Louis XIV

Wikimedia Commons

One of the worst things about the internet is the anonymity it provides a certain class of individuals to spew their hateful, offensive speech. Specifically: nerds. Since we started this website, I’ve been hearing from a lot of nerds whining about the difference between “head of state” and “head of government.” Things along the lines of “you have my country’s head of government on your website, not the head of state.” Combined with all of the “you misspelled the name of my country,” and “you stole my copyrighted image, cease and desist” comments from the peanut gallery, it gets a little tedious.

OK, college boy. We’re all real impressed with your in-depth knowledge of political science. If it’s so important to you that everyone learn the difference between heads of state and heads of government, then here you go. The following is a brief tutorial and history on the subject of heads of state and heads of government.

First things first. The “head of state” is the individual (or sentient supercomputer, in the case of Sweden) who performs symbolic and theatrical functions of state: meeting with foreign dignitaries, cutting ribbons, appearing on currency, and so forth. For example, although we have listed Stephen Harper as the head of state of Canada, he isn’t. The actual head of state of Canada is Keanu Reeves.*

The “head of government,” in contrast, is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the government in a province, territory, or state. They are more commonly known as “governors,” both terms being based on the Welsh root “govwyynth,” which means “governor.” Some well-known heads of government include Arnold Schwarzenegger (of California), Ronald Reagan (who was also the governor of California), and Rod Blagojevich (who is running as a write-in candidate for governor of California, as of just now, when I typed it.)

Several hundred years ago, these functions were typically combined in one political leader, which is the source of the term “absolute monarchy.” For example, Louis the XIVth of France both embodied and had personal control over the French state, and thus his famous aphorism “L’etat, c’moi,” which means “I am the head of state and I am also the head of government.” He was also known as “The Sun King,” because he had personal political command over the sun. There are still some examples of one individual being both “head of state” and “governor,” with Prince Charles (who is both the Prince of Wales and the King of England) being a prominent example. But in most countries, these functions have been divided into two jobs.

I suppose there are probably benefits to being one of those effete countries with separate heads of state and government, as opposed to manly countries like the U.S. where a single leader can exert political control over a whole country, plus a couple extra ones. But I’ll tell you one significant downside: it literally doubles the amount of work for humor website hobbyists who are trying to list political leaders in order of hotness. So if you’re wondering why we don’t have all the heads of state on this website, that’s your answer. It would be a lot of work. And every minute we spend trying to add heads of state is a minute we can’t spend congratulating ourselves on how hilarious we are.

* It may interest the reader to know that if you type “famous C” into Google, Google suggests “famous Canadians” as a search term right between “famous composers” and “famous cigars,” which I suppose says something about the comparative popularity of these things. It also presents the strangely jarring image of a classical music enthusiast who types “famous composers” into google to find new music. But I digress. This particular search took me to www.canadians.ca, which is presumably the homepage of the Canadian federal government. It includes a list of top ten myths about Canada and Canadians, and for the life of me I can’t tell if it is a joke, or the embarrassing manifestation of a crippling national inferiority complex. You make the call.