WASHINGTON - Politics gets into everything these days, even Star Wars.
"George Lucas must be a Democrat," said my 15-year-old son when he arrived home from the opening day of the latest Star Wars movie, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. Ah, the Force is strong in this one, I thought, echoing Darth Vader. For, without the benefit of any advance word or special Jedi abilities, my young Jedi easily detected the anti-Bush propaganda that some liberals, to their delight, and some conservatives, to their fuming outrage, allege is embedded in Mr. Lucas' new flick.
In keeping with today's polarized politics, some of the culture warriors are not as amused by Mr. Lucas' message as my son was. "Our country is at war and Lucas spouts off this crap?" blasted a Web site called Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood, echoing other conservative sites.
"Lucas has basically all but said Vader is George W. Bush," conservative columnist John Podhoretz wrote in the National Review blog The Corner.
On the flip side of the political fence, Slate.com critic David Edelstein praised the film's "anti-fascist politics" for taking a "palpable swipe at our own Darth Dubyous."
How subversive is it? Not very. But like a Rorschach ink-blot test, people will see what they want to see - or for those who imagine Hollywood-liberal propaganda embedded in every movie that is not produced by Mel Gibson, what they don't want to see.
"If you're not with me, you're my enemy," declares Anakin Skywalker as he drifts over to the "dark side," morphing into the evil Lord Darth Vader and echoing President Bush's warning, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" after 9/11. Ouch.
Anakin's mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, retorts: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." Double ouch.
Bad-guy Chancellor Palpatine exploits war fears to consolidate his power, suspend democratic rule and turn the Republic into a dictatorship. It's not hard to hear echoes here of Congress' rush to pass the USA Patriot Act that expanded government search and eavesdropping powers after 9/11. Padme Amidala laments, "This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause." Triple ouch.
But has Mr. Lucas' prequel trilogy drifted all that far from the original Star Wars trilogy that Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich praised in the 1980s for anticipating President Ronald Reagan's epic struggle against the evil empire of the Soviet Union?
Mr. Lucas has a larger, age-old message: If democratic societies like ours are not eternally vigilant, the next evil empire might be us.
During a news conference at the film's premiere in Cannes, Mr. Lucas said he wrote the framework of his double-trilogy in 1971 when President Richard Nixon was building his "enemies list."
Mr. Lucas said, "The issue was: How does a democracy turn itself over to a dictator? Not how does a dictator take over, but how does a democracy and Senate give it away?"
He also said, "I hope this doesn't come true in our country. Maybe the film will awaken people to the situation of how dangerous it is. ... The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we are doing now in Iraq are unbelievable."
Whether you agree with the Iraq-Vietnam comparison or not, Mr. Lucas did not need Mr. Bush or Iraq to come up with Sith. Try the Roman Empire, the French Revolution or Adolf Hitler's Germany for more examples of democracies that willingly yielded power to dictators who used fears and suspicions of outside threats, internal disorder and assorted scapegoats to gain popular support.
The message of Star Wars, then, is not much different from the heroic themes that energized the Saturday matinees when I was a kid. Freedom depends on ordinary people willing to fight for it, even when the dark side looks like a more appealing choice.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.