My daughter Bethany, while in middle school, was asked to write in response to this prompt: “What would you do if you were president?”

Bethany opened her journal to the first clean page, dated it, and wrote, “Resign.”

That’s Bethany. In my case, it’s precisely my journal that makes me want to be president. I don’t want anyone to read it now, but what if people read it after I left this life, and then they started to think about my favorite books’ passages the way I do?

President Kennedy created the principle of “Chesterton’s fence” in one of his notebooks by referring to a statement by English author G.K. Chesterton. Here’s Wikipedia’s account of it:

Chesterton’s fence is the principle that you should never take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. The paraphrased quotation was ascribed to Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945 notebook. The correct quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

Wikipedia here implies that Kennedy’s account was in some sense incorrect, not because it was a summary, I guess, but because Kennedy’s summary left out something critical.  Wikipedia apparently thinks that Kennedy erroneously made G.K. Chesterton’s reasoning-by-analogy into a rule that applied first – or only – to the analogous situation. But I think Kennedy’s error lay in missing this crucial point: the modern reformer, in Chesterton’s version, has not only to know but also to articulate why the fence or gate was built in the first place. If he can do that, perhaps to the original fence-builder’s satisfaction, or at least to the more intelligent reformer’s satisfaction, then he may be allowed to tear the fence down, if he still wants to.

Either way, we forgive Kennedy: the error was only in a journal entry. We hold private journals to lower standards of style and veracity. We believe a person before he’s famous writes in his journal with no notion that anyone else would ever read it.

I don’t know what drives anyone to do what he does.

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