The Spoils of War: Why Boston is No Longer the “Athens of America”

Massachusetts has long had a reputation for being one of the most liberal states in the nation. According to an article published in Stacker, Massachusetts has the most liberal voters of any state in the nation ranked by two metrics: the percentage of residents who identify as liberals and the percentage of the state’s voters who voted for President Biden.

Back in the day and during my college years at Boston University, Boston—the epicenter of Massachusetts politics—had the reputation for being the “”Athens of America.” This was the case largely because of its community of culturally advanced intellectuals and writers who were historically influential in shaping mainstream social and political thinking on the national stage. According to one source, the celebrated French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville once described Boston as a place that “would stand shoulder to shoulder with the planet’s best, even at the helm of high culture and intellectualism.”

Boston’s liberal and high culture cachet spilled over into suburban towns like Lexington and Concord. The latter, of course, was the home of Emerson, Thoreau, and other famous writers and thinkers who made significant contributions to American thought, culture, and literature. While today this history is clearly revered and appreciated by those who live in Concord, the town and its neighbor Bedford are also home to Hanscom Air Force Base, which Wikipedia describes as “the Air Force’s center for the development and acquisition of electronic systems” while also noting that “the base has also played a significant role in the creation of a national high-technology area around Route 128.” It’s highly unlikely, of course, that Emerson and Thoreau would be pleased by this fact.

Athens or Sparta?

Given this background, those of us living in the Boston area like me have to wonder what has happened to our “Athens” and the state of liberal thought in contemporary Massachusetts. It’s a question worth pondering, and I’m not alone in wondering about it. Well-known environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote his most recent book on this very topic and how the town of Lexington—where he also grew up—has radically changed over the years. His book, “The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon,” is described by the publisher as a work wherein “a graying American looks back at his suburban boyhood and wonders what the hell happened.”

My own thoughts on this subject have a slightly different twist. They relate to the paradoxical notion that, while Boston and environs may have historically been compared to Athens, today the better comparison might be to Sparta. Massachusetts has always had a thriving defense industry. Bedford’s Hanscom Air Force Base was built in 1947 and is sited 10 miles West of Boston. Coincidentally (or not), the sprawling military complex abuts the area’s Minuteman Park which commemorates the rich and deep history of American Revolution that Bedford and surrounding towns are immersed in.

Bedford, Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln are pleasant, leafy (one might almost say peaceful) suburbs that are also home to some of the bedrock institutions of the US defense industry. The largest military contractor in the US, Raytheon, used to have corporate offices in Lexington but moved them to Waltham in 2002. Oddly enough, while Revolutionary War celebration and history permeate this region, the military industrial complex that services the forever wars that both Democratic and Republican administrations have in recent years wholeheartedly embraced co-exists beside it almost as if the one justifies the other.

In addition to Raytheon, the state is home to many other defense-related contractors and institutions. One of the most prominent of these is Mitre, an MIT-related think tank in Bedford that does research and development for the Air Force and developed the SAGE air defense system. Then there is Lincoln Labs, another MIT affiliate, and a federally funded DoD research center. Needless to say, a world-class university doing so much work for the Pentagon says a lot about how the contemporary system of higher education is heavily involved in supporting the dominant US military posture which includes maintaining about 800 bases worldwide.

The scope of Mitre’s efforts has broadened over the years beyond work for the Air Force. Today it describes itself with characteristic vagueness as “a not-for-profit organization that… works in the public interest across federal, state and local governments, as well as industry and academia.” It goes on to note that they do work in “artificial intelligence, intuitive data science, quantum information science, health informatics, space security, policy and economic expertise, trustworthy autonomy, cyber threat sharing, and cyber resilience.” That’s a lot of areas of our modern life that are touched by the military. Looking at their web site, it would take the average person a considerable amount time to figure out exactly what they do. This is by design.

As mentioned, Mitre’s work now extends into such areas as telecommunications and health care. The organization is working on the deployment of 5G and 6G wireless systems which are being heavily promoted by the military for reasons that are not easily identified. During the Covid crisis, according to Forbes magazine, Mitre worked with the government’s Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction to help develop a response plan. In addition, it received $20 million from the CDC to develop approaches to Covid surveillance and lockdowns.

Robotic Dogs and Other Delights

The military industrial complex in Massachusetts has continued to grow and prosper over the years. With it, has come the increased participation of higher education in defense work as universities in the Boston area began to function more like corporations than nonprofits. By some estimates, for example, MIT now derives about half of its revenues from government-funded defense work.

Harvard is not exempt from the DoD gravy train. As one example of many, in April 2022, the Department of Defense awarded grants totaling $195 million to a team of researchers to study the mathematical principles behind the Japanese art form Origami (our tax dollars at work). That same month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks spoke at Harvard’s Technology and National Security Conference to drum up support for US initiatives against Russia and China. Sadly, today’s Harvard is a far cry from the Harvard of Emerson, Thoreau, and the other great minds that helped shaped the meme that Boston was the “Athens of America.” To be fair, however, many other universities, are receiving large grants for defense and defense-oriented work.

Much of the impressive technology now being developed as the result of exponentially advancing computing such as artificial intelligence is being warped and scooped up into the service of militarization almost as soon as it becomes usable and available. This is not a new process, but simply one that has been greatly accelerated, taking a quantum leap in scale and intensity.

The defense industry in Massachusetts and other centers of weapons development is branching out and moving into many new areas. Nuclear missiles and large-scale weaponry are still, of course, a top priority but so is what might be called the downscaling of weaponry. This is an ominous new trend over the last few decades that began with the accelerated use of drones under Presidents Bush II and Obama. These new uses of sophisticated technology are advancing, as Albert Einstein warned, much faster than humanity’s collective wisdom to keep them in check and in balance with other more life-affirming priorities.

One of the most troubling examples of this trend can be seen with another Boston-area defense contractor: Boston Dynamics. This organization is in the business of manufacturing and selling robotic dogs to governments worldwide. They’re doing this not only for military applications but also for the purposes of domestic surveillance and control—the stuff of dystopian science-fiction. Boston Dynamics has sold their robot dogs to authoritarian countries like Singapore where they are being used to patrol parks and public spaces.

Closely aligned with using advanced technology for questionable purposes is work being done to develop “super-soldier” capabilities by military research organizations like DARPA. The military then pushes the technology out to the corporate sector for implementation in companies such as Boston Dynamics and Raytheon. Super-soldier projects involve intrusively and physically integrating soldiers with robotic technology to increase their abilities, essentially turning humans into robot hybrids.

The automation and downsizing of military weaponry is a huge story that’s not being told by corporate media. These new technologies are every bit as troubling as large-scale nuclear weapons. It’s true that they don’t have the overwhelming scale of nuclear weapons. However, they do have the advantage of being smaller and easier to deploy, thereby fueling terrorism and making the weapons of war much more widely available as they are distributed to nations around the world. (It should be noted, however, that even nuclear weapons themselves are being downsized for more targeted tactical use, although many larger warheads remain and continue to be built). If nuclear weapons originally represented the upscaling of war, then the newer weaponry now being developed represents the downsizing and mass deployment of weapons not only in wartime situations but for citizen control and surveillance and what might be called the “democratization of weaponry.”

Massachusetts has been a strong contributor to the Democratic tradition in American politics for many years. The state has furnished us with presidents, presidential candidates, and notable politicians at all levels. But as the Democratic party has joined forces with Republicans in recent years to support a pivoting from diplomacy to more defense-oriented solutions, Massachusetts has followed suit while succumbing to the temptation to “follow the money” in the immensely profitable defense sector. The state’s longstanding liberal credentials have been tarnished by its significant and sustained contributions to the forever war posture of the US, even as poll after poll shows that the American public is tired of these wars, conducted at the expense of pressing domestic needs.

It’s both sad and discouraging to see Massachusetts and our nation going down the road of abandoning domestic quality of life in favor of diverting vast financial resources towards another Cold War build-up at a time when so many other world crises demand our immediate attention. The real-world solutions that we need to focus on include but are not limited to the climate crisis, badly deteriorating for-profit healthcare, and obscene levels of income inequality. It didn’t have to be this way, and the path to reversing this political and cultural race to the bottom is anything but clear. If we are indeed “sleepwalking into Armageddon” as well-known anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott has suggested, then our only hope seems to be to wake up from this nightmare of out-of-control technologies being used to cattle prod the world into a state of perpetual armed conflict.

Tom Valovic is a journalist and the author of Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press), a series of essays that explored emerging social and political issues raised by the advent of the Internet. He has served as a consultant to the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Tom has written about the effects of technology on society for a variety of publications including Columbia University’s Media Studies Journal, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Examiner, among others.