Plain Radical is an unusual book: an engaging mosaic of memoir, memorial, and soapbox. Author Robert Jensen and Twin Cities activist Jim Koplin were close friends for many years. Koplin was 25 years older and had woven his life into the counterculture of 1980s Minneapolis, serving as the “resident papier-mache master” at the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and volunteering in innumerable peace, anti-racism, feminist, and social justice organizations. Jensen looked to him for guidance, and the two carried on endless discussions about the best ways to make positive changes in the world. Koplin died of pneumonia in 2012.
The book includes a lot of conversations and fragments of letters between the two. It’s very personal, unafraid of revealing intimate details, personal weaknesses, self-questioning, which I sometimes felt did not contribute to the story. But then I’d come to a section explaining how Jim Koplin lived his life of commitment to honesty, equality, befriending the downtrodden, and I would feel inspired. Highly philosophical writing has never appealed to me. But the values celebrated in this book are my values, and it’s comforting to be reminded that there are other people in the world who question capitalism and want to practice a radical environmentalism (radical in the sense of getting to the root of a problem).
Jensen rails against “capitalism’s elevation of narcissism from a character flaw to a virtue… Gangsterism – the goal of getting ahead no matter what the cost to others – slowly becomes the norm, which has so far happened most notably at the very bottom and very top of the system.”
He applies this analysis specifically to the seemingly idyllic setting in which Koplin grew up during the 1930s and 1940s, central Minnesota farm country. He reminds us that Koplin’s home town (and all of Minnesota for that matter) was born from the forced removal of native people, and its relative prosperity was fostered by the enrichment of the United States through its world-dominating commercial empire. All of us who are financially comfortable are the beneficiaries of these injustices. Koplin believed, and Jensen urges, that such privilege requires us to think hard about how we live our lives. Jensen admires Koplin’s lifestyle, which included not spending a lot of money, raising much of his own food, limiting travel, and engaging with a wide variety of people honestly. These are pretty straightforward things we can all try to do.
But it’s necessary to think deeply, too. “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief,” Koplin told Jensen, because of the apparently blind determination of the human race to ruin earth’s climate.
Toward the end of his life, “Jim had for some time believed that a significant shift by humans toward a sustainable relationship with the living world was unlikely, and with each passing year he lowered his estimate of what was possible given the realities of current human systems and the level of ecological damage.” Jensen came to agree with this assessment, yet both men continued to work on various projects for saner living.
Jensen says he wrote the book in part to share what he learned from Koplin. “His memory troubles my thoughts and gives me comfort, and I want his story to trouble and comfort you.” Reading the book, I was alternately troubled and comforted, and I’m glad Jensen shared his story.