Monday, July 10, 2017

The Tenth Commandment

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 1999.

According to the Old Testament, Moses heard directly from God about establishing standards of civilized conduct. A portion of the instructions Moses is purported to gotten from God, Himself – known as the Ten Commandments – is still a news-maker.

The Bible says there were several other rules offered by God atop Mount Sinai; rules we hear less about. If you try reading the book of Exodus, it won’t take long for you to see why. Some of those other rules are rather Old World – such as the proper regulation of slavery and burnt offerings.
For the most part the Ten Commandments are to-the-point, covering basic stuff: Honor God and your parents. Be willing to make sacrifices for what matters most to you. Along the way don’t kill, lie, or steal. Don’t cheat on your spouse, or perhaps spouses – uh-oh, there's that Old World thing again.

In the final of the Ten Commandments, Moses said that we ought not to “covet” our neighbors’ goods. Isn't is curious that after a rather easily understood list of rules, put in the form of “shalt-nots,” the last rule is against even thinking too much about a shalt-not? Like, don't allow yourself to dwell on wanting what's not properly yours.

Covet? Come on Moses, what’s the problem with a little mild coveting? Why not stick to nine rules about actual behavior?

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” (1991) the brilliant but evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, instructs the movie’s detective heroine, Clarice Starling – who is in search of a serial killer – that people covet only 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 should not have. 

Today, because of the reach of the mainstream and social media, just about everyone alive 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 the advertisements tell us just how 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 good life promotions they want it, too. Why not?

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, in recent times, 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 most 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 screens. A hundred years ago, 50 years ago, the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is and it sees what we had for lunch. It sees our vacation snapshots. It sees what we brag about the most. Today the underclass knows exactly how soft life is for the well-off.

History isn’t much help here because it tells us the unwashed masses have usually 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.”

Just think about how many American movies and TV shows are about rich people doing as the please. If the wisdom of the ages — the Ten Commandments — suggests it's smart to discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps it would also be smart to stop promoting such trouble with our brightest spotlights.

Bragging was never cool. Now American's braggarts, who flaunt their wealth, are asking for the sort of trouble that will splash onto all of us.

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-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

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