As a boy, Sigmund Freud so admired the United States that he hung a copy of the Declaration of Independence over his bed. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address so moved him in its eloquent brevity that he memorized it and would sometimes recite it to his family. Yet, in manhood, he came to despise all things American.
What Freud didn't like about America
“America is a mistake," Freud said, "a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.” This is what he despised:
1. Conspicuous consumption and money-grubbing. If you know anything at all about Freud, you’re probably aware that he considered repressed sexual desires to be the root of many problems. Healthy people, he maintained, tend to channel their repressed sexual energy into productive work, hobbies, and pastimes. (This is sublimation in Freudian-speak.) He regarded Americans as abnormally Puritanical and prudish about sex, and saw our freewheeling commerce and consumerism as manic sublimation of repressed sexual desires.
2. Rich Americans and their money. After World War I, the economy of Austria was devastated. Hyper-inflation and currency devaluation put scarce commodities out of reach for many. As with much of the twentieth century, the American dollar was king of currencies and essentially “as good as gold.” Wealthy Americans had money to travel to Europe and Freud was forced to take more and more of them as patients. He needed them and their dollars, but at the same time he regarded them as poorly educated, uncultured, and backward. Imagine a man of Freud’s intellect and professional achievements finding himself dependent on people he regarded as third-rate in every respect. Resentment and revulsion would naturally follow.
3. Americans called him “Sigmund” instead of “Dr. Freud.” In 1909, at the invitation of Clark University, Freud made his one and only pilgrimage to the United States. He delivered several lectures and did some sightseeing before returning to Vienna. Again and again, people he met called him by his first name rather than doctor. He resented this presumed familiarity and lack of courtesy on the part of strangers. On his way to see Niagara Falls, Freud was invited to a barbecue in upstate New York. He later complained angrily that his steak had been cooked over an open fire by “savages.”
4. Freud saw Americans as narrow-minded and anti-intellectual. He was invited by Clark University because his psychoanalytic theories had begun to interest both psychiatrists and the public. This may at first appear to contradict the presumption of anti-intellectualism. But Freud perceived the Americans—even the practitioners—were seizing upon the more titillating aspects of his theories and trivializing psychoanalysis. This is but one example of his contempt for the American mental landscape. He thought Americans overly pious, lacking respect for science, and excessively conforming to public opinion.
5. He disliked the mix of competitiveness and democracy. Freud saw evidence of this in those who called him “Sigmund” instead of “Herr Doctor.” He believed that this freewheeling egalitarianism combined with the grasping, never-satisfied competitiveness of American life produced mediocrity in our culture and our people.
Freud has been criticized, and rightfully so, as opinionated, prejudiced, closed-minded, and prone to adjust facts to fit his theories. The great American psychologist, William James, heard Freud lecture at Clark University and said that the father of psychoanalysis impressed him as a man bound by fixed ideas. Like all great men, Freud was a flawed mortal as well as a visionary genius. Amid his warped criticism of America, there is yet truth.