"Too bad Reagan wasn't around in the days of the Roman Empire," the cabbie said. "Old Nero could have used a good vocalist -- you know, somebody to lay down a nice rap while the lead man fiddled."

"So you've enrolled in night school," I said. "Well that's no license for you to start dumping on the president."

"I'm not dumping on him," the cabbie said. "I just do not understand the man. Everybody can see which way the tide of history is running, and yet Reagan is doing everything he can to keep America on the side of the oppressor."

If the cabbie had been the only one spouting such nonsense, I probably would have let it pass. But I'd been hearing the same Reagan-supports-oppression line all over town, and I was frankly tired.

"Call the man conservative," I said, "and you get no argument from me. Call him pragmatic, or tough-minded or whatever. But I don't understand how you can call him a supporter of oppression. The man's practically made a career of encouraging freedom fighters. Why, he was on the subject of dictatorial regimes just the other day. I happen to have his quote right here:

" 'While we celebrate the progress that has been made, no one should overlook the decisive battle in human freedom now taking place. . . . We must continue to press for a negotiated settlement.' Now does that sound like support for oppression?"

"Let me see that," the cabbie said, yanking the newspaper clipping out of my hand and nearly rear-ending a Metrobus in the process. "Just as I thought," he said. "This article is about his meeting with President Sanguinetti of Uruguay, and he's talking about the Nicaraguan contras."

I was ready for him. "It may be true that the contras are the only freedom fighters we're actually supplying with arms at the moment, but the president has made it clear where he stands. In fact, he met with another group of guerrilla leaders on Monday, and he told them -- I have it right here -- that 'our goals are the same.' And please stop snatching . . ."

Too late. He already had it. "Those were Afghan guerrillas he met with," he practically screamed. "You know who else was in town that same day? Alfred Nzo, secretary general of the African National Congress, that's who. And Nzo has been trying to get any U.S. official -- let alone the president -- to meet with him. So far, they haven't even returned his call."

I should have known. The only oppressor this guy can think of is the South African government. I told him he should stop viewing every international situation in purely racial terms.

"You should tell that to your president," he said.

"Oh, yeah?" I told him. "What about the Angolan freedom fighters? They're as black as you."

"And they're trying to overthrow a black government," he said, "and worse, they have the backing of the South African government. Even when he supports guerrillas he manages to wind up on the wrong side. When it comes to the fight against the one government that is condemned by everybody in the world, the government that disenfranchises the overwhelming majority of its people, the government that strangles the press and that recently launched unprovoked raids on three of its neighbors, the man doesn't do diddly squat."

"He has spoken out against apartheid," I reminded him, "and he also issued an executive order calling for sanctions against Pretoria."

"Hell, even P. W. Botha has spoken out against apartheid," the cabbie said, "and your man only issued that executive order to keep the Congress from doing something effective. What's he saying about sanctions now? That they are not a good idea."

"Well history proves that sanctions don't really work."

"And history also proves that fiddling while a country is in flames doesn't work," he said. "Black people in South Africa are demanding their freedom from the most brutal government on earth, and all Reagan can say is sanctions don't work."

"What's he supposed to do? Stick his neck -- and our boys -- in the middle of somebody else's civil war? Seems to me the Bible recommends that each man keep 'under his own vine and fig tree.' "

"That's good," the cabbie said. "Is that anywhere near the part where it says to Pharaoh, 'Let my people go'?"