Bad memes

Chain letters are a kind of meme, but not a good kind -- inane, threatening, pointless. They are surprisingly venerable and ubiqitous, however. Many past cultures had some form of chain letter, generally claimed to be communications from a god. In medieval and early modern Europe, these "messages from heaven" seem to have been fairly common. Here's part of a letter written in English by Jesus Christ himself in 1795:

And he that hath a copy of this my own letter, written with my own hand, and spoken with my own mouth, and keepeth it without publishing it to others shall not prosper; but he that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me, and though his sins be in number as the stars of the sky, and he believe in this he shall be pardoned; and if he believe not in this writing, and this commandment, I will send my own plagues upon him, and consume both him and his children, and his cattle.

And here's one which I found the other day in the Spectator of 20 May 1922, p. 621:


Copy this out and send it to 9 people to whom you wish good luck. The chain was started by an American officer, 'Buddie,' and should not be broken. It should go three times around the world, and whoever breaks it will have bad luck. Do it within 24 hours and count 9 days, and you will have great good luck.

According to a detailed analysis of chain letter evolution by mathematician Daniel VanArsdale, there was a deluge of these (or very similar) "good luck" chain letters in 1922 -- another British one from the month before is reproduced here. The above example was sent in by T. Herbert Bindley of Denton (apparently a translator of Christian apologetics), who -- having received three examples in the previous few weeks -- despaired that `there is still a number of idiots at large who, out of sheer superstition, are unable to refrain from perpetrating and perpetuating an imbecility' such as this. He thought it a sign of 'intellectual degeneracy' in an age of 'waning faith'.

Well, that was then -- this is now. Luckily I'm not an intellectually degenerate idiot, and so won't be helping this bad meme to propagate.

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