Taking Liberties: A Book We Need Right Now

So you may have noticed lately that the right-wing ratfuckers in state governments are busy trying to roll us back to the Dark Ages. Women aren’t people, they’re “hosts” to those precious babies that will be cherished so long as they’re in the womb; once they’re out, both host and infant will be despised as social parasites if they have the audacity to be unmarried and/or poor. Some jackass is trying to slip prayer into schools by forcing teachers to read congressional prayers. In my former home state of Arizona, the frothing fundies boiled over, and decided to give religious people the right to discriminate against gays, because apparently, refusing to let them patronize your business is an act of worship. Other states have jumped on that horrible bandwagon. And let’s not forget the Russia-envy they’ve got going on. They’ve got a stiffy for totalitarian shitlords who hate on the same groups they do.

Outraged? Good. Here’s a book that will help you channel that rage more productively: Robert Boston’s Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do.

Taking Liberties Cover

This is the sort of book you pointedly give to the fuckwads in your family who insist their religious beliefs and practices be made mandatory for everyone, because freedom. It won’t scare them away by mentioning atheists right up front, either.

Robert Boston’s thesis is simple: “Religion is not the problem. Fundamentalist religion that seeks to merge with political power and impose its dogma on the unwilling is the problem. I have a big one with anyone who considers the raw power of government an appropriate vehicle for evangelism.”

Preach it, Brother Boston!

We see that religious freedom at this country’s founding meant government out of religion, full stop. Baptists were especially keen to separate church from state, with no room left for declaring this a Christian nation. These fire-and-brimstone Baptists were all about freedom, genuine freedom, of religion – and that included Jews, Muslims, polytheists, and atheists. They were better men than the ones preaching hate in the name of religion from the Statehouse floor these days.

Robert shows how court cases placed certain restrictions on religious practice, of necessity: “You have the right to believe whatever you want, but… your ability to act on those beliefs may be subject to certain restrictions.” And he boils the balance between faith and freedom to this: “Does the private choice of another person prevent you from attending the house of worship of your choice? Does it stop you from joining your co-religionists in prayer and worship? Does it require you to bow before an alien god?” No? Then cease being an overbearing asshat.

He highlights church interference in health care, education, civil rights, and politics. “In this country where the right of conscience is precious, all religious groups have the right to be heard – but none have the right to be obeyed.” Can I get a hell yes?

Robert boils it down to a power grab. These churches want our money, and our obedience, and if we want to remain the secular nation that’s always been a beacon of religious and political freedom in the world, we need to remove the theocrats from power. We need to oppose their agenda. Our fellow Americans need to realize that religious freedom does not mean that the people with the theocratic ideals and barbaric notions about women, LGBTQ folk, sex, science, and education get to have everything their way. Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean what you’re doing is right. And those 18th century clerics would be the first to fight the merging of government and church.

This book goes a long way toward ensuring we have the awareness and ability to stop and reverse this trend toward theocracy.

The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Book That Triggered Mild PTSD In Me

There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.

Book cover of Last Days of St. Pierre, showing a photograph of Mont Pelee in eruption.

Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives.

Remember La Catastrophe? Yeah? Forget it. This is your book about Mont Peleé.

For one thing, the geology’s much better. Pretty amazing that it took a guy with what appears to be a mostly physics and math background to give us some of the geology of this eruption, but there you go. I would’ve liked a lot more, but I didn’t feel cheated. There were a few places where the fact he’s not a geologist by trade comes through – he uses an earlier date for the beginning of plate tectonics than seems to be current consensus, and his description of the Atlantic plate as “squeezing a huge bulge of hot magma toward the surface” made me go nah – but it’s okay. He gets it good enough, and he actually includes some geology, including the geologic setting of Martinique, which is a lot more than I could say about bloody geology Professor Scarth.

In fact, for the most part, he takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do. So they made some terrible mistakes.

Here’s the beauty of Dr. Zebrowski’s writing: they’re mistakes. He really delved the minds and histories of Governor Mouttet and members of his short-lived science commission, men like Gaston Landes. He read everything they’d produced that had survived, put himself in their shoes, at their time, and shows us they did the best they could. He writes with incredible empathy for pretty much everyone, with the exception of the bureaucrats back in France who refused all responsibility, and the new governor, who got 2,000 more people killed through inexcusable incompetence.

Remember Father Mary’s death? You won’t see people bringing a dying priest water called stupid for forgetting footwear. All of the people who suffered through this are treated with the utmost empathy, and honesty.

Now, that’s not to say Dr. Zebrowski’s gentle. He’s brutally clear about what a volcano can do to people. It never felt like he was dwelling on grotesque details for the sake of salaciousness, but he didn’t discreetly shroud the scenes of devastation in euphemism. No, you will come away with a thorough understanding of what a pyroclastic flow does to human bodies, and why. You won’t be able to read these parts without an adamantium stomach. If you faint when Trauma: Life in the ER or similar comes on, skip those pages. I can tolerate a lot of gore, but there were some seriously rough times – and, like I said, I had a hard time taking a hot bath afterward. Steam burns are awful.

There’s plenty else: the excellent sketches of the people and the city, the skillful tale-telling, and the perfectly-chosen passages written by the people of Martinique as the disaster unfolded. Mont Peleé is assigned no malice – it’s a volcano, not a villain, and is treated as such. We explore its slopes with some very brave souls. We uncover its secrets along with them. And we are given explanations, satisfying if not thoroughly detailed ones, for the various phenomena surrounding the eruptions.

The book doesn’t end with Peleé’s May 8th eruption, but goes on, following the first scientists to arrive. And lemme tell you: those dudes had some adventures. A whole new book could be dedicated to them alone, and perhaps someday, I will write it. Dr. Zebrowski’s laid a good foundation.

In the epilogue, we see St. Pierre today: a shadow of its former self, built on and of ruins, but still lovely, and we know why people would make a reasoned, rational decision to live under that threat.

I’d still like to see a popular book with a stronger focus on the geology, but this one does reasonably well in that department, and has much else to recommend it besides. It has my gold seal of approval.

A horribly crafted seal of approval, which is a gold circle that says "Seal of Approval," and has an awfully edited picture of my smiling face in the middle.

The book’s much better than the seal, never fear.