The staying power of culture

Published 8:30 pm Monday, May 5, 2014

By Joseph Bass

One of the great challenges in improving society has to do with understanding the staying power of culture. Culture is a tightly bound tangle of beliefs about religion, money, personal relationships, liberty, government, our past, our future and more.

Culture is interrelated; change one thing and everything else often is changed.


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One of the patterns I have studied involves what happens when a group of people lives many years in a restrictive, intolerant, intimidating social environment. When the environment changes, how long will it take for the ill-treated people to recover and live lives like those who did not live in the oppressive environment?

In the United States we see the first pattern in the history of oppressed minorities. For many years, the federal government did not understand that removing the oppression did not instantly result in the previously oppressed becoming like those not oppressed. War on Poverty programs were erroneously based on this assumption.

What pattern can we observe similar to our situation in the United States? One place we can look is in Germany. At one time, Germany was one of the most economically and socially advanced societies in the world.

Following the end of World War II, East Germans were economically and politically oppressed under Soviet influences. During this time, East Germans lived lives of economic depravity and fear of their government. A small group of “party members” controlled the economy and ruled through daily terrorizing of the common people. This oppression lasted from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, a period of 45 years.

When the Berlin Wall and the rest of the Iron Curtain fell, all Germans were of the same race and culture based on a common history and culture going back hundreds of years. But West Germans had lived a life of freedom and opportunity — not the oppression, terror, and poverty experienced by East Germans.

Twenty-five years later, many East Germans are still not doing as well. Those doing the best had moved into the western area of the nation and identified themselves as German, not East German. They became a part of the mainstream created by the West Germans. Those who continue to identify themselves with the previous oppression are not doing as well. They are poorer and somewhat angry about their lot in life.

Previously oppressed Americans should learn from these patterns and act accordingly. If they do so, they will eventually forget their negative past. They will strive to be a part of the mainstream America created by the former European serfs that were oppressed by European aristocracies for hundreds of years.

These former serfs are the ones referred to in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

These former serfs created the America we have today. Our previously oppressed minorities can improve their own fortunes by striving to be a part of the mainstream created by the former serfs.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at