BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Unless you live under a rock -- or your name is Ashton -- you no doubt have an opinion about the firing of Joe Paterno.Actually, if you possess a shred of humanity, your thoughts have probably been focused far more on the horrific sex abuse scandal unfolding in lurid detail at Penn State than the fate of a football coach who failed to be bothered by the prospect that a child rapist was being protected by his silence. And yet, into the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 9, we watched as hundreds of Happy Valley students raged -- using the firing of Paterno as the catalyst for a protest that culminated in a near riot of broken glass and a toppled news van. Here is what they might have been protesting: that Paterno has been a man of honor and principle throughout his decades-long association with the university and until there is a full investigation into his role, or lack thereof, in this tragedy he deserves a chance to defend himself and/or the opportunity to retire on his own terms. The reality is that all the protests really consisted of were some marching, slurred chants of "We are Penn State" and "Joe Paw," tearing up of lampposts and so on. There seemed no greater relevance, no sophisticated thought process and nary a shred of concern for the victims and their families. A smattering of students may have voiced their thoughts with eloquence, but the overwhelming majority of the crowd had no point, no heart and no brain. It was only Tuesday -- nearly a week after the riots -- that the Collegian Online, the student news site, got around to saying in an editorial that "If you were one of the people who rioted last Wednesday and ripped lampposts out of the ground in downtown State College ... If you attended Friday night's somber vigil ... If you left flowers at Joe Paterno's house ... Or if you have made any comment about the scandal at Penn State ... You need to immediately read the 23-page grand jury presentment outlining the charges against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, if you haven't already." Good call. Odd that it took a week to tell students to educate themselves before rioting, but a good call nonetheless, since literally rioting about something you know nothing about -- especially when it involves charges of years-long sexual abuse of children -- seems, well, misguided. The sorrowful display by Penn State students had us recalling some other infamous examples of misguided public passion over the years:
When Big Miracle hits theaters in February, Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski are going to remind you of "the incredible true story that united the world." But you'd be forgiven for forgetting entirely that incredible true story behind it: when three whales got trapped in Arctic ice in October 1988 and the world went crazy joining together to save them. Uncountable whales had died this way in the past, and certainly hundreds since, but in this particular case Eskimos that normally hunted and killed the species instead let them live and even named them, like they were pets. And the Soviets -- at the end of a whaling season that killed more than 150 of the creatures -- sent an icebreaking vessel to help rescue little (actually, gigantic) Siku, K'nik and Putu -- names that translate to Ice, Snowflake and Hole in the Ice, respectively. As Tom Rose recalls in his Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event (1989, Birch Lane Press), millions of people were riveted by more than two weeks of media coverage produced by more than 150 journalists who traveled to Alaska from around the world, spending upward of $5.8 million on the story. President Ronald Reagan, whose environmental high points included appointing the indifferent if not environmentally antagonistic James Watt secretary of the interior and blaming trees for pollution, called the rescue team to let them know that "Our hearts are with you." The governor of Alaska exerted himself on the rescue, despite or because of the apathy he displayed a few weeks before toward saving seven Eskimos who floated out to sea on an ice floe. And the oil industry, mainly the companies Arco and Veco, scored major points by contributing to rescue efforts, although their usual role in Alaska was cluttering the land with pumping and drilling equipment and befouling water and animals with oil spills. Within six months, the Exxon Valdez would dump 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska, causing what many still consider to be the No. 1 spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. So Siku, K'nik and Putu went on their way and shortly thereafter the Eskimos and Soviets went back to hunting them and the world went back to ignoring it. For some two weeks, though, man, we really, really, really cared.
There are some who would say we need more young people like Jacqueline Duty, who in May 2004 paid the price for her beliefs but wouldn't back down, even taking her own school district to court the following December to prove her principle (and maybe win $50,000). Her cause: wearing a Confederate flag gown to her Russell, Ky., high school prom, even after school officials asked her not to. As she told reporters, she'd worked on the design for the dress for four years, even knowing some people might find the Confederate flag offensive. "Everyone has their own opinion. But that's not mine," she said, describing the conflict as a First Amendment issue because the dress represented what she stood for. Well, let's run it down: The Confederate flag represents states who lost a war brought on by breaking from the United States more or less because they didn't want to be told they couldn't enslave other people for economic benefit. And Kentucky wasn't even a Confederate state. (It was officially neutral. After pro-Union candidates won the state legislature and nine out of 10 Congressional seats, Southern-leaning parts of the state seceded. Eventually there were 100,000 Kentuckians fighting for the North and far less than that -- possibly as few as 20,000, according to civilwar.org -- fighting for the South.) To many people, that made Duty's prom gown protest three kinds of wrong. The whole thing made her sad, she said, because senior prom and her wedding day would be the most important days in her life. She settled her lawsuit for an undisclosed amount two years later. No word on whether she wore the gown to her wedding to show what she stood for; it's certainly as sensible a venue for a Civil War protest as a high school prom.
It was 1979. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant just outside of Harrisburg, Pa., just scared the heck out of everyone with a partial reactor core meltdown that belched radiation into the surrounding area. Anti-nuclear protesters were up in arms. Someone had to do something. Enter the classic rockers. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and Orleans singer/activist/future Congressman John Hall's plan for pulling the plug on nuclear power employed the same time-honored tactic employed by the Muppets every time their theater was in trouble or Kermit needed bus fare: Hey, let's put on a show! The foursome's Musicians United For Safe Energy occupied Madison Square Garden for five nights while friends such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan, Gil Scott-Heron and Tom Petty played sets that could register on a Geiger counter. If the series just ended with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band unleashing their 400 megatons of awesome and blowing the roof off the place, that would have been just fine. Instead, MUSE decided to bring Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and 200,000 of their closest friends out to the empty, undeveloped Battery Park City landfill of dirt excavated from the World Trade Center site for an anti-nuclear protest. As it is, Battery Park City looks like a bit of apartment-laden land that was chipped off of Hoboken, floated across the Hudson River and crashed into West Street. If visitors think the Battery Park City beyond the World Financial Center is a silent, desolate waste that no one pays attention to now, it may as well be Williamsburg compared with the ragged, remote dirt pile protesters saw in 1979. It was a lousy encore to an otherwise great bunch of nights, but did any of it make a difference? Not really. Three Mile Island's operators paid more than $80 million in compensation to surrounding residents, but the plant still stands and still produces energy. Browne, Nash, Raitt and Hall hosted reunion shows in 2007 and earlier this year, but haven't shuttered any of the nation's 104 nuclear facilities. Surprisingly, no amount of Runnin' On Empty, Angel From Montgomery or Suite Judy Blue Eyes could avert nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and Fukushima, either. And yet nuclear power now looks like the environmentally responsible energy choice compared with fossil fuels. More than 30 years after the No Nukes concerts, there are still nukes very much in our midst and little being done to reduce reactor numbers to something resembling "No." The concert footage from the event still holds up pretty well, but little more so than a quote from one of the activist attendees at the beginning of the film: "I think most of the crowd here is just a bunch of bulls---ters. They're just here to see the concert, you know?" Yep, we know.
Here is what many gun owners would want their critics to believe: that they are responsible; that safety is an utmost concern; and that they are more about self-defense than acts of aggression. That said, we wonder how many rational, intelligent gun owners were horrified by pro-gun Tea Party rallies in recent months. We've seen these folks strutting along the Washington Mall with their personal arsenal stuffed into their senior waistbands and under red, white and blue suspenders. In March, a small band of Tea Party activists rocked out with their Glocks out at Montana's statehouse to complain about various government intrusions, not the least of which were gun restrictions. By waving around their weaponry like they were in a rural recasting of Scarface, they undermined any hope of portraying themselves as rational defenders of the constitution. Instead, they looked just like the caricature painted of them by liberal ideologues: a bunch of unstable hicks from the sticks. We understand their desire to be strong and vocal about protecting their rights. Alas, they threw away any credibility or sway they might have had. We are not saying anything that hasn't already been said before, but imagine if the participants of the Million Man March were waving Saturday Night Specials in the air. What if Acorn supporters brandished AK-47s in local parks or Planned Parenthood counselors showed up at polling places wearing ammunition belts strapped across their chests? We'll tell you what would happen: chaos. There would be cops. There would be riot gear and tear gas. There would be arrests. There would be outrage on the part of those very same Tea Party folks. An important lesson for any group of protesters -- be they liberal or conservative -- is to not stoop to the very stereotype your foes have attached to you. The Tea Party gun fans lost on two fronts. One, despite their stated fears of people coming after their guns, they were left alone (even though public safety concerns should have dictated otherwise), continuing an Obama administration record of taking no actions whatsoever on gun control. And for basically zero political return they gave -- pardon the expression -- ammunition -- to critics already leery of the rhetoric of such party panderers as Nevada's Sharron Angle ("People are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out"), Minnesota's Michele Bachmann ("I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us having a revolution every now and then is a good thing") and Florida's Allen West ("I am convinced that the most important thing the Founding Fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave a Second Amendment. And if ballots don't work, bullets will").
If you want to really stick it to the "man," you can mobilize protests and look for ways to garner public support and stir up outage. Or you could just hang out at the beach. Let's set aside the continuing debates over Occupy Wall Street and its relevance. Focus instead on its offshoots, groups such as Occupy Santa Cruz. We know what you are all thinking -- why are those other folks wasting their time on Wall Street when the real seat of financial power in this nation lies hidden within the bait shops, T-shirt stands and record stores of San Francisco's sunnier cousin? Economic injustice can take place anywhere, and there were, after all, 8,556 businesses in Santa Cruz last year according to the U.S. Census, one of which has more than 1,000 employees and 5,715 of which (that's 67%) have four or fewer. And you know big business is what runs Santa Cruz when you go to the "Economic development statistics" page of the city's Web site and find the link is broken. The top employer in Santa Cruz? The University of Santa Cruz -- home of the fighting Banana Slugs. The top private employer in Santra Cruz? Plantronics ( PLT), the headset maker, with a whole 474 workers, according to the city's 2009 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. The big controversy regarding Occupy Santa Cruz was last month, when members went to a local Bank of America to close their accounts but were denied the opportunity and threatened with arrest. There were two protesters, and Bank of America's ( BAC) objection was their brandishing anti-bank signs and videotaping the whole affair. Should a customer be allowed to close an account? Of course, it is their legal right. But does a private business have to facilitate a publicity stunt that's against its own self-interest and an annoyance to other customers? No, it turns out. Back to the beach. >To submit a news tip, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.