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Jeff Jacoby

A sinful ‘Occupation’

Economic envy cloaks itself in rhetoric about ‘inequality,’ but its oldest name is covetousness

A police officer walked through the remains of the Occupy Oakland camp after police shut the encampment down last week due to health and safety hazards. The camp has since been reestablished.Getty Images

AT THE Occupy Phoenix demonstrations, fliers encourage protesters to violently resist police officers, asserting that “you will usually have only two options: submit, or kill the cop.’’ At Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an Occupy Wall Street protester was allegedly sexually assaulted in her tent; according to the New York Post, a woman was raped at the same site a few weeks earlier. In Denver, “Occupy’’ activists turned on the police, screaming obscenities and knocking a motorcycle cop to the ground. Occupy Oakland grew even more violent, as police were pelted with bottles and rocks, and had M-80 firecrackers thrown at them. And in cities from Boston to Berkeley, Occupy encampments have coincided with surges in vandalism, assault, and theft.

Some individuals have strained to compare the Occupy Wall Street protests to the Tea Party movement. “They’re not that different,’’ President Obama told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government.’’ The Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart argued: “Here’s a group of Americans, disenchanted, railing against big government bailouts . . . These protesters, how are they not like the Tea Party?’’


But the contrast between the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers could hardly be greater. Tea Party rallies haven’t turned public squares into squalid slums or incited protesters to curse the police. What the Occupy movement descended to in less than two months — the hundreds of arrests, the vandalism, the anti-Semitic rants, the all-night drumming, the public urination — is like nothing the American public saw in more than two years of Tea Party activism.

That isn’t a fluke. When the Tenth Commandment is ignored, things can get ugly.

The ranks of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are filled with the frustrated and the fed-up; both movements seek dramatic change in the nation’s policies. But the values that propel them are poles apart. The Tea Partiers advocate limited government, personal responsibility, lower taxes, and economic freedom, all within a framework of constitutional restraint. What the Occupiers appear to want above all is to punish the wealthy, to demonize corporations, and to wallow in their own victimhood and sense of entitlement. They claim to represent “the 99 percent.’’ Many would like to “Shut Down the 1 Percent.’’


Such class hostility pervades the Occupy movement. It is ubiquitous among the signs and chants at the demonstrations. It is echoed by media cheerleaders as well. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson last week condemned income growth among the highest-earning Americans as “theft,’’ while NBC’s David Gregory observed that the Occupiers’ demands “dovetail nicely’’ into Obama’s “big message . . . of going after Wall Street and the banks, talking about unfairness.’’

Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen, interviewing some 200 Zuccotti Park protesters, found that most of them share “a deep commitment to left-wing politics: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth.’’ They favor stiffer taxes on the wealthy (77 percent) and more regulation of business (70 percent), and 31 percent say they would engage in violence to advance their agenda.

The violence is not tangential to the agenda. As the mounting hooliganism at Occupy encampments suggests, when class resentment takes root, predatory lawbreaking follows. When politicians rail against “millionaires and billionaires,’’ when social activist campaigns scapegoat the “1 percent,’’ it is only a matter of time before thugs feel emboldened to steal, rape, and worse. Class envy is not benign. At its most extreme — the communist tyrannies of Lenin and Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot — it unleashed the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century.


Economic envy may cloak itself in rhetoric about “inequality’’ or “egalitarianism’’ or “redistribution of wealth,’’ but its oldest name is covetousness. That is the sin enjoined by the last of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is thy neighbor’s.’’

At first blush it may seem odd that God would ban a mere desire. After all, the other nine commandments concern behavior: idolatry, theft, perjury, and so on. But as a matter of moral and social hygiene, the Tenth Commandment is indispensable. Covetousness — particularly in the form of class hatred — is the root of innumerable other evils. It shouldn’t be surprising when a movement obsessed with what rich capitalists earn rather than with what they produce starts treating other people’s property and persons with contempt.

Occupy Wall Street preaches that the “1 percent’’ got rich by exploiting the “99 percent.’’ The Tea Party believes that with greater freedom and less government, we could all be more prosperous and productive. One is rooted in envy, the other in self-respect. What distinguishes them, you might say, is the culture of the Tenth Commandment. The distinction shows up in many ways, not least in the latest police reports.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.