Czar Talk

Michael Giberson

What is with all of the czar talk?

Most prominently in the news:

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi touted the notion of a ‘car czar’ Tuesday to supervise an auto industry bailout, saying Big Three executives haven’t adapted well to changing conditions,” reports the Associated Press.

Who wants a czar? I believe the appropriate response is, “how exactly did that czar-thing work out for Russia?”

From Wikipedia on Tsar (or Czar):

Originally, the title Czar (derived from Caesar) meant Emperor in the European medieval sense of the term, that is, a ruler who has the same rank as a Roman or Byzantine emperor (or, according to Byzantine ideology, the most elevated position adjacent to the one held by the Byzantine monarch) due to recognition by another emperor or a supreme ecclesiastical official (the Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch).

Occasionally, the word could be used to designate other, non-Christian, supreme rulers. In Russia and Bulgaria the imperial connotations of the term were blurred with time and, by the 19th century, it had come to be viewed as an equivalent of King.

The modern languages of these countries use it as a general term for a monarch….

“Tsar” was the official title of the supreme ruler in the following states:

  • Bulgaria in 913-1018, in 1185-1422 and in 1908-1946
  • Serbia in 1346-1371
  • Russia from about 1547 until 1721 (after 1721 and until 1917, the title was used officially only in reference to the Russian emperor’s sovereignty over certain formerly independent states such as Poland ).

I just don’t get the appeal of the term. Maybe someone better versed in European history can clue me in on just which czar it was that inspires the “let’s do something” folks to get all misty-eyed.

Wikipedia has more, this on “metaphorical uses” of the term czar:

Like many lofty titles, e.g. Mogul, Tsar or Czar has been used as a metaphor for positions of high authority, in English since 1866 (referring to U.S. President Andrew Johnson), with a connotation of dictatorial powers and style, fitting since “Autocrat” was an official title of the Russian Emperor (informally referred to as ‘the Tsar’).

In the United States the title “czar” is a slang term for certain high-level civil servants, such as the “drug czar” for the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, “terrorism czar” for a Presidential advisor on terrorism policy, “cybersecurity czar” for the highest-ranking Department of Homeland Security official on computer security and information security policy, and “war czar” to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently “car czar” to describe the overseer of the proposed 2008 automotive industry bail-out plan.

And to the list: drug czar, terrorism czar, cybersecurity czar, war czar, and car czar, you can add recent mentions of energy czar, climate czar, food czar, trade czar, etc. etc.

The last czar to rule Russia, Nicolas II, abdicated in 1917 and was executed by the Bosheviks in 1918. So tell me again, just what is it about czars that makes some people think we need more of them?


One thought on “Czar Talk

  1. I was surprised when I was reading “The Devil in the White City,” which inter alia talked about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, how during its construction Daniel Burnham had himself appointed “Czar” with the ability to intervene in the construction contracts. I don’t know whether this was the author’s term, or whether it was so used in the 1890’s. If so, it indicates that the term has a history prior to the drug war of the 1980’s.

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