By flaunting our array of material luxuries, we are encouraging others to break God's law. 

The Tenth Commandment

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, are still well known.

There were several other rules offered atop Mount Sinai that we hear less about. If you read Exodus, I think you'll see why right way — let's just say some of the lesser mentioned rules no longer pass the politically correct muster.

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. And in the final of the 10, we are warned not to covet a neighbor's goods.

I find it interesting that after the laundry list of shalt-nots, the last rule is against even thinking too much about a shalt-not. What were those ancient cats thinking about with that afterthought of a commandment? Why wasn't it relegated to the second, or third, tier of God's rules, such as the ones regulating slavery and burnt offerings?

Hopefully, the reader will permit me the post-modern license of audacity to move directly from the Ten Commandments to a Hollywood thriller in order to make my point. 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.

I think the ravenous doctor is probably right about what fuels obsessive cravings. If you haven't seen it, how can you dwell on wanting it?

Today, because of the modern media, everyone sees how rich and powerful people live all the time. One sure thing movies, sitcoms, soaps, and the celebrity news do — in addition to telling a particular story — is to show us how well off some people are. Then, every few minutes the ads tell us where to buy the same pleasures and gadgets the people in story possess. If you've got the dough to buy the stuff, that's one thing. If you don't that's another.

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. But my thesis here is that there is a dark side to this strategy.

When powerless people, who have no financial resources see that same material, they naturally want the good life too. However, if they have no hope, they don't believe the good life is available to them through legitimate channels. So, instead of feeling motivated 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 are seeing from teen-agers lately stems from their exaggerated sense of powerlessness. In the worst cases, their impatience boils over as they wait for what they imagine to be an adult's power over life and death.

Those of us who have been enjoying the options that adults actually have for a few years sometimes forget how much, as teen-agers, we too wanted to be older and have those same options. Perhaps we forget so easily because the raw thrill of making everyday choices wears off fast once we get used to it.

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 much of the world 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 only going to fester. And fester it surely will because poor people, the world over, probably are watching "Entertainment Tonight" (and its celebrity-worshipping ilk) on television.

Meanwhile, these folks aren't thinking about where to shop for knockoffs of what they see flaunted on the tube. They are coveting and at the same time don't see a way for them to get over being poor in their lifetime.

History isn't much help here because it tells them that the unwashed masses usually have had to take what they want by force.

Maybe the wealthy societies of the world will be smart enough to extend a little hope to the bitterest have-nots, maybe they won't.

How much longer wealthy Americans can rely on the 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 suggests we should discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps we ought not to promote them so much with our brightest lights.

F.T. Rea is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

F. T. Rea, copyright 1999

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