Vincent Emanuele is a writer and organizer born and raised in America’s Rust-Belt. A former US marine and Iraq War veteran, Vince refused orders for a third deployment in 2005 and immediately began working with the anti-war movement during the Bush years.
In the following excerpt from “Resistance Radio” with Derrick Jensen, Vince shares his thoughts regarding how discipline plays out an important role in activism and how to become disciplined by starting to make small but constant changes in our day-to-day activities.
Vince Emanuele, with Derrick Jensen
Vince Emanuele: [My friends] and I will often say things about simple day-to-day interactions. For instance when we are at a dinner, and a server walks up and, you know, to make eye contact and not to just keep eating if they drop something off at the table without acknowledging their presence, making sure that you hold doors for people, making sure that you are courteous with people. Those things for me on a smaller level operate as form of discipline that should carry over to other forms.
So let’s bring this back to military training (…) let’s put it this way: you don’t go into boot camp on day one or week one and start patrolling with a weapon in your hand.
Discipline in Small Actions
In fact, as an infantry soldier or Marine, and I’ll speak from my personal experience, you don’t really do that until sixteen weeks of training. You actually sit in a formation with a group of people with weapons, let alone live ammunition which might only happen once over the course of twenty-four weeks of training. So what do they start you with first? Can you stand up straight? And I don’t mean to sound ableist when I say some of these things, I just wanna throw that out there, but, you know, can you stand there on the line? Can you keep a straight face? Can you keep your hands and your knuckles at the seam of your pants? Can you make your bed or what we call a rack? Can you fold your socks? Can you have everything in line? Can you have your footlocker organized? Can you follow simple commands like “yes, sir” after certain commands, or kill after other commands? Will you move to the right or to the left when you are given a command to do so?
Now, that is an extreme example and it is obviously in a very destructive institution particularly here in the Unites States, but I think that you could take a lot of those lessons and the fundamentals which for me mean starting off very small with people. So, if you can’t be disciplined enough to get up and at least make your bed, at least maybe get something healthy to eat if you can afford it, if you have access to it. Making little schedules for yourself, making sure that you are living up to your commitments, and just doing the smaller things then I think after weeks and weeks of training, finally, as I was explaining to my neighbor who didn’t know this the other day, in Marine Corps Boot Camp you don’t shoot a weapon until, I think, week eleven of a thirteen-week boot camp. So, you’re doing your training and learning discipline for eleven weeks before the United States Marine Corps even gives you a weapon to fire.
So, when I think of resistance movements, when I think of even say non-violent direct actions groups who are performing very illegal actions but, say, in a non-violent action, but who still face serious repercussions, I think to myself we need activists and organizations who are disciplined on the same level, and maybe not in the same manner, obviously, but I do think some of those techniques and some of the long view that, you know, we are not just gonna discipline people in the course of a weekend workshop or we’re not gonna just discipline people, even if you could spend a week with someone, I mean, we’re talking about having people for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 16 weeks before you can trust them enough ,and that’s under great duress and stress for those 16 weeks just to get people to the point where they can walk down a street together, and know what to do when someone fires on them.
I don’t want to overly stress that, I don’t want to like people who are thinking out there: “Gee, I just want my group to be a little more disciplined “or “I just wanna find some discipline for myself to do that.” That’s the ideal I would say, and I would say that’s a model, but in any small way and I think that extends to day to day courtesies looking at someone when they’re talking to you – listening someone who’s talking to you, to be there in the moment, to pay attention to what you’re doing, and what you’re saying, you know, the way you’re coming across to people. I think that’s a very important thing, and I think that just starting with those smalls things like, hell, can I do half an hour of working out today? I don’t really like to read, but I now that reading is very good for me, I know my brain is a muscle; I need to work it, can I at least read half hour or 45 minutes a day? Just those little things I think if you stay with them long enough, and if you do them, I think they’ll have a profound impact on your life I think there’s no question about that.
Derrick Jensen : I think this is extremely important; the importance of this cannot be…
Discipline and Burnout
Vince: Oh, I was going to say… the other day I saw this clip from Oliver Stone, and it was a really good clip about his movies and I don’t even know him as a person, so if he’s an asshole person I apologize. I’m just with what he said the other day, it was the National Writers Guild Awards and the gist of what he said towards the end, and I’m paraphrasing, but he was like “look, I’ve been fighting this people who make war my entire life, and most of the time you’re going to get your ass kicked, you’re gonna get insulted, there’s people who are gonna make threats against you, and there’s gonna be even people who flatter you but, at the end of the day, if you can stay in course, and if you believe in what you’re saying then you can make a difference.”
There’s been a lot of people there over the years, Sergio and I talk about this very regularly, I would say 90 to 95 percent of people that I started doing activist work with no longer do the kind of activist work that Sergio and I are still engaged with. They might be involved in smaller level which is still good, they might be doing artistic work, which is all good, all that stuff is good, but in terms on being of the same level we were at 22, thinking we can radically change society, and we are not going to deviate from these principles, there’s very few of us who’ve remained.
Now, some of that is the toxicity of the left, some of that is life can beat you down, some of that is we’re living in one of the most fucked up economic periods on US history, and all this other stuff, I mean, all that’s true, but another large part of that is, and this from seeing people at least anecdotally, and I’d like to see a study on this, but just how many people sort of fell away because they couldn’t maintain certain level of discipline, like I have it in my head that this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.
I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I’m not just saying that at the pub because we’re having a few beers. I’m not just saying that to make you happy. I’m not just saying that because that’s what I think I wanna hear. But I have seriously sat back and meditated and thought to myself… Okay, maybe meditation is the wrong word because I’m not really into some of those things, that’s another story, nonetheless sat there and reflected and thought to yourself “Is this what I’m seriously all about and why?” ‘cause it better not be for, you know, a career or book deals or to get your name in the newspaper or to appear in radio programs.
If it’s for those reasons you’re in the wrong fucking line of business, and I don’t wanna be around you and, number two, you’re gonna fall away anyway because this work, as most people who do it know, it is very difficult, it is time-consuming and it is extremely stressful, and it can beat you down. It is very, on the flip-side, very rewarding, you meet amazing people, you get to participate in very meaningful activities, you don’t have to look back as many of my friends are doing in their early 30s and asking: “God! What the hell did I do with my 20s?” or “God, what the hell did I do in the last decade?” I haven’t asked that question.
Discipline and Self-Critique
I mean are there things I would have done better? Of course, I’m not crazy, there’s plenty of things. For me part of being disciplined is not that you’re going to be always this perfect person, it’s that you’re gonna notice when you start screwing up. I know I need to get back into shape right now, I know that’s the case, I’m not in the kind of shape I need to be in. So what’s that gonna require? That’s gonna require me clamping down sort of on myself. So, you know, I just think little things like that, even showing up to stuff that sometimes you don’t want to. You know, for the activists who are out there and so on, you know, and I have to be reminded of this when I watch those old video clips, and I see someone -I need to find her name- like the woman from the Mississippi Freedom Party who was telling people, just regular rally folks dressed like they’re going to church: “you’re gonna have to put your lives on the line.” That kind of stuff reminds me, that kind of stuff inspires me, you know.
The other day when I saw clips of disabled people, people who are terminally ill being dragged out of Senator’s offices just because they need their Medicaid and their health care, that stuff not only enrages me, those images and those kinds of actions inspire me, and how can you not be the least bit inspired? How can I look to someone who is terminally ill in a god damned wheel chair and I’m sitting at home going “Man! I really don’t know if I want to go to this meeting tonight” or “I really don’t know if I want to go to this action next week” or whatever.
Now, sometimes you have to take a break so you don’t burn out, but a lot of times I think we make a lot of excuses for people, and I actually think it’s insulting. It’s not like we understand these are systemic issues, but I have had people tell me: “well, you know, they’re poor immigrants, like we can’t expect them to stand up” and I’m like “Do you understand how patronizing that is? Do you understand how offensive that is? You think there aren’t tons of immigrant families who are already standing up? How about we highlight their work, how about we use them as an example and not, you know, sit back with this goofy mentality go ‘Oh, well, you know, we can’t expect them to stand up, they’re in a position.’” It’s like no, I don’t think we should ever do that, I don’t think that’s what good organizers are, I don’t think that’s what good leaders, intellectual, cultural, political leaders do.
I think they say “hey, I understand your situation, maybe I’m even in your situation, but regardless I’m here to walk with, to work with you hand in hand and this is what we are going to do.” I’m never going to say “oh, well, you know, it’s a bad systemic problem and I don’t really expect you to do much about it because you’re in this terrible state.” I think of other situations, I think if you can resist slavery, I mean abolitionists, I mean, I just think those things fire me up. Because I think, “Man! If this people could do what they did under those circumstances, then, dammit, I can’t make excuses for myself, and I can’t run away and I can’t makes excuses for other people.” People need to take breaks, I understand that, but at the end of the day we need to be holding up these people as examples, we don’t need to be sitting back.
You know, “Derrick, he has health problems so you know I don’t expect him to write that much, I don’t expect him to do anything.” I mean, yeah, I mean a lot of us have health problems in to varying degrees we can all put in what we could put in, but I don’t think all of us including myself need people other than just ourselves to push us, and that’s why I love people like Sergio or my dad or my mom like, “hey, Vince, you know, you could be doing a little more. Hey, you could help this out more.” That to me is real friendship, it’s not just sitting there going, “Oh, Derrick, you’re the greatest person in the world and you don’t do anything wrong.” It’s like, hey, if we spend enough time around each other where we’re comfortable enough to have those conversations, that’s what good activism is, that’s what good organizing is. I mean, building trust, I think, also includes critiques and as long as they’re done with solidarity in mind and with you know good intentions, I think that’s what it’s all about I mean to me should always be critiquing and proving as much as we can ‘cause obviously we are not winning with what we’re doing now.
Discipline and Commitment
Derrick: Well we have about, we have about, oh Gosh, five or six minutes left and there’s, I wanted, we’ll save self-defense for another time.
Vince: Okay * laughs.* I’m sorry, I’ve been rambling…
Derrick: No, no, no, this is perfect, this is great, this is wonderful and another thing that you brought up that I also just want to say, but I want to save for another time because I know you’re gonna have a lot of great things to say about it is something else that’s very clear in the military, at least from reading military history which is all I’ve ever done, if there’s a war that you want to win. And I’m reading a book right now. I’m going back up and I’m going to ramble for a minute
Derrick: One thing having to do with the discipline: one reason I have so many books out is, surprisingly enough, because I write, you know. That’s it. It’s a cliché, but my mother’s grandmother used to say all the time “inch by inch life’s a cinch.” And so, I don’t write whole books. Like today, I have typed in edits I made, today it was 40-some pages. And I did edits over the previous three or four days of about 90 pages, and now I’m gonna print those out, I’m gonna read it again tonight, and then tomorrow I will type in those changes, and then I’m done with that 90 pages. I mean, obviously I’d written them in the first place, but the point is I do work every day.
Another thing I want to say about that, and it has to do with the whole reading thing, is one of the smartest things I did when I was a teenager is that I decided that every night, before I went to bed, I would read 10 pages of a book that was good for me, that I would never get through otherwise, and it’s pretty extraordinary that if you do 10 pages every night, which is a piece of cake, then in a year you got 3,600 pages, and that’s a bunch of books.
So I’ve read Oswald Spengler that way, the first one I ever read was Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and then I was like 20, I read all of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it’s not a big deal it was just 10 pages a night, slow but sure, and why am I bringing all this up? Oh, the reason I’m bringing all this up is because right now I’m reading a book called “Thunder on Dnepr” (16:16) which is about the Russian defense against Operation Barbarossa when the Germans Invaded in World War II. There was a question asked early on and I will say this once, but I want to ask you this question for an entire interview sometime in the future, early on the book they’re saying a military maxim is “don’t do what you enemy expects” and I read that and I don’t really 100 percent agree with that, because if you have a very defensible position and your enemy expects you defend it you might as well if it’s defensible, if it’s the best place, instead the question I’m interested in is what does your enemy most fear? And then do that, and I asked this on Facebook I asked just people in general and it was so interesting because the responses by many of the people where things like building an alternative currency, not spending money, and there was one person who said ‘destroy the transportation infrastructure that allows the movement of resources’ and I clicked on the guy and he was ex –military.
Vince: *laughs* Yeah, that’s not surprising!
Discipline and Tenacity
Derrick: So, at some point, and I realize this the total crap thing to do in this interview when we have like one minute left, I would like for you, if you don’t mind, to think about that question, if you were in power, what you would most fear? And I would love to interview you again in the future on that question
Vince: Right on, I would love to do it
Derrick: So far as settling down today, we can’t really talk about self-defense ‘cause we only have like two minutes.
Vince: Well, there’s a quote I can give that I think encompass everything that we’re doing and it’s a good old ju-jitsu quote that it’s attributable to no one, nobody knows where it came from and the quote is very simple or the saying is very simple, it’s simply: “a black belt is a white belt that never stopped coming to practice” and all that’s all the black belt is in jujitsu. Every single day or as many times as you can go. There’s people who get it in 8 years, there’s people who get it in 25 years, but the point is just to get up and do it and do it as most as you can, and show up when you can.
Featured image by Max Wilbert.