If at the beginning of “Plain Radical” you wonder what kind of book you’re reading, in the middle you’ll be nodding your head in agreement, and by the end you may be shedding a tear or two. A mix of memoir, manifesto and eulogy, it uses a cross-generational friendship as a through-line to explore the compelling social justice issues of our day.
“The secret to my success is I’m mediocre and I know it,” Robert Jensen says. However, “I found I was good at synthesizing other people’s ideas and presenting that in plain language to the public.” In this book, Jensen convincingly argues that sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and environmental devastation are all manifestations of the same problem.
In her 1974 essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” poet Adrienne Rich writes: “Patriarchy — the domination of males — is the original model of oppression on which all others are based.” Jensen, a radical feminist, would agree.
Jensen describes this book as a “love story” for his recently deceased friend and mentor Jim Koplin, whom he met in 1988, and who worked at the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre in Minneapolis. Twenty-five years his elder, Koplin earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota, where Jensen was currently finishing a doctorate in journalism and mass communications.
The two like-minded activists began meeting every Friday morning at the Upper Crust Bakery on Nicollet Avenue to discuss politics. Jensen understands that Koplin recognized “I wasn’t a genius, and he helped me to see that I didn’t have to pretend to be a genius to make a contribution to the world as a teacher and writer.” Four years of regular meetings grew into a lifetime of friendship, including a brief romantic relationship, all documented by the extensive written correspondence that Jensen inherited.
Today, Jensen is a prolific and provocative author, activist and teacher whose other works include “The Heart of Whiteness” and “Writing Dissent.” He honors Koplin, who died at 79 from pneumonia, by acknowledging that this freethinker who preferred to operate behind the scenes was carefully inculcating in him the progressive ideas that he would bring forward to a larger audience.
Within the Upper Midwest’s tradition of social progressiveness, “Plain Radical” is a touching and important record of the debts owed by one generation to another — the baby boomers to the Silent Generation — as embodied in Jensen and Koplin.
James Cihlar is a writer in St. Paul.