Warren Zevon's Wisdom for the 2020s
I bumped into a great artist on the morning of New Year’s Eve and he smiled and asked: “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the coming year?” We were on the street in a little town and it wasn’t too cold and he and his wife looked beautiful in their wool hats. His question surprised me because I’d forgotten to think in terms of optimism and pessimism, and then realized I don’t when the year turns. I told him that, and then said that tonight at the party I will simply think I am here / I am here / I am lucky / I’m alive.
Someday you won’t be. So live life, enjoy it, roll with what comes. Make things better within your ken, however large or small that ken is. Do your best, not your lazy rote “I did my best” but your actual honest best. Keep your spirits up, don’t get down, it’s not all on you. “God is in charge of history.”
Every year at this time I think of two things. One is what the musician Warren Zevon said on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” I watched it, live, in 2002. Zevon was dying of mesothelioma, and Mr. Letterman asked how his illness had changed him. Zevon’s answers suggested he’d come to feel awe for the barely noticed gifts we’re given each day. “From your perspective now,” Mr. Letterman asked, “Do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know now?” Mr. Zevon answered: “I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”
That is a gift, to know how good the sandwich is.
The other is a quote I read 40 years ago, from the writer Laurens van der Post in 1961: “We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time.” We are all making history together, we are part of an era, and we are responsible to each other and to this great project.
These are the attitudes with which your columnist approaches 2020. Now, my sense of where we are.
On the impeachment of the American president, the story’s already been written, hasn’t it? It didn’t quite work, did nothing to help and little to hinder his position. The question whether to have witnesses in the Senate trial is a side issue. He can’t be proved more guilty. Even his supporters know he leaned on Ukraine for political gain. They judged this deserving of embarrassment but not removal. It will be the impeachment that didn’t move the needle, that history barely remembers.
On to the real action, the presidential election 10 months away.
The Democratic primary field is still flailing and doesn’t see it’s flailing. At the moment their theory of the country is wrong, and it’s wrong because it’s a theory, not a cold-eyed look at circumstances and facts on the ground. That is what good generals look at first. If there is a grinding war or an economic downturn people will want change and the out party has a good shot. If the economic downturn is severe they will consider deep structural change, even radical change such as socialism. It isn’t true that America will never go socialist. Maybe it will, but not under current conditions — full employment, rising wages.
Maybe all this will be settled at an open convention. But they ought to know by now they went too far left too quickly. And sometimes you have to stand up to the base.
President Trump is no doubt happy. He thinks he’s beating his domestic enemies. The great threats are North Korea and Iran. On the latter he will experience two conflicting impulses. On the one hand he sees himself as Mr. No More Benghazis — I’m the tough guy, I’m not afraid to take action. On the other, he sees himself as the unconventional president who doesn’t have wars, who thinks the Mideast is a loser’s game, who wants out.
Underlying his eventual decisions will be an unspoken theme of his re-election campaign: I’ve been president three years and the world didn’t blow up. My critics said it would because I’m crazy. I’m crazy like a fox! I kept things cool. That theme is about to be put to a test.
In the 2020s, the American position on China will harden — not the government’s but the country’s. Whatever happens with the administration and China, Mr. Trump will think it’s about him and lose interest when it appears not to be. But among the people, especially the business class, the perception will deepen that China is not our friend. Channeling this into the creation of an actual coherent China policy will be the big work of the next administration. This one doesn’t do coherent.
The belief that big tech needs to be corralled — to be broken up or declared public utilities — will grow on the left and right. The big companies are too powerful and have too insinuating an effect on our lives. This won’t be Mr. Trump’s issue — again he thinks it’s about him, and whether their algorithms are unjust to him and to conservatives. He wants big tech to bow to him, and they will. They’ll come for dinner, be his pals and work out deals. They think he can be had. He can. But the issue isn’t going away, and wise lefties and creative conservatives may fully seize it.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi made herself look ridiculous this year when she backed lowering the voting age to 16. This is an idiotic and destructive idea, an epic and hackish pander, and is offensive to the baseline reality that the adults of a great nation have the right to govern its affairs. It will go nowhere, but the coming decade may see some pushback against the 18-year-old vote, passed in 1971. A lot has changed since then. We know the brains of 18-year-olds are not fully developed and haven’t fully knitted. Young people are educated more poorly, and the screens that surround them and through which they learn encourage sensation, not thought. Their experience of the world is limited; most are financially and emotionally supported by others. All this as the questions we face grow more complex. We should raise the voting age, not lower it.
The past decade saw the rise of the woke progressives who dictate what words can be said and ideas held, thus poisoning and paralyzing American humor, drama, entertainment, culture and journalism. In the coming 10 years someone will effectively stand up to them. They are the most hated people in America, and their entire program is accusation: you are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic; you are a bigot, a villain, a white male, a patriarchal misogynist, your day is over. They never have a second move. Bow to them, as most do, and they’ll accuse you even more of newly imagined sins. They claim to be vulnerable victims, and moral. Actually they’re not. They’re mean and seek to kill, and like all bullies are cowards.
Everyone with an honest mind hates them. Someone will finally move effectively against them. Who? How? That will be a story of the ‘20s, and a good one.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.