Jun 14th 2007
From The Economist print edition
It is time to let the Russian royal family rest in peace
WHEN, a few years ago, word came that British bird lovers anxious about the decline of the house sparrow had appointed a sparrow tsar, it seemed that the tsar vogue must have reached its zenith. France already had a crime tsar, London a traffic tsar, Japan a banking tsar, the European Union a
foreign-policy tsar, and America had tsars for adoption, baseball, B-movies, manufacturing, record labels, you name it. No one, however, could outdo the sparrow tsar, or so you might think. Surely he would prove to be not so much the reductio ad absurdum as the dernier cri, the ne plus ultra in the once-rarefied realm of tsardom? But no. The latest newcomer, unless one has been added since you started this paragraph, is President George Bush's war tsar.
In fact, tsar-creation has never even faltered. Newish title-holders include Canada's copyright tsar, New Orleans's recovery tsar, Singapore's baby tsar, Tony Blair's respect tsar, Thailand's condom tsar and America's nipple tsar (Michael Powell, whose job as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was to prevent a repetition of Janet Jackson's televised bosom exposure). They join an ever-swelling band of AIDS tsars, counter-terrorism tsars, cyber-security tsars, economy tsars, food-safety tsars, learning-disability tsars, piracy tsars, water tsars and even mental-health-service-user tsars.
All of which is a bit odd. One of the few points of agreement for most of the 20th century was that tsars were a Bad Thing, a particularly nasty example of natural selection that started with some brutal caesars, took in some belligerent kaisers and found its most excruciating expression in the Russian variants. Their rehabilitation in almost every quarter must rank as the most sudden, surprising and complete in the history of brand management. Republican Americans cannot get enough tsars. The purist-nationalist French, overseen by the Académie Française, seem ready to embrace them. And the Russians—yes, of all people, the Russians—have succumbed to an advertising tsar. A haemophilia tsar cannot be far away.
Nowhere is the triumph of the tsars more evident than in the wicked world of drugs. This world is divided into countries whose citizens yearn to see a drug tsar appointed and countries that have already got one. Why is a drug tsar so universally necessary? To see off the drug barons, of course. Until quite recently barons were a Good Thing. They brought bad King John to heel at Runnymede. Now they are a Bad Thing. What next? Führers, Caudillos, Duci, Gauleiters and Generalisimos must be due for a comeback.
It is time to put a stop to all this. The English language, borrowing, as so often, from Latin, already has a word for a supreme head. It is supremo. Journalists should try using it (they can fall back on big cheese occasionally). For their part, governments should try using titles that accurately describe the activities of their officials.
Once upon a time Britain had a minister for war. Now the same job is done by the secretary of state for defence. It also has a Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. No one would guess it, but he is a deputy government whip. Minister for delivery and quality sounds plain and straightforward, but no one knows what he delivers, never mind its quality. Does the minister for social exclusion promote social exclusion, just as the minister for education presumably promotes education? Perhaps it does not matter: in Britain obfuscation is all.
Japan, by contrast, has a minister for the privatisation of the postal services. That is explicit. Unfortunately, minister for the rechallenge is not. His job is to give people a second go in life, though that sounds very much like the responsibility of the minister for disaster management. In Japan, however, that title means what it says. Elsewhere it refers to damage limitation, a task for spin doctors.
Now did the tsars have spin doctors? They certainly had lifestyle gurus. Time, surely, to rehabilitate Rasputin.