WHY DID that poor civil servant get fired for protesting the rattlesnake meat on the menu of a fancy Washington restaurant? He has been reinstated, thank goodness, but why did his boss, Cecil Andrus, write not one but two letters of apology to the restaurant's proprietor?

The explanation may be found in an advertisement now being run by the Diners Club. It shows the maitre d' of the Windows on the World restaurant in New York, smiling, ready to extend you a warm greeting. The headline reads, "How To Impress The Establishment." Many men really believe this ad. You can see their faces glow as Jean Louis rushed forward and says, Ah, yes, Monsieur Andrus, how good to see you, a table for three, right this way.

One of the points I have been trying to make in this column is that modern Americans increasingly define themselves by their taste, whether in the arts they appreciate, the products they buy, or the restaurants they patronize. The restaurants are particularly important in this process, offering them something Bach and Yamaha can't -- a headwaiter whose welcome confirms that they belong among the discriminating. Headwaiters probably have their greatest power over those who have been denied the warm glow of acceptance conferred by membership in the right club and need to get it from the attentions of a solicitous staff at a fashionable restaurant.

Ordinary life insurance has to be the Laetrile of finance, among the worst investments you could have made during the inflation of the past 12 years. You are almost certain to have bought it with dollars that were worth far more than those with which you beneficiaries will be paid. Yet during that 12-year period the amount of life insurances in effect in the United States has risen from $1 trillion to $3 trillion.

How can so many people have acted against their own financial interests? Part of the explanation is that the insurance companies down through the years have blitzed us with so much advertising that we feel duty-bound to give them our money, and guilty if we don't -- how could we be so heartless as to leave our children unprotected?

Another part of the explanation is that life insurance, like law and medicine, is a decentralized racket, with hundreds of thousands of salesmen (they don't call themselves salesmen, of course; they prefer terms like Certified Life Underwriter) spread throughout the land. And again, like lawyers and doctors, they are often respected pillars of the community. "This distinguished community leader would never con me," you say to yourself as he deftly whisks the money from your wallet.

Both Washington papers missed the article Beth Gillin Pombeiro wrote for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers about the Merchant Marine academy at Kings Point, N.Y. It seems that we the taxpayers are paying $15.3 million a year to operate this facility. It trains, not for public service, but for private employment in merchant shipping. We could, with equal logic, pay for the training of IBM's computer experts. This year we paid for the largest graduating class in 26 years, even though the number of jobs in the U.S. merchant marine has declined by more than two-thirds in the same period.

One of the most fascinating aspects of high interest rates as a method of fighting inflation has to be the way they contribute to inflation -- by increasing the costs of everyone who has to borrow, including the government itself. What's so odd about this is that the people who advocate high interest rates as a solution to inflation are the same people who condemn government spending. Yet this policy is compelling the government to spend more for the billions it borrows. I hope you can explain it. I can't.

In 1976 Congress passed a law requiring agencies to buy recycled products whenever possible. The Environmental Protection Agency hired the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little & Co. to help write mandatory guidelines. Three years later, the guidelines still haven't been issued.

In 1978 Congress passed another law requiring federal agencies to buy recycled products whenever possible. The Department of Energy hired the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little & Co. to help write voluntary guidelines. They came out on schedule.

The American Paper Institute, a trade association representing manufacturers the bulk of whose income comes from nonrecycled materials, retains a consulting firm to assist with government relations. Name that firm.

If you need a loan fast, but can't figure out how to beat the interest rates, my friends Thomas N. Bethell and Gregg Easterbrook suggest you try this sure-fire formula. First, make off with $40,000 from you office expense account. Then confess to you colleagues and let them "censure" you. Promise to make good the debt. Finally, arrange to pay it back at $500 a month. How do they know it will work? Because it is exactly what Rep. Charles C. Diggs of Michigan has done.

Under the plan, you have six years and eight months to pay off a loan with no money down and zero percent interest. If you wish, you can use the principal to cover your legal fees while you appeal a mail-fraud conviction. If you make $5,000 a month, as Rep. Diggs does, you should be able to handle your payments. Best of all, since you are the collateral securing the loan, the House leadership will be eager to help get you reelected. It's the only way they can get their money back.

It is time to put an end to diplomatic featherbedding. We have too many people in danger of becoming hostages because we have too many people in our embassies. In the last couple of years, the magazine I edit has asked reporters to look at our embassies in England, Morocco and Mali. How many people were working there? What did they do all day? There are 700 in London (twice as large a staff as we had there when England last presided over the British Empire), 138 in Morocco (there were also 190 Moroccan nationals working for the embassy) and 70 in Mali.

In England, we had 52 people feeding pro-American propaganda to the British and a staff of 80 monitoring radio programs. There are urgent tasks for us in this world, but I doubt that propagandizing the British and listening to the BBC are among them. In Morocco, 95 of the mission's employes are concerned exclusively with administrative support. They distribute paychecks, drive cars, repair the plumbing and generally assist their fellow employes in adjusting to the inconveniences of life overseas.

Such self-absorption is not unusual. Indeed, the central focus of life at a mission is often less on the host country than on the newsd from Washington, where promotions and future assignments are decided, and on the relationships between the various components of the American community, where the sun never sets on bureaucratic rivalry. It is possible to have a country team meeting -- this is where the ambassador is joined by the local heads of AID, CIA, ICA, etc. -- in which the host country is never mentioned. In the 1960s one country team meeting in Cameroon was devoted solely to dividing the most recent shipment of Skippy peanut butter.

There are two ways to deal with diplomatic featherbedding. One is to cut the size of the missions -- our reporters found that the mission in Mali was more efficient than the much larger one in Morocco, and Ambassador Ellis O. Briggs found that when, during his service in Prague the Czechs in a fit of temper ordered two-thirds of his staff sent home, he was left with the most efficient embassy in his entire experience. The other solution is to let friendly nations like Britain and Canada look after out affairs in some countries while we attend to theirs in others. Canada would represents us in Mauritania, while we take care of its business in Upper Volta.

Whether we choose one of these solutions or both, we should do something now. Good people represent us abroad; we shouldn't ask them to risk their lives while we demean them with make-work.