Christmas reflections
In this Dec. 15, 2018 photo shows Christmas display in Carmen, Agusan Del Norte.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman
Christmas reflections
Franz Jessen ( - December 27, 2018 - 4:41pm

Spending a wonderful relaxed Christmas in Manila leaves ample time for reflection and reading. Reflecting on the issue of national identity and why so many increasingly identify themselves by contrasting to others. There seems to be an increasing worldwide retrenchment, an increasing unwillingness to learn across cultures and a greater reluctance to see how the world, and our own countries, can be taken forward through cooperation and exchange. 

Sitting in the tranquillity of a garden in the middle of Makati, I cannot help but reflect on the three Asian countries that I have lived during my career before coming to the Philippines, namely Japan, China and Vietnam, all of which dramatically changed policies at different points of their histories. They changed from overwhelming isolationist policies, to opening up and integrating with the rest of the world: the Meiji restoration, the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping and the Doi Moi reforms. 

The benefits of these policy changes are obvious, but the lessons are ignored by many today, and so are the failures of the policies before the reforms. Failures were tragic. We remember the consequences, but not always the many big and small steps taken before, such as the gradual change in the use of language in Germany in the 1930s (as documented by the diaries of Victor Klemperer), or Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.

This brings me to the reading: there are challenges and strains in the international system today, leading to rightful questioning. Why do countries seem to drift apart, and why do populations within countries drift apart – or – is it simply the wrong impression?

One recent thought provoking book, “How Democracy Ends” by David Runciman, argues that the governance system as we know is in need of updating. He talks about epistocracy; but as we see from history, values and knowledge are unfortunately not always closely correlated. 

Two other recent books, which I have also enjoyed reading (and learned from), address the diminished trust in experts, Allen Blinder’s “Advice and Dissent” as well as Tom Nichols’ “The Death of Expertise.” I recommend that these two are read in parallel with Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow,” a book about intuitive and reflective decision-making. In an age dominated by social media and sound bites, this reflection becomes increasingly crucial.

Okay, it may be a heavy reading list for a short Christmas break, but most of us spend much time discussing world, or regional, or national or local affairs, and the above reading list certainly made me reflect more.

For (relatively) lighter reading, I picked up the new biography: “Churchill” by Andrew Robert a great book, easy to to read and entertaining too. “Churchill” had a sharp, very sharp, tongue, but used it most frequently to make a point. In a world the partly dominated by “strong men,” Churchill stood out as a steadfast democrat, and when we look back we see clearly who was more successful in bringing their country forward. It is a book to learn from, and how can one resist smiling when reading quotes like this one: “Now, strong language is often used by weak men and it is never used more strongly than on a weak case.”

At this point I assume, some readers are wondering “why in the world does anyone spend a holiday reading such books?” The answer is of course that having spent decades seeking to build bridges between nations, improve mutual understanding and respect, I am obviously drawn by the strong questioning of that effort. Was it the right policy? Was it strictly time-dependent? Were important mistakes made? Have we learned? And now: quo vadis?

Even though the short term outlook can look bleak in parts, I remain an optimist, believing that cross- cultural understanding will continue to develop, and that we will not seek the future by looking to the past whilst ignoring the lessons of history. Much of my optimism is founded in the belief of the young generation, who, across the world is better educated, and often less dogmatic and have a more global outlook. With its very young population, increasingly better educated, its growing economy, increasingly strong government institutions, a very promising peace process, I can only be positive about the future of the Philippines.

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