I go to my favorite hot dog stand
And the dude says,
“You come here all the time! Here’s one for free”
I said, “Man! What I look like? A charity case?”
I took it and threw it on the ground!
I don’t need your handouts!
I’m an adult!
You can’t buy me hot dog, man!
The Lonely Island (“Threw it on the Ground”)
In his Threw It On the Ground video, Adam Samberg demonstrates to an energy drink salesman, a hot dog vendor, his girlfriend, and others, that he is not a man to be trifled with. Whether he is handed a free sample drink, a complimentary hot dog, or a cellphone on which his Dad is calling, he shows his fierce independence by throwing it on the ground.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not exactly throw President Donald Trump’s October 9, 2019 letter on the ground, but he was animated by the same defiant spirit when he visited the White House and returned the letter to its author.
In fairness to the Turkish President, President Trump’s letter could be viewed, much like the hot dog man’s gesture, as an attempt to buy him. The U.S. leader had written that in return for halting his invasion of Syria, Trump would help him “make a great deal.” Not only that, but also: “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way.” He warned him not to be “a tough guy” or “a fool.”
According to early reports, Erdogan threw the letter, not on the ground, but in the garbage bin.
As it turned out, those reports were very unfair to the Turkish dictator. He did not throw the letter in the garbage bin. Instead, he held on to the letter so he could give it back to Mr. Trump during his visit. The Turkish press hailed his gesture as a triumph. The pro-government Sabah Daily (side note: all of the Turkish press is pro-government) crowed that when Erdogan returned the “scandalous” letter, the American president was “silent.”
Now this business of returning a letter to its sender is foreign to Americans, and may suffer a bit in translation. In this country, when a letter is returned, it usually means that the letter was incorrectly addressed and the Post Office cannot locate the intended recipient. So President Trump’s silence was most likely due to embarrassment over the fact that his staff had apparently sent the letter to the wrong address.
Such confusion is all the more understandable because Donald Trump’s rarely writes letters. He usually communicates by tweets. No one can return a tweet. Now had he tweeted, rather than mailed, his October 9 message to Erdogan, Trump would have held the strong card. The Turkish authoritarian might control his country’s political, social, and economic power centers, but he would have been helpless in the face of an insulting tweet. One cannot throw a tweet on the ground. One cannot return a tweet to its sender.
Had he received a tweet, Erdogan’s only recourse would have been to attempt to come up with a correspondingly insolent response. For example:
“Do you remember when I asked you for your opinion? Me neither.”
“Please cancel my subscription to your issues.”
Or the increasingly popular: “OK, boomer.”
President Trump threw away an important advantage when he chose to communicate by mail rather than by tweet. Presumably he has learned his lesson. The next foreign leader on the verge of becoming “a tough guy” or “a fool” will probably be forewarned by tweet rather than by letter.
But for regular people, this business of returning an unwelcome letter to its sender may become a new trend. It requires none of the wit necessary to produce an effective counter-tweet, yet it generates an impressive impact. Now that President Erdogan has shown the way, we may see similar responses in other situations.
Say you receive a notice from the Internal Revenue Service informing you that you have underpaid and that you owe back taxes, plus penalties and interest. You could hire a tax lawyer and review your records and prepare a rebuttal. But that would take time and cost money. Throwing the letter on the ground might make you feel good, but it won’t make an impression on the IRS. It would be more devastating if the recipient scornfully returned the letter to IRS. At least it would cause puzzlement there.
Students receiving low grades often respond by approaching the teacher after class and groveling for higher ones. Imagine a student’s thrill at walking up to the teacher’s desk and dramatically returning the report card to its author. All the other students would talk about his heroism, recalling him fondly after his expulsion.
Historically, the most effective method of demonstrating contempt for a letter was illustrated by Voltaire, when the philosopher received a letter filled with stinging criticisms. He replied: “Sir, I am sitting in the smallest room in the house. I have your letter before me. Soon it will be behind me.”
After that riposte, returning the letter would have been pointless, and throwing it on the ground unthinkable.