Note: This piece was written in 1999, not long after the massacre at Columbine HS in Colorado.
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 occasionally finds its way into the news.
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 made up of cut-to-the-chase 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; don’t cheat on your spouse. Of course, in the time of Moses it depended on what “cheating” meant. In the final of the ten, Moses claimed God said people should not covet their neighbors’ goods.
After such 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 here? What’s so bad about a little coveting? Why not stick to nine commandments?
Hopefully, the reader will permit the post-modern license for me to move directly from the Old Testament to a 1991 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 on the trail of a serial killer -- that people usually covet what see. Something they see all the time.
Of course, the ravenous Dr. Lecter was right about what fuels cravings. If one hasn’t seen it, how can one lust for it? To obsessively want something unattainable, to the point of no return, one must see it regularly. Coveting is a festering in the mind; it's a craving for that which one cannot, perhaps should not, have. Dwelling on coveting can conjure up evil.
Today, because of the modern media, everyone sees how wealthy/powerful people live all the time. In addition to telling stories, one sure thing the movies, the sitcoms, the soaps and the celebrity news all do, 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 glittery stars in those stories own. If you’ve got the dough to buy the stuff, that’s one thing. If you don’t that’s another. Uh-oh!
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 an unintended side to this strategy to stimulate consumerism. A dark side.
When powerless/poor people see that same contrived entertainment, with product placements aplenty, they want the good life too. Of course they do. 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 stew in their coveting juices.
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 their 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 longings for First World goods and options grow every day. Powerless audiences are seeing the propaganda for the good life on television and the Internet every day. At the same time, living as they do, they don’t see a realistic way for them to get over being poor.
Fifty years ago the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is. Now everybody knows how soft life can be for the well-off, living in gated communities.
If those in the underclass look to history, they will see that the unwashed masses have usually had to take what they wanted by force. How much longer citizens of the First World can continue to placate the planet’s hungriest folks, to hold them at bay while politics and capitalism routinely grind up their hopes for a better life, 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 it’s wise to eschew our own destructive cravings, perhaps we’d be smart not to shine our brightest spotlights on what encourages coveting in others.
-- 30 --
Note: A version of this piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly in 1999. The art is from a piece I did in a spell of Christmas-blues in 1982.