BY DAVID S. LEWIS
To answer the question, What’s a shaputz?, requires some background. —Back in school, we mischievous adolescents played the following practical joke on various people, and it never failed to achieve the desired result. When a classmate happened to make what would now be called an insensitive remark about, say, someone’s ethnicity, or perhaps they callously made fun of someone’s disability (kids can be awful), we would shoot back, with feigned personal offense and hurt feelings (and dramatic flair worthy of Lawrence Olivier), saying to their face, That’s not funny, my mother is (fill in the blank—Puerto Rican, Irish, Polish, dyslexic, a Whirling Dervish, whatever).
Using my predominant ethnic heritage here for the sake of demonstration, you’d have said, That’s not funny, my mother is Ukrainian, after the poor fellow said something derogatory about Ukrainians (don’t go there, I warn you), but we were merely play acting. Dear old Mom, what’s more, need not be the excuse for feigning offense. Could have been Dad, Sis, Gramma, a sweetheart.
The poor victim of this charade, universally, falls all over himself trying to apologize or otherwise explain that he never really meant what he said, and at that point the victim of the joke will do anything to make things right, offering suffusive apologies, inviting you to parties, buy you lunch, any act of contrition to rectify his conscience (and image), and, in reality, his internal sense that he may indeed harbor negative sentiments about people of other ethnicities, or at least that he’s not comfortable among those unlike himself. —When our victim left the scene, by the way, those of us in on the joke had a good laugh. We were bad boys.
In those days, where we lived and went to school, many ethnic groups were present, so it was a fertile field for these kind of shenani-gans, especially among my irrever-ent peers. And we were, at that point, a that prep school, already being groomed as “tolerant” liberals meant to absorb and embrace political correctness. But most of us already interacted on a daily basis with a smorgasbord of second generation Americans, so that when people started touting “diversity” as the new creed, it came off to us as shallow and moralistic, in that we ate meals, rode in buses, and rubbed shoulders in locker rooms (and had fist fights) with kids of almost any group you could imagine. We didn’t need to celebrate diversity. We were diversity.
Fast forward—Bozeman, Mont., two white guys walk into a bar (sounds like a joke, but one of them’s me), the Spanish Peaks brewery on 19th off Main, now gone. My buddy Frank and I belly up, order beer, and strike up a conversation with the guy next to us, another white guy (it’s Bozeman). One thing leads to another. The guy keeps trying to peg us, asks where we’re from, what we do, what we believe, and I mention I’d just finished a house south of Livingston. He makes another attempt to peg us, denominationally, of all things (but he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with). Experienced in this type of repartee since my formative years, I shoot back, reflexively, saying, Actually Frank’s Jewish, reverting to that mischievous adolescent pattern.
The conversation continues. The guy makes a remark about Frank’s “people,” but he knows he’s said the wrong thing. To compensate, to prove he’s really a good person, the guy gets all goody goody and liberal about everything imaginable, and then makes it clear his commitment is to the environment, and that he despises developers.
But then Frank let’s him know that his business is in the trades, that he’s grateful for the building of houses, that that’s how he earns a living. And the guy mutters, amazingly, something about you people being good with figures, but walks it back, hemming and hawing again about what he just said, because he knows it sounded ignorant.
Wow, I thought, this guy really stepped in it, twice. Then shortly there after, in the course of conversation, he excuses himself and goes to the men’s room. Sensing the guy’s inner turmoil, I suggest to Frank that we might let him off the hook, but Frank is having too much fun. No, let him squirm, Frank says.
Having had time to reflect, the guy returns and tries to extract his foot from his mouth, unsuccessfully. “I guess I’m a schmuck,” he says, (schmuck being Yiddish for jerk, loosely translated). Frank, not missing a beat, playing his part like a pro, says to the guy, emphatically—
“No, you’re not a schmuck—you’re a shaputz.”
Now, I’m no linguistic scholar and Frank isn’t either (he isn’t even Jewish), but I know there’s no such word as shaputz in any language. But our friend doesn’t know that, and it really shows.
Labeled as such, in public, the guy gets all apologetic and falls all over himself. After all, he’s been called a shaputz, and that can’t be good. He makes every attempt otherwise to appear admirable, compensating for his uncomfortability and inexperience with people of other ethnic groups. He then nervously offers to pay for our beers (we could have held out for dinner and he would have readily paid). As we accept, he fumbles through his wallet and discovers he has no cash (what a shaputz). I say, don’t worry about it buddy, but he insists and produces a credit card, pays for our beers, makes nice for a moment, then quickly gets the hell out of there.
We had to laugh.
So, now that this experience and Frank’s linguistic license has injected the term into the popular lexicon, we might ask, what the heck is a shaputz?
The answer should derive from the circumstance in which it was coined and the psychology of our hapless companion: A shaputz is someone who likes to believe he’s a good person but grapples with denied biases he knows he is not supposed to have. He is probably only mildly bigoted, but in denial about it, suffers from white guilt perhaps, sometimes called liberal guilt, and feels uncomfortable with people unlike himself, especially those of groups with whom he has no experience, being left with only stereotypes to inform him. He cannot bring himself to admit his denied feelings (because he’s a good person) or accept that he feels more secure among his own (because of a sheltered upbringing) and so he compen-¢¢sates for those denied feelings by acting out publicly, touting politically correct nostrums, adopting certain social or political postures, supporting politically correct causes, candidates, public expenditures and public policies—and, if necessary, buys beer for two guys in a pub with mischievous adolescent tendencies who bring out the worst in him.
His posturing though, try as he might, is not real, it is not from the heart, merely cover for his internal biases. —He’s a shaputz.