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The Owners of the World
On the vast expanse between owning something and having it, and why our children are not possessions.
Here’s a little parable for your Sunday morning.
There once was a man who loved rock and roll music. Because he loved rock and roll music, he loved the guitar, which is the most prominent instrument in rock music1. And because he loved the guitar, he loved Jimi Hendrix, who many people believed was the greatest rock guitarist of all time. And because he loved Jimi Hendrix, he spent all his money to buy a guitar that Jimi Hendrix had owned and played. It was a gorgeous beautiful Olympic white Strat with a maple fretboard and three single-coil pickups, which were meant to give it “that distinctive Fender sound.”
The man owned the guitar, because he bought it, and that is how ownership works.
But the man, who had never learned how to play the guitar, did not sound like Jimi Hendrix when he played it. He didn’t even hear that distinctive Fender sound. The man kept trying to play the guitar, but he never took a lesson.
In time, the man grew to resent the guitar.
One day a knock came at the man’s door, and when he opened it, Jimi Hendrix was there. “I’m only back on earth for a day,” Jimi said. “I hear you got my guitar. You mind if I play it a bit?”
When Jimi played, his guitar didn’t only make that distinctive Fender sound: it actually sounded exactly like Jimi Hendrix.
“I don’t understand,” said the man. “That is my guitar. Why doesn’t it sound like that when I play it?”
Jimi smiled. “Man, don’t you know? There’s a big difference between owning something, and having it.”
I hope you enjoyed this parable.
This parable isn’t about guitars, by the way. Parables aren’t ever really about the thing they’re about. They invite you to think about what they’re about.
Parables are annoying like that.
Let me tell you another parable.
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Once there was a billionaire who had a trans child from whom he had become estranged. One day, the billionaire wanted to buy a social media platform, so he bought it, and then he owned it. Because he owned it, he could do what he wanted with it, because that’s what owning is.
What he mostly wanted to do with it, it turned out, had to do with these little blue checks that appeared next to some of the names of the people on the platform.
I should probably explain the blue checks, so you can understand the parable.
The blue checks were there to indicate that people and organizations were exactly who they said they were. Most specifically, they were there to indicate that people and organizations who other people might try to impersonate were in fact the real deal. Being the real deal was a big deal on social media platforms, because if the someone on the platform was the real deal, it meant that the person you were interacting with was actually the person who had done the thing that you and everybody else knew about—the attainment of some achievement, the application of some skill, the generation of some idea—for which they had been celebrated, which had gained for them some measure of celebrity2.
And interacting with celebrities—and knowing that the celebrity was the real deal—was a novel and exciting experience for others on the social media platform, and this novelty and excitement generated a lot of value for the platform. This value was also the reason that people might impersonate the celebrities or organizations, by the way. Impersonators would do this to try to siphon a little bit of that value for themselves, in order to achieve their own weird ends of misinformation or reflected attention. This practice could cause a lot of confusion, and also do reputational harm to the celebrity, and then the celebrity and the people who had been confused would probably blame the social media platform, and there might even be lawsuits, so the blue check also shielded the platform from negative consequence even while it generated positive value for the platform.
Somewhere along the way, the billionaire had decided that the blue check was the reason certain people had achieved a measure of celebrity, rather than an indication that they had already done so. He decided that this meant that the social media platform, prior to his purchase of it, had been hoarding celebrity from everyone else. So the billionaire decided to do what he wanted with the thing he now owned. He decided to make celebrities pay him a modest sum for their blue check, which had generated so much value. He also decided to allow anyone else to pay the same modest sum for a blue check, so that everyone could enjoy the same level of celebrity. This was, he insisted, a show of equality and an end to elitism on the platform.
It so happened there were people on the social media platform who had made the same error as the billionaire, and thought that the check created the circumstances of celebrity and noteworthiness. They paid the modest sum, and owned the blue check.
But everyone else understood that even if they had the check, they would still not be celebrities, and that the attempt to counterfeit themselves as the real deal would make them seem desperate and strange. The celebrities, who were still celebrated for whatever it was they had done, knew that they were still the real deal without the checkmark, and that paying for an outward sign of something they already had would actually degrade the value of both the thing they already had and the outward sign.
So nobody else bought the check, recognizing that it was a thing that lost all its value once it became a possession.
So the billionaire began to threaten. He threatened to make it so that those who didn’t pay would not be heard on his platform, whose value happened to be inextricably tied to its ability to let people be heard. And he threatened to take away the celebrities’ blue checks. Then he actually took the blue checks away, so that the only people who had it were those who bought it—people, in other words, who were as confused as the billionaire about the difference between a thing’s cost and its value, who believed that if they bought a blue check and owned it, then they would have the same thing that the celebrities had, which was the attention and celebration of others, for being the real deal.
Now it so happened that a great many of these confused people were confused about a great number of other things when it came to ownership. Most of them believed that they had ownership over the identity of other people, and ownership over what would or would not be acceptable to the discourse on that matter and many others, and ownership over people’s reactions to the hostile and antisocial behavior they exhibited in demonstrating these confused beliefs. Any casual observer could see that these beliefs were beliefs about ownership, because when they demonstrated their antisocial hostile behaviors to (for example) people they called ‘libs,’ they would say that they had “owned the libs.”
One aspect of identity these hostile antisocial people believed they had ownership over was the gender identity of people, particularly trans people. Incidentally, the billionaire (who I believe I mentioned had a trans child from whom he had become estranged), had also removed the protections that the platform had instituted to be a safer and more welcoming place for trans people—a change that was considered a glorious victory by all those who wanted to “own” the trans people, and by nobody else.
And so in a very short amount of time, the blue check became an indication that the person bearing it was a confused and hostile and antisocial person, and, as the platform amplified their voices over others, it became known for being a place that was welcoming and safe for confused and hostile and antisocial voices who believed that they owned other people’s identities, and hostile and unsafe for all others.
And so the celebrities, who were no more interested in being associated with confused and hostile and antisocial voices than they ever were, began to announce that they would never purchase the blue check.
So the billionaire began to punish the celebrities. He punished them by giving them the blue check.
Again: the blue check had once been there to shield his platform while generating value for it, by reflecting the truth that people who already had done something noteworthy were the real deal. Now it was a badge of shame, and he shamed them with it, for the crime of having something of value without paying him for it. When they complained that they had not paid for the shameful thing he was now claiming they bought, he harassed and mocked them, in very much the same way as the hostile and antisocial people whose behavior he had amplified and verified would mock any of the people that they believed they “owned,” and any casual observer would have to assume that in so doing the billionaire believed that he was “owning” the celebrities.
The billionaire never stopped laughing, as he became more and more furious.
Again, the billionaire could do this with the platform because he had bought it, and so he owned it, and that’s how ownership works.
And the billionaire believed that people not wanting to associate with something that had been made unsafe and hostile and antisocial was a very hostile thing for everyone else to do to him and his army of hate trolls.
And the billionaire, who had all the money in the world, who could buy anything he wanted, still could not understand the difference between owning something and having it.
You might have guessed the name of the platform and the billionaire. But the parable isn’t about them.
Parables are so annoying. No wonder the people who tell them so often turn up dead.
No more parables.
Let me tell you about my kids.
When my children were born, I started referring to them as “my kids.”
It was a useful thing to call them, because unlike all the other kids, these kids were not the offspring of anybody else but me and my wife. They looked a bit like me, and they looked a bit like her, and (especially at first) they looked a bit like troll dolls or yodas, and they pooped a lot and I had to clean it up, but I loved them all the same because they were my kids.
Other people had kids, too. Those were their kids. They also pooped at first, but I did not usually have to clean it up, because they were not my kids.
We might say something like “would you like to bring your kids over to play with our kids?” Or I might say “my daughter said the funniest thing the other day.”
And each of these children were, right from the start, a certain kind of person. Anyone who has spent much time observing children, or other types of people for that matter, will be able to tell you that people represent a fascinating array of difference, in interests and personality and aptitudes and abilities and preferences and on and on. And, as my children grew, as they learned and changed and matured, an amazing thing happened: they became different people even from themselves, shedding the old self, slowly or sometimes all at once, to reveal something new and delightful and strange and unexpected, while still remaining their same essential self. And these transformations often would confound my previous expectations about what sort of person my child was going to become—expectations which, until they were confounded, I often didn’t even realize I had been carrying.
I had thought they would be one thing. But then they showed up, and they showed me who they really were. And they still are doing this, and I suppose they will keep doing that for as long as I know them, which I hope is for the rest of my life.
No matter which person they were being at the time, they were always—always—the real deal.
And I suspect that anybody who has been in deep and close relationship with children at some point in their life has had a similar experience.
But anyway, that’s how it is with my kids.
I still use these terms, by the way, and they do, too. They’ll say my dad. They’ll say my mom. Our parents. You get the idea.
The terms my and our convey some measure of ownership. Yet my children, while they may have taken any number of liberties with our possessions, have never attempted to own my wife or I, as far as I can tell. They sort of deal with the me that they see before them, which is a thing that they sometimes depend on and sometimes are exasperated by and sometimes poke fun at, but I never get the sense that they are dealing with anyone other than me. What children know instinctively about their parents is something that parents can learn by watching them.
What we own, I have learned, is responsibility and relationship. These things are our possessions. These things are the real deal.
What my wife and I never owned were the children.
So that’s the relationship—it’s something we own, but also we have it, if you dig me, and if you don’t, go ask Jimi Hendrix.
The responsibility is to foster who my children are, and also to maintain the relationship, which means keeping a close eye on who my children actually are. Because if I take my eyes off of who they are, and instead decide to continue to focus on who they were, or if I try to force them to be who I once expected them to be, then the relationship I have will no longer be with them, but with my expectations, and with my belief that they are, before they are themselves, mine.
If I keep my eyes on who I expect them to be, they might create that thing for me, if they feel the responsibility of relationship strongly enough, or if I make them afraid of me enough that they fear the consequences of not being that thing, and they might even try to be that thing, but that thing won’t be them.
If that happens, I’ll no longer know my children.
The person I know won’t be them anymore.
I’ll own something, but I won’t have it.
And that’s how I know that our children aren’t our possessions, and never should be.
Our children are not our possessions, and neither are anyone else’s. They belong to themselves, and being themselves is their responsibility.
I’ll say it again.
Our children are not our possessions, and neither are anyone else’s.
I’m repeating this because I’ve noticed that’s not a popular opinion in certain circles, these days, and I suspect it never was.
I’m saying this because social media platforms aren’t the only place where a whole lot of people have become confused over what they own.
A lot of people have decided that their children are possessions, and it’s a core and fundamental belief of theirs, perhaps more foundational than any other they hold. We can see it very easily by looking almost anywhere, like for example to purity balls, where evangelical christian father-husband-christfollowers secure vows that they will one day be able to pass to some other man a perfectly preserved and unsullied vagina, or for example to our supreme court, where far-right billionaires with large collections of Nazi merch purchase judicial decisions favorable to their supremacist worldviews by bestowing lavish gifts and real estate and other rewards to justices who have made such decisions.
We could look anywhere, as I say, but today I’d like to focus on the discourse happening around public schools.
Public schools are not without their problems, but one thing they don’t lack is dedicated and compassionate professionals who are committed to educating children in a safe and nurturing environment. This doesn’t describe every professional educator I have known, but it sure does describe most of them. And, at the same time, I have noticed, by observing my children and their friends, that high school students are actually far, far, far more accepting of many differences among their peers, differences that in my day (which occurred on a Tuesday back in the ancient past of 1992) would have subjected any child exhibiting that difference—in race to a smaller extent, but to a far greater extent to gender presentation, sexual orientation, or disability—to widespread bullying and ostracization.
These days, they seem to actually be more likely to want to associate with kids who are different in those ways, and less likely to want to associate with bullies, and this is something that I have noticed that bullies insist is very hostile behavior toward them.
I suspect that as a result of all this, public schools have become a safe place for children to be who they actually are, or safer anyway than they used to be on a Tuesday back in the ancient past of 1992.
And also: they are a much safer place for students than many students’ homes.
Many students have homes owned by parents who believe that their children are sole possessions of them, the parents. As a result, the children are expected to be many things, and none of those things are themselves.
And there are a large number of things that children are expected to not be, and “gender nonconforming” is pretty close to the tippy-top of that list. You can find these parents, who believe that their children are their possessions, publicly expressing their desire that their children become corpses before they become something like gay or trans, and you can find it pretty easily, thanks to the internet. Other parents are perhaps not quite so bold, but the message is very clear: you are our children, and so you are what we say you are.
So the upshot of all this is that we have a lot of children who can be themselves rather safely in public schools but can’t be themselves at home. At home, they are something else. Their parents have a relationship with that thing that they are expected to be, which is not them, but it is a safe thing to be, when around parents who believe that they own you.
The professional educators at public schools know this, by the way. They know that they have created a place where students can be themselves safely, in a way that these students’ homes often are not. So the professional educators learn who the students are becoming, and honor and respect that transformation, which includes not delivering alerts when that transformation involves things that would be unsafe to be around people who are unsafe, which often means the parents.
So what happens when these parents, who are not safe, discover this? What happens when they find out that at public school their children are safe in ways that they aren’t at home? We’ve seen what happens. The parents do exactly what billionaires who own social media platforms do, when the thing they own isn’t behaving the way they believe it should, when their attempts to control it expose them for what they are.
They punish as much as they can.
Certainly they punish the children—that’s a given. They immediately prove for anyone to see that the school was correct in safeguarding their students by not breaking trust, by keeping the secret of them from people who refuse to accept them.
But they punish everyone and everything else they can, too.
They dismantle the safety of the safe spaces. They dismantle the public schools as much as they can, then pass laws that defund the public schools while exempting themselves from sending their kids to those schools. But even then that isn’t enough, so they pass laws that force teachers to report to parents any deviations from the parents’ expected norms, pass laws that make lessons of inclusion and acceptance unlawful, to try to ensure that ostracization and bullying become the norm once again, to try once again to establish their right of ownership over not only children but over education itself.
Because these people who are confused about ownership also believe that they own public school, and the entire public sphere, too. And they don’t only think that they own their own children—they think that they own your children, too, the ones who have made it so safe for their children to become who they actually are, rather than the thing they are expected to be. They think that they own everything, in fact, including the idea of gender and what it is, and the discourse around it, and even the response of others to their hostile and antisocial and unsafe discourse. They even think that they own the right over everyone else’s decision to not want to associate with their hostile and antisocial and unsafe behavior. If any of them had say $44 billion dollars and a trans child from whom they had become ostracized, these are the kind of peole who might even just spend it to own a social media platform where a lot of public discourse happened, if they deemed that it had become a place too safe for trans people to be themselves.
And to support all this, they insist a great number of rationales that can all be pretty easily disproven just by looking at them for a second.
They say that they do it to protect children, while refusing to do anything about things that harm children: guns, for example.
They say they do it to expose predators, while turning a blind eye to far too many youth pastors to try to list here, and far too many lawmakers and other powerful men, too, all of them to some degree or other self-professed owners of the world, who have decided that children are not just our future but the immediate gratifying dividends of their ownership.
They say that they do it so that children can experience their childhood, while repealing child labor regulations and openly defending and safeguarding and expanding predatory practices: the practice of child marriage, for example, or the practice of forcing a pre-teen to bear her rapist’s child … but I repeat myself.
They say that they do it to end indoctrination, while passing laws that make mandatory blatantly unconstitutional indoctrination into their own views and religious practice.
And they do this because they believe, at the very foundation of their worldview, that they are the owners, and everyone else is the owned.
And, in a show of astonishing hypocrisy, they call it freedom.
The hypocrisy of it all isn’t an inconsistency, it should be noted. It is freedom, in a way—freedom for the owners of the world. In a way, the hypocrisy is the entire point. To the owners of the world, hypocrisy is a virtue, the clearest possible demonstration of their ownership over reality itself, to such an extent that they can openly say one thing while openly doing another thing.
The ability to be hostile while demanding comity.
The ability to demand safety while being unsafe.
The ability to demand truth while living lies.
The ability to be a fake but still demand to be treated like the real deal.
The ability to own something and be told that, because of their purchase, they have it.
For the owners of the world, the hypocrisy is the reward, the dividend of their ownership.
And so, after telling some parables, I’ll try my hand at prophesy.
Some prophesies are a curse. This one will be.
This is my curse to the owners of the world.
You will never know your children, even if they remain in your life; you will only ever know the thing that they’ve learned they can safely be around you.
You may get everything you ever want, but it will never grant you peace or happiness.
You’ll never stop laughing, and you’ll never stop being angry.
You may manage to get everyone looking at you, but you’ll never be the real deal.
You will know what everything costs but you’ll never know what it is worth.
Because you don’t know the difference between owning something, and having it.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s older now, and he’s a clever swine.
Don’t come for me, drummers. I see you, too.
I think I’ll coin a term to indicate somebody who has done something to earn some measure of celebrity. Hey, why not just call them “celebrities?” If you’d also like to use this term, contact The Reframe’s global headquarters to get a quote on the licensing fee.