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_Le Devoir de Montréal,_ [1]
14 December 1972

"For Want of a Fact." Review of _For Want of a Nail,_ by Robert Sobel.
New York: Macmillan 1973. 441 pp. [2]

Robert Sobel's _For Want of a Nail_ takes its title from an
English-language proverb, a rhyme of sorts that explores how immense
changes can be produced by a single miniscule element. For want of a
nail in a horse's shoe, a battle and a kingdom could be lost. This
choice reflects Sobel's belief, in conflict with those post-Hegelian
historical determinists who believe that history could evolve in only
one way with only one set of outcomes, that considering how history
could conceivably have taken a different direction in counterfactual
scenarios can be a very valuable historical tool. I agree with Sobel on
this matter. *All* my childhood, I have been told how my paternal
grandfather, Andrius Maeterlinck, was on the verge of emigrating to
Brazil from his home of Antwerp when he saw the Québécois fleur-de-lis
flying on the mast of a freighter and decided to opt for northern North
America. If something so trivial could so radically alter the lives of
my grandfather and *all* those who knew him in Canada and would have known
him in Brazil, I don't find it difficult to imagine that innumerable
small changes--or single vast changes--could have radically altered
historical outcomes.

I was quite excited when I received this book for review; I had hoped to
see Sobel use counterfactual scenarios. Certainly _For Want of a Nail_
has managed to achieve no small measure of popular renown in the
Confederation of North America. Surely it could do as well in Québec in
the French translation. Unfortunately, I soon found that more often than
not, the counterfactual scenarios of _For Want of a Nail_ do not
consider alternative outcomes of "real" historical events, but are
founded instead upon hopelessly flawed interpretations of those same
real events. Counter the facts, indeed.

Québec is not treated kindly. Throughout the text, the few mentions
given to Québec are made to the Québec of the 19th century. The Québec
that Sobel introduces his readers to is not the country that has
peacefully absorbed millions of immigrants, not the country that
pioneered the Catholic Renaissance, not the country that created itself
with no help from its neighbours. No, it is the Québec of traditional
CNA anti-Catholic rhetoric that the reader sees: It is the Québec that
purges its territory of Anglophones, that is home to a relentlessly
conservative peasantry, that rejects integration with the wider world in
favour of its own national particularism, that is willfully anti-modern.

I will not say that our nation has been slandered by Sobel; I will say,
however, that it has been misrepresented. For an example of this
misrepresentation, see page 141 where Sobel casually remarks:

"European and North American investors, too, found little to attract
them to Quebec.  With an insurrectional confederation, a generally
unskilled population, and few known natural resources, it became the
backwash of the nation and its greatest failure. Quebec would not turn
the corner until the early twentieth century, and to this day remains
the most undeveloped part of the CNA."

In certain respects and in certain respects only, the above is true. In
the 1855 to 1870 period, returns for investment were higher in the
industrialized Confederation of North America than in agrarian Québec;
it was only in the 1870 to 1900 period that Québec began to
industrialize and offer comparable returns, and throughout its existence
the Québécois economy has depended enormously on our profitable _caisse
populaires._ [3] In the 1855 to 1870 period, there was relatively little
immigration into Québec; Compared to the Confederation of North America,
the Québécois population of the mid-19th century was unskilled and
uneducated; compared to the populations of western Europe, though, the
Québécois were at par or even superior. In the 1855 to 1870 period,
there were few known natural resources in Québec; this was before the
discovery of the vast nickle deposits at Sainte-Anne-des-Pins [4], and
before the development of a dense continental transport network made our
poverty in mineral ore largely irrelevant. Québec's income per capita is
20% below the average of the Confederation of North America; it is,
instead, at least 20% above the average of the most industrialized
European countries.

Almost unbelieveably, Sobel tries to reinforce his argument by citing
the famous quote of the discredited Étienne Bayard and his frankly silly
1965 _The Decline of Quebec_: "If Manitoba is the CNA garden, Vandalia
its granary, and the Northern Confederation its workshop, Quebec is the
slum of the nation." And with that, no more mention is mde of Québec.

Now it is important to avoid confusion, here. Even in translation Sobel
is a capable writer, and he is a meticulous researcher. He writes,
however, from a simplistic 19th century Whig perspective that must only
be reinforced by his recent tenure at the University of Taichung, an
operation of Kramer Industries. Sobel is the disciple of Stanley Tulin,
who has been described by the Mexican historian Frank Dana as "the most
anti-USM historian in the world" and who is also the official biographer
of *all* the Kramer leaders.

Sobel is misled by a false interpretation of the meaning of society, and
by implication by a false interpretation of the Québécois reality.
Kramer represents, in a sense, the individualistic and mercantilistic
principles of the Confederation of North America but taken to an
extreme. The Confederation of North America is exceptionally prosperous,
and by and large it is a contented society, but it lacks any wider
perspective on the role of man in society and on the attributes basic to
any society. Kramer Industries is a veritable economic dynamo,
possessing subsidiaries on *all* six of the world's inhabited continents
and considerable territorial and military gains, but it exists only for
the purpose of generating prosperity; it is an engine detached from its
moorings, its wheels spinning around and around for no wider purpose.

We Québécois are almost as prosperous as our southern neigbours even if
our national economy is rather less than Kramer Industries' annual
profit. I would suggest, however, that Québec's implemention of Catholic
principles makes us rather happier and provides us with a crucial sense
of national identity and collective purpose. We Québécois know several
things: that the person is a subject, a moral agent, autonomous and
self-governing; that an object is a non-person that is not treated as a
self-governing moral agent; that the difference between the two is
crucial, that it is the distinction between freedom and slavery. 

We Québécois know that in order for each man and woman to achieve their
full potential as autonomous individuals, they must exist in a society
that understands the concept of human dignity. We Québécois know that to
this end, we must implement this knowledge in every area of our life, to
create a human society. We know that if we do not do this--that if we
sacrifice our principles and our humanity for the efficiency and sterile
modernity praised by Sobel and his kind--any immediate gains will soon
be outweighed by losses, as we find ourselves simply accumulating wealth
without any understanding of how to use it. We Québécois live in a
society that is a beacon to the world, Catholic and otherwise. 

Perhaps Sobel confuses Québec with the United States of Mexico. It is
difficult to know what to make of that country, so potentially powerful
yet so confused. Mexico does have a long and very honourable tradition
of Roman Catholicism, and the same forces of inspired justice extant in
Québécois society do seek the same honourable place in Mexican society.
These forces have been overpowered, though, by much the same forces of
blind individualism that operate in the Confederation of North America
and in Kramer Industries. We see, in the United States of Mexico, not a
society that is modern and well-integrated, but a society that lurches
from crisis to crisis held together only by the ghost of Catholic
modernity and by the grotesque spectacles of Mercator on
vitavision--Mercator the game show host, Mercator the wise statesman,
Mercator the military genius. One would like to conclude that there is
too much potential in Mexico for it to be foolishly dissipated; but how
can we avoid considering this scenario, not counterfactual at *all*?

We are different from the United States of Mexico, but we are also
different from the Confederation of North America. These differences
stretch back far beyond the initial period of colonization. Put simply,
Québec is a poorer, colder, less fertile land than the Confederation of
North America, and even if its current population was replaced by one
composed entirely of Anglophone Episcopalians, Québécois national income
per capita would remain lower than the Confederation's. We are further a
very different society. To mention only the field of population, the
Québécois birth rate has always been high compared to our southern
neighbours, while since the pioneering work of Soeur Marie-Madeleine in
discovering the cholera bacteria our urban death rate has been low, and
our strong tradition of immigration reinforces our natural surplus of
population. Granted that Québec has only rarely had labour shortages,
the Catholic faith in justice shared by employer and worker alike has
allowed for steady improvement. Is this not inherently superior to the
situation in the Confederation, where (as Sobel acknowledges) it is only
that realm's perennial labour shortage that ensures the contentment of
the working class?

Sobel's book is terribly flawed, simply judging by his interpretation of
Québec's evolution through time. It is still a useful book to read, if
only to see how too many of our supposed friends in the Confederation
see us and our society, never mind the wider world. Sobel's book may be
wrong, but it is interestingly wrong, and for this reason it should be

- Reviewed by André-Philippe MAETERLINCK

[1] The main daily newspaper of Montréal, known for its Sunday edition
Arts and Culture section.

[2] I (the author, not the character) mean no disrespect to Sobel.

[3] Financial cooperatives.

[4] OTL's Sudbury.

* As always, thanks to the other contributors for their invaluable
feedback. Apologies for the petty errors in the first version.

Randy McDonald

Charlottetown PEI