Gross injustice to a great American was done at that recent Senate Banking Committee hearing where the distinguished consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, was testifying against federal loan guarantees to Chrysler. There -- although it was hard for some people to see the connection -- nader saw fit to forcibly and repeatedly remind Sen. Jake Garn of Mrs. Garn's death in a 1976 auto ancident. Her death could have been avoided, Nader insisted, if the senator had shown a keener appreciation for the wisdom of Nader's own policies.

And when the senator objected to this gratuitous, pneumatic public use of private tragedy, Nader, who is well known for his love of justice, sternly warned him not to get "emotional" about what was clearly a matter of public interest, and in so doing clearly exhibited the classic qualities of what Winston Churchill termed a fanatic: "A man who can't change his mind, and won't change the subject."

Anyway, his relentlessness caused the senator to ask him, "What kind of human being are you?" -- a question that has intrigued me for some years. Which was nothing to what took place a few moments later, when one member of the audience leaned over to a friend and whispered, "Human being, hell. That is more like some kind of a pygmy shrew, if you ask me."

Now this was a case of melodramatic pillorying if ever I have heard one, and goes to show what can happen when tempers get out of hand. Because that man, by indulging his personal spite toward Nader, was not only undermining the good work of consumer advocates everywhere, but seeking to give the pygmy shrew a bad name.

And so I would like to come to the defense of one who has contributed so much to American life: the pygmy shrew, Microsorex hoyi -- that vigorous, panting little beast, eater of pests, tiller of the soil. It is one of the smallest, rarest mammals, and a native Washingtonian to boot -- a fierce, glittering-eyed, red-toothed little fellow who, full-grown, is an inch long and weight a tenth of an ounce -- or about as much as one of those dimes Nader is always trying to save us.

Admittedly, there do seem to be certain superficial resemblances between the pygmy shrew and Nader. The pygmy shrew, like the man to whom he was compred, does seem to be lacking in what we humans call "sympathy," even toward members of his own species. Because if you put him into a match box with another pygmy shrew and wait for a few moments, only one of them is going to emerge, burping. Besides, the pygmy shrew, in devouring his victim, is sometimes heard to make a little gnawing noise that sounds curiously like the phrase, "Don't overmote."

But resemblances end there, and aren't as significant as the differences. Because that shrew is not, as the comparison implies, joyless, pedantic and boring, but -- at times, anyway -- is a fun-loving creature who's fond of pausing between victims for a roll in the grass, a slide down a gentle bank or even a few sweet seconds of lying on his back with all four little paws up in the air, gazing at the wondrous stars. But I ask you: would Nader, who is highly conscious of his moral responsibilities, ever do a thing like that?

Moreover, the pygmy shrew, contrary to what its detractors would have us believe, is no self-promoter, no giver-out of gratuitous sermonry when the television lights go on, but a humble, hungry little creature who, when confronted with a camera crew, does the sensible thing and tries to eat them. But whoever heard of Nader doing a thing like that?

And finally, to come around to moral questions, on which nader is the acknowledged authority, that pygmy shrew hasn't a self-righteous bone in his mean little body, and so it is hard to see how anybody could be so cruel as to compare him to our leading consumer advocate. For when one looks deeply into that furry, cheerful little face, one does not get that hopeless, oppressive, inferior feeling that Nader's presence always engenders; that inner writhing that syas to itself, "This sucker is morally better than I am." For the good old shrew is a simple-minded creature who, when he says he wants to see you for lunch, has only his digestion, and not his canonization, in mind.

On the other hand, or course, one is obliged to acknowledge that there's another side to the question, represented by those who believe that in publicly admonishing Garn on the death of his wife, Nader has not gone far enough, and ought to carry on the good work by lecturing the families of the Iranian captives on the dangers of foreign air travel. For there are those who are anxious to point out how swell it might have been on the night of Lincoln's assassination if only Nader had been present to sermonize the widow on the virtues of gun control.

Ah well. Nader, like the rest of us -- and in spite of what he himself may think -- isn't perfect and is entitled to some of the slack he's unwilling to give to others -- the right to make an ass of himself now and again. (Ass, mind you, not pygmy shrew.)

And the truth of the matter is that I too have backed many of the causes he so grimly champions, as will possibly continue to do so. Although there are times, like right now, when, surfeited with all that relentless, self-righteous sadism, such as that practiced on Garn, I think to myself, the hell with it; that I would rather Chrysler got the dough, or that I had to pay the dime more for the damn apple juice -- or as Archie Bunker would say, "Whatever!" -- than be "represented" by a vengeful sophomore who seems to have forgotten that we are human beings before we are consumers or who, knowing, doesn't care.