A Tarot Card Reading of America's Future


Our country's past, present, and future, as predicted by a mystical iPhone app 


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The record of international analysts at predicting world events is so hopeless it would put a third-rate palm reader to shame. In ivory towers, think tanks, and intelligence communities across America, the Ph.Ds, models, and theories pile up, but the professionals have failed to anticipate almost every epoch-shaking cataclysm of recent years. The end of the Cold War? Virtually no one saw it coming. The 9/11 attacks? Sorry, didn't predict that one either. The wave of revolutions shaking the Middle East? No idea. It's enough to make you give up the models and theories--and embrace the tarot.

So that's what I did. I performed a tarot card reading of America's past, present, and future on the world stage. After all, if the experts can't forecast what will happen with any accuracy, it's hard to see the tarot doing any worse.

I should begin by putting my sooth-saying cards on the table. Do I have extensive knowledge of mysticism and the occult? The short answer is no--my fortune-telling experience extends to brief impressment as a palm-reader at a children's party.

I do, however, have access to the Internet's tarot resources and the iPhone app Tarot Pro (which costs $2.99 but you might already have foreseen that). To keep things simple, I used the standard 78-card tarot deck, and went for a three-card reading: past, present, and future.

Here is the fateful spread, which I will decipher one card at a time.

the fateful spread.JPG

America's Past: The Five of Swords (Reversed)


Let's start with America's past on the world stage. Here, we turned over the Five of Swords, which is from the Minor Arcana, or the 56 cards in the deck that represent the swords, wands, cups, and pentacles.

The image shows a strong figure in the foreground grasping three swords, with two more swords lying on the ground. The man looks on confidently, in possession of the field of battle, as two enemies retreat in dejection. The card signifies conquest and the completion of objectives.

But the card is reversed, meaning an opposite interpretation, or a restriction on the original meaning. The reversed Five of Swords can signify loss or an empty victory, a sense of victimization, and feelings of failure and humiliation.

So how does this apply to America's past? The picture of triumph and conquest in the original Five of Swords could refer to World War II, when the United States won the spoils of victory.

The reversed image may capture America's difficult military experience since 1945, including stalemates like Korea, defeats like Vietnam, and successes that felt hollow like the first Gulf War. We've struggled to recapture the glory days of D-Day. Where did all the victories go?


America's Present: The Empress (Reversed)


What about America's present? Here, we turned over the Empress, which is one of the heavyweight cards from the Major Arcana (the 22 key images in the deck).

The empress sits on a throne, wearing a crown emblazoned with stars, and carrying a scepter. Bountiful grain, forests, and a waterfall surround her. The Empress card symbolizes creation, nurturing and sustaining--a harmonious and natural balance.

But again, the card is reversed, meaning an opposite or restricted interpretation. This could refer to America's difficult recent experience of creation--or building stable regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The high hopes with which we began these adventures have given way to conflict, uncertainty, and unintended consequences.

With the card upside down, the natural harmony is lost. The empress falls from her throne, the trees are uprooted, and the water drains away. This suggests ecological damage, which may signify America's failure to lead on environmental issues like climate change.

America's Future: The Two of Wands


Tell me something I don't know: What about America's future? Here, we're back to the Minor Arcana with the Two of Wands.

A man stands on the battlements of a castle, holding a globe in his right hand, while grasping a wand in his left. A second wand is attached to the wall. Mountains stretch away into the distance beyond the sea.

Finally, we get an image that is not reversed. The wands signify growth, energy, creativity, and patience. The card suggests caution and determination--taking stock before striking out on a great project. The man is confident in his self-knowledge and in the individual path he has chosen.

The card may signify that America's future lies in Asia. In the picture, the figure seems to be looking at China on the globe.

In the wake of interventions in the Middle East, the United States will pause and contemplate its true path. From behind the barricade of Fortress America, there may be a period of wariness and reflection.

But an idealist and visionary society like America cannot forever stare out to sea. The United States will embark on grand projects again--perhaps next time in Asia. The idea of independence and non-conformity may refer to American exceptionalism. The country will continue to sing its own song, and strike out alone if necessary.

Overall, the three cards tell the story of a troubled past and present, and a cautiously optimistic future. Should we shut down the international relations departments, and hand professional forecasting over to Mystic Meg? I hope not because this would put me out of a job.

But what does it say about the state of expert prediction that a tarot reading is not clearly worse than many analyses we read?

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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