Friday, July 24, 2009

Big Brother: Who is he?

Who is Big Brother?

This question being, like so many others, relative, we here speak in the frame of reference defined by the borders of this photograph (below) of Portland health officer Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D., and market inspector Sarah A. Evans in Lovejoy's office in 1907. (You can download a larger version of this image from the OHSU Digital Resources Library here.)

Not Portland Mayor Harry Lane. Not Oregon Gov. George Chamberlain. Could it be a thinner, more robust William McKinley than the one shown here?

While McKinley would have been six years in the ground when this photograph was taken, it is possible to imagine why Lovejoy would have kept this image on display. As a young lawyer, McKinley had earned a reputation as a friend of organized labor when he defended a group of striking miners. Lovejoy herself had developed a "labor consciousness" (according to scholar Kimberly Jensen) early in her life, and she may have been drawn to McKinley for this reason. It would seem a bit ironic, then, that McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, a devotee of Emma Goldman, who was Lovejoy's exact contemporary and fellow suffragist.

If this is McKinley, what would that say about Lovejoy's choice of wall art? Was it a daily reminder to herself that social activism must work through the established rubric of law and order? Did it serve as a cautionary tale, that those who forget their roots are likely to die by the sword (to wildly mix metaphors)? Was it a pictorial urging to consider all points of view when making decisions that affect whole populations? Or had the city been too cheap to shell out for a new poster of Teddy Roosevelt?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Peanuts! I could go for pages on this one....

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