Call it the freedom to start again without stigma.
You can leave your current spot and go to Denver without embarrassment or a sense of failure; without being regarded as someone who’s had to downshift because things didn’t work out in Boston.
Many cities regard themselves as the creme de la creme – and New York is confident of its total superiority. But even New Yorkers can’t bring themselves to look down on you because you left the city and resurfaced in Seattle or Houston.
Lateral movement is one of the great American virtues, one of our real freedoms. Few countries are as fortunate; therefore, they offer their citizens one less freedom.
This freedom to choose your place of abode – assuming you can find work or start a business – is an option, a luxury that you can tuck away at the back of your head. It is Plan B.
It is not a luxury available in countries where the principal city has grown to dominate the country. England, I’d argue, has become a city-state called London. Sure there are other cities, but there is a snobbery that says elsewhere is provincial.
Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first dictionary, hinted at this when he said in 1777, ”Why, sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” That isn’t only a paean to the great city, but it’s also a snobbish rejection of other English cities like Manchester, York and Birmingham.
France is the city-state called Paris. The city is the epicenter of French life: If you are making it in Paris at no matter what, you know that you are special. You are defined by the city. If you leave it, you are defined lower.
Things are a bit better in Germany, where four top cities – Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich – compete. But after them, there is a great step down. Italy, likewise, with Rome having the edge and Milan disagreeing.
You can go down the list. Very big countries geographically like Canada, Australia and South Africa have competing cities, but the choice is small.
In America, we have a choice that keeps on giving. In America there are cities everywhere that offer the chance to start again without stigma.
In hundreds of speeches (I’m not exaggerating), articles, radio and television broadcasts, I’ve trumpeted this freedom to move to any city or town without losing social or professional definition. Your status is established by the work you do, not by the city you do it in. That is a freedom.
When I first set foot in the United States decades ago, I was suffused with this sense of the possibility that living in a continental country provided after living in London. It gave freedom a dimension that Britain, which is free in so many ways, did not have.
I haven’t availed myself of this freedom as much as I might have; I’ve lived in New York and Baltimore, but mostly in Washington, D.C.
Finally, I’ve moved – although I cheat because I commute to Washington, D.C. – to West Warwick, R.I. The adventure of learning about a new city, its culture and its people, I find as intense now as when I first moved to London from Africa, and when I forsook London for New York.
I’ve given a few commencement addresses over the years. If I’m ever asked to do so again I’ll tell the students (in loftier language, I hope), “You are lucky in so many ways to be Americans. Don’t forget one of the freedoms not laid out in the Constitution is the freedom to screw up in one place and get it right somewhere else.”