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the times they czar a-changin’
by joe redden tigan
pop culture

When you’re talking about appointing a top-ranking United States government official to oversee things like national security and economic recovery, I suppose it’s one thing to find the use of the term czar not playful, funny, or sexy. It’s quite another to wonder whether it’s still even ironic.

The latest American czar in what’s getting to be too long a line (“car czar” still on our lips, with energy czar and drug czar having become vernacular, among others) will be responsible for federalizing cyber security. Proposed legislation by Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that has been accepted by President Obama will soon create what politicians and media call without blinking an eye a “cyber czar”. This person will be empowered by the federal government to impose cyber security protocols on private industry.

The purity of United States democracy and the laissez-faire economics that are mandatory to help maintain it aside, this gives me fresh concerns over using the term czar, especially in light of the Obama administration’s deepening encroachment into former stalwarts of free enterprise. It has become a definite trend, nay habit, to use czar for and amongst what we consider to be some of the most important people in the world.

My main concern here isn’t so much the linguistic subversive czar could invoke, though I think we should definitely keep an eye on it. (I’m pretty much obligated at this point to say how obviously Orwell would have field day with some of this stuff.) And, though also not my number one concern, I am worried that we seem to be completely oblivious to what we do when we call our leaders czars. I don’t care if it is all nudge-nudge, wink-wink, tongue-in-cheek, MSNBC-laden smarminess.

Seriously, why would we call the person we’re hoping will stop the flow of drugs into our country a czar? Does that seem at best counterproductive and at worst an instant dismantling of any credibility that person probably would have liked to preserve?

I’m going to risk seeming condescending here for a minute and refresh our memories on the definition:

czar (noun)

1. an emperor or king.
2. (often initial capital letter ) the former emperor of Russia.
3. an autocratic ruler or leader.
4. any person exercising great authority or power in a particular field.

Sorry, and not to let dictionary.com write my piece, but let’s further refresh our memories on the definition of autocratic, which right off the bat we know isn’t democratic:

1. pertaining to or of the nature of autocracy or of an autocrat; absolute: autocratic government.
2. like an autocrat; tyrannical; despotic; domineering: autocratic behavior; an autocratic person.

Just for the hell of it, here’s democratic:

1. pertaining to or of the nature of democracy or a democracy.
2. pertaining to or characterized by the principle of political or social equality for all: democratic treatment.
3. advocating or upholding democracy.

Also before I go on a bit more about how I don’t find czar sexy, I feel like I should make a few concessions and confessions that are either directly related to my concerns or sort of glimmer on their fringe:

• I confess I’ve never been a big fan of taking definitions of words and applying them as the practical, end-all beat-all final say on things; we know things are rarely that black or white. But you have to start somewhere.
• I confess I feel that with all this heightened throwing around of czar, a reminder of certain definitions might be precautionary, if not necessary.
• I confess I needed this reminder just as much as the next guy.
• I concede the economic downturn requires swift, drastic action.
• I concede things have gotten out of hand.
• I confess I don’t think they’ve gotten so out of hand that we now need a Czar.
• I confess I don’t believe in the action the Obama team has decided on.
• I confess I think sacrifice is required to experience reward. "If a house of cards falls, don’t rebuild using cards," I must confess I’ve often thought and must concede I did not originate.
• I confess I often think “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t implement a gas-free car? You must be fucking kidding me.”
• I confess when people talk about moon-landing-shot-in-Arizona-conspiracy stuff, I listen intently.
• I confess I think of myself as an optimist.
• I concede I am not the first person to write about a concern with czars in America.
• I concede that, as I get a little older, not as many things seem funny to me. I’m chalking this up to an evolutionary leftover that tells us we eventually need to get a little more serious as life goes on if just for self-preservation, still even today when we get our news from the comedy channel. (Obvious or not, really, Orwell would be like a kid in a candy shop…)

That having been said, my main concern with this growing habit of calling our leaders czars goes beyond anything linguistic or political. It’s bigger than that, to me. I’m worried that it might influence our behavior. To be precise, I think there seems to already be a swelling search for and hopeful reliance on saviors. We seem to be finding it REALLY enticing to want to believe and trust in an all-knowing, all-powerful overseer of things. I won’t say I have actual proof of this, but I am willing to go out on a limb and call it a strong instinct of mine. Getting in the habit of calling our leaders czars seems like it could exacerbate this urge to put our welfare in the hands of a single trustworthy caretaker, which is unrealistic, and could further cloud the path to any recovery, self-reliance.

So I need to ask this: Are there too many of us that want to eschew the collective burden of providing safety and security for ourselves? Has our population outgrown how we currently represent ourselves in government? I concede organizing a team this large is difficult, but is it still possible to at least consider ourselves a team? Could we even pretend we are a team if we wanted to without breaking the wall of pretention by being too self-aware of its improbability? (E.g., when I was a kid I used to pretend I had a putt on the final hole to win the British Open. I don’t do that anymore.) Or, are we subconsciously toying with a concern that maintaining a democracy with so many people with so many varying needs and interests is becoming less realistic, that a democracy runs so much smoother when we’re all in it together, like enthusiastically and without testing its Constitution just for the sake of testing it in a sophomoric “because I know I can” kind of way, that the melting pot has fallen from the old stove as it vibrates with malfunction, that we really can’t please all the people all the time, that, as our world seems to get more and more nutrageous, a dictator or small contingent of dictators just feels right? Has freedom failed? No? Then what’s up with the czar thing already?!

I understand that we consider our use of czar these days to be cheeky. I get that. I’m just a little concerned with the depth and breadth our cheekiness is acquiring.


Joe Redden Tigan’s first novel does not have enough commas. It says so right there in the Foreword magazine review. Despite that, Waggle was bumped to iUniverse's Star Book program and is currently being considered for an Independent Publisher’s Book Award.

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tracey kelley
6.11.09 @ 7:51a

“We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t implement a gas-free car? You must be fucking kidding me.”


I hadn't noticed the czar trend, but I avoid television news. It's very monkey-see, monkey-do. Any blowhard can be a pundit, any bobblehead can read the "news." But few television news agencies generate real news at all, and when you flip channels, you're more likely to see the same crawl and the same subject being discussed. Hence the rapid adaption of buzzwords.

But the total misuse you point out is a riot!

jael mchenry
6.11.09 @ 10:37a

Needless czarring is right up there with needless use of -gate as a suffix to indicate scandal. And both are always needless. Plus, annoying.

I expect one day we will have "czargate". Then my head will explode.

adam kraemer
6.11.09 @ 10:46a

Well, it's a linguistic trend, isn't it? The basic idea, as I see it, is you coin the first phrase, which I believe was actually "drug czar" back in the 1980s. And the title fit - it was actually from a Joe Biden quote in 1982 - the powers of the Director of the National Drug Control Policy were broad, and the position was quite autocratic. Then it got adopted and bastardized and overused.

Consider, comparitively, the suffix -coholic or -caholic. Obviously, a reference to "alcoholic." However, the first use in slang was "workaholic," which not only snagged half the word "alcohol," but also switched out the "o" for an "a." It's documented, and it really did originally refer to people who were addicted to work at the distraction of the rest of their lives. Since then, we've seen everything from chocoholic to shoppaholic. It's just something that happens in English - the first iteration is often simultaneously appropriate and tongue-in-cheek. The ones that follow are less so.


tim lockwood
6.11.09 @ 10:56a

I've always seen the governmental "czar" as someone who coordinates all the divergent agencies and organizations created through a patchwork of legislation, and causes them to work together in a coordinated effort to meet a singular goal. At least that's the ideal, and I don't necessarily have a problem with that when it comes to the actual purpose of the job.

But when you ask, Then what’s up with the czar thing already?!, I am tempted to remind us all that the last real Czar had a cap popped in his royal ass, due in large part to his inability to do right by the people for whom he was responsible. I don't think I'd want to accept the job of "____ czar" with that sort of legacy hanging over my head, you know?

lisa r
6.11.09 @ 11:06a

I am astounded that you posted this article at this particular time, because I had the exact same opinion when the car czar was announced--it's a czar too far.

What's wrong with the terms "coordinator" or "commissioner"? There are now 1 million words in the English language. Why must the DC and media types be so lacking in imagination...not to mention accuracy?

mike julianelle
6.11.09 @ 11:16a

Adam, I'm a chocoholic, but for booze.

joe redden tigan
6.12.09 @ 9:47a

hoping for more imagination and accuracy from the U.S. govt./media complex? why not throw in peace in the middle east and boxer briefs for men with big waists and skinny legs while you're at it? i feel your pain, lisa...

lisa r
6.12.09 @ 10:16a

It's been going on for so long I'm numb to it. Or maybe it's the ibuprofen I've been taking for my back injury--I'm not sure which.

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