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[00:00:03]

Hello and welcome to the intelligence on Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. For LGBT people, the act of coming out is transformative, cathartic. We take a look at the shifting dynamics and demographics of coming out around the world and at how the Internet has mostly been a great help. And in Laos, there's a dish that epitomizes the countryside and egg soup, but as the country becomes more urban and globalized, young people want less traditional foods.

[00:00:45]

We ask whether diners will keep seeking out the tiny path of jungle caviar. But first. When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny became gravely ill last week, his allies immediately suspected foul play. The long time opponents of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and a campaigner against corruption collapsed on a plane on Thursday after drinking tea. His allies believe was laced with poison. If confirmed, it would be the latest in a string of poisonings of Russian dissidents. On Saturday, Mr Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment, where he remains in an induced coma in a stable condition.

[00:01:33]

Yesterday, his doctors in Berlin said the tests indicated he was poisoned and he's been placed under armed guard. This is not the first time that Navalny has been attacked. Matt Steinglass is our Europe correspondent.

[00:01:47]

When he was running for president in twenty seventeen, someone threw bright green dye in his eye and he may have lost 80 percent of the vision in his right eye because of that attack.

[00:01:54]

And the suspicion is that the Kremlin was behind what happened last week.

[00:01:57]

He is the latest of a number of prominent Kremlin critics who have fallen victim to the apparent poisoning attacks. Alexander Litvinenko back in the 2000s was poisoned with polonium in Britain, suggests people who was a former Russian intelligence officer was also attacked in Britain with Novacek and armed forces developed neurotoxin. And at this point, the German doctor is in Berlin, where Nevada has been airlifted for treatment, say that they think he was, in fact, poisoned while still in Russia.

[00:02:27]

In Omsk, the doctors who are treating him donned protective gear because apparently they were afraid that whatever he might have been poisoned with was extremely dangerous. And some analysts felt that the reason why he's being held in Russia and not immediately evacuated to Germany, although the German doctors were waiting with the plane to evacuate him, was that the authorities were trying to get whatever substance it was in his bloodstream, out of his body before he was moved abroad so that it wouldn't be detectable.

[00:02:55]

And so why would Navalny be a target for this kind of attack? What's the sort of political context here?

[00:03:01]

Alexei Navalny is an opposition politician and an anti-corruption activist who over the last 12 years or so has gradually made himself into the most plausible candidate to succeed Vladimir Putin as president of Russia if there were ever an actual democratic transition in Russia. He is seen by the Putin government as the biggest threat to their power. He has the biggest national organization of dedicated opposition activists. Vladimir Putin's government is in an unusually difficult position at the moment. There are massive protests in Belarus which threaten to topple the government there.

[00:03:42]

And before that, tremendous protests were launched in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia against the Kremlin's removal of a local governor who was quite popular. Those have not dissipated, and they are a very worrying signal to Putin that not only the liberal elite classes in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are having second thoughts about his rule, but that that sort of opposition might extend to regular folks out in normal towns and cities far across the Russian Federation, Putin's approval rating has fallen to an all time low.

[00:04:19]

And there are municipal elections upcoming, which the Russian government prefers to win overwhelmingly in order to demonstrate that it's in control of things.

[00:04:28]

So if the Russian government was responsible, what do you think the aim of the attack was? Would you see this as an attempt at a decapitation strike on the opposition or more of a general flexing of Kremlin muscles?

[00:04:39]

It's hard to tell exactly what Putin is trying to do, because some people feel that Navalny actually plays a stabilizing role since he's the clearly recognized leader of the opposition and the most likely next president after a democratic transition, he kind of organizes everything for the Russian secret police. They know who they have to monitor. Once Navalny has been taken out, then things may become much more chaotic. It's kind of risky in some ways to do this. But the thing that's clear is that Russia has no plan for a succession for how to get from a government headed by Putin to something after it.

[00:05:14]

Autocracies always have that problem, but it's even more difficult in Russia because Putin's government is so completely dependent on the ring of cronies, captains of industry and the security services that surround him to prop up the government. It's entirely personalistic. And Putin has changed the Constitution. So he's virtually president for life. It's just unclear what could possibly come after this regime. So taking Navalny out of the picture looks in a way like an act of desperation because he is a serious threat to Putin's power.

[00:05:49]

But it also could simply cause more problems for the regime.

[00:05:54]

And what do you make of the fact that Mr. Navalny was airlifted to Germany for treatment, that Angela Merkel herself offered him help? Germany. Has a pivotal but equivocal role in Western policies towards Russia, it is not usually one of the most confrontational countries in taking on Putin's government, but it has a firm grounding in European principles of human rights. And anything that looks like a violent attack on an opposition politician in gender is a lot of outrage in Germany.

[00:06:28]

So it is not surprising that they would decide to grant asylum to a very prominent opposition politician like Alexei Navalny.

[00:06:36]

But more broadly, how should the West respond if it emerges that this is plainly an assassination attempt? What should the West do about it?

[00:06:43]

The difference between this attack and earlier ones, such as the one on Sagansky Paul, is that Alexei Navalny is a Russian citizen who was in Russia at the time that he was attacked. There's no clear pretext for Western intervention in that situation. What the West has done is offer him asylum and medical treatment, which is an appropriate response. Beyond that, it is dangerous for the West to try to make it look like political affairs inside Russia are a matter of concern for Western governments.

[00:07:15]

Because Putin's approach to handling so-called color revolution movements and the demonstrations that have cropped up inside Russia over the last decade has been to accuse the organizers of being tools of the CIA and of foreign powers trying to extend the power of the European Union and NATO and so forth. You don't want the authentic Russian opposition movement to look like it's a tool of foreign manipulation. One thing that the West has already done is to supply reliable information about whether Navalny has been poisoned or not.

[00:07:53]

And the more reliable information comes from trustworthy sources like German doctors, the better. It helps people in Russia to understand what is actually happening to bypass the corrupted, propaganda driven media sphere that Putin has created. And that gives them the resources to organize their own politics. I think the role of the West played during Soviet times to some extent was simply the role of a refuge where dissidents could escape and where reliable information could be produced that people inside Russia can trust.

[00:08:29]

And that's a role that we can continue to play. Matt, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you. Jason. For LGBT people, coming out can be a pivotal moment of self recognition, so universal is the first moment of disclosure that several languages use variations on the same phrase.

[00:08:59]

Korean, Japanese, French and Spanish people all talk of coming out. The Chinese and Russians also borrow the English metaphor of the closet, the dark and constraining place from which LGBT people are said to emerge. Coming out was the rite of passage, that was it, and some people didn't do it. We all waited too long. All of us.

[00:09:25]

Martin Boyce is a gay rights activist and a veteran of the Stonewall riots. He came out in the late 1960s at the age of 17.

[00:09:33]

It meant wholeness, enlarged freedom within oneself and realization that you're just into a situation of accepting it. This is the world. And you accepted being gay and you weren't fighting them anymore. They couldn't shame you anymore. And that was the big thing. Shame you. Shame was all about shame.

[00:09:56]

Coming out remains a key turning point in the lives of many LGBT people, but thanks in part to the Internet, two big shifts are underway. People are coming out earlier than ever before, and the closet door is opening in an increasingly broad range of countries. On average, Americans are coming out earlier than in previous generations, mostly as teenagers, Tom Rowley writes about social affairs for The Economist.

[00:10:24]

For example, in 2018, the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that while a cohort they spoke to who were in their 50s, they tended to come out of about the age of 26. Those who were currently in their late teens and early 20s have already come out mostly before the 17th birthday. And what's behind that shift? Is it just that attitudes have shifted? Partly it is.

[00:10:51]

I mean, clearly, there's been a significant liberalization of public attitudes towards same sex relationships. So statistically, the people that teenagers confiding are more likely than ever to be supportive of them. But it's also down to the Internet before teenagers begin to sort of casualties about their sexuality. They want to almost come out to themselves. And the Internet provides an easy, anonymous source of information, articles, self-help videos on YouTube or that sort of stuff, which gives teenagers really the chance to form digital support networks instead of online communities where they feel comfortable expressing developing identities.

[00:11:38]

And that kind of digital support network, that kind of preponderance of information must be even more important outside America in countries that are less friendly to the idea, especially so.

[00:11:48]

Yes. I mean, it's important to remember that there are almost 70 countries where gay sex remains illegal. I actually I went to Kenya recently to learn about what it's like to come out there. That's the country where you could be put in jail for 14 years for having gay sites that just happen very often. Arrests under that law are rare, but far more common than there is intimidation and harassment. And society is also far more hostile. Only about 14 per cent of Kenyans believe that homosexuality is acceptable, compared with some very roughly three quarters of Americans and 86 percent of Britons.

[00:12:30]

And what did LGBT people in Kenya tell you about their experience of coming out?

[00:12:34]

I met someone called Rose and Basser. She's 21 and grew up in a slum in Nairobi. She told me that she really didn't understand her feelings for other girls when she first started to feel them until she borrowed her brother's smartphone one day and Googled, who is a lesbian? What do they do? I mean, it was it was really a question, just straightforward, if you like, in fact. But she just told me how much it helped her to suddenly have access to that information.

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Getting information is the right thing and it was the right information to live in and to help me. So much so that I came to exempt myself.

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And then she was able to come out to her family, who she said came to understand when they were 16 years.

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I sat down with them and told them that, hey, I'm doing this and this. If you accept me the way I am, it's OK. If you will not accept me the way I am, it's OK to.

[00:13:36]

And would you say that Rose's story is typical for Kenyans given the environment you mentioned? It can't always be as simple as a happy Google search and an accepting family.

[00:13:45]

Yeah, that's exactly right. I also met a young woman called Delphin and she had a very traumatic experience. I mean, in fact, as she warned me that this might be upsetting for some listeners.

[00:13:57]

Angels', lesbian. Yeah, but out here and then when I came out of school, I was raped and she was raped and she believed it was because she's a lesbian.

[00:14:13]

It was organized as a form of what local men call corrective rape. And she she fell pregnant from that rape. And then to make matters worse, her parents kicked her out, kicked out.

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So struggle with the presidency, going from house to house to stay until I give birth.

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It was a massive struggle. But in the years since then, her life has gradually improved. I'm happy to say she's in a long term relationship with a woman now. And interestingly, she finds some inspiration for the future on YouTube. Nearly every day she sits down to watch videos of gay wedding ceremonies in other countries. I asked how it made her feel to watch these videos said.

[00:14:59]

And happy at the same time, because I'm happy for them, they can have it on me, but I'm sad that they got experience that because our country doesn't allow it, sometimes I don't understand it's love. How can they not understand it? And love is pure. Love is beautiful. They should just let us be. So having looked at coming out in countries around the world, I mean, what do you take from this, the influence not only of the Internet, but also the general, liberal or illiberal views of the places where it's happening?

[00:15:32]

Well, I have to say, Jason, that going into this story, I expect to find stark differences in each of the countries and particularly between hyper liberal places and repressive countries. And there certainly were stark differences. I mean, the experiences of people coming out in Kenya just are a lot harder than those in New York or elsewhere. But actually, what ended up really sticking with me were the similarities, the phrases these 17, 18, 19 year olds were using to describe their city of inner turmoil and trying to sort of reconcile their various conflicting sometimes identities and facing society, the friendships, their families.

[00:16:21]

That experience was common, really. And what was different clearly were societal attitudes and laws. But whether you're in Manhattan or Nairobi, it still remains the case that if you're growing up LGBT, you have to go through that sort of mental process of working out what that means for you.

[00:16:45]

Thank you very much for joining us, Tom. Every nation's cuisine has its simple, familiar, usually timeworn dishes that evoke deep emotions and allows its and egg soup, the eggs are nicknamed jungle caviar and for now there's a thriving market for them. But there are worries that this traditional dish isn't capturing the hearts of a younger generation. And the soup is a delicious soup that they serve in a small little bowl that has these little exploding balloons of flavor at the very, very top.

[00:17:32]

Zak Ebrahim writes for The Economist and loves the little bursting balls of flavor are intact. They've been pulled out of a tree away from some very, very angry ants. And when you eat them, they burst with this distinct tartness. So do the ants. You often eat the ants as well. And that's part of why they're so associated with the countryside and with the farming history of this country. How do you mean?

[00:17:57]

How does this intersect with the history and the agriculture?

[00:18:01]

The majority of Laos is and remains a very agricultural country. So people have a very present and historical connection to farming and the countryside. In asking people about Antec Soup. I noticed that there was this instant nostalgia for it. And when I pursued that and I asked why is there this painting in your eyes, people said this soup is a countryside's symbol. It's the kind of food that you forage when you're living an agricultural life that you use to round out your diet, the backbone of which is sticky rice.

[00:18:37]

In addition to sticky rice, you forage all these other things to supplement your diet.

[00:18:42]

And antiques isn't one of them. I went to this fine dining restaurant in Vientiane and I talked to this restaurant proprietor there and in the center, and she had mentioned that this is a really underrated soup and she's glad that it's finally getting the attention it deserves. But people, when they hear it, eat, people eat and think of it as an exotic caveman. Kind of food is actually very good. And I want people to look at it in a different way.

[00:19:18]

So so it stands to reason then that antiques are pretty easy to come by in Laos.

[00:19:22]

Basically, the way that you get these is well, number one, eggs that people love come from a specific kind of ant called the Red Weaver. And so you go out in the forest and the skilled people can spot these red weaver and ness. So how do you get the eggs out? You poke them with a stick and they fall out or you bring the whole nest down and then you basically sort it out. But when you do this, the ants are not very pleased about it.

[00:19:46]

And so they are attacking you. So some people, when they go up, they actually try to minimize what they're wearing so they can just be brushing off and dancing while they're getting these ants off. But, yeah, these ants are kind of muscular. So I would say they're about half a centimeter long and it is quite painful when they bite you. If you don't want to deal with this, then you got to buy them. Prices have recently increased in recent years.

[00:20:07]

Sixteen dollars will get you about a kilogram of and that's in the capital city, which is a lot of money to pay from the perspective of the people who are used to paying, not so much for food.

[00:20:17]

So in a sense, there is there is a whole ant egg economy going on here. There is. And the soup is beloved by young and old, rural and city.

[00:20:26]

But the rub is that Laos is developing very, very quickly, particularly in the last couple of decades. And so we're now starting to see very, very young generations who actually don't have the same connection to the countryside. But some of their elders did. It's not completely clear what these kids are going to eat when they get older, what these kids are going to like to eat. It's possible that something like this, the consumption of insects might actually not pass to them.

[00:20:52]

And so you get the sense that that ant egg soup is it will soon be something of a historical relic.

[00:20:58]

Soon as an interesting question, Lao's is catching up to the rest of the Southeast Asia and its own development is growing very rapidly, but from a much smaller base. Now, with covid-19 in the pandemic, economic growth has really, really reduced. So some of the things we were seeing before, like urbanization, like globalization, have kind of tempered. So it's unclear how quickly Laos is going to cast off this rural heritage that it has. Maybe it won't, but another possibility, but Laos is that these trends of modernization and urbanization will accelerate and people will lose their time to the countryside.

[00:21:39]

Well, in the meantime, it sounds as if you are a dedicated fan. I mean, how often do you eat?

[00:21:43]

And I've only had a one time, Jason, I'm embarrassed to say, but that time I did will not be the last. It was absolutely spectacular.

[00:21:51]

But will you ever go for your own antics? I will never go to forage my own and eggs, mainly because, you know, these ants, they they mean business. I don't want to deal with them to keep thank you very much for your time. Thank you, Jason. For more tasty insights from our international network of correspondents subscribed to The Economist to find the best introductory offer wherever you are. Just go to economist dotcom slash intelligence offer. That's it from us today.

[00:22:32]

We'll see you back here tomorrow.