in size exactly at the time when the state, having hijacked emergency services and the maintenance of law and order, is very brittle and its structure completely unsuitable for the changing, mobile, and informed society. As Doug Casey would say, the State is on its way out.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it. Only time will show how this conflict — of the State falling apart while the people are becoming more dependent on it — will be resolved.




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Arrested Metamorphosis

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Over a year ago, in two articles titled “A Living Wage?” and “The Metamorphosis” in the December 2011 and March 2012 issues of Liberty, I reported on the proposed and partially implemented economic reforms of the Castro regime in Cuba. Included was an analysis of their impact by Luis R. Luis, former director, Latin America Department, of the Institute of International Finance and chief economist at the Organization of American States (OAS). Luis and The Economist have recently provided an update, which I think only fair to pass on.

The reforms allowed more small private businesses, shifting labor from the state to the private sector, thereby freeing selected retail prices and improving management of state enterprises. They also permitted the purchase and sale of residential housing and cars among private parties. Additionally, enabling legislation was passed to encourage joint development ventures with foreign investors.

A couple of years back The Economist reported that Cuba’s internet speed was the second slowest in the world, behind the island of Mayotte, a French territory of around 200,000 people.

One notable reform passed since the original proposals purports to allow Cubans to travel abroad. In practice however, it’s an Enganche-22 for perfectly logical albeit unreasonable reasons. Since the Cuban government provides everyone with a “free” education, it claims a lien on the benefits of that education. Graduates’ expertise and earnings are subject to strict state controls. Travel abroad is regulated according to how essential the state deems one’s job to the economy. As you might guess, with the Cuban economy treading water, most jobs are considered essential. The perverse result of this policy is that those fortunate enough to be able to afford and desire foreign travel, are unlikely to benefit from the new freedoms; while those who can’t afford to travel and are unlikely to apply for a visa are the main beneficiaries. Now you know why Orlando’s Disney World’s queues haven’t been lengthened by Cuban tourists.

As of June 4, those denied actual visas will have unlimited access to virtual travel. The Christian Science Monitor reports the opening of 118 public internet providers across the island. However, the $4.50 per hour cost might prove prohibitive. The average salary in Cuba is $15 per month. Service speed is another impediment. A couple of years back The Economist reported that Cuba’s internet speed was the second slowest in the world, behind the island of Mayotte, a French territory of around 200,000 people just northwest of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Facebook is not bracing for a slew of new Cuban accounts.

Nearly all the other reforms include such self-correcting provisions. In Gauging Cuba’s Economic Reforms (May 2013), Luis R. Luis gives us an update. He uses the Transition Indicators of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to measure progress on the road to a full-blown market economy. But he demurs that his approach is inappropriate because official government policy firmly states that Cuba is not pursuing a “transition” to a market economy. As Raul Castro famously declared in 2009, “I was not elected to restore capitalism to Cuba.” Luis justifies his approach stating that, “Nonetheless, it is quite useful to make an analysis of the present state of Cuban reform as if it were on the road to establish a market economy and to provide a comparison with transition economies in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Near East as measured by the EBRD indicators.”

So how does Cuba score? The EBRD rating scale is calibrated from 1 (little to no change) to 4+ (for fully liberalized market economies). Luis gauges progress in six policy areas.

  1. Large scale privatization: Cuba scores 1.
  2. Competition policy: Cuba scores 1 — no competition legislation and institutions.
  3. Trade and foreign exchange system: Cuba scores 1.2, meaning that there are widespread import and/or export controls.
  4. Small scale privatization: Cuba scores 1.5
  5. Governance and enterprise restructuring: Cuba scores 1.7. A score of 2 is moderately tight credit and subsidy policy; weak enforcement of bankruptcy laws; and little action to strengthen competition and corporate governance (Luis warns that his grade in this area is probably generous).
  6. Price liberalization: Cuba scores 2 — some lifting of price controls, but with substantial state procurement at controlled prices. Still, more progress has been made in this area than in any other, especially on retail pricing by private farmers and the self- employed.

For a grand total of 8.4 — below any of the 34 transition countries where indicators have been calculated using the EBRD methodology. For comparison, the next lowest ranking is achieved by Turkmenistan with a 10.7, followed by Belarus at 13, and Uzbekistan at 13.7.

Comparing price liberalization with all the other items, a cynic might conclude that the only benefits of the reforms to the Cuban man-on-the-street are price hikes. Luis summarizes that, “The pity is that Cuban policy as stated appears to aim at maintaining a low score.”

In spite of Fidel Castro’s declaration that golf was a “bourgeois” hobby unsuitable for communists, the government has just given the go-ahead to a new $350 million golf resort.

And what about the proposed and existing foreign joint ventures? I’d previously reported that several foreign businessmen had been arrested for engaging in corrupt practices: paying wages and bonuses to employees above the legal limit. The Economist drolly reports some progress in the status of the jailed managers: “Now, in a move which could be a precursor to their release, they are about to go on trial.”

As to the real estate tourism developments, not many shovels have broken ground. But that’s no impediment to forging ahead with more plans. In spite of Fidel Castro’s declaration after he took power that golf was a “bourgeois” hobby unsuitable for communists, and building upon most of the island’s existing courses, the government has just given the go-ahead to a new $350 million golf resort near Varadero. It’s “the start of a whole new policy to increase the presence of golf in Cuba,” declared a spokesman. Fidel’s son Antonio, garbed in a comandante’s olive green fatigues and sporting a full beard, even posed for a photo putting on a green. Antonio Castro then went on to win a promotional golf tournament staged by Esencia, the British joint venture company developing the Carbonera Club. The resort will also include residential properties available for purchase by foreigners.

Plans to increase shipping and storage capacity at ports have inched forward. Brazil, through its Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), has provided credits of over $800 million for the expansion of the port of Mariel and related infrastructure. “This seems generous and it involves the well-connected Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht,” according to Luis. The government has also approved construction of a 1,300-berth marina near Varadero, which — if developed — would be the largest in the Caribbean. Finally,The Economist reports that the BNDES is also providing funds to upgrade the island’s airports.

We see that the Cuban government treats its people as if they were a dog in training, giving them tiny tasty tidbits accompanied by lavish verbiage. One Cuban housewife told a radio station, “something is better than nothing,” adding “the majority is not going to stop eating just to connect to the internet.”




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