Sigmund Freud was no fan of the United States. While he admired the aspirations of our founding fathers for liberty and justice for all, , he came to the conclusion that we Americans juts couldn’t pull it off. “America is a mistake,” Freud said, “a gigantic mistake it is true, but nonetheless a mistake.” Was he right?
These days when so many of us are worried about the future of our country, it’s hard not to wonder if the father of psychoanalysis was on to something.
Freud’s gripes were based on his judgement of our American character. He saw us as shallow, antiscientific , anti-intellectual, ultra competitive worshippers of the all mighty dollar. These characteristics seemed incompatible with the requirements for a civilized society, especially one bent on governing itself.
Civilization, for Freud, was a balancing act that maximized our individual freedom by restricting it in the service of protections that could only be provided by the larger group. Freud thought Americans were tipped too far in one direction, and that would be injurious to our society as a whole.
Our founding fathers were aware of this possibility and thought our Constitution would keep the needle pointed toward the middle of the compass. But in America Fall 2020 it feels like we’ve lost our direction and that we’re in danger of losing the compass altogether.
I doubt that all of our present woes can be attributed to the flaws in the American character that Freud discerned. Yet there is something to be said in the fact that we elected a President who many see as embodying these flaws, and who is most certainly a reflection of one aspect of the American identity.
So was Freud right about America? Can a group of greedy individualists succeed in achieving a government that serves all the people?
I suppose if we think of some aspect of our national character as an impediment to achieving our national ideals, one option is to change these maladaptive aspects of our national character. Collectively we could do with a little more ego, a lot less id, and an appreciation that regulation is not incompatible with liberty. It’s a requirement.
Freud’s view of what it takes to have a civilized society was drawn from his view of individual psychology. Just as a healthy society required a tradeoff between individual freedom and regulation by the larger group, psychological health required individuals to regulate their own needs so that they could they could find realistic ways of meeting them in the world .
In other words, psychological development , according to Freud, requires that we give something up to get something we can’t achieve on our own. It’s a kind of socio-emotional learning project. If we learn well, great. For all the rest of us- there’s psychotherapy.
Psychodynamic psychotherapists and the patients we work with know that character isn’t destiny. We can make changes in ourselves if we work at it. How to translate our individual growth possibilities to our national aspirations, I’m not sure. But It seems more clear than ever that democracy in America requires that we learn to be the best citizens we can be.
So was Freud right about America? The answer is, It’s up to us.