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For All Nails #29: For Want of a Fact

By Randy McDonald


Le Devoir de Montréal FN1

14 December 1972


"For Want of a Fact." Review of For Want of a Nail, by Robert Sobel. New York: Macmillan 1973. 441 pp. FN2


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. FN3 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 FN4, 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 made 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 Taiwan, 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. Despite being a Mexican firm originally, 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 neighbours 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 Protestants, 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 read.

- Reviewed by André-Philippe MAETERLINCK


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