It's odd that our country is so expert in going opposite directions at the same time. Two of today's most striking trends should surprise any Martian.
To begin with, do you have that marvelous machine that you stick your head in, push a computer button, and emerge with your hair brushed and combed? Neither do I.
But sooner or later an American will invent the automatic hair-brushing machine attached to computer, and it will cost $1,975 but then the price will fall to $780 and every American will suffer until he has one.
All machines go bats from time to time. Once in every million brushes the machine will grind up some poor fellow's head, so it will be prudent to take out head-grinding insurance and a service policy from the manufacturer.
This damned machine -- "vision," I should call it -- represents one of the strongest interests in American society, the desire to make life easier and better through chemistry or electricity or inclined planes or vibrators, and never mind if they make life harder, not easier.
And never mind if the continual drumming to acquire the latest machine for massaging a dog's tail puts the focus on the hazards of raising a dog, so much that it seems too perilous to have a dog at all. (Did you know there are 14 million American dogs suffering depression, who do not wag their tails sufficiently to keep good circulation at the tip, and that 14 dogs east of the Mississippi, especially in depressed areas of New England, were victims of tail-end gangrene in 1985, the last year for which figures are available?)
I mean it's not fair to the dog, is it, to have one for a pet unless you get the tail-tip massage machine and the laser-operated paw-drying mat -- or were you unaware that damp paws caused the death of three dogs worldwide as recently as 1980 (the last year for which, etc.).
Ovens and iceboxes both now clean themselves. Ha. Cars shriek if you leave your key in the switch. Seat belts grab you -- no need to remember to hook up.
Bottle tops that only tots can open have been a success, and soon we shall have the permanently installed condom that, for safety's sake, only a surgeon can remove. Technology brings us the good life over our dead bodies.
A certain revulsion sets in, fanned by the dominant medium of television, which is on the cutting edge of solar-powered toothpicks along with elixirs and powders to treat headaches, constipation and tummy wobbles. If a foreigner (or an American) looked at television he would notice first that only murder, exploding automobiles and "Wheel of Fortune" suffice to attract American attention in entertainment, but would also notice that Americans itch, ache and growl much of the day in the bathroom.
A revulsion, then, against nonsense and absurd agenda naturally occurs in those Americans with sense to come in from the rain. Some people are a bit disgusted at the adventure shows, others lose patience with the evening soap operas serving up multimillionaires. Television in its fantasies of the fabulous rich has done much to rouse a latent anger against total greed. How many clapped when John Connally went bankrupt? How many pray Donald Trump will wind up in a soup kitchen?
There is a large group enchanted with the Jim Bakker collapse chiefly because he understood the reaction against materialism and found a way to turn it into Rolls-Royces. But at the same time that America dashes recklessly into the luxury of an imbecile's dream (though the laser mat to dry wee paws is perhaps a necessity) there is a startling surge in another direction, too.
Never before have Americans concerned themselves so much with issues of cruelty and barbarism. In the past, who cared if inner-city kids starved to death or grew up so wretchedly ill-educated that an independent life was impossible, for all practical purposes. In the past, who cared if a guy cut an animal open for the fun of it, soaked small cats in turpentine, or beat a horse with a board on M Street?
In another country I saw a man stuff a large pig in the baggage hold of a cross-country bus, right in with the luggage and the fumes and the heat of a 100-degree day. And I thought, well, he couldn't get away with that in America. Humanitarians and owners of luggage would form an unbeatable coalition.
This expansion of consciousness to the pain of others is an American phenomenon as impressive as the phenomenon of greed and fantasy-violence, and America cannot be understood at all if either trend is slighted. And the wave of fellow-feeling is, though spoken of less, the stronger of the two, the wave that will get to shore.