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Today, I am Captain America

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Today, I am Captain America

John Sommers-Flanagan

One of the hardest things about being a superhero is maintaining a secret identity. Sometimes I get so far undercover that even the Marvel Comics people don’t know who I am. This pretty much drives them nuts. But they deal with it, because, after all, I am Captain America.

I was born with the name John Sommers. This might be confusing to those of you who thought Steve Rogers was the original Captain America. That’s a myth Marvel and I perpetuated to help keep my identity secret. To further the deception, in 1985, I changed my name to John Sommers-Flanagan. This addressed the dual objectives of expressing an equal partnership with my wife and further obfuscating my identity.

Hyphenating my last name was a strategy similar to how my friend Superman is able to maintain his secret Clark Kent identity just by wearing nerdy glasses. Obviously, if you wear nerdy glasses, nobody will think you could possibly be Superman. Well, I wear nerdy glasses AND I have a hyphenated last name. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think I’m Captain America. Think about it. One time a guy I know asked me, “What sort of man hyphenates his last name?” I didn’t tell him because I was maintaining the secret identity thing, but the answer was and is: “Captain America.” #perfectdisguise.

I told Superman I was coming out of the secret identity closet and he asked me, “John, why are you choosing, at this moment in history, to give up your perfect disguise?” I said, “Hey Clark. . . ” (we’re on a first name basis because it always feels awkward when people call me Captain), “. . . radical times call for radical measures.” He just nodded thoughtfully. He’s like that.

The thing is, while growing up as Captain America, I realized early on that women were competent and I wanted to work alongside them, as equal partners. This eventually led me to be against the objectification of women and in favor of women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.

Being Captain American has also helped me clarify other values. I’m a big fan of the phrase “All men are created equal” but I’m inclined to substitute “people” for “men.” It seems only right that Captain America would support statements that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Over the years I’ve had Gay and Lesbian and Transgender friends and family and colleagues, and you know what, I found that they’re kind and competent and respectful and loving and safe people to have in my life who are equal to everyone else. I’m also pretty big on liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, and that includes Muslims and Mexicans and Native Americans who have sacred lands threatened by oil pipelines and other minorities, including sexual minorities and persons with disabilities.

It might surprise you to find out that I really love music. I’m not that much of a dancer—although I’ve cut a rug or two in my time. Now that I’m older, I’m more into lyrics than swinging my hips. Like that phrase in the Star Spangled Banner about America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” To me and most Americans, I think the meaning of those words is simple. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to marry whomever we like, and we’ve got the courage to accept and embrace the goodness inherent in all this freedom and diversity. We also have the freedom to hate, although most people end up feeling so good about living in America that they usually find they prefer loving over hating.

Another musical reference that gives me tingles is the part of America the Beautiful where it goes: “May all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” That’s massively deep stuff, but right now it doesn’t feel like Wall Street, income inequality, and tax breaks for the wealthy fit with the idea of success being noble and divine. What would Jesus think? Well, along with Superman, he’s one of my besties and so I asked him. Wouldn’t you know, he got all analogy on me. He said something about rich people getting to heaven being as likely as a camel getting through the eye of a needle. My follow up question was about whether that meant it would be easier for Ant Man to get to heaven? At that point Jesus said, “Sure, Ant Man gets in, along with everyone else who makes himself or herself or their-self small and is interested in serving others instead of trying too hard to be bigly.” Then he giggled for almost a whole minute. Sometimes I’m not sure I get Jesus’s humor, but He thinks he’s funny, so that’s good enough for me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me. Freedom means that we don’t have to register ourselves or be profiled or be put on watch lists because of believing in a particular God or because of having a particular color skin. It also means we’ve got the freedom to vote. And that means registering to vote should be pretty darn easy for all Americans and that voting lines should be equally short in poor and rich neighborhoods. Mostly we should be registering cars and college students, and, because I’m a superhero, I’m also in favor of registering guns. My reasoning is that in the real world it’s not as easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys as it is in comic books and on television. What helps me is that I wear an easily recognizable spandex red white and blue outfit.  So I figure if you’re planning to carry firearms, you should register them and then at least have the decency to make it clear that you’re one of the good guys and if that involves putting on some spandex, so be it. That’s what my friend Thor would say. He always likes to say “So be it” in his loud, thunderous voice. He can be pretty convincing.

Here’s one last point on the gun thing. You may have noticed, I only carry a shield. Make of that what you will. I believe in the right to bear arms, but I believe even harder in gun safety.

Growing up, I went to public schools all my life. I even went to public universities. And as I’ve made clear, I ended up becoming Captain America. That’s not to say public schools are perfect, but Damn, American public school teachers are fucking amazing (I think that’s how my friend Pink would say it). Do you know how hard teachers work? Do you know how little they get paid? Did you know that John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States said something like (paraphrasing here), “there’s no way you can spend too much money on education for poor people.” Now, if you studied some proper history in a public school, you’d know that during his time, John Adams was just about the smartest and most persistent dude on the planet . . . and you’d also probably know the difference between educational measurements of proficiency and growth. Just saying.

I should confess right now that I’ve thought long and hard about whether to support the new president of the United States. The disrespect he’s shown for anyone he considers beneath him and who didn’t donate to his campaign make it difficult for me to endorse anything about him. But then I had an epiphany. I realized, “Wait, I’m Captain America, and that means I’m all about supporting values and not people.” This epiphany (BTW, “Thank-you Jesus”) helped me see and understand that I’m not a republican or a democrat and that I don’t support specific politicians. Therefore, whenever our new president upholds the values of equality for everyone, freedom for everyone, health insurance for everyone, gun safety, and better education for everyone—I’ll support him acting on those values. Also, whenever he sacrifices his own wealth and ego and treats women, minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and everyone else with the respect they deserve, I’ll support those actions too.  However, to the extent that he advocates unequal treatment of individuals, restricts religious and other freedoms, meddles with women’s health decisions, or interferes with the common person’s pursuit of happiness, I’ll be opposing him along with my friends Jesus, Superman, and Pink.

That’s because I’m Captain America.

And you can be too.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, the author of eight books, co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, and Captain America.

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Tomorrow’s Election and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most ubiquitous psychological phenomena on planet Earth. If you don’t know what it is, you should learn. And if you do know what it is, you should start paying even more attention to it. It’s everywhere and it affects everyone.

I think the all-time best description of confirmation bias is captured by an old Yogi Berra story. One day, when a player on Yogi’s team was called out on a close play at second base in a crucial game, Yogi went charging onto the field to protest the call. The umpire explained that he, unlike Yogi, was an objective observer and that he, unlike Yogi, had been only about 5 feet from the play, while Yogi had been over 100 feet away, seated in the dugout. When Yogi heard the umpire’s logic, he became EVEN MORE ANGRY than before and snapped back, “Listen ump, I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” (adapted from Leber, 1991).

There’s little doubt about the relevance of confirmation bias for tomorrow’s election. Liberal bloggers and pollsters see data suggesting an Obama victory while conservative media personalities counter-predict a Romney landslide.

As in the Yogi Berra example, confirmation bias explains why two presumably objective individuals can observe the same incident and draw starkly differing conclusions. After all, it’s impossible to suspend our personal beliefs and rely exclusively on logical data. We all naturally interpret and spin the data. Republicans look at recent economic figures and claim they’re caused by failed economic policies. Democrats look at the same data and note that Obama inherited a dismal economic situation and that we’d be far worse off if he hadn’t provided a stimulus and increased government spending.

The confirmation bias is everywhere all at once. If I were to wake up one morning believing abortion is murder, immigrants are illegals, and gays are sinful—my perceptions and behaviors would follow . . . and I’ll be more inclined to view individuals with darker skin as intruders who threaten my lifestyle, I’ll reject the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, and believe deeply that Fox News offers fair and balanced reporting.

But if somehow a miracle occurs and I wake up the next day believing women have the right to make their own medical choices, that many immigrants are just seeking a better life like my Italian forebears, and that gay-ness is a natural biological disposition—you can imagine how I might feel when I turn on my radio and accidentally listen to the Glen Beck show. It’s likely that I’ll pick a art his statements and question the source and validity of his facts.

My point is not to claim that one side has all the correct answers and if you think that, you’ve been drinking far too much Kool-Aid. Instead, my point is that we should all look at ourselves and question our biases. In fact, as you read this blog your response to the words on the screen will be affected by confirmation bias . . . and to the extent that you find yourself agreeing with or debating my position will likely have more to do with you and your beliefs and personal history than the accuracy or truthfulness of this blog.

As a final example, let’s look at the potential Presidential election outcome tomorrow. If you’re a liberal and Romney is elected you’ll be more likely to wonder if Tagg’s ownership of Ohio voting machines and voter suppression had more to do with the outcome than Romney’s desirability or credibility. On the other hand, if you’re a conservative and Obama wins, you may be inclined to blame it on voter fraud or an ignorant electorate. And if I’m correct and confirmation bias is ubiquitous, you may already be preparing your explanation for tomorrow’s election outcome.

Remember these words: “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” and try your best to cope with tomorrow’s results—either way.