With a new year underway, a new mayor in City Hall and new president about to sworn in, this piece I wrote for STYLE Weekly 10 years ago is offered for SLANTblog's readers to consider. Although much has changed in the last decade, I hope there's enough in the little rant that still applies that it's worth a second look (the art is even older).
The Tenth Commandment
by F. T. Rea
According to the Old Testament, Moses heard directly from God about standards of behavior. A portion of the instructions Moses is purported to have heard, The Ten Commandments, is still well known and even in the news frequently.
There were several other rules offered atop Mount Sinai that we hear less about. If you read much of the book of Exodus, it won’t take long for you to see why. Let’s just say that some are rather old world, including the regulation of established practices such as slavery and burnt offerings.
However, the Ten Commandments are to-the-point and very basic stuff: Honor your God and your parents. Be willing to make sacrifices for what matters most to you. Don’t kill, lie, or steal, and don’t cheat on your spouse(s). Of course, even then, it depended on what “cheating” meant. In the final of the ten, Moses claimed God said people should not “covet” their neighbors’ goods.
Well, I find it interesting that after a simple list of shalt-nots, the last rule is against even thinking about a shalt-not. It seems redundant. Covet? Come on Moses, what’s the problem with a little coveting? Why not stick to Nine Commandments?
Hopefully, the reader will permit me the post-modern license to move directly from the Bible to a Hollywood thriller, in order to help Moses with his answer: In “Silence of the Lambs,” the brilliant but evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, instructs the movie’s detective heroine, who is in search of a serial killer, that people only covet what they see all the time.
Of course the ravenous doctor was right about what fuels obsessive cravings. If one hasn’t seen it, how can one lust for it? To dwell on wanting something, to the point of no return, one must see it regularly. Coveting is a festering of the mind; it's a craving for that which one cannot, or should not, have. No good can come from it.
Today, because of the modern media, everyone sees how wealthy/powerful people live all the time. One sure thing movies, sitcoms, soaps, and the celebrity news all do -- in addition to telling a story -- is to show us how well off some people are. Then, every few minutes the advertisements tell us where to buy the same pleasures and accouterments the stars in those stories possess.
If you’ve got the dough to buy the stuff, that’s one thing. If you don’t that’s another. That might spawn some coveting.
The lifestyle of a celebrity is constantly sold to consumers as the good life. Wanting that good life is a carrot on the stick that helps drive our consumer culture. Therefore, in some ways, it has been good to all of us. My thesis for today’s rant is that there is a dark side to this strategy.
When powerless/poor people see that same contrived entertainment they want the good life too. However, if they are trapped in their circumstances and have no hope, they don’t believe the good life is available through legitimate channels. So, instead of feeling motivated to work overtime, to earn more money, the powerless are left to covet.
Eventually all that desire for the unobtainable can lead to trouble. I’m convinced that some part of the violence we have seen from teen-agers, lately, stems from their exaggerated sense of powerlessness. In the worst cases, their impatience boils over while waiting for what they imagine to be an adult’s awesome power over life and death.
The good news is that kids grow up. Most of our children won’t shoot up their schools because of frustration with having so little say-so over their schedule. The bad news is that for many of the world’s underdogs their sense of powerlessness is something that isn’t going to dissipate so easily. In the so-called Third World, the longing for First World goods and options is festering as you read this.
Meanwhile, these powerless coveters aren’t thinking about where to shop for knockoffs of what they see flaunted on the tube. Watching the images on television and the Internet -- as everyone in the world now does -- they are coveting, and at the same time, they don’t see a way for them to get over being poor in their lifetime. A hundred years ago, 50 years ago, the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is.
Now they know how soft life is for the well-off. History isn’t much help here because it tells them that the unwashed masses usually have had to take what they wanted by force.
How much longer we can rely on the gentle patience of the world’s hungriest millions is anybody’s guess.
In the meantime, perhaps the other side of “thou shalt not covet” is “thou shalt not flaunt.” If the wisdom of the ages — the Ten Commandments — suggests we should discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps we ought not to promote them so much with our brightest lights.
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– Illustration (1982) by F.T. Rea