Home/Daniel Larison/What We Really Need Is A Transliteration Tsar

What We Really Need Is A Transliteration Tsar

So there was a “secret” attempt to find a war ‘czar’, and it was unsuccessful (it was so secret, it naturally made it into the Post), since when it comes to this war everyone in the military wants to stay a boyar, so to speak.  The notion of executive-appointed ‘czars’ has always intrigued me, since many of the same people who, for example, support the drug war waged by the drug ‘czar’ (perhaps using drug Circassians against the drug cartel equivalent of Shamil) will also complain in other contexts about regulatory bureaucracies and other agencies of which they disapprove sending out ‘ukases’.  For the people saying these things (usually the editors of The Wall Street Journal) the first is very good, while the second is very bad, even though it is presumably ‘czars’, not people at the EPA, who send out ukases.  Needless to say, domestic friends of autocracy have a confused relationship with the lexicon of Russian politics.  

In any case, ‘czar’ positions are interesting for another reason: their creation presupposes that the normal administrative apparatus of the government, as created by Congress and authorised by the President, is a complete failure and has to be bypassed and also assumes that there is too much ‘gridlock’ or ‘partisanship’ to make it possible to achieve satisfactory ‘results’ in this or that policy.  This appeals to two of the worst instincts in the American body politic: “let’s cut through the red tape” and “let’s put aside partisanship and work together.”  If you don’t want red tape, don’t just cut through it–get rid of it.  If you don’t want partisanship, get rid of parties.  If parties serve a legitimate function, stop whining about partisanship.  The ‘czar’ position is a perfect expression of the American desire to have it both ways, while also reserving the right to get angry when this obviously cockamamie scheme fails. 

In other words, the creation of a ‘czar’ is not just an admission of policy failure, but an admission that the policy could never have succeeded in the first place because it was far beyond the scope of the government as presently constituted to achieve the policy’s goals.  The creation of the ‘czar’ is then very much a symbolic gesture to show that something is being done and expresses our profound “commitment” to the issue, while making no difference whatever to the bottom line.  The reason why we keep having these things, and why the creation of a war ‘czar’ would have been greeted with some enthusiasm by those who think that any change of course is desirable no matter what it is, is that it satisfies the public when they believe that the problem is being addressed in a decisive way.  Nothing says decisiveness like ‘czar’.  

Bizarrely, it was Bush’s “decisiveness” that earned him public goodwill for a long time after he had clearly gone off the policy deep end.  People could say, “He may be stupid, but you can’t say that he’s indecisive!  No Jimmy Carter syndrome here!”  With the disaster of Katrina, people stopped saying that, and suddenly the supposedly well-oiled machine of the administration (which, as it turns out, was always a basketcase bursting at the seams with rivalries) became a creaking, rusty derelict that could hardly do anything in a timely or intelligent fashion.  Once the illusory aura of decisiveness was broken, it started to become clear even to some of the previously mystified that these people really had no idea what they were doing.  Anyway, this groping for someone else to be the decisive leader (some might even call him the Decider) shows just how far the mighty Leader has fallen.  But a few months ago, decisions were his and his alone.  Now they have become simply the latest thing to be outsourced in George Bush’s America. 

I have sometimes wondered why media reports about every governmental “czar” title uses the earlier transliteration ‘czar’ rather than tsar, which more accurately captures the sound of the word.  Anyone wishing to test the proposition, go to a Russian Orthodox church at the start of the (Slavonic) liturgy and listen for, “Blagosloven tsarstvo…” (Blessed is the Kingdom…)  In English translation of the word cesky, we use a ‘cz’ to express what is basically a ‘ch’ sound, which would make czar sound like char, which is Armenian for evil, and that is usually what I think these buck-passing ‘czar’ positions are.

Update: Secretary Gates, no fan of the proposed position, gets it right when he says: “This ‘czar’ term is, I think, kind of silly.”  No kidding!

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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