Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot     index     <prev     next>


"There was a great uprising against liberalism in the decade's waning years by hippies, new leftists, black nationalists, and the antiwar movement - an uprising that convulsed the nation and assured repudiation of the Democrats in the 1968 election. Thus, in a few short years optimism vanished, fundamental differences in values emerged to divide the country, social cohesion rapidly declined, and the unraveling of America began.'

--Allen Matusow in "The Unraveling of America' 1984

The Five of Wands spurs conflict and the Five of Cups imposes grief. Among the dreadful fives of the Tarot it is the Five of Swords that inflicts defeat: harsh, degrading, and infamous loss. The Rider-Waite card features a scornful warrior who watches two retreating and dejected figures leave the field of battle. Here a young policeman defends a UC-Berkeley plaza in 1966 as student protestors retreat to its edges and look back in helpless disdain. The Counterculture spent the Sixties battling for one kind of change, but ended the decade living with quite another. Instead of engendering a revolution, the Counterculture helped to provoke a backlash that sparked a decades-long political dominance by conservatives. And since the victors write the histories, the Sixties have become the American Right's historical straw man, an unmitigated disaster for conservative social values (rather than an era of progressive victories for human rights and against war).

Yet for all their political dominance, conservatives have not been able to turn back the cultural clock, to reinstate the mythic bedrock values they say flourished prior to 1960. The Left's political defeat was ignominious, but the forces of change still infected Western societies with what cultural historian Arthur Marwick calls a genuine and lasting "revolution or transformation in material conditions, life styles, family relationships and personal freedoms for the vast majority of ordinary people.'

The King and Kennedy murders are symbolic of the way the era's intense civil unrest bred a threatening climate of violence. Threats to civil order are never easily accommodated by societies. During the Sixties and early 70s America experienced more than 100 major incidents of civil disorder (compared with 56 for the previous 60 years of the 20th century and 23 for the subsequent 25 years). These included anti-war and civil rights protests that turned violent but also inner city riots that exploded in dozens of American cities. In 1968 youth unrest erupted in violent demonstrations across the world, from Japan and Mexico to France, Italy and Germany. In all instances, violence invited a firm, sometimes, brutal police response. By the end of the year "law and order' had become a winning campaign issue for Richard Nixon. It played well with a reactive public that did not distinguish between political protest, racial unrest, or random street crime. The Five of Swords suggests a mood of inner bitterness and impotence, felt by both angry radicals and resentful citizens. These lead to the feeling of being "wronged," and there was much that was wrong. The real America was not liberal, progressive, or reflective. The real America of the 1960s was reactive, God-fearing, non-critical in its thinking, and conformist. As the Counterculture stretched the consciousness of this prevailing culture it found some tolerance beyond the narrow political backlash of 1968 and made a credible appeal for personal liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and for the triumph of the individual that, if not fully understood, could still be tolerated. Social inroads were easier than political triumphs because hypocrisy in living became harder to sustain than hypocrisy in public life.