Seize the Day!

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Seize the Day!

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let me say something to the young LRC set. It’ll be a stab at one of those Gary North/Charley Reese—type advice-about-life columns. Yet, since I’m not as old as those guys, it won’t be nearly as wise.

Still, I think I’ve learned some things in 46 years on the planet.

So I say, don’t ever let others place limits on what you can accomplish. I don’t mean don’t let the bank guard get in the way of your plans to rob the bank. I mean, don’t let other people convince you that you’re not good enough to accomplish your goals. You can’t cut it. You’re not smart enough. Your IQ isn’t high enough. Your SAT score isn’t high enough. You don’t have what it takes.

The truth is, we really don’t know what we’re capable of until we try. If indeed, your particular talents or inclinations are not well suited to some particular endeavor, you will find out soon enough. Mr. Reality will tell you, but don’t let your high school guidance counselor, or your Aunt Tilly, or even your best friend tell you. Find out for yourself. Go for it!

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of life. They say that Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times in his storage battery experiments, but Edison said, “Why, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Many great men had great failures or great trials and tribulations. Washington’s army nearly got wiped out in Brooklyn. Jefferson had financial problems and was accused of cowardice. They all thought Sinatra was washed up at 34. Ludwig von Mises had to leave his country to escape from the Nazis. They confiscated his library and scholarly papers. Mises then had trouble getting a job in America. Dostoevsky was nearly executed by a firing squad and was insolvent late in life. Thomas Sowell, author of 35 books, was a high school dropout.

The only people who don’t fail are those who refuse to participate in life. They sell their souls for an illusory security. I have (sincerely) pitied such people even through tough times when the monthly rent was hard to find. When I was 35, Time Magazine called me "A footnote to history." It was the same issue that had the recently departed Richard Nixon on the cover. For the first time, I knew how Nixon must have felt. I’ve been trying ever since to escape from that footnote prison. I’ve failed at more things than a hundred people. I think it’s because I’ve tried more things. I’ve taken more risks. I tried to seize the day. I still try to seize the day, albeit not with the "eye of the tiger" I had twenty years ago.

One of my favorite incantations is, If you can’t go forward, go sideways. That is, faced with a numerically, financially or physically superior opponent, don’t butt heads; outflank ‘em. Use your brains more than your brawn. That’s how the West defeated the East at Marathon long ago. (Now, we’re doing the opposite in Iraq.)

Years ago, I had a very disappointing experience with a certain faction of the libertarian movement. Coming off the momentum of my Cato report on drug legalization, I was in the process of shutting down my law practice to move to D.C. to start up a national anti-drug war organization. The power brokers suddenly withdrew their support and left me to pick up the pieces of my practice and my life. I said to myself, I’ve got to go somewhere those people ain’t. They had recently left the Libertarian Party so I thought, good, I’ll go there now. That move too, however, disappointed. The New York Libertarians wanted a professional nihilist/radio shock jock instead of me to run for Governor. Since I couldn’t go forward with the LP, I performed yet another flanking maneuver and joined the Mises Institute camp. I finally got it right.

One of the reasons I published a book was that I had been the victim of rank corruption in Buffalo’s federal court and I couldn’t get any relief in the courts or any other federal government agency for that matter. I could not go forward, or I should say, downward any further into the fetid bowels of the federal government, so I went sideways. If I could not get justice in their courts, I would go to another court: the court of public opinion. As I wrote in the book:

"In this essay, I have turned the tables around. I have put the federal court on trial. . . . Can you fight "city hall"? I think you can. But if you fight city hall in city hall, you’re bound to lose. Fight them on your own terms, on your own turf, and in a manner and time of your own choosing. I did. The pen is mightier than the gavel."

I think IQ is bunk. By "IQ," I mean the notion that intelligence is largely genetic and therefore largely impervious to effort or environment and that it can be accurately measured by standardized tests. I’ve had the argument a million times and many people with higher IQs than me disagree with me. (There’s a riddle for you.) My father is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. I’m sure he has a very high IQ (two degrees from top law schools). But his father worked for the sewer authority. Not that my grandfather wasn’t intelligent, but somehow I doubt he had a "high IQ." If you trace high-IQ people back far enough, you will find people who you wouldn’t think had high IQs. Further, if you track high-IQ people’s descendents, they very often fail to set the world on fire.

IQ tests test only testable things, that is, quantifiable things. Tough luck if your talents are not testable. Who had a higher IQ, Mises or Marx? Is whatever quality that allowed Mises to be right and Marx wrong, measurable on a standardized test? If not, what good is a test that fails to measure mental qualities that can ruin a human century, or save one?

They give IQ tests in the morning. I believe in biorhythms. I am fully awake from noon to ten p.m. I am useless in the morning. The people who give IQ tests are morning people.

To take an IQ test, you have to know how to read, write and do math. That automatically introduces a huge element of environmental influence. How is it fair to compare me — who grew up with parents who spoke perfect English and with hundreds of books surrounding me — with a ghetto kid who grew up with little more than a blaring television? It’s not fair, yet that number is attached to him or her forever like a ball and chain.

IQ is bull. Don’t let some geek at ETS put a number on you and tell you that’s as smart as you will ever be. Instead, tell that geek he’s as stupid as he will ever get. A fellow who must have had a stupendous IQ once said that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

Intelligence is a mystery. The mind seems to be infinite. Mental effort seems to be virtually infinite (so long as tea and cookies are nearby). Put the infinite mind together with infinite effort and who knows what you can accomplish? When your guidance counselor tells you can’t do something, just smile and think to yourself, you’re a high school guidance counselor and you’re telling me I can’t do something?

Philosopher Henry Veatch said that while it is true that we should not think too highly of ourselves, we should not make the opposite mistake either. You have to have self-confidence. Too much can be bad for you. I know. I have made many mistakes related to too much self-confidence. My reach has frequently exceeded my grasp. I think though that most people have the opposite problem. A lack of self-confidence. They have heard "No" so many times they have begun to believe it. You can see the word "no" on their faces. Perhaps not everyone can will themselves to great success, but everyone is capable of willing themselves to fail. Don’t will yourself to failure.

My friend Mark Finucane wasn’t a fast runner when he was a boy. But he had something better than speed. He had self-confidence. I am not sure how he got it and maybe he couldn’t tell you, but he had it. After a pretty good freshman year in cross-country, he told me the next summer: "I will win the league championship this fall." A sophomore winning the league? But I believed him, and was there when he did.

We lived in a sports-crazy, working-class neighborhood filled with braggadocio jock-types. Mark’s favorite response when someone said he was going to do this or that in sports was a loud "Doo—iit!" He followed his own advice. When he was a senior in high school, he was the second best runner in Western New York, an area with two million people. 9:12 in the two mile run at the Penn Relays. He went on to be an All-American runner for East Tennessee State. He ran his first marathon in two hours and eleven minutes, a couple steps behind the guy who won the Olympic silver two years later. That’s what happens when you have "yes" written on your face.

Finucane winning the Turkey Trot Ostrowski facing Federal Court

When I was in grammar school, one of the teachers (sincerely) told me I didn’t have what it takes to go to college. There have been plenty of times when I wondered if she had been correct. I nearly flunked out of high school the first semester and I dropped out of college two semesters in a row before spending my next semester in a warehouse studying the geometrical principles involved in stacking and sorting cases fill with empty beer bottles. I think, however, that the bulk of the evidence is to the contrary. Years ago, I was asked to give a lecture to an organization of economics PhDs though I lack any degree in economics. In 1989, I wrote the most popular article on drug legalization ever written, according to Google.

My articles are used in the curricula of colleges that would have had me arrested for trespassing had I tried to matriculate there. A "C" student teaching "A" students. You gotta love it. I have no science degree but other trial lawyers bring me in to cross-examine their opponent’s expert witnesses such as forensic pathologists. I asked one MD medical examiner if he had a PhD. He said forensic pathologists don’t get PhD’s. Boy was he embarrassed when I asked him if he knew any of the several forensic pathologists on my list who did have PhD’s.

When I was a kid, they called me a "dumb Polack." It was one of the best favors anyone ever did for me.

In high school, I wasn’t smart enough for Advanced Placement English. Now, I have published my first book with two more on the way, on Jefferson and on The Myth of Democratic Peace. (Is that a timely topic or what?) I may not know the difference between "that" and "which," but I know something the word police don’t: that "the pen must comply with the tongue." (Samuel Johnson).

Sometimes, you have to overcome self-doubt as well as negative energy from others. Years ago, a judge was pushing me to trial — a felony cocaine sale case — and I kept bobbing and weaving because I was petrified. I had never tried a case, not even a high school mock trial. Not to mention that my client was facing 25 years if convicted and I had no case but he refused to take a plea. I tried and failed to get another lawyer to take my place.

So I barricaded myself in the law library and tried to teach myself how to be a trial lawyer in three days. The deputy sheriff who allegedly bought cocaine from my client testified and I hammered him as best I could. My client couldn’t testify because he had one of those rap sheets that sometimes unfurls like a flag when you try to read it standing up at an arraignment. I knew if I survived until summation, I’d be okay. No one ever accused me of not being able to talk a blue streak. At one point, I had no idea what to do procedurally. Trying not to panic, I calmly walked over to the DA and whispered, "What do I do now?" Nice guy that he was, he told me and I went on, my client and the jury none the wiser. I gave my summation with a court deputy off to the side, out of the sight of the jury, scowling at me throughout. Thanks, fella!

The jury deliberated for about 45 minutes before finding my client "not guilty." The crusty old pro-prosecution judge told me: "I’m always amazed at the expression on a guilty man’s face when he gets acquitted."

Hamlet spoke of being "sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought" and losing "the name of action." From long experience, I find that the best way to conquer the sheer terror of the fear of failure is to replace it with an even stronger emotion: a firm conviction you will prevail. Replace the negative with a positive. During the Korean War, a division of Marines was surrounded and outnumbered 10-1 by Chinese troops. When asked if the Marines were retreating, General O.P. Smith said, “Retreat, hell! We’re attacking in a different direction!” I find it useful to think to myself, when things are going badly, is that the worst you can throw at me? I can handle that! Jimmy Stewart said it well in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a 1939 film about political corruption that seems like it was made last year: "You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked, and I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody’ll listen to me….”

In the late 90’s, I was in a writing slump of several years duration. Part of it was being distracted by a protracted and ultimately futile fight for justice in federal court. However, I also felt I was out of ideas and simply had nothing more to write about. During that time, I wrote an article and read it over and said, "not good enough" and kept it to myself. A few months later, the subject of the article was in the press again. I pulled out the article again. I thought of Emerson’s words: "Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts." I sent the article to Jeff Tucker who forwarded it to Lew Rockwell who published it and it became the "article du jour" on World Net Daily. Voila, my LRC article No. 1.

So don’t listen to the naysayers, the "No" on the face crowd. Don’t take a "No" from anyone but Mr. Reality. Until he firmly tells you "No," keep driving ahead faster than the statist speed limit! "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these is: It might have been."

What does any of this have to do with politics or antipolitics? Everything! Big government rests on the pillars of negative emotions. Fear is chief among them, especially fear of failure. Envy is close behind. It seems to me that envy and even greed are strongly related to a lack of self-confidence. Lacking that confidence, many people tend to resent great achievers instead of trying to emulate them. Veatch writes: a "lack of self-respect . . . is the sort of feeling that makes a man willing to sell his soul to the devil, and sometimes very cheaply too." That devil may be a "Hitler who promises such things as national glory and honor, to say nothing of food and employment, at the price of giving up one’s critical intelligence and one’s responsibility to think for oneself."

Big government maestro FDR played off these fears and self-doubts and promised the Four Freedoms including freedom from "want" and "fear." FDR exploited people’s lack of self-confidence and their fear of failure. This is how he helped turned a nation of free people into a nation ruled by free politicians.

Big government is the word "No" writ large. No to freedom. No to reason. Ultimately, no to life itself. That’s why its greatest accomplishment and proudest product is the nuclear bomb.

Let me end by quoting the man about whom it was said:

“He led no armies into battle, he conquered no countries, and he enslaved no peoples. Nonetheless, he exerted a degree of power the magnitude of which no warrior ever dreamed. His name still commands a respect as sweeping in scope and as world-wide as that of any other mortal."

“Be courageous! …. Be brave . . . Have faith and go forward!”

~Thomas Alva Edison

November 27, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at

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