“Radical” in the title of University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen’s intensely personal and affecting paean to his late friend and mentor Jim Koplin is not pejorative as in “dangerously extreme” or “fanatic idealogue.”
Rather it means “going deep, to the root of a problem” while “Plain” refers to Koplin’s “unvarnished analysis” of the world without jargon or posturing and his simple, unfancy way of living.
Because Jensen believes we need both radical analysis and plain living more than ever these days, he wrote this book to do what his friend never allowed him to do while alive — make a fuss about him.
But it’s about much more than a transformative figure, a life-changing teacher, who took part in every important U.S. political movement of the last half of the 20th century: civil and gay rights, radical feminism, New Left, anti-war and the environment.
It’s a love story, for Jensen and Koplin cared deeply for each other and indeed briefly were lovers; an intellectual memoir about the unflinching world view the elder Koplin passed on in talks and more than 3,000 letters and a political polemic about how we should create a decent human future, that is “if there is to be a human future at all.”
This is not a book about pretending to be fearless in this situation, the author says, but about moving into the dark with our fears. And while Koplin and Jensen had lived through the same kind of darkness in their early years, each had developed different ways of dealing with it.
They met in 1988 in Minneapolis, where Jensen, a naïve graduate student at the University of Minnesota researching feminist responses to pornography, interviewed Koplin, a volunteer at the Organizing Against Pornography office.
Despite an age difference of 25 years, the men, recognizing a mutual quirkiness, bonded at once and shared revelations of unsafe, chaotic childhoods defined by terror.
But while Koplin remembered an abusive, violent father, who treated his animals better than his wife and child, then set aside those memories, the bad things that happened to Jensen growing up went into a black hole known as dissociative amnesia.
What made life easier for him, Jensen says, was not being normal and finding a community of kindred spirits. “And the not-normalist person I knew was Jim Koplin.” By that he means Jim had decided not to expend time, energy or money on style or fashion but on values and the frugal way he lived.
For Jim, “thinking about difficult subjects was one of the great joys in life,” Jensen writes. He thought it was much more fun than gambling in casinos or sitting with a video game in his lap.
So for the three hours they met each Saturday morning at a table with the best eastside window exposure in the Upper Crust bakery, Koplin encouraged Jensen to go deeper and think more critically about systems and structures of power.
This is no buddy book but a serious, cerebral (albeit with light touches) meditation on how hierarchy is an impediment to human understanding, humans can flourish only in a community based on a collective commitment to love and care, and there’s no cookbook for making decent communities work.
The memoir revolves around Koplin, a gay Minnesota farm boy with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, who served in the military, married, worked in a bank, taught at Vanderbilt University, helped found Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and, true to his rural roots, loved to garden.
But it’s also about the progressive coming-of-age of the author, a native of Fargo, N.D., who was a newspaper reporter for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in media ethics and law and joining the University of Texas journalism department.
If Jensen was an Invisible Kid growing up, once he found his activist voice, he says, he couldn’t shut up. Especially after he discovered that the U.T. faculty was not a hot bed of political involvement.
Before he knew it, he was emceeing rallies and appearing as an anti-war representative on local and national talk shows almost always with conservative hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity or Joe Scarborough and other guests hostile to the left position.
Jensen likes to joke with graduate students, telling them that the secret of his success is that he’s mediocre and he knows it. Instead of trying to be “a big thinker,” the professor says, he’s content to be a second or third-tier intellectual, who works hard to become a better teacher and present the ideas he’s synthesized to the public.
Though the author often felt like a ventriloquist dummy espousing Koplin’s views and there is little in his life as teacher, writer and speaker that didn’t originate from a conversation with Jim, the friends didn’t always agree.
When Jensen found comfort and community at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, his intellectual guru, who didn’t believe in organized religion, was baffled. But Jensen, believing religion did not require a supernatural certainty, defended his decision to join.
What emerges from this double biography’s unblinking look at our living at the end of affluence, comfort and cheap energy is the portrait of a passionate, concerned and radical U.T. professor, who learned from one of Nature’s Mystics that “it’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.”
Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully
Soft Skull Press, $15.95