By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
WARSAW, Poland — Allen Iverson is looking down on me.
The tour bus is rolling along a busy street here in the Polish capital when suddenly there’s the Philadelphia 76ers star, staring with attitude from an athletic shoe ad on the side of a skyscraper.
Welcome to the United States of Poland. At least, that’s the way it feels sometimes, what with all the Pizza Huts, McDonald’s, Mars bars, J.Lo, Levi’s, and billboards of American pop icons like Iverson and rapper 50 Cent. And have I mentioned the kid on Idol (no “American,” just “Idol”) singing Sinatra? Or the posters in a cobblestone courtyard outside a hotel in Krakow, shouting “Bling! Bling!” and advertising a concert produced by some people who call themselves “Dirty Hustlaz, Inc?”
Sixteen years after communism fell, the Polish embrace western pop culture with a stunning eagerness. Watching on the streets of Warsaw as a beefy guy in a Chicago Bulls cap passes a petite blonde babe with a blouse cut down to there, it feels like I never left home.
Indeed, unlike travelers of a previous generation, I have no need to walk around with a Polish-English dictionary pointing to phrases and mangling the language. Most people — at least most I come in contact with — speak English, some flawlessly. After a while, you begin to expect it.
Frankly, there’s a certain pride that comes of seeing your country’s products, fashions and mores so eagerly adopted by a new democracy. But at the same time, I find myself wondering if these people realize what’s happening here. Do they understand they are selling their uniqueness for the price of an MTV video?
I think similar thoughts when I drive through the U.S. and find it difficult to remember where I am because this town looks like every other town, the same jumble of golden arches and Wal-Mart signs, Exxons, Taco Bells, Denny’s and Holiday Inns. And is it just me, or doesn’t every town increasingly sound like every other, too; Dixie twang, Yankee tartness, Southern California dude-isms — the sounds that tell where you’re from — blending into a blankness that makes you sound like a TV anchorman, a person who grew up nowhere.
“McWorld,” political scientist Benjamin Barber famously dubbed it. He saw a world that was simultaneously being pulled apart by tribalism and extremism, and drawn together by McWorld — free market forces. Meaning, teach the people what to want and then give it to them.
The result of tribalism and extremism was on view Sept. 11. The result of McWorld can be seen here in Poland and, more broadly, in the ongoing homogenization of the world’s cultures and languages into a blanded, blended uniformity that looks and sounds like everything in general and nothing in particular. And it’s mostly a one-way exchange: How many Polish sports icons have you seen towering over Times Square lately?
The world remakes itself in our image.
Small wonder France has sought — futilely, of course — to institutionalize French as the nation’s one and only language, waging war against the encroachment of English into daily life. If you think that’s much ado about nothing, well, you probably haven’t seen the Nike swoosh sign in the old marketplace at Krakow.
Which is not to pick on Nike. Rather, it is to note — and lament — the passing of a time when American popular culture was … escapable. But birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim and business gotta expand. And if it’s really a choice between McWorld and extremism, I’ll take McWorld.
Still, I wish Poland looked more like Poland.
One day on the bus, a member of our group is grousing about the inefficiency of the air conditioning. As our guide futzes with it, he reminds us that we are in a country where sometimes, you actually have to lower your expectations and maybe even do without. “You are not in U.S.,” he says.
Hey, it’s an honest mistake.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: