Boston’s world-class universities and hospitals make it a globally significant metropolis. But its residents have rejected the cosmopolitan dream of hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics, causing the U.S. Olympic Committee to cut ties with the city Monday. The public intransigence wasn’t just an expression of fiscal caution. It was something deeper, a self-conscious embrace of provincialism as a value. And that raises a fascinating question: In a globalizing world, is there a place to be proudly provincial?
Start with the obvious fact that Boston’s bid gained steam because of the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon in 2013. With its Greek origin myth and its runners from all over the world, a big urban marathon like Boston’s is a kind of mini-Olympic Games. The attack on the race was an implicit attack on the spirit and ideal of the Olympics, which always culminate in a marathon. For Boston to host the games would’ve been a repudiation of the local manifestation of global jihadi terrorism. That image would’ve been hard for the International Olympic Committee to reject — which meant it made sense for the USOC to advance Boston’s candidacy if it wanted a U.S. city to be chosen.
I doubt that either the Boston Olympic boosters or the USOC thought about it, but there was another reason to imagine Boston in Olympic terms. Boston in the 19th century was the American place most connected with the mythologizing of classical Greece. The boosters then called Boston the Athens of America — in those days, a self-administered compliment. It meant that Boston was, or was supposed to be, the natural home of learning and culture.
A mile from where I’m writing, the Mount Auburn Cemetery, with its sculpted green hills and Greek revival statues, stands as a literal monument to this Athenian moment in Bostonian history. It was among the first American cemeteries to be set in beautiful suburban setting, and meant as a homage to Athenian values as they were then conceived.
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Yet even as Boston’s educated elite has aspired for the city to be a global center of knowledge, there’s always been something deeply provincial about the place. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the physician writer, gave the city its nickname of the Hub when he wrote that “Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.” But of course Holmes was joking, gently making fun of Boston’s penchant for seeing itself as the center of the world.
Bostonian provincialism has something to do with proximity to New York, a genuine world capital. I can remember from my childhood a headline in a parody newspaper issued on one occasion as Not The Boston Globe. It read something like, “Boston Man Dies in New York Nuclear Blast.” The idea wasn’t primarily that the Globe — a paper I still get every day in newsprint — tended to take a local angle on global stories. It was that Boston was a satellite to New York. In sports we might want to beat New York, but we truly don’t want to be New York.
Globally, Boston is undoubtedly perceived as provincial, if it’s perceived at all. The planes that hit the twin towers were hijacked out of Boston, but there was no way the hijackers were going to fly them into the Prudential Center and the John Hancock Tower, because no one outside of Boston had heard of them, then or since.
Other provincial places might aspire to join the first rank of cities, and so covet the Olympic Games — but not Boston, where support barely got above 50 percent at its highest point. At some fundamental level, Bostonians want to stay provincial.
Arriving late Monday night at Logan Airport’s modest international terminal, kids in tow, I noticed on the way to passport control a big color photograph of an unidentified pretty red house on an unidentified small harbor with a few small, unidentified sailing dinghies. This is not, to put it mildly, the self-presentation of a city that wants to be global. Boston wants to be the capital of New England, and nothing more.
And that provincialism is a good thing — provided it comes with continued embrace of some of the most talented and interesting people from around the world, and continuing pride in being excellent at what Boston does best. Provincialism can come with snobbery and bigotry, and historically, Boston’s sometimes did.
But today, Bostonian provincialism is a kind of civic pride in being what we are, no more and no less. Others cities may not care for the blustery bragging about our recent professional sports successes — but it does come on the heels of many years in which only the Celtics won with any regularity, while the Red Sox and Patriots consistently lost, and the Bruins went almost 40 years without a title. Even our bluster is the aftershock of enforced sports modesty.
Boston is still great at knowledge. But it isn’t the Athens of America — and by skipping the Olympics, it’ll assure it doesn’t become the Greece of America, either.
Contact Noah Feldman at firstname.lastname@example.org