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Penn State: Since when do college students assume a 'right to riot'?

By Jonah Goldberg

11:53 AM EST, November 11, 2011

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"Of course we're going to riot," Paul Howard, a 24 year-old aerospace engineering student at Penn State University, told The New York Times. "What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o'clock that they fired our football coach?"

The coach in question, as we all know, is Joe Paterno, the decades-long patriarch of Penn State football. Mr. Paterno was fired by the board of trustees for his part in a reprehensible non-response to the alleged rape of a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers.

You have to wonder what's wrong with our society when someone can say, "Of course we're going to riot," but not over the cover-up of pedophiliac rape. Rather, students feel it is their obvious right, perhaps even duty, to throw violent temper tantrums when a multimillionaire football coach is fired, simply because the coach is part of their "college experience."

"We got rowdy, and we got maced," Jeff Heim, 19, told the Times while rubbing his bloodshot eyes after police used pepper spray to disperse the rioters. "But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend."

Really?

I don't think Mr. Paterno is anywhere near the worst offender among those who did considerably less than the bare minimum that decency and integrity require. But there's something deeply, pathetically sick about the idea that what tarnished Mr. Paterno's legend was his termination and not the fact that he never once bothered to ensure that an alleged child rapist was stopped.

Yes, yes: Journalistic niceties require that I say Jerry Sandusky, the longtime assistant coach accused of serial sexual abuse and exploitation of children, hasn't been proven guilty of anything yet. And that's true. But it doesn't exonerate Mr. Paterno and other officials. An eyewitness said he saw Mr. Sandusky sodomizing the boy in the shower. Unless officials thought it was a demonstrable lie, they had a moral and legal obligation to contact police. But they didn't think the witness was lying. They kept him on staff. And they simply barred Mr. Sandusky from bringing children to the facility. So once Mr. Sandusky was out of sight, his crimes were out of mind.

Obviously, the real horror here is in the alleged criminal conduct (and if you haven't read the indictment of Mr. Sandusky -- and have a strong stomach -- you should look it up on the Internet).

But there's a larger point to be made here. Several, actually. People keep saying the cover-up proves the corruption of college football. Maybe so. College football certainly has its myriad and manifest vices.

But what about the riots? These aren't simply a product of football culture, they're a product of a campus culture that teaches students they have an absolute right to whatever their hearts desire, starting with a fun-filled college experience and, afterwards, a rewarding career.

Imbued with a sense of victimhood, entitlement and cultivated grievance that can only be taught, their preferred response to inconvenience is a temper tantrum. Sometimes, as with the Penn State riots, they are physical. Other times, they are intellectual or theatrical. But the tantrums are always self-justifying. Arguments are correct not if they conform to facts and reason but if they are passionately held. Unfairness is measured by the intensity of one's feelings.

Perhaps that's why a "right to riot" has become a staple of campus culture across the country, particularly at big schools. Students riot when administrators take away their beer. They riot when they lose games. They riot when they win games. They riot when the cops try to break up parties. Inconvenience itself has become outrageous.

It is also why idiotic protests have come to be seen as "part of the college experience," as if chanting inane slogans and spouting weepy canned platitudes is essential to a well-rounded education.

(We are now seeing an extension of the repugnant narcissism of campus culture setting up outposts in Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country. The bulk of their complaint seems to be that it is somehow unfair that the creature comforts of campus life should ever come to an end -- or come with a bill. Riots are undoubtedly the next act in that play).

Most of the time, I find campus protest culture to be shallow and predictable. But I would have cheered it this time around, if only someone rioted for the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky.

Jonah Goldberg, a syndicated columnist, is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His e-mail is JonahsColumn@aol.com.