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  Sizing Up America
By John J. Vander Meer í01

There are a few times in life when one faces the obligatory examination of their place in Godís world. Graduation is one of those pensive times. Hence, as members of the class of 2001 make final preparations to leave Calvin College, we face possibly the most important realization of our lives...

We are so small.

John Vander Meer

John J. Vander Meer
Calvin senior
Madison, Wis.

According to the 2000 census, the United States is comprised of 281 million people and Canada, 31 million. And as if that didnít make us feel small enough, an incredible 6 billion people live in the rest of the world. Yet even though the United States makes up less than 6 percent of the global population, we guzzle more than a third of the worldís energy, consume more than 25 percent of the natural resources used on the planet, and spend an astounding $320 billion on the military every year.

This past semester I saw the United States from a distance. But itís interesting, while studying in London, England through the Hansard Scholars Programme, in many ways I feel Iíve learned more about my own culture than I have about British culture. After arriving in London I spent my first 10 days in a hostel in Bloomsbury Square—right next to the British Museum. Sleeping in a room of 8 or 10 other rucksack-clad nomads, I met a fascinating montage of individuals from all over the world. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, France, all people speaking the common language of discovery. But despite this common language, many of the people I came across in my travels were skeptical of Americans to say the least. Indeed, some people were openly hostile to me because I was an American.

After work one night I went out for a drink with one of my colleagues at the BBC, where I interned for the semester. During the course of the conversation I asked him what he thought of Americans. "Present company excluded," he said, "fat and stupid." He went on to say that he was quoting a line from War and Peace in which characters discuss the numerous stereotypes of nationality. However, literary reference or not, I hesitate to disagree with his analysis. The vast majority of Americans are oblivious to the practical implications of American foreign policy on the rest of the world. And whatís worse is that most Americans just donít care about the rest of the world. Between the abysmal state of understanding of news and current events in this country, and the obvious disinterest in global issues on virtually every national poll ranking the most important political issues, itís obvious we have a "crisis of isolation" in this country.

The rest of the world has a great deal of questions about the dominance that the U.S. is having over global political and economic policy. Through the financial dominance of American corporations, the military dominance of our armed forces, political dominance over international law making and tariff setting, and an overwhelming dominance in agricultural and industrial production, the imperialist tendencies of the United States have forced the rest of the world to play by our rules. Just one example of this is the incredible waste of quality natural resources for the sake of our own farming industry. Every year billions of dollars in crops lay to rot, fields lay fallow; farmers are paid not to produce. While American agricultural subsidies do prevent the flooding of the commodity markets, and provide security to the U.S. farming industry, this is done at the expense of millions who die every year because of starvation. According to numerous world hunger organizations one person dies of starvation every second. That means that more than 31 million people die every year because our rich nation doesnít provide where we can.

While I was in London, the biggest story of the year, perhaps of the decade took place—the Florida election fiasco. Everywhere I went Brits asked me about the election, who did I want to win, what the latest news was, and so on. At one point I was discussing American politics with a 24-year old Frenchman named Sebastian Leon. Studying for his Ph.D. in bio-chemical engineering, Sebastian had extraordinarily perceptive observations about the state of global politics, and the disproportionate amount of control the United States has over global environmental and economic policy. Most of all, Sebastian was very skeptical about the man who would become our new president, George W. Bush. In one pointed moment he asked me, "If your country is electing the leader of the free world, shouldnít I get a vote?"

This column is not designed to illustrate in any form or fashion that I claim to have all, or for that matter any of the answers. But after leaving my home, and having seen what many people in this world think of my home—I am incensed. It seems that for so long in this country our political leaders have been worried about finding the right answers, when one wonders if weíve even bothered to ask whether or not weíre asking the right questions.

Clearly the class of 2001 is faced with many challenges. With each passing year the world gets smaller, the number of mouths to feed becomes larger, and the perpetually increasing separation between the rich and the poor, the black and the white, and the American and the non-American threatens our harmony in the global village. I pray that we can stand and face this crisis of isolation with the imagination and energy that so many members of my generation have to offer.

125th Years of Calvin College
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