Alicia Zukofsky

Knowledge Is Not Understanding
A Plea for Hope, and for Trust in People

                                                             “Where shall wisdom be found? and where
                                                              is the place of understanding?”

What I shall deal with here is, Why hope is justified, a hope that so much that is irrational and unjust in our present societies can be changed for the better. 
And this not by experts and “leaders” empowering themselves and claiming a paternalistic monopoly of their strata to devise solutions and make decisions. But by the disempowered, the so-called common people – once they engage on a path towards self-emancipation. Once they have trust in, rely on and deepen their understanding of the problems of society and the world. Once they have the courage to listen carefully to each other, to speak unafraid, to deliberate, to decide rather than continue apathetically or obediently or with gullible minds, as subjects of rulers or of depressing circumstances where we still find many of them waiting, very often, for secular saviors.

In a book called Job we find the words just quoted:  “Where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?”

No matter how (or “where”) we position ourselves, no matter whether we think of ourselves as Jews or Gentiles, as Christians or Muslims, as socialists (quarreling, among each other, about the proper road to socialism, and how to define that), regardless of whether we are Buddhists or Sufis or Sikhs, respect Zoroaster or rever the Pacha Mama, Afro-American deities prayed to in Haiti, or protective spirits transformed into Catholic saints in the Congo, the words just quoted may be worth thinking about. Wisdom, it seems, is not quite the same as understanding. And understanding is something very different from simply abstract knowledge. It is more existential, tied to experience. I have known that for long. Recently, somebody else, Manfred Max-Neef, reminded us again of it. The words quoted are spoken by Job – a symbolic figure of a “sacred,” that is to say, revered text that forms part of the Jewish socio-cultural tradition. Job suffered a lot. Suffering is an especially intense experience, and the words he finds, reflect his experience. 

As is typical for a religious text, Job ascribes wisdom and understanding to “god”: it is the mythical language of his era. But the way he characterizes wisdom and understanding is significant. “The depth saith, It is not in me: and the  sea saith It is not in me.” This characterization is, above all, negative; it says what wisdom and understanding are not, or  (if the metaphorical level is not transcended) “where”  wisdom and understanding are not found, because it is so apparently impossible to fix them concretely, filling them with concrete content or offering a fixed definition. But there is something, still, that is said about them, that we learn about wisdom and understanding when we hear, in this metaphorical language,  where they are not – even though we could expect them, most of all, there. For, implicitly, there is a comparison involved in this. The sea and the depth which are described as inadequate similes, are nonetheless not entirely unlike wisdom and understanding. For they are indeed, for the author or authors of the book of Job (and listeners or reader of the text, at that time), close to being endless. Wisdom and understanding tend in this direction; if we want to understand what they are, it helps us to think of endlessness, of the unfathombable as a quality of depth,  and of the eternal motion as well as the metaphoric (as well as psychically perceived) endlessness of the sea. Something we experience when we face it, at the coast, regarding its wide expanse. 

In the context of the classical Chinese Taoist tradition, we find a famous philosopher, Chuangtse, saying something very much the same as the passage found in the book of Job that I have referred to. We can critique both Job’s and Chuangtse’s position as mythical and therefore, an expression of irrationalism. But I think the rational core is noteworthy: in contrast to my knowledge of, say, the stipulations of a law dealing with insolvency, or with ignoring the right of way of another driver (a knowledge that does not presuppose a lot of experience on the part of him or her who memorizes the respective paragraphs), understanding and its deeper, more far reaching variety, wisdom, do not only depend on existential experience; they are also, in a sense, open-ended,  never unaffecting by further experience that is “added” and integrated in an ongoing life. Without wanting to subscribe to post-modern and deconstructive analysis, I am prepared to agree with thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, in this one respect. Not only is democracy an unfinished, open-ended, perpetual process. But so is human experience and the insight, the understanding –  and its full, also calm and serene variety evolving at some point in the life of some people, ‘wisdom’: They are non-reifiable ‘things’ that are absorbed in concrete situations and that are also developing, in the minds and ways of living of people who are relating not just to people in the abstract sense of the word (i.e., to just anybody, to ‘average’  people, if there is anything like that) BUT to very concrete people. In other words, there is something received, something ‘suffered’ under concrete circumstances, to these ‘things’ called insight,  understanding,  wisdom. And there is that active component: the creative and reflective process that integrates and ‘processes’ and transforms the received or ‘suffered,’   that ‘digests’  the input of history, the input owed to social relations and to the nature we face, as humans. It’s a continuing learning process, and it never leads to absolute, unquestionable truth. 

That does not mean that there is no historic truth that we can grasp and express, in a given situation. But the understanding or comprehension thereof is asymptotic. And the possibility that we err and that future experience will disprove us and our grasp of such truth, should make us milder, more ready to listen to very different views, and able to concede that perhaps some day it will be shown that others were closer to ‘the truth’ than we were.

We all, as humans, experience; we all form insights, and we all develop one kind of understanding or another. Various intensities, various depth of insight occur. The seemingly brightest, clever enough to assemble knowledge and to employ that knowledge gainfully, may not necessarily be the ones who are most able to ‘understand’ situations and Others. Their understanding can remain rather partial; even superficial and abstract, one-dimensional, soaked with ‘instrumental reason.’ Instrumental reason tends to bury or deform one’s internal awareness of interpersonal relationships, the awareness of the existential needs of Others; it clouds empathy or even kills off what, as a human potential, a tender plant blooming in every one,  needs to be nourished. 

This refers perhaps most of all to the clerks of our present-day rulers, easily won-over experts who know on which side their bread is buttered. They can include journalists, philosophers, physicists, engineers, and economists.

But can we idealize those which the media referred to so often as the silent majority, those who are sometimes referred to as the common people, the grass roots? Is it good, at any rate, to idealize?

I remember that as a child I often heard my father say that the greatest foe of mankind is man’s stupidity. He backed it up with memories of personal experience. In the early 1930s when Hitler had not yet been named head of government of the Weimar Republic (its prime minister, a position referred to, in Germany, by the old-fashioned term “chancellor”) by the right-wing, monarchist president, Mr. Hindenburg, my father, then a young man in his early twenties, had often debated politics with other young men in his neighborhood in Reinickendorf, a working-class and “lower middle class” quarter adjacent to the more proletarian Wedding, in Berlin. He embraced pacifist positions and it was apparent to him, at that time, that a Hitler government (seen as a real but dangerous possibility by him) would be bent on war. He knew the Nazi kids in his neighborhood well enough; they knew where he stood politically and he knew where they stood. Each one wanted to convince the other one of his position, I presume. My father did not argue with them about the demagogic promises the Nazis made, their pretense to be socialists, simply of the national sort rather than “without loyalty to their country.” Hearing them talk enthusiastically about the things the Fuehrer intended to do in order to cope with mass unemployment, to do away with class privilege in favor of a ‘united German people’ (a Volksgemeinschaft) etc., he would diplomatically say, “IF the Fuehrer is going to do what you say he will do, I’ll join you.” “But,” he added, “I think he’s bent on war.” They protested, “No,” they said, “the Fuehrer is the safest guarantee of peace.” Apparently, they believed that. When, six years after the election victory of the Nazis, war was unleashed by the Nazi regime which had done away with democracy soon after being voted into office, the atmosphere in Berlin was depressed. Even among the minority of people in that Reinickendorf neighborhood who were Nazis. That’s what my father remembered and spoke about, repeatedly, when I was young. There was no exuberance, no chauvinist jubilation, of the sort experienced when WWI was started. 

It is difficult to say what had caused the strange blindness of millions in Germany to the determination of those, in politics and industry, who wanted to reverse the results of the Treaty of Versailles militarily and who intended, from the very beginning, to embark on a course of war, with clearly expansionist, imperialist aims. Those adversaries of Hitler who had, like my left-wing father, read his Mein Kampf , who had listened to Mr. Goebbels speaking during election campaigns, who had studied their press and who were able to read between the lines, could neither overlook the fact that  Nazi rule would mean nothing good for Germans of Jewish background, nor could they close their eyes to the danger of war. That leftists would be persecuted, should the fascists win, was also quiet clear. I think it saved my father’s neck that he was respectful rather than insulting, when discussing politics with kids he had known long before they got involved in the Nazi “movement.” That respect remained a mutual facet of their relationship. Years later, when war was under way, my father had the feeling that they wanted to tell him, “yes, you were right”. And the Nazis back in Reinickendorf sent him parcels when he was a soldier deployed in Russia. I don’t know whether they did it while he was still a member of a penal company. Or after that company had been wiped out, except for five wounded survivors, which then lead to my father’s “rehabilitation” for supposedly having shown courage, an assumption he disputed. 

My father remembered other examples of human stupidity from that time. For instance, the fact that, soon after the Nazi take-over in 1933, the mother of his two closest friends said to her husband while listening to Hitler speaking on the radio, that Hitler was “really so right” about what he was saying; she could completely agree with him. She was married to a well-off, educated person, a pleasant and polite and generous man, who had been an officer in the imperial army and won a medal of courage ( the so-called “iron cross, first class” ) during the Great War. My father remembered that when he went out with his friends, their dad would always give to each of them, my father included, quite politely a five Mk. coin, something like five silver dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. This mentally quite liberal, secular man felt very much that he was a German, and certainly he was a nationalist, though not of the extreme right. Just like his sons or my father, he had no sympathies for Hitler, that much was clear. Perhaps one factor why he resented the Nazis was their anti-semitism. They defined him as Jewish. A few years after the exuberant exclamation of his wife, he had to flee to Belgium. After the Nazis invaded Belgium, they caught and murdered him, presumably in one of their death camps. The blindness of his wife, married to a Jewish German she loved, is still quite incomprehensible. For my father, it was just a  further indication of deeply rooted human stupidity.

There were other tales I heard when I was 4, 5, 10, 12, 14. How, stationed in Moss, Norway, he, a soldier of the lowest rank, a recruit, was standing or sitting in a small group of other soldiers of his unit. The radio was on, either Goering, the field marshall responsible for the air force, or Goebbels, who was responsible for propaganda, I don’t remember who, was shouting, “We are going to ‘coventrize’ their cities.” It was just after the terrible bombing of Coventry had happened. My dad said, very thoughtfully, “But it will all come back…” The others broke out in laughter. They were younger than my father; perhaps, on average, ten years younger, for he was already 29 when the war broke out and he was drafted. My father said that to him it was clear then that the U.S. (an ally of Britain long before they joined the anti-fascist camp openly, in 1941) were churning out planes as fast as possible and that the waning of Nazi air superiority would be only a question of time. It was a comforting thought that the regime would not last. But just as he had foreseen with open eyes that the Nazi election victory would bring dictatorship and war, he foresaw the Allied air raids on Germany and the price the population would have to pay. Not just Nazis, every one. He said,  the fact that his ‘buddies’ did not take him seriously that day but laughed, perhaps saved his life. He could have been court-martialed and shot, for that remark. 

But something else worried him even more: the extent to which seeming initial ‘success’ of the Nazi regime had made the population so blind. Especially the young ones. I know from books that less than 50 percent of the electorate voted for the Nazi ticket in 1933 and Hitler had depended on the support of a coalition partner, the German National People’s Party. But later on, when an industrial boom triggered to a large extent by increased arms production and thus war preparation drove unemployment figures down, and then of course especially after the rapid defeat of France, every observer could see that the Nazi regime enjoyed the greater or lesser support of more and more people. In fact, of the majority.

Being utterly disillusioned, even about former comrades (many of whom, he says, joined the ranks of Nazi organizations), my father estimated that 90 per cent of the German population turned into Nazis: many for opportunistic reasons, some, in order to save their skin. Strangely enough, my father felt that those who had been “idealists” among the Nazi kids in his largely blue-collar Berlin neighborhood deserved the most respect. They had been the least dangerous to him, too. Those who, during the war period, had clearly intended to see to it that he would die, had been middle class people, with a ‘good’ educational backgound; people who had not necessarily been convinced fascists in the first place but  who ‘always and eveywhere’ in our societies sense which side is stronger and how to further their careers. 

I must admit here that I have great respect and understanding for persons who, like my father under fascism, or like an old and close friend who is also a lot older than me, under “real socialism,” have encountered so many negative experiences that they turned very skeptical and pessimistic, with regard to their fellow-men. Of course, there exist lots of reasons for skepticism, if not pessimism,  and optimism and a trust in the goodness of man that can be very na´ve. 

And still, as a child, confronted with the disillusionment of my father in his later (post-1945) life, as to the possibilities of human emancipation, I have always been able to see the other side of it. Yes, I agreed with him when, as a 14-year-old, I had looked so arrogant while hearing the story of, how my mother, just 8 years old in 1933, had corrected her mother, then already a widow, “You can’t say, ‘Have a good day’, mummy! You should say, ‘Heil Hitler’.” My father, unusually sharp and cold suddenly, had retorted, “You would have been the first to shout Heil.” I had felt shame, because I comprehended immediately than I could not know how I would have behaved, unless I had been in that situation at that time, And I understood, vaguely, that according to what my father had witnessed, it was especially the young and gullible who could be affected most easily by the propaganda of the regime. Later on, I saw how, in addition to her young age, the lack of a father had probably been a factor in my mother’s case; the word of male teachers carried greater weight than those of a cleaning and washer woman who had a very hard time to maked ends meet and earn the bread for her two daughters and herself. This working-class woman, my grandmother,was a person I always loved very much. She had grown up in a village at the Eastern slopes of the Harz mountains and, like all children in the village, was the kid of landless laborers who worked the fields and tended the horses and other animals of the local count residing high up in his Falkenstein castle. She had attended the village school, learned the three Rs and jingoist songs about general Bluecher defeating the French, and the church catechism, of course. And then, at 14; she had been given away to the village parson, as a servant. Treatment there, by the parson’s wife and the parson, had distanced her from the church. Though her family had scant food and was happy she could eat at the parson’s house, she would return home each day to eat there, because she was given spoiled food by the parson’s wife. Two years later, at age 16, she started to work as a servant for a bourgeois Jewish family in Halle-on-the-Saale. These were her best years, and she oftened wondered, when I was a kid, what had happened to them. Whether they still had been able to leave the country after 1933 or were murdered. My grandmother’s father was used to caring for the count’s horses at 6 in the morning, before having breakfast and then working in the fields, a work interrupted by a two-hour break at noon, and lasting till 6 p.m. and perhaps, if necessary, longer. He was apolitical but his brother had joined the social democrats before the Great War and sometimes came and tried to win him over. A nephew of my grandmother joined the workers’ uprising in 1923 and was among those fighters who were shot by the right-wing, paramilitary Freikorps members at Hettstett when they surrendered. What I loved about my grandmother were the stories she told me when we washed the dishes together after the family had lunch. She recalled how she, a woman married to a young man who had to go to war,  joined the other servant girls in that small town were she lived, and ran with them to the Bismarck tower overlooking the city where a  jingoist “victory celebration” was taking place in 1914. And she told me how her young husband, a wood-industry worker, a carpenter as well as an electrician and, above all, a social-democrat, had told her when he was coming home having been granted a short leave from the front, how stupid this was and what a madness and crime the entire war was. She had felt ashamed. She never went again, to these things. She supported him during the Great Carpenter’s Strike, in the regional furniture and wood industry but that was after the war. And all through the Hitler years, this ill-educated woman never believed one word the Nazis said. Nor did she, once, say or feel compelled to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ There was nothing that could threaten her, and she wanted nothing from them. It was the teacher wanting to keep his job, the public servant dreaming of being promoted who, for opportunistic reasons, joined the Nazi party soon after the Nazis took over in ‘33. And, yes, I heard, from my father, that in Berlin entire shawm bands of the Red Combatants’ Federation joined the Nazi organization known as the SA, in the spring and summer of that year. For me, as an adolescent, my grandmother was living proof that integrity did not depend on the degree of formal learning. And her life’s experience and the lively way she talked about it, kept me from ever thinking she was dumb or unthinking. The high school and university education gave me a chance to know a few things she did not know about. But so what? Was she more stupid? No.  Did she understand a lot, about the world? Well, perhaps it is okay to recount the following in place of an outright answer. In the early 1960s, still in the days prior to the Willy Brandt government, it was television she liked to watch upstairs, in the apartment where my aunt and uncle lived (for my father refused to buy a tv set). At the time, public television in Germany breathed the spirit of the Cold War. I once watched the news with her, and they talked about Cuba. I asked her, “What do you think about Fidel Castro?” She replied: “Ich glaube schon, dass der was fuer die kleinen Leute tut.” (“Well, I think in fact  that he’s really doing something for the common people.”) - You can say about that reply what you want. For me, it proved that she formed her own opinion, against the prevalent trend. She “read between the lines” and she watched pictures of people on television and used her innate sense; she had a feeling for people, reading in their faces, listening to what they said and how they said it, noticing the almost imperceptible. The commentator’s voice-over didn’t impress her much when she noticed what she saw, about Cuba, at the time. I also remember something else that I love her for. It was around about 1968, perhaps 1970, and I was a student and euphoric in some respects, because a lot of students had become aware of so many absurdities and wrongs that characterized the world we had inherited and the times we were a part of. I probably talked to my grandmother on that day which I remember about my hopes for a just and more solidary society. A revolution, perhaps. She looked at me, and said, with something in her voice and eyes that created a sudden distance, “And then, you will be our bosses.” There was the gulf,  for seconds, between us, not between grandmother and grandchild, but between two people belonging, it must have seemed to her at that moment, to two different worlds or classes. I could sense her anticipation of a social change that would replace one form of rule which disempowered her and her class, by another kind of rule: “ours.” Yes, she saw me as part of this class or stratum of university-educated people who embrace left ideas about justice and freedom and who would, she thought, if successful in their endeavours, lord it some day over her and her likes. I loved her and still love her now that it’s already so long ago that she died. But I also felt she was right; the danger she saw has existed and continues to exist, and the examples of times and places where exactly what she feared has happened are well known. There never should be any doubt about this, that a government which governs in the name of the disempowered but does not involve them actively in decision-making processes and does not, thus, empower them, is no government of the people. The populace. Those even now disempowered. 

It is true that my father moved from being an activist involved in the project of working-class emancipation and resistance to fascism and war, to a position of positive and committed activity in the ‘little world’ he could touch with his hands. Great change, DIE GROSSE VERAENDERUNG, seemed condemned to failure, not due to the innate evil of men (because he believed in the potential for the good and the bad in every one). But due to the overwhelming and persisting stupidity of the overwhelming majority. He would also phrase it differently, speaking of the shortcomings of all of us, DIE UNZULAENGLICHKEIT DES MENSCHEN. 

My grandmother, her example, gave me courage and the ability to resist pessimism and the cloud that hovered around and above me, very early on: I refer to the effects of my father’s disillusionment with the orthodox left. It is true that in his active life, he was much better adapted to many things than I ever was; he was hard-working and more practical. Not just as a bread-winner. But in a very wide sense, with regard to the awareness of the needs of Others. Saving a teen-age boy who was aflame, when a cooker had exploded on a camp site, because of the cook's stupidity. He saw and recognized immediately what was happening. It was my dad’s fast reaction then, taking a woolen blanket, running after the boy who was heading for the river he could never have reached, that saved the kid’s life. Throwing him down and extinguishing the flames with the blanket. Enabling the boy’s relative to live and eat, free of any obligation or charge, in our rented apartment when that boy, from Denmark, was hospitalized in our town’s local hospital for 2 or 3 months. This is just a small example, and to me it shows that his bleak view regarding man’s imperfection, widespread stupidity, and the chance of man’s (theoretically possible) emancipation did not keep him from acting positively. He was no misanthropic old man and no disappointed left revolutionary who in disgust would turn to the extreme right, as quite a few others have done and continue to do. He remained a pacifist, and cherished the democracy in the West, despite its shortcomings, and without closing his eyes to the fact that so many former Nazis continued their career in the judiciary, the police, the military, the foreign office, and secret service, and of course in industry, in this new West German republic. They talk about that now, in 2010, as if it is a secret known only now. But I knew it, in the 1950s, as a kid, and my father’s friends knew it, and my mother, and my grandmother. My father is still someone I think of warmly and with respect. But I disagreed and continue to disagree with his pessismism that resulted from his disillusionments although I don’t dispute that so much in his life as a politically active citizen was disillusioning. To part with illusions is one thing; NOT TO LOSE HOPE, the other. It is my grandmother’s example that gives me hope; yes, hope in the decency and sensitivity and ability to understand so much although they may know as yet so little, that is found among the common people. 

Perhaps the concrete and specific that I remember and recount here, will sound trivial to many readers. So be it. It is nonetheless part of my experience and echoes the experience of others. Above all of a man born four years before that murderous Great War started. A man who, in view perhaps of his class background, was quite unable to attend high school at the time. And who still read Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and Traven and Dreiser and Dostoevsky. Who wrote poems and studied all the volumes (three, mind you) of Das Kapital, with his teachers, Kaethe and Herman Duncker, being one of less than half a dozen who finished that course or project. After the war, applied what he had learned about painting during evening classes at the art academy, the Kunstgewerbeschule, in Charlottenburg.   Did oil paintings and earned enough in this way, to feed his young family. Inspired a child, by his example, and by the way he said, Discover your own way, develop you own view of things, read people expressing opposing views, and then, THINK.

The other inspiration came from that grandmother, her warmth, her love. People like that, decent people, exist. Everywhere. Just look around wherever you are. That so many deformations also exist in us, is no secret. But change is possible, understanding not separable from opened eyes, open minds and an open, empathetic heart. And we can learn. Yes, democracy is an unfinished process.

Let’s work for it, together.
Let’s attempt it, each one in search of his road, and yet tied by his love and hope, to the Others, fellow-searchers, comrades, friends.

Dec. 2010

Alicia Zukofsky is the author of The Man Who Invented Inline Skating – a biographical novel about her father that is awaiting publication. Publishers interested in acquiring exclusive rights for Austria, Germany and Switzerland are invited to contact the editor of STREET VOICE.



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