When Two Million People Do a Stupid Thing, it's Still a Stupid Thing

Noted fact-checking website Snopes.com published an entry debunking a longstanding myth that entire colonies of penguins have been observed falling over back as they stare up into the sky and try to follow the trajectory of airplanes flying over them. Observation of this bizarre practice traces back to British Royal Air Force pilots in the early 1980s flying their jets over the Falkland Island as tensions rose with Argentina over possession of the territory. The widespread acceptance of unlikely group behavior that has since been consistently debunked continues to this day and that widespread belief can be traced back to a 1986 entry in the “Bloom County” comic strip. The most popular character in that strip just so happened to be an anthropomorphic penguin named Opus. In this strip, Berkeley Breathed utilizes the unique potential of having a penguins as a beloved character to breathe humor into the story of the penguins a way of heightening a parallel drawn with pop culture obsession to make a cogent and clearly memorable point about the danger of confusing ubiquitous conformity to a belief with evidence that the belief has merit.

The predominant literary device at work in this strip is satire, but of a particularly cutting intended to ridicule society’s obsession imitating pop culture celebrities on a specific level and with confusion that just because something is wildly popular it must be a good idea on a more expansive level. The cartoon is actually dealing with two entirely separate issues that even the character Opus vocally expresses are not easily linked. The first issue at hand deals with the rise to fame of pop star Billy Idol and his immediately recognizable and idiosyncratic bleached blonde spiky crew cut hairstyle which Portnoy, another anthropomorphic character wants to emulate on the specious reasoning that everybody else is doing. At this assertion, Opus is compelled to step in and relate a parable concerning his childhood days on the Falkland Islands which brings into the narrative the second issue of the “war” which took place there just a few years earlier and so was still a relatively fresh memory for readers in 1986.

The bulk of the comic is then given over to the re-enactment by Opus of the penguins staring up at the jets flying over them until they topple over. Of the eight panels which this strip is composed, five feature Opus as the only character, four of which he is illustrated full-bodied and given motion indicators to suggest the body movement of the penguins he describes. After giving a surprisingly nuanced narrative depicting each step along the way from spotting the jets overhead to toppling onto the backs, one of the strip’s human character, Milo, inquires as to the moral of his little story. The moral is the entire point of the strip: “If two million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” The query, the response and Portnoy’s version of the model about Opus being a yogurt-head are all contained with the penultimate panel. The finale features Opus still lying on his back and musing about the wisdom of trying to connect the desire for a Billy Idol haircut with ill-advised conformist behavior on a mass scale by penguins in order to stake out a larger philosophical point.

Despite the humor of the strip being mostly satire expressed through verbal means, a variety of composition choices are engaged, although the perspective remains a simple objective view from the opposite perspective of the character at all times. Very little background exists in any of the panels with only the briefest sketching of a mound of grass beneath the feet of Opus when he re-enacting his story. This decision to strip the panels down almost certainly results from Breathed’s desire for the focus remain on the verbal quality of the satiric message he intended to convey with the revelation of the moral of his penguin’s story.

That the message has been successfully conveyed can be ironically argued precisely due to the fact that so many people have since the strip’s publication taken on that moral as a meme. While the numbers given certainly change according to the particulars, the application of the phrase “if two million people do a stupid thing, it is still a stupid thing” can be found in reference to nearly every imaginable circumstance in which someone want point out that mass conformity and popularity in no way automatically equates a lack of foolishness or ignorance. While the particulars of the circumstances which prompted Breathed to come up with the idea for this strip at this point in time would seem to lead to the conclusion that the message was directed primarily to those wanting to change their looks or style to align with their favorite celebrity, time has proven that it was a message that resonated with people far beyond that limited scope.

Indeed, the universality of meaning which the moral of the strip implies has actually managed to take it out of its moment in time. While it certainly would help to be familiar with Billy Idol or the battle over the Falkland Island, ignorance of those aspects in no way diminishes the ability to understand the satirical point. After all, it is not so much the reference to Billy Idol’s haircut that sets the stage for the satirical construction of the moral as it is Portnoy’s response to being called foolish for wanting to look like Billy Idol. The recognition of the folly of his justification that everybody is doing it is far more universal than any pop star could ever hope to be and it is that recognition that is requisite for understanding and appreciating the satirical punchline that is the moral of the story.