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5 Historical “Facts” That Are Actually Complete Lies

Yale University professor and bestselling author Timothy Snyder rounds up five popular myths about history, and why they’re absolutely false.

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Historian Timothy Snyder

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5 Common Myths About History—Debunked

As the Housum Professor of History at Yale University, Timothy Snyder knows that understanding the past can help us make sense of current world events. “As historians, we’re professionally concerned with ascertaining the truth, and that’s all the more important in the political world in which we’re all now moving,” Snyder said at Chang School Talks, a series presented at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Politics now is much less about right and left, and much more about truth and anti-truth.” To drive his message home, Snyder shared five common myths about history, and why they’re bunk.

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Donald Trump at event in 2014

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Myth #1: Democracy will always prevail

According to Snyder, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave birth to the myth that all countries will eventually become democracies. “When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the basic idea was, ‘All we have to do is clear away a bad regime.’ We didn’t plan for anything else because we thought it would all work out. Now look how the Middle East is today.”

Snyder described this view as the “politics of inevitability,” and went on to say that many people who voted for Donald Trump didn’t think it would make any difference because, in their minds, the American democratic system would rescue itself in the end.

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Big Ben in London, England

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Myth #2: The past was better

This myth is not only false, said Snyder, but dangerous: nostalgia might evoke a time or place that only existed in the imagination. He pointed to Brexit—the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union—as a prime example: “The referendum conjured up the idea of a Great Britain that was neither in Europe or an empire. It never happened. It was an imaginary 1930s.”

Snyder called this kind of false nostalgia the “politics of eternity.” During Trump’s presidential campaign, the slogan “America First” was used, but not for the first time in history: it was also the name of an American anti-war committee that was trying to prevent American involvement in World War II. In other words, Trump’s campaign tried to evoke the glory days.

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Man using his smartphone

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Myth #3: New technologies make people smarter

When you think of the newspaper, radio or television, visions of a more connected world come to mind. But according to Snyder, new technologies don’t automatically make people more intelligent. “We know less about world history, have shorter attention spans, and are less able to talk to one another than was the case before the Internet,” he said.

A 2016 study from Stanford University found that young students struggled to differentiate real news articles from advertisements, or even identify where information they read came from. And an older study published in Science found that people have worse recall when they know a piece of information can be accessed online—in other words, people only remember where to find information. Snyder’s solution? Disconnect as often as you can.

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City scape and network connection concept

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Myth #4: Globalization is a recent phenomenon

Globalization is the process that allows people, products and ideas to move easily across borders. It has dominated recent headlines thanks to Donald Trump, but according to Snyder, it’s not a new concept. “We in the 21st century tend to think that our globalization is the only one that has ever happened, but there have been at least two in the history of the world,” he said.

The other example of modern globalization? The Industrial Revolution—a period in the 1700 and 1800s that gave birth to mass production, the steam engine, the telegraph and improved systems of banking. Earlier forms of globalization can be traced back to the 13th century.

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Protest against Donald Trump in New York

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Myth #5: Immigration is more common now than ever before

Thanks to Trump’s temporary Muslim travel ban and Brexit, there exists the perception that mass immigration is a new phenomenon. Snyder said this is false: “France in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, was an empire in Africa and Southeast Asia, and had infinitely more Muslims back then compared to the amount of Muslims living there today.”

Migration isn’t new to Canada either. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reports that one million immigrants arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax between 1928 and 1971; by the 1960s, one-third of Canadians had origins that were neither French nor British. Nowadays, most immigrants who come to Canada are from China, India and the Philippines.