Striking that the people we seem to most admire are those who exhibit the largest combination of Anansi traits. The figure of Anansi, an old and widespread one spreading from West Africa into the New World to accompany ideas of resistance and survival through cunning and trickery, still looms large in our time.
Perhaps because the spidery figure has been such an enduring character, permeating childhood sensibility, he has cast a web that has enmeshed generations and eventually has spawned a culture that venerates the wiliness that saw him always emerging on top, whether right or wrong.
Anansi has been cast as a lazy, cheating, liar, never averse to taking advantage of lesser creatures. He has been portrayed as having an enormous appetite and as being particularly delighted when he could feast at the expense of others. He gets up to all kinds of shenanigans, often out of greed, but he rescues himself because he is quick-witted, fast-talking, slick and importantly, entertaining.
If we look at some of the figures who have stomped through the national landscape, we might find that the most enduring ones have been those chiefly manifesting Anansi's mien. They seem to have the longest shelf life, even after their best-before date has long past. No matter what we say, we really prefer our smart-men to our smart men.
There must be something about a certain kind of character that we find endearing enough to overlook bad behaviour.
For everyone who is angry and mortified at the chutzpah, the gall, the effrontery—the sheer absurdities that slaughter ethical behaviour on an almost daily basis—there are several who celebrate it and aggressively defend it with fatuous arguments.
Look at how divided people are about the appropriateness of this or that person to serve in particular roles. Look at their rationales. Those who insist that consideration must be given to ethics are being shouted down by arguments that bustle is preferable; and the undercurrent is that we want foxes to outfox foxes. Ethics, we are told (authoritatively), are of no consequence in matters of expedience. Why should we trifle our heads with such concerns? Means justify ends. It is distressing how many are willing to walk that way.
But where has that road been taking us?
On the face of it, whatever small battles might have been won (and who really gets the spoils when Anansi is in charge?) the long-term impact stems from the lessons that had been taught to a generation or so and is now embedded in one that is charting courses. What rules of engagement are we teaching our sons and daughters?
In the arbitrariness of life, it is how it is; and bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people. I suppose in the Anansi version that is always how it goes, the way it always plays out; so it confers its own morality on behaviour whose foremost concern is satisfying personal desire at any cost, and with particular disregard for the plights it might create.
Some years ago, I was listening to a radio call-in programme on my way to Port of Spain, and the subject was crime and how parents contributed by turning blind eyes. A mature-sounding (I mean age-wise, a full woman, so to speak) woman came on the air, and said rather defiantly that her son brings plenty things for her. I don't ask him where he gets them, she said. He is looking after me. On that basis, he was a good son, loving, kind and generous—all the things we hear mothers say at crime scenes, the mortuary and other sites of finality. When the host kept probing, sounding incredulous and horrified at the mother's tone, she eventually conceded that she knew he was holding up people, was a bandit, she just didn't ask any questions because he was looking after her well.
That moment's insight has stuck with me, coming up for air every now and then when I hear the familiar wailing on news reports.
It is a chilling reminder of what we are capable of teaching our children: lying, cheating, greed; and in extreme cases, violence and murder.
If there might have been a time when Anansi's graft and grin was a strategy to deal with the slash and burn history, this is not the time for it. We live in a society where the choices are either for brazen chicanery or subtle underpasses, both of which take place at the trough, and the only difference is whether our complicity is tacit or not.
Everything that passes for life now—everything we praise, everything we lament—is largely wrought by hands and minds that were once shaped and twisted by hands and minds that were once shaped and twisted themselves by the prevailing forces of their time.
Who trusts anyone anymore?
We expect the Anansi in all of us. We wait for the revelatory moment when the spider legs emerge from under the carpet, so we can happily exclaim that we knew it was him all along. But he always gets away; leaving his web behind.